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  • Michelle Elleray

The Boys’ Adventure Novel and Missionary Accounts of Pacific Islanders


Kiro a native of Rarotonga

In 1847 a Pacific Islander named Kiro arrived at London’s West India docks, having travelled from his home in the Cook Islands with the British missionary, Rev. Aaron Buzacott, to help with the translation of the Bible into Cook Islands Māori. He is the first known Cook Islander to arrive in Britain, and journeyed there with two Samoans as well as Buzacott’s family. When Kiro left three years later to return to the South Pacific, Buzacott translated the travel journal Kiro had written about his time in Britain, and excerpts were published in the London Missionary Society’s Juvenile Missionary Magazine for British children to read. Later in 1853, the Juvenile Missionary Magazine told its readers about another Cook Islander visiting Britain, Isaia Papehia. Like Kiro, Isaia visited Sunday schools and children’s missionary meetings as he travelled around Britain, and when he returned to the South Pacific in 1856, the magazine published his letters and so kept up a sense of connection between the British child reader and Isaia.

The most well-known Victorian children’s book set in the South Pacific

R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island

is R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, published in 1857--ten years after Kiro arrived in London, and not long after Isaia’s visit. The boy adventurers of Ballantyne’s novel assume all Pacific Islanders are cannibals, and this stereotype (along with others) seems to be borne out by the Islanders they initially meet; but later in the novel this view of Pacific Islanders is contrasted with the teacher, a Pacific Islander missionary who helps the boys in their adventures and urges them to be better Christians. The teacher is based on (then) widely read accounts of Papehia, who was Isaia’s father and was renowned as one of the first Pacific Islanders to undertake missionary work. For the Victorian child reader, then, the teacher of The Coral Island was a recognisable figure--they could connect him to material in the missionary magazine they were given to read at Sunday school, and to Kiro and Papehia’s visits. While Ballantyne’s unnamed teacher is a random Pacific Islander for readers nowadays, for the mid-nineteenth-century Victorian child he had specific connections to the missionary culture that permeated their world.

When I was researching my book, Victorian Coral Islands of Empire,

Mission, and the Boys’ Adventure Novel, I sought out details of Pacific

Victorian Coral Islands of Empire, Mission, and the Boys’ Adventure Novel

history and Pacific Islanders that were available to British children through missionary organizations and institutions. Rather than seeing boys’ adventure novels as stand-alone texts, I wanted to place this particular genre of children’s literature in conversation with the Pacific objects, people, and history that a Victorian child might already be familiar with, and in the mid-nineteenth century this engagement occurred primarily through the missionary organizations that sent reading material to Sunday schools, displayed Pacific artefacts in the Missionary Museum (now relocated to the British Museum), brought Pacific Islanders such as Kiro and Isaia to Britain, and urged British children to donate to the missionary cause. British children were encouraged to become personally involved with the London Missionary Society’s work in the South Pacific when they were tasked with raising the funds to purchase, outfit, and maintain a missionary ship. The result was a series of vessels named the John Williams that sailed between Britain and the South Pacific from 1844 to 1968. Familiarly known as “the Children’s Ship,” this is the vessel that brought Kiro to London, and accounts of its voyages, as well as the donations provided by British and colonial children for its upkeep, were published in the Juvenile Missionary Magazine. When the British boys of The Coral Island single-handedly sail a ship across the Pacific to support a Christian Pacific Islander, they echo the historical work of the Children’s Ship and the primary role of children in enabling her voyages.

British children weren’t the only ones to raise money for ships that would facilitate missionary work in the South Pacific, as we see when the Juvenile Missionary Magazine provides an account of Samoan children fundraising for a canoe so their Samoan pastor can minister more easily to other villages. The children raise far more money than the British missionaries had expected, however, eventually enabling quite a fleet of canoes. The British missionaries attribute this fundraising windfall to their successful establishment of Christian principles among the Samoans, though anyone familiar with Samoan culture would see instead the continuity of traditional cultural forms of communal gifting now operating within Christian parameters. Either way Samoan children, like British children, are represented as actively contributing to the missionary cause.

Ballantyne is not the only Victorian boys’ adventure author whose works are recalibrated by an awareness of missionary work in the South Pacific. Take W. H. G. Kingston, whose boys’ adventure novels were hugely popular in the nineteenth century though generally not read or studied now, and who uses two of his novels to raise awareness of the systematic kidnapping of Pacific Islanders to work on settler plantations within and around the Pacific from the 1860s to the end of the century. Kingston’s fictionalization of these kidnappings leaves much to be desired if what we seek is historical accuracy, but it nevertheless shows us how these events were conveyed to British children. Missionaries were key to broadcasting news of the abuses, and Kingston draws from an article published in the Missionary Magazine that announces a renewal of “Slavery in the Pacific,” despite slavery having been outlawed in the British empire decades earlier. He then recirculates that missionary account and engages British children’s interest in the issue through his novels, Little Ben Hadden (1870) and Kidnapping in the Pacific (1879). In the first novel a British boy works with the Royal Navy to free captured Islanders and return them home, whereas in the second novel a British man inhumanely captures Islanders in episodes loosely based on actual events. The British child reader, then, is to choose which sort of British male he would be in relation to the Pacific Islander.

Knowing how steeped the boys’ adventure novel is in imperial power structures and stereotypes, it comes as a surprise to realize that the Pacific Islander teacher in The Coral Island is the one to instruct the British boys to be better Christians, not the other way around, and a similar scene occurs in Kingston’s Kidnapping in the Pacific when a Christian Pacific Islander reminds the British sailor that he has a soul. If we read these mid-Victorian boys’ adventure texts in conversation with the missionary publications of the period, however, we can understand them as not simply about conversion of people on the other side of the globe, but as advocating a process of self-inspection for the British child also. As the Juvenile Missionary Magazine declares, “It is a solemn thought, that, whilst thousands of the heathen may be saved through the instrumentality of [British] Missionaries conveyed to their station in the children’s ship, many of those very children may themselves be cast out of the kingdom for not believing that Gospel which they have been the means of sending to others” (Harbutt).

WORKS CITED

Ballantyne, R. M. The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean. 1857. Wordsworth, 1993.

Elleray, Michelle. Victorian Coral Islands of Empire, Mission, and the Boys’ Adventure Novel. Routledge, 2020.

Harbutt, William. “To the Contributors towards the Purchase of the John Williams.” Letter, 6 February 1845. Juvenile Missionary Magazine, vol. 2, December 1845, pp. 265-68.

Kingston, W. H. G. Kidnapping in the Pacific; or, the Adventures of Boas Ringdon. A Long Yarn in Four Lengths. George Routledge and Sons, 1879.

---. Little Ben Hadden; or, Do Right, Whatever Comes of It. Religious Tract Society, [1870].

Kiro. “Kiro’s Thoughts About England.” Translated by Aaron Buzacott. Juvenile Missionary Magazine, vol. 7, January-June 1850, pp. 10-12, 34-37, 59-62, 77-79, 107-09, 127-30.

“Slavery in the Pacific.” Missionary Magazine and Chronicle, vol. 27, no. 328, new series no. 45, September 1863, pp. 260-72.

Michelle Elleray

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Educated in Aotearoa New Zealand and the USA, Michelle Elleray now teaches Victorian Literature at the University of Guelph, Canada. She has published on queer film, settler literature, and Victorian literature of empire with a focus on the South Pacific. In Victorian Coral Islands of Empire, Mission, and Boys’ Adventure Fiction (Routledge, 2020), she investigates how empire was conveyed to Victorian children in popular form.

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