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         BISHOP PATTESON        
           FIRST BISHOP OF MELANESIA         

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John "Coley" Patteson was an Englishman who responded to the call to work as a missionary in Melanesia. This deeply interesting story is one of the courage and resolution of the human spirit in addition to being a valuable historical record. The primary reference for the material on this site is the book "Bishop Patteson" an undated publication by Jessie Page, published in London by S.W. Partridge and Co. .... Jane Resture

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John Coleridge Patteson was born into an upper class English Christian family. His father, Mr. Justice Patteson, was a lawyer of no mean repute who was raised to the position of judge in the year 1830 and wherever he travelled on circuit, he gained respect and made many friends.

To the very end of his days, his boy loved him with unfailing loyalty, and was always ready to acknowledge, with heartfelt thankfulness, how much of what was best in him was due to that honoured parent whose name he bore. From him he inherited that sturdy backbone of principle, that straightforward brave manhood which, as we shall see, stood him in good stead in the history of his school life and the heroism of his later years.

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John Coleridge Patteson.

Yet, to complete the character of Patteson, it needed another influence, and that was supplied by his mother's gentle love. It is so true to human nature that it will cause no surprise to add that the boy partook largely of his mother's mind was like her, and between the two were those infinitely strong link of mutual love and confidence which many waters cannot quench nor fire consume.

She came of a famous ancestry, her maiden name of Frances Duke Coleridge, and her line was distinguished by the poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. To the future Bishop, she gave her family name, and amongst those who knew him best, not only as a boy but afterwards as an adult he was known as "Coley".

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There were two other strong influences that directed the heart of the boy in the direction of Christian Mission. One of these was Bishop George Augustus Selwyn, the newly consecrated Bishop of New Zealand.

The other was the Reverend Samuel Wilberforce, then Archdeacon of Surrey, afterwards to take his place as one of the ablest prelates of the Church.

Patteson attended Eton College and for some time Lady Patteson had been ailing. Suddenly graver symptoms summoned hastily the judge to her bedside. Coley and his brother were fetched from Eton and Coley was heartbroken at the news. Lady Patteson called her family to her bed to say farewell caressing and blessing her sobbing boys. Then, throwing her arms round the neck of her husband, she thanked him for bringing them to receive her last embrace and shortly afterwards passed gently into that sleep with which God closes the eyes of his beloved.

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In 1845 Patteson entered Balliol College, and came at once into contact with that remarkable quickening of religious thought which will mark an epoch in the history of the Church of England. The withdrawal of John Henry Newman from her pale had transferred at once the greatest mind and one of the noblest natures from the University to the Church of Rome. For years, the shock of that succession was felt amongst the students, and the conflicts of opinion upon doctrinal points continued to wage.

Patteson was stimulated by all the self-examination and developed a clearer assurance of duty. He made friends out of the worthy society of earnest minds; some of those who survived him have recorded Patteson affectionate and interesting memories. One of these is the testimony of Professor Shairp of which the following is an extract. "Patteson as he was at Oxford comes back to me as the representative of the very best kind of Etonian, with much good that he had got from Eton, with something better not to be got at Eton or any other school.....We did not know, probably he did not know himself, the fire of devotion that lay within him, but that was soon to kindle and make him what he afterwards became".

After three years at Oxford, having secured a second class in Literae humaniores, he set out for a much needed holiday on the continent. Patteson travelled through France and Germany where he found his French and German to be of practical use when he left for a time the English shores. When Patteson was at Venice, he received a letter from his father to say that he had decided to resign his judicial duty. He had been a judge for twenty-two years and at his age of sixty-two he still had plenty of years ahead of him as a judge and the prospect of his going from the court was a regret to all.

Patteson returning from his journeys became a Fellow of Murton College, Oxford and threw himself with zeal into the movement for reforming the University which at that time was in progress. The time approached however when Patteson had to leave the towers and spires of Oxford behind and therefore with redoubtable zeal, he worked away at his books in his room at Murton College. At this time however, a providential door opened, by which Patteson was able at once to taste the sweets of real parish work.

Within the parish of Ottery St. Mary lies the village of Alfington; and the Church, parsonage and premises were a gift of the Coleridge family, and it was intended that Patteson should one day occupy the pulpit. In the meantime, however, Reverend Henry Gardiner who was labouring in the parish was struck down with a severe illness. In 1853, Patteson arrived to nurse him, and at the same time to assist on carrying on the work in his absence. Both duties he discharged with faithfulness. Patteson was ordained on the 14th September 1853 and in the parish of Alfington, he tasted some of the joys and sorrows of the ministerial office. In August, 1854 Bishop Selwyn with his noble wife, returned again to New Zealand to give an account of his stewardship.

The development of the Church in Melanesia was greatly hindered by the endless subdivisions of dialects and he therefore devised a plan to induce the native use to leave their island homes and undergo a course of instruction to fit them for Christian work among their fellows on their return. In a quest for help, Bishop Selwyn revisited England again and approached Patteson for help.

At Blackwall Dock, the new mission schooner the Southern Cross was being constructed for the special work of Melanesia Patteson spent some days, in preparing his requisites for the voyage, in London and it was not until the 25th March that he was finally able to say "Goodbye".

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New Zealand village.

On the deck of the Duke of Portland which was to bear him away, Patteson parted with his uncle and brother James and was soon on his voyage. Two things made Patteson busy on the way; first, he attempted to master the Maori language; and secondly, he studied the practice of navigation. In the former, Patteson was most successful and in the latter he showed an equal proficiency, entering in the minutest detail with the same zest as if he had been the stroke oar in the University boats.

At last, they arrived in Auckland, which he described in one of his letters as a small seaside town, composed chiefly of roughly built houses, among which the churches stood out with a look that much reminded him of home. He finds out that his work will lie at the college in the neighbourhood of Auckland, where he is a resident clergyman, and after he had been there a little time he hopes to go on his first cruise with the Bishop. At present, however, it is essential that he should master the language, and this he will do chiefly by constant contact with the Maoris at St. John's.

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Patteson's house at St. John's College, Auckland, New Zealand.

His daily intercourse with the natives drew him into deeper sympathy with them. In teaching them the truths of Scripture and Christian doctrine, he found them apt scholars, ready with questions which showed their intelligent interest in the subject in hand. His great gifts in language made him very popular and he was so thorough in studying the niceties of the dialect, so patient in acquiring every chance, word or expression which might qualify him more completely for preaching, they begged him to stay when he was about to leave on his visit to the islands.

With intense anticipation, he waited for the approaching day when he should sail with the Bishop to cruise among the isles of Melanesia. That moment came at last in May of 1856 when Patteson had reached his 29th year. The trim little schooner Southern Cross waited for them and the party went on board on Ascension Day, the 1st of May. The passengers included Bishop Selwyn and his devoted wife, Mr. Harper, a son of the future Bishop of Lyttelton, Patteson and five men to act as crew.

When the Southern Cross reached Aneityum in July, it was to visit the excellent work which two noble missionaries, Messrs. Gettie and Inglis, had carried out for some years under the auspices of the Scottish Presbyterian Missionary Society. The ship sailed again, passing Erromanga, the scene of the martyrdom of John Williams, and arrived at Fate - an island of very evil repute, as the natives were cannibals and had already murdered their Samoan teacher. Landing here was out of the question, but from the canoes that surrounded the ship, they took two fellows to accompany them on the cruise.

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Shortly afterwards, they came in sight of the magnificent ranges of mountains which rise 4,000 feet on the island of San Spirito. The aspect of these beautiful tropical gems of the ocean greatly pleased the eye of the new missionary. To Patteson, whose mind was quick to appreciate the artistic beauty of such a scene, the glow of pleasure which flushed him would pale down as the stern reality of the shadow, the crouching sin-fiend, demanded the upmost heroism of his soul. 

Amid the wild solitude of the dark continent Livingstone found that the white man in the guide of the Arab slave-trader had preceded him, and step by step the intrepid explorer had to battle with this natural enemy of the coloured race. It was this vile traffic which blighted those African villages, and forced from this noble heart the dying prayer that others might help "to heal this open sore of the world".

In like manner, Patteson was forestalled by the same vicious influence, and eventually paid the forfeit of his life in his endeavours, in his Master's name, to win the wronged confidence of the Melanesians.

The distrust engendered among the natives made the visits of the missionaries to these islands very perilous and on many occasions Patteson barely escaped with his life. The Southern Cross reached Guadalcanal and immediately a number of natives leapt into the sea and swam towards it bringing yams and other produce for barter in their hands. The absence of arms showed that their intentions were friendly and a number of them were allowed to come on deck. They seemed to have been a rather aristocratic race and were adorned with fantastic arrangements of shells, frontlet, girdles, bracelets extending far up the arm; and although not tattooed like the other islanders, they had branded their skin in a peculiar fashion. Fortunately the boys from Bauro could talk a little to these fellows, and two young men were persuaded to remain with the ship.

The Solomon Island Group, which next claimed the missionaries' attention, is associated with Spanish history of three centuries ago. Alvaro de Mendana had, in the course of a cruise of discovery in 1567, lighted upon these isles and after some conflicts with the natives began to establish a colony on Santa Cruz. Difficulties, however soon developed, the old chief Malope was murdered by the Spaniards, the leader of the expedition soon followed; and finally his wife with what was left of the colonists departed. The Southern Cross passed on, and arrived at last at Negone at the beginning of September. On this island, the Melanesian Mission had already made a beginning of settlement work. Mr. Nihill after living on the island with his wife for two years had passed away in the midst of his labours, and Mrs. Nihill returned to New Zealand. The people had become deeply attached to their missionary, and the native teachers whom he had instructed in the doctrines of the faith were bravely carrying on the work.

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Returning to Norfolk Island, they had an opportunity for some rest; Patteson employing it in part in writing letters to his relatives at home. After recounting the incidence of this his first voyage, after visiting 66 islands and landing 81 times, he assured his family that all the locals were most friendly and delightful with only two arrows having been shot at us and only one coming near thus ended Patteson's first voyage. It was full of meaning to him, in reaching him with experience, and inflaming him with an increasing devotedness to his work. He was not in such good health as when he started; an inflamed leg had given him much uneasiness, and he was glad to return to St. John's College at Auckland with his new consignment of native youths to train and teach for Christ.

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Once more the Southern Cross set her sails to the breeze and carrying Bishop Selwyn and Patteson steered for the group of islands of the New Hebrides. Many of the places had been already visited by the Bishop before, and Selwyn eagerly sought for the chiefs who had promised well in the past. Reaching the island of New Caledonia, a large and important place upon which the French had recently formed the colony, a visit was made to basset, the chief of Yenen, who had already years before asked very earnestly for an English missionary.

The presence of the French in the island of New Caledonia introduced a new element into the difficulties in the way of the Melanesian missions. They had not only established themselves on the larger islands, but claimed the right to interfere with the natives of the Loyalty Group adjacent. The Romish priests were imported into the midst of these people and, backed up with men-of-war afloat and the soldiers ashore, they endeavoured to make converts by coercion. It has been seen that wherever Bishop Selwyn and Patteson travelled on their missionary work, they found themselves in cordial sympathy with the labours of other Protestant Christians; but the Roman Catholic Mission would have no fellowship with them and persisted in opposing them everywhere.

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The delicacy of the youths who had been gathered for training at St. John's College, became again a pressing question, and necessitated the establishment of a school in one of the islands which should be sufficiently sheltered for winter residence. Lifu was decided upon, and Patteson remained here over three weeks, teaching his class of 25 young fellows. The next incidence to be noted was the establishment of the headquarters of the mission at Kohimarama, a small bay on the New Zealand coast about two miles from Auckland. From thence Patteson, accompanied by Mr. Dudley, Mr. Kerr, Reverend B. E. Ashwell, and a number of native scholars sailed on a cruise about the islands. They came in sight of Erromanga and were entertained by the Scottish missionaries Reverend Mr. Gordon. After joining in prayer, Mr. Gordon accompanied his visitors, under the midnight moon, to the spot on the beach where John Williams was murdered and related how it occurred. Bishop Selwyn with the Samoan teacher, was the first to visit the isle after this dreadful occurrence.

Just about this time, Patteson says in one of his letters, "My father writes, my tutor says 'There must be a Melanesian Bishop soon, and that you will be the man,' a sentence which amuses not a little."

But those who had watched his career and his splendid grip upon the work were convinced that he was the man when the time should come. Already the question was being mooted at home, the mission had made such strides that the need of more effective organisations and larger support was pressing on the minds of the friends in England. Anyway, whatever his future status in the work should be, Patteson had fully decided to stand by Melanesia. His heart was there, and the spell of its claims had quite overcome any lingering desire to return to his native land.            

On 26th March 1860, five years to the day from the date of his leaving home, Patteson has to witness the death of one of his most faithful converts. The native youth had come from Nagone, and had been named at his baptism George Selwyn Simeona but the delicacy of his longs had succumbed to the New Zealand winter and he passed away. Just off the coast of New Zealand was a dangerous show of rock, known as the Hen and Chickens, and this place was destined to see the loss of that brave little schooner, the Southern Cross. The loss of the old vessel was keenly felt; as she had carried them through their missionary wonderings in fair weather and foul. Bishop Selwyn had to obtain another vessel, the Zillah, which seems to have proved unsatisfactory.

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The wreck of the Southern Cross.

That perennial enemy of the faithful missionary in tropical latitudes, ill-health, began to lay aside the workers. Mr. Dudley, fell ill with sunstroke on the arrival of the Zillah at Auckland, and for a time needed careful attention. It was now the duty of Patterson to nurse his sick brother, and at the same time perform a like office for several of his native pupils on board. Mr. Dudley recovered, and has placed on record how tenderly Patteson watched over his patients. One of the sufferers however died on the voyage and was buried at sea.

In 1861, Patteson had served six years under the guidance and supervision of Bishop Selwyn who had for some time past left him wholly responsible. At St. Paul's Church, Auckland, Patteson became the first Bishop of Melanesia. His formal installation took place in the little chapel of St. Andrew's College, Kohimarama, in the presence of all his boys; and afterwards there were suitable rejoicings of an English character, the new Bishop and his young fellows dining together of roast beef and plum pudding in the College Hall.

The news of his consecration had reached home, and filled the household at Feniton with a thrill of satisfaction when the hour of family prayer drew on, although increasing weakness had compelled him to depute this duty to his daughters, Judge Patteson insisted for once upon leading their devotion himself.

Patteson's own health was beginning to lose ground, and he gladly accepted the offer of Captain Hume of HMS Cordelia to go for a cruise among the islands of his diocese. The voyage comprised a visit to the Solomon Group; the island of Ysabel, nearly 120 in length, having their own special attention.

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Special attention was given by Bishop Patteson to the work of translating into the different languages, a task for which he had a special aptitude. With restored health, Bishop Patteson, waiting the rebuilding of a new vessel, settled down again to his congenial labour of instructing and shaping the intelligence of his interesting pupils. In the fall of the year 1862, the Bishop started on a cruise in the Sea Breeze among the islands comprise in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and the Solomon Groups. The inhabitants of the important island of Santa Cruz had an evil repute for acts of cannibalism and murder; but the Bishop eagerly seized upon the advantage of landing at many places, and making himself known to numbers of the natives where his face and hitherto had been unknown. When he reached the New Hebrides, the Sea Breeze touched at several places where six years ago he had made acquaintance with the natives for the first time.

In March of 1863, there was a great rejoicing at the Melanesian College in consequence of the arrival from England of the new missionary ship, the Southern Cross. She seemed to have admirable seagoing qualities, and was destined to become one of the greatest service in the work. Unfortunately however, an epidemic of dysentery fell on the young Melanesians and the Hall of the College had to be transformed into a hospital. Death after death occurred, and it was the hand of the Bishop who prepared the bodies for the grave, and afterwards carried them out for burial.

The following February Patteson boarded a mail steamer going to Sydney due to the necessity for a complete change and a rest. When Patteson returned to his work, his strength was renewed, and he gladly rejoined his old companions; but it was evident that he had overtaxed himself in those previous years of work. After a short stay at his college, Patteson started again in the Southern Cross for a cruise among the islands. It was on this cruise that Patteson was lucky not to lose his life along with Pearce who had been killed by a native arrow.

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In the summer of 1865, the Bishop visited Mota again, and works hard to carry out his cherished idea of founding on the island a Christian village. During his visit to the Solomon Islands, the Bishop and his party landed at Bauro, and made their first acquaintance with the curious tree houses of the natives. It appeared that, some years previously there had been a war between the Ysabel Islanders and another tribe; and as an act of vengeance the inhabitants of this district were almost killed to a man the few who had managed to hide began to build their houses in the taller trees ascending thereto by long ladders sometimes sixty feet off the ground.

After careful consultation, the headquarters of the mission were removed to Norfolk Island, and soon the establishment was sufficient to house a hundred Melanesians. On the transfer of St. Andrew's to this place, a new name was resolved upon, and henceforth the Norfolk Island building was known as St. Barnabas' Mission School.

The year 1870, is marked by the serious illness of Bishop Patteson, which compelled him to take an interval of complete rest. He returned on the Southern Cross to Auckland where a great change was noticed in his appearance with a loss of vital power, a different look on his face, and his hair was also turning grey. After a time he returned to Norfolk Island and for a time he was engaged in translating into the various languages and it was here we had the last glimpse of the good Bishop in the midst of his people. .

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When the sun rose on the morning of the 20th September, 1871, the Southern Cross was by the Bishop's orders headed for Nukapu. In due time, the ship stood off the reef and several canoes filled with natives were seen cruising about. Taking with them a few presents, the Bishop and his party got into a boat and pulled towards the island. Although the people recognized him, there was a strangeness in their manner. To disarm any suspicions they might have, the Bishop went into one of their canoes. The canoes were now dragged over the reef into the deep lagoon, and the friends of the Bishop saw him land and then disappear in the crowd. With intense anxiety they waited his return. A shower of arrows followed with cries of vengeance. The shaft flew with fatal accuracy and the boat with difficulty was pulled back to the ship filled with wounded men. Mr. Atkins, who had been dangerously stuck on the shoulder insisted at once on returning to look after the Bishop

The native boys and two sailors quickly volunteered to accompany him; and at last as the tide rose their boat was able to cross the reef. Two canoes were being rowed to meet them; one shortly went back leaving the other to float forward. In it was apparently a heap, and at first one of the sailors thinking it might be a man in ambush, prepared his pistol.

But it carried not the living but the dead.

With breaking hearts and trembling hands, they lifted out the body of Patteson. It was wrapped carefully in a native mat, and upon the breast was placed a spray of native palm with five mysterious knots tied in leaves; and when they unwrapped them, beneath the spray of palm were five wounds. The explanation of this was that the Bishop had been killed in expiation of the outrage on five natives who had died at the hands of the white men.

The next day, with breaking hearts, the little company committed the body to the deep, to lie until that great day when the sea as well as the land shall restore her dead at the Almighty summons.


The practice of the missionary vessels as they visited each island of persuading the young men who came out to visit them to come with them to be trained as missionaries must surely have influenced the locals to believe that the missionary's vessel and the blackbirder's vessel had something in common. Certainly, if these young men who were taken away without any consultation with their family and who may not return would certainly have convinced the locals that they were dealing with another blackbirder.

It is particularly sad that after the death of Bishop Patteson that the English war vessel Rosario proceeded to Santa Cruz with the object of making inquiries about the death of Bishop Patteson. It appears however that when a boat was lowered at Nukapu with the flag of truce, the crowd of natives only understood the visit as one of vengeance for the murdered Englishman, and sent a volley of arrows at the boat, killing at once a sergeant of marines. The result was that the men of the Rosario opened fire on the natives killing many of them. This is certainly not what Bishop Patteson would have wanted. He was a man of peace and forgiveness and no doubt prayed at his death for mercy on his murderers. 


St. Barnabas' Chapel, Norfolk Island, consecrated in 1880. This memorial to Bishop Patteson was designed by Sir J. G. Jackson and built by the Melanesian Mission boys with help from the islanders. 

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