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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner


I am privileged to have friends that are working in this area of the world. Would you please pray for them and others who are still taking the gospel at great risk to themselves. Click here to learn more about Matt Allen and the work there.

(Date of Incident, 1823)

The edge of the sea was just beginning to gleam with the gold of the rising sun. The captain of a little ship, that tossed and rolled on the tumbling ocean, looked out anxiously over the bow. Around him everywhere was the wild waste of the Pacific Ocean. Through day after day he had tacked and veered, baffled by contrary winds. Now, with little food left in the ship, starvation on the open ocean stared them in the face.

They were searching for an island of which they had heard, but which they had never seen.

The captain searched the horizon again, but he saw nothing, except that ahead of him, on the sky-line to the S.W., great clouds had gathered. He turned round and went to the master-missionary—the hero and explorer and shipbuilder, John Williams, saying:

"We must give up the search or we shall all be starved."

John Williams knew that this was true; yet he hated the thought of going back. He was a scout exploring at the head of God's navy. He had left his home in London and with his young wife had sailed across the world to the South Seas to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people there. He was living on the island of Raiatea: but as he himself said, "I cannot be confined within the limits of a single reef." He wanted to pass on the torch to other islands. So he was now on this voyage of discovery.

It was seven o'clock when the captain told John Williams that they must give up the search.

"In an hour's time," said Williams, "we will turn back if we have not sighted Rarotonga."

So they sailed on. The sun climbed the sky, the cool dawn was giving way to the heat of day.

"Go up the mast and look ahead," said Williams to a South Sea Island native. Then he paced the deck, hoping to hear the cry of "Land," but nothing could the native see.

"Go up again," cried Williams a little later. And again there was nothing. Four times the man climbed the mast, and four times he reported only sea and sky and cloud. Gradually the sun's heat had gathered up the great mountains of cloud, and the sky was clear to the edge of the ocean. Then there came a sudden cry from the masthead:

"Teie teie, taua fenua, nei!"

"Here, here is the land we have been seeking."

All rushed to the bows. As the ship sailed on and they came nearer, they saw a lovely island. Mountains, towering peak on peak, with deep green valleys between brown rocky heights hung with vines, and the great ocean breakers booming in one white line of foaming surf on the reef of living coral, made it look like a vision of fairyland.

They had discovered Rarotonga.

But what of the people of the island?

They were said to be cannibals.

Would they receive the missionaries with clubs and spears? Who would go ashore?

On board the ship were brown South Sea men from the island where John Williams lived. They had burned their idols, and now they too were missionaries of Jesus Christ. Their leader was a fearless young man, Papeiha. He was so daring that once, when everybody else was afraid to go from the ship to a cannibal island, he bound his Bible in his loin cloth, tied them to the top of his head, and swam ashore, defying the sharks, and unafraid of the still more cruel islanders.

So at Rarotonga, when the call came, "Who will go ashore?" and a canoe was let down from the ship's side, two men, Papeiha and his friend Vahineino, leapt into it. Those two fearlessly paddled towards the shore, which was now one brown stretch of Rarotongans crowded together to see this strange ship with wings that had sailed from over the sea's edge.

The Rarotongans seemed friendly; so Papeiha and Vahineino, who knew the ways of the water from babyhood and could swim before they could walk, waited for a great Pacific breaker, and then swept in on her foaming crest. The canoe grated on the shore. They walked up the beach under the shade of a grove of trees and said to the Rarotongan king, Makea, and his people:

"We have come to tell you that many of the islands of the sea have burned their idols. Once we in those islands pierced each other with spears and beat each other to death with clubs; we brutally treated our women, and the children taken in war were strung together by their ears like fish on a line. To-day we come—before you have destroyed each other altogether in your wars—to tell you of the great God, our Father, who through His Son Jesus Christ has taught us how to live as brothers."

King Makea said he was pleased to hear these things, and came in his canoe to the ship to take the other native teachers on shore with him. The ship stood off for the night, for the ocean there is too deep for anchorage.

Papeiha and his brown friends, with their wives, went ashore. Night fell, and they were preparing to sleep, when, above the thud and hiss of the waves they heard the noise of approaching crowds. The footsteps and the talking came nearer, while the little group of Christians listened intently. At last a chief, carried by his warriors, came near. He was the fiercest and most powerful chief on the island.

When he came close to Papeiha and his friends, the chief demanded that the wife of one of the Christian teachers should be given to him, so that he might take her away with him as his twentieth wife. The teachers argued with the chief, the woman wept; but he ordered the woman to be seized and taken off. She resisted, as did the others. Their clothes were torn to tatters by the ferocious Rarotongans. All would have been over with the Christians, had not Tapairu, a brave Rarotongan woman and the cousin of the king, opposed the chiefs and even fought with her hands to save the teacher's wife. At last the fierce chief gave in, and Papeiha and his friends, before the sun had risen, hurried to the beach, leapt into their canoe and paddled swiftly to the ship.

"We must wait and come to this island another day when the people are more friendly," said every one—except Papeiha, who never would turn back. "Let me stay with them," said he.

He knew that he might be slain and eaten by the savage cannibals on the island. But without fuss, leaving everything he had upon the ship except his clothes and his native Testament, he dropped into his canoe, seized the paddle, and with swift, strong strokes that never faltered, drove the canoe skimming over the rolling waves till it leapt to the summit of a breaking wave and ground upon the shore.

The savages came jostling and waving spears and clubs as they crowded round him.

"Let us take him to Makea."

So Papeiha was led to the chief. As he walked he heard them shouting to one another, "I'll have his hat," "I'll have his jacket," "I'll have his shirt."

At length he reached the chief, who looked and said, "Speak to us, O man, that we may know why you persist in coming."

"I come," he answered, looking round on all the people, "so that you may all learn of the true God, and that you, like all the people in the far-off islands of the sea, may take your gods made of wood, of birds' feathers and of cloth, and burn them."

A roar of anger and horror burst from the people. "What!" they cried, "burn the gods! What gods shall we then have? What shall we do without the gods?"

They were angry, but there was something in the bold face of Papeiha that kept them from slaying him. They allowed him to stay, and did not kill him.

Soon after this, Papeiha one day heard shrieking and shouting and wild roars as of men in a frenzy. He saw crowds of people round the gods offering food to them; the priests with faces blackened with charcoal and with bodies painted with stripes of red and yellow, the warriors with great waving head-dresses of birds' feathers and white sea-shells. Papeiha, without taking any thought of the peril that he rushed into, went into the midst of the people and said:

"Why do you act so foolishly? Why do you take a log of wood and carve it, and then offer it food? It is only fit to be burned. Some day soon you shall make these very gods fuel for fire." So with the companion who came to help him, brown Papeiha went in and out of the island just as brave Paul went in and out in the island of Cyprus and Wilfrid in Britain. He would take his stand, now under a grove of bananas on a great stone, and now in a village, where the people from the huts gathered round, and again on the beach, where he would lift up his voice above the boom of the ocean breakers to tell the story of Jesus. And some of those degraded savages became Christians.

One day he was surprised to see one of the priests come to him leading his ten-year-old boy.

"Take care of my boy," said the priest. "I am going to burn my god, and I do not want my god's anger to hurt the boy. Ask your God to protect him." So the priest went home.

Next morning quite early, before the heat of the sun was great, Papeiha looked out and saw the priest tottering along with bent and aching shoulders. On his back was his cumbrous wooden god. Behind the priest came a furious crowd, waving their arms and crying out:

"Madman, madman, the god will kill you."

"You may shout," answered the priest, "but you will not change me. I am going to worship Jehovah, the God of Papeiha." And with that he threw down the god at the feet of the teachers. One of them ran and brought a saw, and first cut off its head and then sawed it into logs. Some of the Rarotongans rushed away in dread. Others—even some of the newly converted Christians—hid in the bush and peered through the leaves to see what would happen. Papeiha lit a fire; the logs were thrown on; the first Rarotongan idol was burned.

"You will die," cried the priests of the fallen god. But to show that the god was just a log of wood, the teachers took a bunch of bananas, placed them on the ashes where the fire had died down, and roasted them. Then they sat down and ate the bananas.

The watching, awe-struck people looked to see the teachers fall dead, but nothing happened. The islanders then began to wonder whether, after all, the God of Papeiha was not the true God. Within a year they had got together hundreds of their wooden idols, and had burned them in enormous bonfires which flamed on the beach and lighted up the dark background of trees. Those bonfires could be seen far out across the Pacific Ocean, like a beacon light.

To-day the flames of love which Papeiha bravely lighted, through perils by water and club and cannibal feast, have shone right across the ocean, and some of the grandchildren of those very Rarotongans who were cannibals when Papeiha went there, have sailed away, as we shall see later on, to preach Papeiha's gospel of the love of God to the far-off cannibal Papuans on the steaming shores of New Guin

Basil Mathews, The Book of Missionary Heroes

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