Map of Polynesia

‘No Shows’ and Other Forms of Refusal: Reading Missionary Letters about the Loyalty Islands

As part of my PhD study, I am investigating and tracing the history of the island communities of the Ruapuke Mission Station in the Foveaux Strait in southern New Zealand and of the Loyalty Islands north-east of New Caledonia.

Ruapuke and the neighbouring island of Whenua Hou were both strategically well located for the seasonal harvesting and trading of the muttonbird, the tītī, and for trade with the sealers and whalers working in the Foveaux Strait. In the 1810s and 1820s, many Kai Tahu, the Indigenous population of this region, settled on both islands. Additionally, Ruapuke was important for trading New Zealand flax, which was used by the Māori for a multitude of objects, among them clothing and fishing nets, and for holding material together in huts.1 In 1844, the mission station on Ruapuke was established by the German missionary Johann Friedrich Wohlers, who managed it until his death in 1885.2

In the same time period in the 1840s, the Loyalty Islands were a focal point for sandalwood traders who visited on a regular basis to trade with the local inhabitants.3 Consequently, Europeans started living on the islands, but according to the historian K. R. Howe, the local population would have met Europeans on other occasions when they were trading materials and objects with people from the neighbouring islands—the Isle of Pines or the rest of New Caledonia.4 Before the London Missionary Society (LMS) established mission stations on Maré, Lifou and Ouvéa, three of the Loyalty Islands Group’s islands, in the 1850s and early 1860s, ‘native teachers’ from surrounding Polynesian islands established and facilitated contact between the different tribes and European missionaries.5 After the teachers had initiated contact and received positive feedback from the chiefs of the tribe, mission stations were established.6

Image of a chart of the Loyalty Islands
Map showing the location of the Loyalty Islands in relation to New Caledonia. Contained in a letter from the missionary S. M. Creagh, dated 26 January 1859. SOAS, CWM/LMS, Box 27, Folder No. 5, Jacket Letter C.

The mission stations in the Loyalty Islands were run by one, sometimes two, missionary couples and some ‘native teachers’.7 The Loyalty Islands were legally part of New Caledonia’s dependencies, meaning the islands became French territory in 1853 when France officially took possession of New Caledonia.8

The people living on the Loyalty Islands and the Ruapuke Mission Station formed small island communities that existed in the gaps9 of what the historian Tony Ballantyne calls the ‘webs of empire’,10 horizontal and vertical lines connecting the colonies with Britain and each other. Although these islands were not central to the ‘webs of empire’, they were pivotal for Indigenous ways of life and mobility in pre-colonial times11 and were places where people from various cultures met, lived together, and found (often commercial) ways to secure their livelihood.

I am interested in how these communities and their lives changed in the context of the mission stations that were established on the islands, and how colonialism was negotiated in these gaps of the ‘webs of empire’. To answer these questions, I am investigating interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in light of the psychological concept of transaction. The concept was first introduced to colonial history by the historian Florence Bernault and describes social interactions within and beyond the economic sphere. According to Bernault, a transaction ‘presumes agency in all partners and the possibility that they enter in effective (and transformative) exchange’, without denying that the parties involved had different things to lose and that such interactions resulted in greater suffering for one party.12 Focusing on transactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, I suggest, makes it possible to capture Indigenous agency in the sources to a certain extent. The empirical basis of my analysis is travel reports, missionary texts, and correspondence with the colonial administrations. During my research in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) archives in London, I was able to study the correspondence of the missionaries of the LMS who established mission stations on the three main islands of the Loyalty Islands, Maré, Lifou, and Ouvéa, located north-east of New Caledonia, in the 1850s and early 1860s.13

Most of these letters address the personal hardships of the missionaries, including health issues, the—from Britain’s perspective—remoteness of the islands, and troubles with the French administration. For example, the missionary Stephen Creagh, who was stationed on Maré, wrote in one of his letters in 1881: ‘My present position occupies much of my thoughts and sometimes I feel as if God were requiring me to spend a hermit life here; but a life such as this is almost the perfection of discomfort.’14

Image of a letter
First page of the letter mentioned above written by the missionary S. M. Creagh, dated 8 April 1881. SOAS, CWM/LMS South Seas/Incoming Correspondence, Box 36, Folder No. 5, Jacket Letter D.

While the missionaries often highlighted the hardships and successes of evangelization,15 they also wrote about interactions with the Indigenous population. More specifically, they wrote about Indigenous actors refusing to interact. According to the missionary texts, refusal took different forms. One was avoiding meetings with the missionaries, for example, when the objects being exchanged were of no interest to the parties involved. In one letter, the missionary John Jones describes his visit to the Si Gureshaba, a tribe (tribu)16 in the north of Maré, and how he traded with them. Once his stock of fish hooks was exhausted, Jones offered information about the new religion, the ‘way of salvation’. He then notes a shift in the mood of the group, with some leaving at once. Jones left the Si Gureshaba without success.17 Another form of Indigenous refusal mentioned in the letters was not attending the missionary school or the regular services held by the missionaries. This is evident in a letter published for the supporters of the mission that was written by Sarah Ann Creagh, the wife of Stephen Creagh, on Maré. In it, she thanks the donors for their financial support and stresses the importance of a boarding school that was founded in 1856. She notes that the boarding school helps keep attendance steady, since the children are not forced to make the long journey to school every day and are therefore more likely to stay and not help their families on the plantations.18 Other letters about the establishment of the boarding school suggest that the children’s irregular attendance was a problem from the missionaries’ point of view.

When the French administration intervened in the missionaries’ and Loyalty Islands’ affairs for the first time in 1864, the boarding school was suddenly disrupted. The French intervention resulted in violent clashes between the Protestant and Catholic missionaries and different Indigenous groups.8 In the following years, the conflict with the French administration resulted in hundreds of letters within the LMS but also between governments. As a result of the prohibition of work by ‘native teachers’19 and the ban on teaching institutions where no French was taught,20 missionary work became difficult. The mission stations on the three islands gradually closed from the 1880s and 1890s.21

Missionary letters can be challenging to read against the grain. Although these letters are concerned with Indigenous people, the missionaries present a one-sided story of the transactions that took place. While descriptions of refused interactions do not give access to what actually happened, they can give an indication of the way in which the missionaries represented and interpreted the agency of Indigenous people. This also raises the question of how colonialism was negotiated in these interactions, and how Indigenous practices persisted throughout the history of the mission stations. Focusing on transactions and the ways in which Indigenous actors refused to interact allows me to provide a more nuanced story of the history of these island communities and the history of colonialism in the gaps of the ‘webs of empire’.


Featured image: Map showing the route of the John Williams, a ship that visited the LMS missions in the South Pacific on a regular basis to deliver materials and correspondence. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, 266/L, Polynesia map by John Bartholomew & Co., appearing in the 1912 edition of The Report of the Directors to the . . . General Meeting of the Missionary Society, usually called the London Missionary Society.



Cite this blog post
Sarah Maria Noske (2024, March 28). ‘No Shows’ and Other Forms of Refusal: Reading Missionary Letters about the Loyalty Islands. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w4bm

  1. Michael J. Stevens, ‘“A Defining Characteristic of the Southern People”: Southern Māori Mobility and the Tasman World’, in Rachel Standfield (ed.), Indigenous Mobilities: Across and Beyond the Antipodes (Acton, ACT, 2018), 79–114, at 86. []
  2. Sheila Natusch, ‘Wohlers, Eliza and Wohlers, Johann Friedrich Heinrich’, in Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1st pub. 1990, updated Oct. 2017), republished in Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, at [https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1w36/wohlers-eliza], accessed 11 Jan. 2024. []
  3. Dorothy Shineberg, ‘The Sandalwood Trade in Melanesian Economics, 1841–65’, Journal of Pacific History, 1 (1966), 129–46, 129. []
  4. The historian Kerry Howe describes how trade between the Indigenous populations went beyond basic food supply. He writes about the trading of ceremonial items between the various groups. People from Maré and Lifou, for example, sent bracelets or shell necklaces and received in return cord made from the fur of the flying fox. K. R. Howe, The Loyalty Islands: A History of Culture Contacts, 1840–1900 (Canberra, 1977), 8. []
  5. Ibid., 13–14. []
  6. Ibid., 14. []
  7. The mission stations were not very large, especially in the beginning. The missionary Stephen Creagh at Guwahma on Maré recorded ninety-seven church members and five ‘native teachers’ in 1860. SOAS, CWM/LMS, Box 28, Folder No. 2, Jacket Letter C, Creagh, S. M., 26 Nov. 1860. []
  8. Howe, Loyalty Islands, 14. [] []
  9. Tony Ballantyne, ‘Entangled Mobilities: Missions, Māori and the Reshaping of Te Ao Hurihuri’, in Standfield (ed.), Indigenous Mobilities, 115–45, at 115. []
  10. Tony Ballantyne, Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past (Vancouver, 2014). []
  11. ‘Ruapuke’, Kā Huru Manu: Ngāi Tahu Atlas, https://kahurumanu.co.nz/atlas?find=%7B29b8af31-97e1-e311-973a-0050569755f4%7Dat [https://kahurumanu.co.nz/atlas], accessed 15 Sept. 2023; and Howe, Loyalty Islands, 8. []
  12. Florence Bernault, Colonial Transactions: Imaginaries, Bodies, and Histories in Gabon (Durham, NC, 2019), 8–9. []
  13. Howe, Loyalty Islands, 14. In 1966, the LMS merged with the Commonwealth Missionary Society, which became the Council for World Mission in 1977. See SOAS, Guide to the London Missionary Society Archive 1764–1977 (London, 1994), 10, at [https://digital.soas.ac.uk/content/AA/00/00/08/85/00001/LMS.pdf], accessed 20 Dec. 2023. In 1973, the records of the LMS were donated to the SOAS Library. Between 1948 and 1997, the collection was copied by the Australian Joint Copying Project and was made available online in 2019. See ‘Guide to the Records of the London Missionary Society (As Filmed by AJCP)’, at [https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-1126174847/findingaidhttps://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-1126174847/findingaid#archival-history], accessed 20 Dec. 2023. []
  14. SOAS, CWM/LMS, Box 36, Folder No. 5, Jacket Letter D, Creagh, S. M., 8 Apr. 1881. []
  15. Anna Johnston describes this phenomenon as typical of missionary texts, especially those aimed at the British public with the goal of obtaining possible donors, future missionaries, or general approval for the mission’s cause of creating a like-minded community. See Anna Johnston, Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800–1860 (Cambridge, 2009), 6–7. []
  16. Tribu (tribe) refers to small communities living together with a petit chef as their head. These smaller communities belong to a larger district with a grand chef at the top. See John Connell, New Caledonia or Kanaky? The Political History of a French Colony (Canberra, 1987), 13. []
  17. SOAS, CWM/LMS, Box 26, Folder No. 7, Jacket Letter G, Jones, J., 12 Dec. 1856. []
  18. SOAS, CWM/LMS, Box 28, Folder No. 4, Jacket Letter B, Creagh, S. M. Mrs., 1 July 1861. []
  19. SOAS, CWM/LMS, Box 38A, Folder No. 4, Jacket Letter C, Jones, J., 3 July 1884. []
  20. SOAS, CWM/LMS, Box 30, Folder No. 2, Jacket Letter B, Jones, J., 26 Aug. 1865. []
  21. The mission station on Maré ceased operating when the French administration expelled the LMS missionary John Jones from the island in 1887 for stirring up intertribal conflict and ‘anti-French sentiment’. The expulsion was a scandal that was publicly discussed in Australia and Britain. The official successor to the Protestant mission on Maré was the French Société des missions évangéliques de Paris. See Howe, Loyalty Islands, 78. On Lifou, the LMS missionaries stayed longer. The couple Emma and James Hadfield stayed until the 1920s. See Anna Paini and Matteo Gallo, ‘Gérer le passé pour façonner l’avenir à Wëté et Drueulu’, Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 147 (2018), 487–500, at 489. []

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Sarah Maria Noske

Sarah Maria Noske is a PhD candidate in history at the Justus-Liebig University Giessen and the Université Clermont Auvergne. In her PhD project, which is funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, she is working on the colonial histories of New Zealand and New Caledonia with a focus on interactions with Indigenous communities. Publications include ‘Cartographier les îles: Représentations d’Aotearoa Nouvelle-Zélande après sa re-découverte’, in Jean-Luc Piermay et al. (eds.), Faire connaître le monde en découverte: Explorer, représenter, diffuser les savoirs sur les mondes réels et imaginaires (Rennes, 2023).

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