MicSem Publications

Christianity and Violence in the Pacific

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

2011 History Religion

The First Missionary Encounter

In 1668 the first missionary attempt in the Pacific Islands occurred when six Spanish Jesuit missionaries under the leadership of Fr. Diego Luis de San Vitores reached Guam.  That island had become an occasional stopover for the galleons on their westward course across the Pacific en route to the Philippines.  San Vitores, in fact, had put ashore on Guam six years earlier on his passage to the Philippines.  So affected was he by the poverty of the local population that almost as soon as he arrived in Manila he began petitioning the Queen Regent Mariana to allow him to establish a mission on Guam. His high-placed family connections gave him access to the royal court and a favorable hearing from Mariana, who eventually lent her name to the archipelago that is known even today as the Mariana Islands.
When San Vitores and his party of Jesuits and lay mission helpers landed on Guam, they were accompanied by a squad of thirty troops, mostly of them recruits from the Philippines, whose mandate was to protect the missionaries from harm.   Although the Jesuits were instructed to report on “the useful produce of the land and whether or not there are any minerals there,” the objective of the mission was as single in purpose as the Spanish patronato system would allow. It was the Queen Regent herself who reminded her viceroy in Mexico on a later occasion that “the principal thing to be attended to is the conversion of the natives, and even if only on behalf of one soul any expenditure in the mission would be well spent.”
Despite a warm welcome from the people of Agana, the village where San Vitores and his party were put ashore, violence broke out almost as soon as the missionaries ventured outside their mission station.  Within two months of their arrival, a Jesuit priest who had been sent to one of the northern islands in the archipelago was ambushed and wounded and two of the soldiers were killed. A year later one of the catechists working in the northern islands was tortured and left to die, and barely six months later the first of the Jesuit priests was killed.
San Vitores, a pacifist at heart, had begun his work fully trusting in the power of love and meekness to convey the message of spiritual peace that he brought. So convinced was he that “conversion should be made… without the noise of arms and military operations” that he would not allow forts built and had forbidden the soldiers to shoot except in self-defense. But the persistent violence that had taken several lives persuaded him that sterner measures were needed if the mission was to survive.  San Vitores appealed to the throne for additional troops, requested that Spanish ships lay over at the islands to mete out punishment as might be needed, and preached what amounted to a crusade on Guam to raise the army he needed to restore peace in the northern islands.  Sanvitores explained that, in the absence of a strong traditional authority system, some means of inspiring fear and restraint was necessary or else the natives would go even further and wipe out all the missionaries.

Within two years San Vitores himself was dead, along with several other lay helpers and soldiers; in the next few years another four Jesuits were slain, even as others had arrived to reinforce the small missionary band.  Intermittent hostilities occurred over the next three decades, with a party of local people usually ambushing one or two of the missionaries or soldiers, followed by a retaliatory raid by the Spaniards leading to the burning of a village and perhaps a death or two. By the end of it all twelve Jesuits and dozens of lay helpers, catechists and soldiers lost their lives, while perhaps a couple hundred Chamorros were killed. 
What explains the deteriorating relationship between the missionary party and the local people, especially after the warm welcome that the very early successes recorded by San Vitores, including the baptism of thousands of people and the founding of a boys school?  The missionaries put much of the blame on a Chinese castaway who was reputedly spreading stories that the baptismal waters were poisoning children.  Europeans under the thrall of Enlightenment thinking argued that local people were jealously clinging to sovereignty and the dignity that it supposedly represented to these islanders. But a careful reading of the Spanish accounts weighed against an understanding of how islanders normally behaved suggests something entirely different: a pattern of retaliation for personal affronts suffered by the islanders, compounded by the incessant local warfare that had been carried on in these islands for centuries.  It was easy enough in this cross-cultural situation for one party to offend the other, but so much more easy in a divided society in which the friends of my enemies became my own enemies.
The conflict was real enough, as was the loss of life, but the extent of the latter was grossly exaggerated by later historians, who attributed the depopulation of the Chamorro population during these years to the power of the Spanish arquebus and sword.  Between the arrival of the missionaries and the garrison of troops and the first official census in 1710, the local population of the island group plummeted from an estimated 40,000 to about 4,000.  The assumption that the population was killed off in warfare is challenged by the rate of decline between 1700 and 1710, a period in which warfare had ceased entirely. The death rate continued unabated during this ten-year period due to the epidemics that seemed to break out each year shortly after the Spanish ship put in at Guam.  Diseases introduced by Westerners had decimated the New World soon after Spanish colonization had begun two centuries earlier, and they would claim 90 percent of the population of the small island of Kosrae in eastern Micronesia two centuries later, thanks to the frequent visits of American whaleships during the height of the whaling era.  Micronesian islanders, like non-European peoples around the globe, were victims of a host of diseases such as influenza, dysentery and chickenpox to which they had not yet developed any resistance.

Christianity in the Balance

The mission in the Marianas has often been represented as an especially deadly clash between a Pacific Island culture and an advanced European society, a clash that supposedly ended in genocide. To scholars of the past and perhaps to some even today, then, this initial encounter of Christian missionaries with a Pacific society stood as an illustration of what could result when the cross and the sword, a religion supported by a nation state, worked in close collaboration to achieve their twin aims.  Even if other societies did not suffer the same loss of life, other depredations would be worked on the peoples and their cultures in the name of someone else’s faith and the flag.  Land would be alienated, customs would be disparaged, and the island peoples would be inevitably sold into bondage when the Western powers that so closely shadowed the missionaries seized possession of their territory. The people may have received a strong belief system, it was argued, but they paid the price in cultural loss and surrender of freedom.
When Christianity was introduced to the other islands in the Pacific, a century later, missionaries did not have the patronato system to assist them.  Faith and flag were not as tightly joined as they had been during the initial missionary foray into the Marianas during the late 17th century.  Even so, the partnership between missionaries and the nation that dispatched them was real.  In eastern Micronesia, for instance, American whalers softened up the islands for the Protestant missionaries who arrived at the end of the whaling era.  Similarly, the missionaries, who were intent on repairing the damages done by the scandalous behavior of their predecessors, were preparing the way for the resident traders and other foreigners who followed. Even as they preached the faith on the islands, the missionaries, intentionally or not, were laying the groundwork for the military annexation by foreign powers.  Hence, Christian missionaries everywhere in the Pacific were charged with doing just what the Spanish missionaries in the Marianas had done: colonize at the same time as they christianized.
Undeniably, Christian missionaries were a force for change in the Pacific, as they were everywhere in the world. Under their influence, dress standards changed from local attire to frocks and trousers, reading and schooling was introduced, work patterns were altered (at least enough to permit rest on Sunday), and the old religious practices honoring local deities were suppressed. Whether all of this change represents a net loss or gain depends, of course, on one’s perspective. Certain features of the traditional culture were dislodged, others were stripped of some of their former meaning, while many more have survived to the present day.  Meanwhile, Christianity has taken root in the island cultures so firmly that it is can be considered a key component in all island societies today.

The End of Slaughter

The charges so often level against Christianity as a disruptive force in the culture of Pacific Islands continues to be debated today. Whatever other impact Christianity in the Pacific may have had on the islands, it certainly can not be said to have increased the level of violence in pre-contact island societies.  Indeed, all the evidence points in the opposite direction; the church played a critical role in diminishing violence everywhere in the Pacific, especially by putting an end to the warfare that was endemic in the islands.
In the Marianas, the Chamorro population was finally forced to submit to Spanish rule after thirty years of intermittent guerilla warfare. The people were resettled in villages, where their lives were organized around the village church and its cycle of worship. Now and then they might go to their farms inland to tend their crops, but they were, in effect, domesticated.  At the same time, the inter-village warfare that would break out periodically was conclusively ended.  Thenceforth the islanders lived in peace, even if in a colonial setting. 

The Marshall Islands experienced something similar a century and a half later, shortly after the first Congregational missionaries reached the island group in 1857. The paramount chief on Ebon, the island on which the first two missionaries chose to reside, was Kaibuke, who had taken his name from the word for “ship” since he had vowed to seize and plunder any foreign vessel putting into his island. He had a long list of burnt ships and murdered crews at this and other islands to his credit. Not long after the arrival of the missionaries the chief renounced his vow and the Marshalls soon were removed from the seamen’s list of dangerous island groups. Inter-island warfare persisted in a ritualistic form for a few more years before it too was abandoned altogether.
Throughout the other island groups of Micronesia, the twin force of Christianity and Western military might effected the same pacification.  When, in 1903, a German naval ship arrived in Chuuk, an island group in central Micronesia, four hundred rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition were turned in to German authorities.  Firearms, purchased through Japanese traders, had become the weapon of choice for the past twenty years, but these weapons had made local warfare more deadly than ever. With the end of the village raiding parties that were once a regular feature of life in those islands, people moved from the interior hills down to the seashore to live without fear of sudden violence.
Much the same happened in other parts of the Pacific. The wooden fork once used by Cakobau, the most feared of Fiji’s chiefs, for dining on “long pig”–that is, the human flesh of his enemies–is now mounted on a wall at the Peabody Museum.  It was surrendered to the Methodist missionary who persuaded him to accept Christianity, the inscription below the panel tells us.  John Garrett recounts in his history of Christianity in the Pacific that the long canoes were once rolled to the beach over the backs of prisoners taken in battle.  He notes, however, that once the new religion was accepted in Fiji, logs replaced human beings as rollers in the launching of a newly built canoe. The effect of Christianity on Fiji is conveyed in an old story about an anthropologist who was complaining to a traditional island chief about all the damage done to his culture by those who introduced Christianity to those islands. After patiently listening to this for a while, the chief pointed out to the anthropologist that, had it not been for the influence of Christian missionaries, he might have been served up as dinner that evening.

A Single People Under a Single God

Christianity not only played a major role in the pacification of the island groups, but it provided an ideology by which members of each island group could see themselves as a single people. The new religion offered a large banner under which smaller political and social factions could unite. This was especially important on those islands in which there was no paramount chief. Belief in Christ provided a bond between people of different locales just as membership in the same clan had in the traditional times and continues to do today in many places. A shared faith embraced a far larger portion of the population than clan ties, while providing a spiritual basis for regarding even the stranger with sympathy. Denominational differences within Christianity may have led to wariness and even recriminations at times, but except in the southern Gilberts for a short time there were no violent eruptions among Christians of different denominations.

In addition, the presence of a pastor who could serve as something of an ombudsman while mediating in intra-village tensions contributed greatly to maintaining the peace.  The pastor’s status in the community allowed him to play a major role in reconciling grievances before they erupted into the violence that was so common in the past. Church leaders may never have been completely impartial, but they were respected figures who could and did use their influence to bring together opposing parties and making peace.
Finally, the church made an enormous contribution through the gospel ethic of forgiveness that it preached. Missionary letters abound in stories of individuals who showed a heroic readiness to turn the other cheek even after suffering an injury that would have been a causa belli just a few years before. One example occurred some forty years ago in Chuuk when I was still working there. A man who held the office of teacher in his church gathered his family together after his daughter had been killed in a sexual assault and admonished his sons not to revenge themselves on the offender and his kin. Such heroic forbearance may not be the normal response even today, but it would have been unthinkable in the prechristian past.
In our day, when religious beliefs have given rise to spasms of violence in different parts of the world, it is tempting to read back into Pacific history a view of Christianity as a divisive force rather than a unifying one.  Yet, nothing could be further from the truth in this part of the world. Indeed, it was the religion introduced by Western voyagers that helped make the Pacific truly pacific.