Reconciliation with the descendants of Rev. John Williams

In November 20, 1839, English missionary the Rev. John Williams of the London Missionary Society was murdered shortly after stepping ashore on Erromango. His killers, incensed by recent transgressions against them by greedy, amoral sandalwood traders, were determined to stop any more foreigners from coming to exploit them.

In the late 1800s, Erromangans, newly converted to Christianity, began to attribute their subsequent tragic history to the murder of the Reverend Williams, claiming a ‘curse’ had been place on Erromango for this terrible act.

On 20 November 2009, supported by the ECA, a reconciliation ceremony between the descendants of Rev. Williams and the entire island of Erromango was held. This ceremony was a national historic event and its ongoing significance lies in the recognition that this metaphorical ‘curse’ has been lifted.

This reconciliation originated when the Canadian descendants of Rev. John Williams donated items collected by him in the South Pacific to the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA). MOA Pacific curator, Carol Mayer, accepted the Williams family’s donation on behalf of MOA and suggested to the ECA the idea of bringing the Williams family and the people of Erromango together for a reconciliation ceremony.

Book cover of ’No Longer Captives of the Past: the story of a reconciliation on Erromango’

During Phase II of the Nompi en Ovoteme Erromango project, the ECA and the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology published a commemorative book, No Longer Captives of the Past, capturing the memories of the event.

This book tells the story of the righting of this historical wrong – the reconciliation between the Williams family and the descendants of his killers, 170 years after Williams’ death. The book tells a story of forgiveness and justice, told from the personal perspectives of the people involved on both sides, with profound implications not just for those involved, but also for the nation of Vanuatu and for the wider Pacific islands region.

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