Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Patteson, John Coleridge

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PATTESON, JOHN COLERIDGE (1827–1871), first missionary bishop in Melanesia, was elder son of Sir John Patteson [q. v.] the judge, by his second wife, Frances Duke Coleridge. He was brought up at Feniton Court, where his family resided, so as to be near the home of his mother's relatives at Ottery St. Mary. After three years at the grammar school at Ottery, Patteson was placed in 1838 at Eton, under his uncle, the Rev. E. Coleridge, son-in-law of Dr. Keate, the former headmaster. At Eton, where Patteson remained till 1845, he was not in the first rank as a scholar, but he had great facility in writing Latin verses, and was ‘sent up’ twenty-five times. He was captain of the cricket eleven, a good speaker in the debating society, and showed much strength of character. From 1845 to 1848 he was a commoner of Balliol College, Oxford, under Dr. Richard Jenkyns [q. v.] He was not interested in academic studies, and only obtained a second class; but he was brought into contact with Benjamin Jowett, afterwards master of Balliol, Professor Max Müller, John Campbell Shairp [q. v.], Edwin Palmer, afterwards archdeacon of Oxford, James Riddell [q. v.], the Rev. John James Hornby, afterwards provost of Eton, and Mr. Charles Savile Roundell, who became his lifelong friends. After taking his degree in October 1849 he travelled in Switzerland and Italy, learned German at Dresden, and devoted himself to Hebrew and Arabic. His mind and character largely developed; his intellectual and artistic tastes, which had hitherto been languid, were stimulated into activity, and his remarkable gift for languages declared itself. Returning to Oxford in 1852, he became fellow of Merton, spent the year 1852–3 in the college, where the settlement of a scheme of reform, consequent on the report of the university commission, was greatly aided by his wisdom and liberal temper. He was ordained in September 1853 to the curacy of Alphington, a part of Ottery St. Mary, of which he was practically in sole charge. His influence was beginning to be strongly felt, when the visit of George Augustus Selwyn [q. v.], bishop of New Zealand, in the summer of 1854, determined his choice of a missionary career. He left England with the bishop in March 1855, and landed at Auckland in May.

On Ascension day 1856 Patteson's first voyage to Melanesia began. The scheme of the mission, which had already been begun by Bishop Selwyn, was to take boys, with their parents' consent, from the islands, to instruct them during the summer at the mission school in New Zealand, and to bring them back the next year to their homes. The school was at first at St. John's, some six miles from Auckland; then at Kohimarima, on an inlet of the harbour; and later at Norfolk Island. This island had the advantage of a warmer climate, of proximity to the Melanesian islands, and of being the home of the Pitcairners, who, as descended from the mutineers of the Bounty and their Tahitian wives, had special qualifications for mission-work. Patteson devoted himself to the Melanesian boys, teaching them at once the rudiments of knowledge, of civilisation, and of religion, which they imparted to their families and friends on their return. He refused to regard the natives as an inferior race, and he treated his classes as though they were formed of Eton boys. His Melanesian pupils appreciated his attitude, and his remarkable linguistic powers greatly aided him. He had studied the Maori language on his voyage out, and, although in Melanesia hardly any two islands have the same language, his special talent and the quickness of the boys overcame the difficulty. He selected the language of the island of Mota as most typical in point of idiom, and employed it in the school.

In 1861 he was consecrated bishop, and took the sole direction of the mission, fixing his residence at Mota. The mission was supported partly from his own funds—he retained his fellowship at Merton to the end, and he made over to the mission the money left him by his father in 1861—partly by the Eton Melanesian Society, and partly by an association formed in Australia, which he visited from time to time. The members of the mission received no salaries, their wants being provided for by the mission funds. His influence grew rapidly. He was joined in 1863 by Mr. Codrington, fellow of Wadham College, Oxford; workers from St. Augustine's, Canterbury, and from among the Pitcairners, placed themselves under him; and some of his own pupils became missionaries. The first of these who was ordained was George Sarawia, who had been for some time in charge of the mission at Mota. Patteson worked incessantly from 5.30 A.M. to 10 P.M., teaching, organising, and conducting divine worship. One moment would find him building a house, another navigating his ship, or swimming or cooking, or teaching his scholars to tend sheep or pigs, or cutting out garments for either sex, or arranging a marriage and preparing for its celebration, or leading the cheer for the bride and bridegroom. He deprecated all haste in making conversions. At the same time his labours as a linguist were not neglected. He soon spoke readily no less than twenty-three languages. By degrees the swarm of Melanesian dialects broke up into groups and families, and proved to be varying forms of one language. He used the most patient endeavours to fix the meaning of words, and came to the conviction that the simplicity of structure in the languages was compensated by strict rules, which enabled them to express all modifications of time and place—a conviction which he held also as to Hebrew, to the study of which he often reverted. He made and printed general vocabularies in three of the languages, and lists of interrogatives, prepositions, and conjunctions in eleven; and translated into the Mota tongue, which he regarded as most typical, the third and fourth gospels and other parts of scripture. He stopped, however, deliberately short in the scientific part of the work, mainly because his time was absorbed by the mission. He turned resolutely to the use of the languages for the purpose of teaching. ‘These languages,’ he said, ‘are very poor in words belonging to civilised, literary, and religious life, but exceedingly rich in all that pertains to the needs and habits of men circumstanced as they are. I draw this inference: Don't be in a hurry to translate, and don't attempt to use words as (assumed) equivalents of abstract ideas. Don't devise modes of expression unknown to the language as at present in use. They can't understand, and therefore don't use words to express definitions.’ Under Patteson's rule the character of the natives was completely transformed. Their savagery disappeared, there was no more war; and, after twenty years, out of a population of eight hundred in the chief island, Mota, all but forty were baptised. To this result Patteson's pupil, George Sarawia, the first Melanesian clergyman, largely contributed.

His interest in all that was going on at home was vividly maintained. He wrote regularly to his father while he lived, and to his sisters; he read largely; he kept up communication with many of his old friends; he corresponded with Professor Max Müller as to the Melanesian languages. He embraced enthusiastically Bishop Selwyn's plan of church government, under which every office-holder signed a pledge that he would resign his office when called upon to do so by the church synod or a court appointed by it; and believed that by this instrument the ecclesiastical body could, not only in the colonies, but in England itself, act beneficially in independence of the national organisation. In theological matters his sympathies were enlarged by his experience. Though sympathising with Pusey and Keble, and owing much to the latter, he criticised their tendencies and distinctly dissented from their views on the Lord's Supper.

His life was often in danger, for though the natives respected him they were changeable and suspicious and without restraint. At Santa Cruz in 1864 he was attacked as he left the shore, and though he escaped, two of his companions, Edwin Nobbs and Fisher Young, were struck by the poisoned arrows, and died of tetanus. But these dangers were greatly increased by the abuses of the labour traffic in the Pacific. The planters in Fiji and Queensland required native labourers, and many of the islanders were willing to go to the plantations for a few years; but unscrupulous traders lured away the islanders under false pretences, practically enslaved them, and at times used the bishop's name to attract victims. The bishop had never condemned the traffic, believing that it might be carried on honestly and with benefit to all parties; but he desired that it should be subjected, as it was after his death, to regulation by the British government. He found that many of the islands were depopulated by this new slave trade, and he had joined in bringing some notorious offenders to justice.

He visited the island of Nukapu on 16 Sept. 1871, not knowing that an outrage had been committed on its inhabitants by some Englishmen a few months before. He had once before been there, and he landed alone and unarmed. His friends, who were waiting for him in the ship's boat at the reef outside the island, found themselves attacked by a flight of arrows, which wounded two of them; and soon after a canoe floated out from the shore, in which was the dead body of the bishop, with a frond of palm tied in five knots. This was known to imply that he had been killed in revenge for five of the inhabitants. One of his companions, the Rev. Joseph Atkin, died of tetanus a few days afterwards. The members of the mission prayed that there should be no retaliation; but, unhappily, Captain Markham of the Rosario having gone to Nukapu to make inquiries, the natives, believing that he had come to avenge the bishop, fired on him, and drew upon themselves the penalty of this act. The death of the bishop, however, roused the Christian conscience in England. Its mention in the queen's speech at the opening of parliament led to the regulation of the labour traffic; the mission was extended, and gained a new ground of appeal to the hearts of the Melanesians; and his successor, Bishop John Selwyn, was able to show the men of Nukapu that they had, through a fatal error, slain their best friend. A cross erected by him on the spot where Patteson fell attests the martyrdom of the missionary bishop and the reconciling power of his death.

[Life by Miss Charlotte M. Yonge, 2 vols. 1873, new edit. 1878; Life by Miss Frances Awdry under the title ‘The Story of a Fellow Soldier,’ 1875; Men of the Reign; Heaton's Australian Dates and Men of the Time; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886; personal reminiscences.]

W. H. F.