Part 3/ Cook Islander missionaries: recovering hidden histories from missionary archives: Isaia Papehia’s travels in Britain

By Special Collections|28th March 2022|Collections & Research|0 comments

Continuing our short series of blogs looking at the instrumental and largely forgotten role of indigenous Cook Islanders in the evangelisation of the Pacific region from the early 19th century, and research which is rediscovering evidence of the personal histories of these men and women found in European missionary archives. This week’s guest blog comes from Rod Dixon (Mangaia, Cook Islands), who shares his research into the overseas experiences of Isaia Papehia who visited England and Ireland from 1853 – 1856, and links to our previous blog in the series which identified an image of Isaia in the archives at SOAS.

In 1853, Isaia, the son of Papehia (the first resident evangelist in the Cook Islands), set off to visit Britain and Ireland with the Rev. William and Mrs. Elizabeth Gill, resident missionaries working for the London Missionary Society at Arorangi, Rarotonga. Isaia was 15 years old at the time. 

William Gill writes that “Isaia Papeiiha  …came to [Mrs. Gill’s Arorangi boarding] school as a boy five years old.” On December 3, 1849 the young scholar “Isaia, the youngest son of Papehia, the native Teacher” wrote to Rev. Aaron Buzacott who was, at the time, travelling with another Rarotongan Kiro in England, “My dear father [Papehia] is now old and weakly, but I am trying to walk in his steps, and striving to get that knowledge from God which will make me wise. I have continued at Mrs. Gill’s school ever since you left us and am learning the truths of the Word of God” (Juvenile Missionary Magazine, October, 1850; 234).

In 1853, Rev. William Gill reported Isaia has been “under my care for seven years and was desirous to go with us [to England]. At first, both Mrs. Gill and I declined but his desire was very strong, and his father and mother and [the ariki or chief of Arorangi] Tinomana, his grandfather, were all willing, we were therefore led to consent. He accompanied us to England and remained three years before returning home” (Gill, 1880; 248, 273). Isaia’s uncle, Setephano, (who later became Tinomana Te Ariki Tāpu Rangi), accompanied the group as far as Sydney.

En route to New South Wales, they visited the Cook Islands missionary Ta’unga, then working at Manu’a, in the Samoan group, and held a service on Upolu for all the Cook Islanders (mainly plantation workers) living in Apia.

The party arrived in Sydney on 5 January 1853 spending two months in and around the city with Gill reporting “Our native chief Setephano and Isaia, his nephew, were much excited and interested at what they saw in this new world of English life and civilization” (Gill, 1880; 277).

Subsequently on 5 April, 1853, Rev. and Mrs. Gill and Isaia (but not Setephano) boarded the vessel “Waterloo” bound for London, arriving there on 16 June, 1853. Disembarking at the East India Docks at Blackwall in the Port of London, Gill noted “I had never seen a railway-train …and the East End Blackwall train waited to receive us.”  The railway had recently been converted from cable haulage to steam locomotion.  “At the ringing of the five minutes announcement bell, we took our seats, when Isaia, hearing the bell ringing again, previous to departure, asked if we were going to have prayers before we started.” (Gill, 1880; 279).

The three visitors stayed initially in London, with Elizabeth Gill’s step-father, [Mr. Robert Devonshire] before commencing work on the revised second edition of the Rarotongan Bible. They also attended missionary meetings in various parts of Britain and Ireland, taking part in a marathon of 136 services and meetings in the first 7 months of their stay. 

In 1854, both Gill and Isaia addressed the annual meeting of the London Missionary Society at Exeter Hall, with Gill translating for Isaia. The rest of the year was spent attending further meetings in the English provinces advocating the cause of the LMS. Isaia again addressed the annual missionary society meeting at Exeter Hall in 1856. 

Isaia was a confident and competent orator. All those who heard his testament on ‘heathenism’ and the coming of the Gospel “remembered [him] with affectionate interest.” The Norfolk News (28 April 1855) reported “Isaia [‘the nephew of a chief’] is a very intelligent youth about 18 years of age and has visited this country from a strong desire to witness the wonders of civilization and to render himself more fit to discharge the duties of his rank upon his return to his native island, which will be in the autumn.” 

The Irish paper, the Saunders Newsletter (5 October 1853) reported Isaia’s address to the congregation of the Zion Chapel, Kings Inns Street, Dublin describing him as having “a countenance and air [that] were very pleasing” being descended from the “blood of the aristocracy of the land from which he had come” averring that his speech equally demonstrated “that he possessed aristocracy of mind as well as of blood.”

For his Irish tour, Isaia combined Rarotongan humour with a dose of Irish blarney – 

 “This is a very small assembly (laughter). I have not seen so small a one since my arrival in England or Ireland. The assemblies [I have] been in the habit of seeing are very numerous, the houses … very full.  What should he tell them, for he was desirous of keeping most of what he had to say for a large meeting on the following evening……He had been very much pleased by all he saw in England, but that week he had been more pleased by coming over to this country [Ireland]. Everything around him – the mountains and the sea –  very much reminded him of Rarotonga ….he had made an exclamation to that effect on ascending the hill of Killiney [Dublin Bay] a few days ago…..”

In Dublin, Isaia attended the 1853 Great Industrial Exhibition, describing it as “the most wondrous thing that he had seen.” He reported that “one very wonderful thing he had seen in London was men and women whose breasts heaved and whose eyes were full of tears, he thought them living creatures, but on touching them was surprised to find that they were things made.” These were mechanical automatons then enjoying popularity in Europe. “If they had been seen at Rarotonga thirty years ago, they would have been worshipped as gods,” Isaia told his Irish audience (Saunders Newsletter, 5 October 1853).

The London Missionary Society Museum in Blomfield Road, London at the time of Isaia’s visit, showing the large Rarotongan staff god Tangaroa (centre, inverted), said to be “twelve feet high, which was brought home by Rev. John Williams, in the ‘Camden’ from Rarotonga”– The Juvenile Missionary Magazine, September,1847 [endpiece]; (text page 195 – 196).

According to Isaia, he “never saw an idol till he saw the idol of his forefathers in the Museum of the London Missionary Society in London.” “That idol was 14 feet high and was the idol of his own grandfather [Tinomana ariki] of which he had heard much; the sight of it affected him to tears, and he expressed deep compassion for the people of his native land” (Saunders Newsletter 5 October 1853). According to Isaia the idol [Tangaroa] “is a great big fellow and when I saw him I was greatly astonished and climbed up and broke off a piece of his nose to take to Rarotonga, and I asked Dr. Tidman to let me take him back to Rarotonga, to show the young people the queer things their fathers worshipped but he said ‘No, let you do that” (Gordon, 1863; 237). 

On 22 July 1856, Isaia set off on the journey home to Rarotonga on the missionary ship “John Williams”. Given the continuing poor state of Mrs. Gill’s health, Rev. William Gill reluctantly resigned from the LMS, taking up a position as rector of the Ebenezer Chapel in Woolwich, London, August 1856.

Isaia’s voyage home was not uneventful. He rescued the ship’s steward, John Sands, after he threw himself from the ship’s deck in an attempted suicide. Sands, who had worked on the mission ship for 20 years, was successful in his second attempt, with Isaia taking over his job as steward for the remainder of the voyage (The Missionary Magazine and Chronicle, Vols 19 – 20; 259 – 260). On 1st October they reached Table Bay, South Africa then headed for Hobart, passing an iceberg on 16 October and a gale on 19th October during which the bowsprit broke. As the bowsprit was the key of all three masts on the “John Williams”, all three masts were in jeopardy. On 6 November another gale washed away one of their boats.

Reaching Mangaia on the final leg of his journey home, “he returned to claim his bride” having “been bethrothed previously to his departure from Rarotonga.” (Wild Flowers; page 36].  His ‘bethrothed’ was Louisa Agostini, daughter of Joseph Agostini, and of Ua’a, the daughter of Mura’ai, the pava or district chief of Keia, Mangaia.  Isaia and Louisa were married on the morning of the 6th April [1857].  Rev. George M. Gordon records – “He married a half-caste – her father [Joseph Agostini] being a [Corsican] Frenchman and very reluctant to part with his daughter. Isaia did not get his consent till the barque was about to sail. He said he never met with so stubborn a Frenchman. The nuptial scene was quite exciting. Many flocked to the marriage [on Mangaia]. …After the marriage Mr. [George] Gill [the resident missionary] called upon the bride’s father. He [the trader Agostini] appeared much pleased with our visit. He presented his daughter with $150, and gave her some boxes of clothing….When Isaia and his bride came off [to the ship] Mr Turpie [captain of the “John Williams”], the first mate, assembling the sailors, gave them three cheers” (Gordon, 1863; 252).

Passengers and crew list from the missionary vessel “John Williams” arriving Sydney January 1857. “Isaiah Papehia” is listed as steward – interestingly 6 of the crew are Cook Islanders – three from Mangaia and three from Rarotonga.

Back on Rarotonga, Isaia returned to his studies at Takamoa and “passed through the usual course of education for the work of the ministry being “ordained junior pastor of the Church at Arorangi” and assisting Rupe the orometua [pastor] at that church (JMM, August 1860; 230). 

He visited Mangaia again in 1858 “assisting [pastors] Katuke and Sadaraka [Mamae] every Sunday preaching to the people. On my return to Rarotonga, I am to enter the Institution to complete my studies and if it is the will of God, I would like to be settled at our station, Arorangi” (JMM, Feb 1859; 33).

Almost immediately he became ill and was unable to resume duties for a full six months  (JMM, July 1861; 218).

By August 1863, Isaia was a full pastor at Arorangi, Rupe having relocated to the island of Atiu. Isaia and Louisa took up residence in the Rev W. Gill’s old home in Arorangi (Missionary Magazine, January 1864: 18 -19). His father and mother (Papehia and Vainu) were still alive and “we have two children, a boy and a girl, [the first, a girl called Katherine was born on 22 Jan, 1858] and,” as he informed William Gill by letter, “we have called them “William” and “Elizabeth’ after you and Mrs. Gill….. Tekao, my brother, has finished his term of study, and is here waiting his appointment…..I do not forget my many friends in England ….” By 1866, Isaia and Louisa had three children  (JMM, February 1859) – Katherine, William and Rangitai – with two more following (Tepaeru and Davida).

According to William Gill, writing from London, “It is truly delightful to find that his [Isaia’s] visit to this country, which was attended with many and great advantages, has not, as in some instances, been productive of corresponding evils: but that he has continued to labour with modesty, diligence and perseverance, in the service of the Saviour. We learn from other sources that the amiable and consistent character of our young friend has tended to confirm and to commend his Christian teaching.”

Isaia continued as orometua at Arorangi for nearly 30 years. Rev. William Wyatt Gill met him in 1867 on a visit to Rarotongan and reported – “he is a fair young man and is looking remarkably well.” This was a few days before the death of Isaia’s father Papehia.  Rev. James Chalmers (“Tamate’) remembered Isaia as “a good man and did good service. He has a son [Davida] in the college preparing for the work”  (Lovett, 1900; 365). In 1890, Rev. J.J.K. Hutchin (cited Lange, 2005; 72) “found him genial and hospitable, a good preacher”, “a great worker and planter of food” but “lacking in spirituality”. He could “‘rule men’ not just through natural ability but because of his social position as the grandson of an ariki.”

In 1875, Isaia reported that he was running a boarding school at Arorangi “and had twenty five boys in it and I hope many will be missionaries.” In August 1880 he was deputed by Rev William Wyatt Gill to accompany a new orometua Tauera and his wife to replace Vaka who had been dismissed as missionary to Penrhyn. On 19 July, 1880 there had been a “bloodless battle” between the Omoko people supporting Vaka and the Motukoiti people, led by Ngatikaro who supported his dismissal, resulting in “plenty of broken arms etc.” Isaia and Tauera arrived on the day set for a “final trial of strength” between the two parties. Isaia was successful in mediating a peaceful outcome and the installation of the new pastor (Rev. W. W. Gill, Letter, 12 October, 1880).

Isaia’s mother Vainu [Te Vaerua-O-Te-Rangi] passed away in March, 1886 aged around 80 years. According to the Rev. J.J.K. Hutchin (Letter, 28 April, 1886) “She was one of the very first Church members having sat down at the Lord’s Table in May 1833 when the Lord’s Supper [in Rarotonga] was celebrated for the first time.” “During the day of March 3rd she kept saying “Te aere nei au”, “I am going” ….her last words being to her son Isaia…charging him to be faithful to his work even at the end.” Isaia died just 4 years later in 1890 at the young age of 52. 

Isaia and his son Davida were not the only immediate descendants of Papehia to serve in the Ministry. The Report of the London Missionary Society for 1915 carries a report from Papua – “Among the teachers there has been much sickness. Misi Gilo, who was named after the late Rev. G. Gill of Rarotonga, died a few days after Mr. [William Nicol] Lawrence’s return. Mr. Lawrence himself had admitted him as a student to the Training Institution at Rarotonga, and he was a grandson of Papeiha ….He had a great influence with his people in one of the most important villages and was much loved by them.” This was Mitikiro, the son of Papehia’s daughter Matoi and her husband Matara (Lange, 2005;72; Rere, 1974; 4).

Isaia and Louisa Papehia with four of their five children. (The Juvenile Missionary Magazine Volume 30, July 1875) 

Post script  – Isaia’s English converts

In the audience, during Isaia’s speech to the Broad Street Chapel in Reading, just south of Oxford, was a young man called William G. Lawes. His biographer notes that “Upon a heart already most persuaded, the appearance and appeal of a Christian Polynesian [Isaia] produced a powerful effect. It was the first time Lawes had seen a South Sea Islander. The tones of the strange language impressed him, and when the message was interpreted by the missionary, he was ready with his answer. …His heart, which had already been surrendered to Jesus Christ, had but one reply, the reply of unconditional obedience. There and then he gave his life to God for missionary service” (King, 1909: 9). Following his epiphany, Lawes completed training at Bedford Missionary College, married Fanny Wickham, and was ordained in 1860, ready to take up his first posting to Niue. He served the LMS at Niue from 1861 – 1872 before joining the New Guinea mission in 1874 where he had a long career working alongside the Mangaian missionary, Ruatoka.

And in a small book entitled Wild Flowers from Many Fields published in England 1867, the following verses on Isaia appear, composed by a lady who had been equally struck by the handsome young Rarotongan’s ‘appearance and appeal’ during a visit to her village, Abingdon in Oxfordshire – 

Isaia Papehia

Child of the Ocean, glad greetings we give thee,

Welcome art thou to old England’s free shore;

From the isles of the south, hath Omnipotence led thee,

To bid us rejoice in the Lord evermore!

As one from the dead, we would hail thee – for truly

The grave is not darker than heathenish gloom;

But the rays of the gospel have burst forth around thee,

And caused the bright flowers of Eden to bloom.

The idols of wood, which thy forefathers worshipp’d

No longer pollute the fair isle of thy birth;

By the cross of Immanuel they now are supplanted,

And Jesus proclaim’d to the ends of the earth.

Tho’ dark be thy skin, we would call thee our brother

With feelings of sympathy, union, and love: –

The love that a Christian should bear to another,

The communion of saints with the heaven above.

Isaia! We pray, that of this generation,

In judgement thou may’st not rise up to complain,

Thou hast heard, and embraced, the glad news of salvation;

Oh! That we may not hear the good tidings in vain!

Dost thou go to thy people? We part not for ever;

Echoed back be thy prayer that we may be blest;

Thus united in spirit, tho’ ocean may sever,

We’ll meet at life’s close in the haven of rest.


Letters quoted are from South Seas Letters, 1796 – 1919, Records of the London Missionary Society (as filmed by AJCP), National Library of Australia, available on the TROVE website

Gill, William, 1856, Gems from the Coral Islands, Vol., 2 Eastern Polynesia, Ward and Co, London

1880, Selections from the Autobiography of the Rev William Gill, London Yeates and Alexander, London 

Gordon, Rev. George N,  1863, The Last Martyrs of Erromanga, Macnab & Shaffer, Halifax, Nova Scotia

King, Joseph 1909, W,G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea, Religious Tract Society, London

Lange, Raeburn, 2005, Islands Ministers, Pandanus Books, Australian National University, Canberra.

Lovett, Richard, 1900, James Chalmers His Autobiography and Letters, Religious Tract Society, London

M.C.  1867, Wild Flowers from Many Fields, W. D. Jenkins, Wallingford, England. 

Rere, Taira, 1974, Genealogy of the Papehia Family, Institute of Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji 

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