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Christianity created a Nation: The arrival of the Gospel

Saturday 6 May 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Church Talk, Features

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Christianity created a Nation: The arrival of the Gospel
Institution House – Takamoa Theological College. Reverend Aaron Buzacott supervised the construction of Institution House. It was built out of coral block and turned out to be one of the most comfortable and durable buildings constructed by the Missionaries throughout the entire South Seas. The cost of this construction was borne largely by the people of Rarotonga. Institution House was completed in 1843. 23050599

Historian Howard Henry has been fascinated by the birth of Christianity in the Cook Islands for many years. In a new weekly series, Henry chronicles the arrival of Christianity to the Cook Islands and its role in building the nation.

Christianity created a nation known today as the Cook Islands. It did so in a number of ways many years before the current political boundaries were put in place by both the British and New Zealand governments, to bring this country into its completed existence on 11 June 1901.

In fact, Christianity created this nation even before these islands were given the name Cook Islands by the Government of Great Britain in October 1888. At that time, this name was given for the Southern Group only. It did not include those islands in the present-day Northern Group.

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Before Christianity arrived, each island was a separate political entity in its own right. On the larger islands, including Rarotonga and Aitutaki, the land area was divided into districts. These districts were also sovereign, independent political entities. The “Head of State” for each of these various tribal districts was the local “Paramount Ariki”. These Ariki had total control over all the land in their particular district. Below each Ariki was a very structured order of Mataiapo and below them a number of Rangatira and Family Heads to collectively constitute the social structure of the tribe.


Author Howard Henry with a copy of his book ‘Christianity created a Nation’. 21082021

Each of the other outer islands, apart from Aitutaki, were also “political entities” in their own right. They had a designated land area with a permanent resident population. And they each had a political structure with an organised civilisation in which each “Paramount Ariki” was indeed “the chief” of the land area and all the various people who lived around him.

A significant factor that traditionally linked each of the present day Cook Islands together was a common historical heritage with their original ancestors who came from “Avaiki”, or Raiatea and its various adjacent islands in present-day French Polynesia. “Avaiki” being known as the land from which one’s ancestors originally came from.

In this case there is no single place known as “Avaiki”. But rather, there are a great many places that were called by this name. Each of these various “Avaiki” had groups of people, who left by ocean-going vaka and then went on to settle at various places throughout both the north and south Pacific region.

While this heritage gave the people of each island a basic “core” language and even similar fundamentals in regard to religion, customs and traditions, each island subsequently developed their own unique dialect of language, their own distinctive style of religious appreciation and their own unique way of life in terms of customs and traditions.

The first “Native Teachers” placed on several of these islands in the Southern Group by John Williams, after October 1821, had all been trained at the London Missionary Society Training College on Raiatea. So the very early years of Christian education were based upon the principles originally established by John Williams and the other European Missionaries at that educational facility.

After the Reverend Aaron Buzacott opened the Takamoa Theological College on Rarotonga in 1843, the “Native Teachers” who were subsequently sent from there to the outer islands in the Southern Group then consolidated the Christian faith amongst the people of these islands.

In doing so, these “Native Teachers” then established a religious connection that extended back to Rarotonga and to the London Missionary Society Theological College at Takamoa in particular. And so Christianity gave each of these islands a gravitational connection towards Rarotonga as being their main focal point.

When the first “Native Teachers”, or the “Gospel Pioneers” went to the Northern Group of islands after 1849, it was from Takamoa Theological College, Rarotonga, that they originated. In this way a gravitational connection to Rarotonga was established on all these Northern Group of islands as well because that was where the original “Native Teachers” came from.

While the “Native Teachers” had a very important role to play with their missionary work when posted to their various Mission Stations, the wives of these men were equally important with the roles they had to play within their congregational communities.

The full course of Theological training at Takamoa lasted four years.

So while Aaron Buzacott looked after the education and training of the men, Mrs Buzacott took care of the education and training of the women. And their training was just as intense as that which was given to the men. But this was done in slightly different ways. These women were taught deportment, sewing skills, hygiene, infant care and a whole range of domestic skills when it came to looking after a family and being of great assistance to their community as a whole.

The wives of the “Native Teachers” were just as important as their husbands when it came to the consolidation of the Christian faith and the Christian way of life to the various communities in which they served.

The next thing that Christianity did was to create a “common language”.

When Papehia, Vahapata and the other “Native Teachers” first landed at various islands in the very early years of Christian Conversion, they brought with them the language dialect of Raiatea/Tahiti (very similar) as being their language of verbal communication.

So to begin with, Gospel promotion and the initial Christian instruction, was given by these teachers in this language because that was their mother tongue.

Papehia and Vahapata were the first persons to take the Gospel to Aitutaki on 26 October 1821. Papehia was also the first person to take the Gospel to Rarotonga on 25 July 1823.

But when John Williams landed on the island in 1827, he discovered one of the biggest stumbling blocks towards the missionary endeavour on Rarotonga revolved around the language differences. This being the language of religious instruction from Papehia which was in the dialect of Tahiti.

In view of this, John Williams concluded that the people of Rarotonga should have the Bible written in their own dialect. He further concluded that the language of religious instruction should be in the language of Rarotonga as well.

In the years that followed, John Williams and two Missionaries in particular being Aaron Buzacott and Charles Pitman, then translated various Books in the New Testament into the language dialect of Rarotonga. Subsequent to that, Aaron Buzacott and Charles Pitman carried on to eventually complete the translations of all the Books of both the New and Old Testaments.

As these Books of the Bible were translated and then printed, the Christians of Rarotonga came to be instructed in their own mother tongue. At the same time, these translated books were also sent to various “Native Teachers” and Missionaries on the outer islands of the Southern Group as well.  

In later years, after 1849, the Gospel went north to Manihiki, Rakahanga, Penrhyn and then Pukapuka in 1857. The last island to receive the Gospel was Palmerston in 1863. In this way the “Language of the Bible”, being the dialect of Rarotonga, then became the language of the Christian religion throughout these various islands.

As Christianity was consolidated on each of these outer islands, these same island communities then embraced the language dialect of Rarotonga which subsequently went “hand-in-hand” with the local dialect of language which existed on each of the outer islands.  

In this way, Christianity created another gravitational connection to Rarotonga by way of a “common dialect of language”. This had been introduced by way of various Books of the Bible, as written in the language dialect of Rarotonga, along with the “Native Teachers” who were located at these various Mission Stations.

When Captain Cook located and charted Manuae on 23 September 1773, he called it Hervey Island. In the years that followed, various other islands were located and so they were collectively known as the Hervey Islands.

When the British Government decided to place a British Protectorate over the Hervey Islands in mid-1888, they instructed Captain Bourke, who was on the British warship “Hyacinth” in Hawaii, to travel to Rarotonga. The captain was instructed to declare that island and those in its vicinity, to now be a British Protectorate. Captain Bourke was also instructed that the name of this island group had to be changed from the Hervey Islands … to that of the Cook Islands. This being in recognition of Captain James Cook.

Captain Bourke landed at Rarotonga on 27 October 1888 (Captain Cook’s birthday being 27 October 1728) where he announced that Rarotonga and its adjacent islands were now a British Protectorate. But the captain also announced that this small group of islands (being the Southern Group only) were now to be called the Cook Islands.

The Governor of New Zealand Lord Ranfurly, landed at Rarotonga on 6 October 1900 from the warship “Mildura”. He then announced that Rarotonga, along with Takutea, Atiu, Mitiaro, Mauke and Manuae had all been annexed to Great Britain and so now came under Queen Victoria.

At the formal ceremony to confirm this occasion, the five Ariki of Rarotonga as well as Ngamaru Ariki of Atiu then signed the “Deed of Cession”. This event took place at Taputapuatea on 7 October 1900.

In the days that followed, Lord Ranfurly visited Mangaia and Aitutaki where the Governor announced that these two islands had also been annexed by Great Britain as well.

The “Annexation Proclamations” for the Northern Group of islands were also declared by Lord Ranfurly during this period of time. There was no consultation with the various island communities in the Northern Group. They were just simply added to the list of islands that had been annexed by Great Britain as a result of the “Annexation Proclamations” made by Lord Ranfurly.

At the time Lord Ranfurly made his “Annexation Proclamations” on the various islands that he visited, he made no mention that annexation to Great Britain was only a temporary measure. He did not advise the residents of these islands that the British Government had already agreed that the Cook Islands would be annexed to New Zealand in the very near future.

And so a few months later in Wellington, the Government of Great Britain then formally withdrew all the various “Annexation Proclamations” that Lord Ranfurly had previously placed over a number of islands during the early part of October 1900.

This meant that legislation, which had already been passed through the New Zealand Parliament, then came into existence for that country to annex both the Northern and Southern groups of islands. So both groups of islands were then united into one single political identity. And so the Cook Islands then became a “Colonial Territory” of New Zealand on 11 June 1901.

The “Native teachers” from Takamoa Theological College on Rarotonga had already been in place on these islands for several decades. These “Native Teachers” had given the residents of each outer island a very strong connection to the London Missionary Society on Rarotonga and to the Takamoa Theological College in particular. Then there was the dialect of language of Rarotonga that was introduced by the “Native Teachers” along with the Rarotonga version of the Bible which had been widely distributed throughout the various outer islands as well.

However, by the time these various islands were annexed to New Zealand, they already had a common denomination of religion, a common language by way of the Bible and religious instruction. Each island also had a history with several decades of connection, by way of various “Native Teachers”, directly to both the London Missionary Society as well as to the Takamoa Theological College on Rarotonga as well.  These connections came about as a direct result of Christianity being introduced by the European Missionaries from the London Missionary Society. But more significant than that, were the dozens of “Native Teachers” who had been trained at the Takamoa Theological College on Rarotonga.

The work and efforts of all these “Native Teachers”, and their devoted wives, had a profound influence when it came to establishing the social and political realities in regards to the creation of the Cook Islands. And they did so several decades before the governments of Great Britain and New Zealand decided what the Cook Islands political landscape would eventually look like.

Hence, a considered opinion – “Christianity created a Nation”. This nation being the Cook Islands.

Reference: “Mission Life in the Pacific Islands”, Edited by Rev. J.P. Sunderland and Rev. A. Buzacott, B.A., John Snow and Co., London England, 1866.