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Messenger of Grace: The Pacific Journeys of the Reverend George Stallworthy, 1809–1859

The Reverend Stallworthy was one of the evangelical missionaries—”messengers of grace”—recruited by the London Missionary Society of England in the early 1800s to journey to the South Pacific. He was driven, like the other messengers, by his absolute belief that he was obeying a biblical commandment to spread Christianity throughout the world, and so he served in the region from 1844 to 1859. Now Robert was inquiring whether MOA might be interested in receiving this collection as a donation.

He said it had to do with continuity. Robert knew that MOA housed the small collection of another missionary, the Reverend John Williams (1796–1839), who served in the South Pacific a few years before George Stallworthy arrived there. Both missionaries were sent to this region by the same Missionary Society and became significant players in the larger story of the missionary endeavour in the Pacific; both also died there during their service. Their grandsons, in turn, each went on to create strong Canadian connections when they moved to western Canada in the late 1800s, bringing their grandfathers’ collections with them—and ultimately entrusting them to MOA.

Did you know that MOA was founded on a Pacific Island collection? That original collection, donated in 1927 by Canadian writer and traveller Frank Burnett, has grown over the years through further acquisitions. MOA now holds the largest and most representative South Pacific collection in Canada. As soon as I saw the first photographs sent by Robert Stallworthy of the pieces he had inherited, it became clear that the collection he was offering was rare and important. Moreover, the Stallworthy family had taken good care of its legacy, and the objects were well preserved. It certainly was not a difficult decision to accept Robert’s gift. Now it has become MOA’s responsibility as the trustee of this unique collection to research its history, uncover how it relates to the much-contested role of missionaries who journeyed to the Pacific, and explore how it might spark future relationships with the communities whose ancestors made and used these objects.

Unknown maker (marquesas Islands). Putona (war trumpet). MOA collection: 3254/5. Photo by Kyla Bailey.


The Stallworthy Collection

The majority of the 61 works were collected on the Marquesas, Samoa and Tahiti, where the Reverend Stallworthy worked as a missionary. For this article I have selected three objects from the Marquesas that I find particularly intriguing. The first is a remarkable pa’e kea—a type of headdress rarely found in museum collections because it was made only for special occasions, and normally would have stayed in families as a treasured heirloom. I believe this is the only one in a Canadian collection. The second object of interest is an ancient and well-used putona, or shell trumpet, that served as a musical instrument during significant events and to communicate over long distances during warfare and times of peace. My third selection is one of the smallest and most delicate objects in the collection: an epaepa, or pipe, intricately carved from a single piece of wood. I chose it because it was such a fine example of technical virtuosity as well as an outstanding example of an object made in response to the introduced Western practice of growing and smoking tobacco.

Painting of George Stallworthy by unknown artist. Photo Courtesy of LMS Archives, Register No.303, School of Oriental Studies, University of London.

The Reverend George Stallworthy

The 1800s were a period of intense missionization in the Pacific, considered to be the final frontier for conversion to Christianity. Men and women who became missionaries believed in the superiority of Christian culture and the virtues of strict morality. The beliefs of these “messengers of grace” were tested by their experience of extreme loneliness; as well, ships bringing supplies and mail were often not sighted for over a year, and there was insufficient food, exposure to tropical diseases, and little or no medical expertise. Education facilities for children were woefully inadequate, and families were separated for long periods when children were sent to colonial boarding schools. All these factors, which certainly did erode the seemingly incurable optimism of most missionaries, were further exacerbated by the sometimes suspicious and unfriendly behaviour of members of the local communities. Interestingly, one solace was letter writing, the result of which is an invaluable record of missionary life in the 1800s. George Stallworthy’s letters and journals are held in the archives of the London Missionary Society, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, England. I had the opportunity to photograph all of these documents; MOA researchers are now in the process of transcribing them. Even a cursory examination reveals much of the difficulty that the reverend had in staying positive. In one letter he writes, “We went down to the beach to try to purchase some fish, as fish are difficult to obtain, but though the people had caught a great quantity, and some of them large—they would not sell one. The manifestation of this unkind disposition, of which we have many instances, discourages and grieves us.”

Unknown maker (Marquesas Islands). Epaepa or Pioro (pipe). MOA collection. 3254/16. Photo by Kyla Bailey.

The few public records of George Stallworthy’s personal life and journeys reveal some stark facts. He married twice. His first wife, Charlotte, gave birth to a son, George Burnett, great-grandfather of the donor Robert Stallworthy. After 18 months of marriage, Charlotte died of tuberculosis. Stallworthy remarried and his second wife, Mary Ann, raised eight children during her ten years in the Pacific. During this time, George was away for months journeying to other islands where missions had been established. There are no records of any journals his wife may have written, so we are left to imagine how she coped during her husband’s long absences. George died in 1859 and Mary Ann went back to England with her children, losing three of them to diphtheria on the journey. She died in England in 1872.

Clearly, further research will enable us to situate the Stallworthy collection within the context of a different time. Perhaps the more intriguing challenge, however, is to focus on how these apparently inanimate objects might still serve as active agents in contemporary research endeavours. We will begin by exploring the possibility of re-connecting community members and other researchers with these things to work together to build new knowledge about them. Their journey continues and ours is just beginning.