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A Gatherer of Souls & Other Things

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A Gatherer of Souls & Other Things

Every year Christians in the Bismarck Archipelago celebrate the anniversary of the arrival of the first missionary to the region, George Brown in 1875. A key figure in the history of Christianity in Oceania, Brown gathered cultures, converts and colonies.

In Gathering for God: George Brown in Oceania, Helen Bethea Gardner uses Brown's life to reassess the role of the Christian mission in the political and scientific history of the Pacific Islands. The discussion ranges over the histories of Samoa and the Bismarck Archipelago (in what is now Papua New Guinea), to anthropology, colonialism and museum collecting.

Missionaries to the Pacific Islands in the nineteenth century had considerable influence in local politics for they had privileged access to chiefs and leaders. Brown frequently courted controversy by being strategic and active beyond the traditional boundaries of missionary work. Politically engaged, he insisted on the essential likeness between people of all races, while accepting and in some cases encouraging, authoritarian colonial rule over the Pacific.

Brown's leadership of the pioneer mission to the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago gained him both fame and notoriety. In 1878, he led an armed, punitive attack on villagers who had killed and consumed four mission teachers. More than 100 people died in a retaliation seen by some of his contemporaries as barbaric.

As an anthropologist, Brown recorded the cultures he sought to change. >From the late 1870s he engaged in anthropological debates about Pacific people, confronting popular and scientific theories that threatened his Christian belief in the unity of the human species. He sought to explain human differences in the Pacific through culture, at a time when others were seeking to establish boundaries of Pacific populations through the measurement of skulls and bodies.

Brown used his photography to support his anthropological theories. PPhotographs of large and elaborate New Britain fish traps posed with their makers were used to counter notions of the undeveloped 'savage'. His vast legacy to Pacific scholarship included 900 photographic plates and 3000 Pacific artefacts, now in museum collections in Australia and Japan.

George Brown's connections with the Pacific spanned fifty-eight years. Originally from the north of England, he lived in New Zealand before becoming a Wesleyan Methodist missionary, first to Samoa in 1860, then to the Bismarck Archipelago in 1875. For nearly twenty years he was based in Sydney as General Secretary of the Australasian Methodist Overseas Mission. Although he officially retired in 1907, he maintained his correspondence and interests in the region.
Gathering for God is published by Otago University Press.

Review copies are available.


About the author

Born in Balclutha, southern New Zealand, to a family that attended the local Presbyterian Church and argued over theological and political issues, Helen left South Otago High School at the age of sixteen. After almost failing her first year at Canterbury University she fled to Melbourne, where she was inducted into punk and politics in the pub culture of the inner city.

She worked as a printer, flower seller, kitchen hand, grape picker etc, before eventually returning to study, this time to La Trobe University, to undertake a Pacific Studies Major. After completing her Honours Degree she won a Commonwealth Scholarship to begin a PhD.

While deciding on a topic she clearly stated to her supervisor that she was prepared to study any aspect of Pacific History as long as it did not involve missionaries. Five years later she completed her dissertation on the Methodist missionary, George Brown.

Following a teaching fellowship at the University of Otago she secured a position at Deakin University in Melbourne where she teaches Pacific Studies and History to Undergraduate and Masters Students.

She is currently working on a book on the missionary anthropologists in Oceania in the nineteenth century.

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Web: http://www.otago.ac.nz/press/booksauthors/2006/disputed_histories.html

Gathering for God: George Brown in Oceania
Helen Bethea Gardner
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Web: http://www.otago.ac.nz/press/booksauthors/2006/gathering_for_god.html

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