Kiro’s thoughts about England
An unexpected text in an unexpected place
in Worlding the south

In 1850 the London Missionary Society published ‘Kiro’s Thoughts about England’, consisting of translated and abridged excerpts from the travel journal of Kiro, a Cook Islander from the South Pacific who had arrived in England in 1847. Originally intended for Cook Islanders, through its publication in the Juvenile Missionary Magazine Kiro’s journal instead becomes a narrative for British children. Kiro’s writing prompts us to consider how we are to read literary texts by peoples disempowered through imperial processes, when those texts are only deemed worthy of publication and preservation through their conformity with the dominant structures of power, in this case the London Missionary Society and its British Protestant norms. How do we wrest such texts from the evangelical framework that enabled their publication? How do we position the text’s observance of evangelical expectations within a spectrum from accommodation to consent? What work is done by the editor’s silent selections and elisions in the process of publication? In disentangling Kiro’s text from a pervasive British missionary ontology, this essay demonstrates the agency of Pacific Islanders as they negotiated the new technology of alphabetic literacy, a literacy accessed through Christianity, but not restricted to the cultural parameters of British evangelicalism.

On 16 May 1847, a Pacific Islander named Kiro landed in England, becoming one of the earliest recorded people to arrive there from Rarotonga, the most populous island in what are now the Cook Islands.1 Pacific Islanders have a long history of global mobility, but this arrival was distinctive because Kiro had travelled from the South Pacific with Aaron Buzacott of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in order to help Buzacott with the translation of the Bible into Cook Islands Māori. Describing the missionary ship’s arrival in later years, Kiro spoke of the water within the West India Docks as ‘large rivers’, compared the many ships’ masts to ‘an endless forest of leafless trees’, and assumed the ‘long and lofty buildings’ were ‘are bure [pure]’, or churches, only to learn they were instead ‘are apinga’, or warehouses.2 From a Rarotongan perspective, Kiro’s substitution of churches for warehouses makes sense, since in Rarotonga any such buildings were tied to the LMS and consisted of churches and Takamoa Theological Institute. Christianity had been introduced to Rarotonga in 1823, and so Kiro, born around 1820, was part of the first generation to grow up with the new faith and its attendant technology of alphabetic literacy.3

Taken under Buzacott’s wing, Kiro was aligned with the political power of the LMS mission in Rarotonga, and while on board the missionary ship that conveyed him to England he would have been understood as doing the Lord’s work.4 Indeed, the most senior member of the Cook Islands mission, Charles Pitman, had raised objections to Buzacott overseeing the final stage of the translation of the Bible in England on the grounds of an insufficient knowledge of Cook Islands Māori, and had only withdrawn these objections when Buzacott decided to take Kiro with him.5 In later years, Buzacott told the British and Foreign Bible Society:

I did not like to undertake [the translation of the Bible] without the assistance of a native. One was selected – a young man from the College, of good sound judgment; and during the two years he was with me in England he was of great assistance to me in translating, and correcting the portions already translated.6

The 1851 edition of Te Bibilia Tapu, published by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the first to print the entire Bible in Cook Islands Māori, saw Kiro acting alongside Buzacott and others as a translator. Kiro was therefore integral to a major undertaking of the mission, and in England he would function for the LMS as living proof of missionary success in the South Pacific.

As Kiro prepared to disembark from the missionary ship on to the West India Docks, however, an altercation sees his status reframed:

On being told to prepare for landing, he said he put together a few clothes in a bundle, but on coming upon deck, he was told by ‘the Queen’s officers’ that he must leave his bundle behind; ‘to this,’ he said, ‘I objected. I had no idea of leaving my clothes behind me, and especially my blanket, in which I expected to sleep at night. I was maro (obstinate) to take my bundle.7 I knew it was my own, but the ‘Queen’s man’ was maro too, and I had to yield.’ This was a most unaccountable custom, to poor Kiro; he had no idea of being suspected of dishonesty.8

Kiro’s status as a promising young man, a fellow Christian, and a person whose knowledge would facilitate the missionary cause is recognised in the Cook Islands and on board the missionary ship, but the limits of evangelical agency and status become apparent when he moves into the orbit of the West India Docks, a space that sees his social production as a (potential) thief, who is the focus of surveillance and suspicion. This moment, when Kiro is read in opposing ways from two different locations, resonates also for our readings of the texts Kiro authored or in which he features. I take Kiro’s repositioning from missionary translator to common thief as he leaves the missionary ship for the West India Docks as a template for considering the challenges in reading the Christian Pacific Islander through British sites and archives. In doing so, I have kept as a guide the challenge issued by Tracey Banivanua Mar and Nadia Rhook in their article on Indigenous peoples within imperial networks ‘to look harder in archives and actions for the unexpected, and to remain vigilant against assumptions about the ways power works through networks’.9

Networks, archives, and their traces

Forestalling the work of thieves had been integral to the formation of the West India Docks, which allowed shipping on the Thames to load and unload colonial goods. Formerly the West Indies merchants’ ships had sailed further upriver to the Legal Quays between London Bridge and the Tower of London, but the inordinate time taken to berth and unload in the overcrowded waterways, as well as the significant attrition of goods through theft, saw a push to build new docks on the Isle of Dogs. The docks opened in 1802, and a significant feature was that the West India Dock Company sought and was granted permission to maintain a permanent military guard specifically to prevent thefts.10 It is presumably one of these guards who is the Queen’s officer mentioned by Kiro. Drawing on the Minute Books of the West India Dock Company, Walter Stern notes that theft was one of the ‘besetting vices against which all dock administration waged a never ending struggle’; and while major thefts diminished, ‘petty pilferage never completely stopped … Nothing worried the directors of the Company more than this persistence of dishonesty. Every complaint was painstakingly investigated, a disproportionate amount of managerial time spent on discovering petty theft, and hardly a week passed without the summary dismissal of at least one dock labourer’.11 Kiro thus finds himself inserted into a specific set of economic tensions between the opportunistic thief and the loss-fearing merchant.

As their name signals, moreover, the economics of the West India Docks are integrally tied to a colonial history. Invoking a key region of the British Empire, the West India Docks were predicated on economic relations with the Caribbean, and were built to secure the financial interests of planters and merchants who relied on the labour of enslaved Africans for their profits. The initiator of the West Indian Docks scheme was Robert Milligan, a West Indies merchant and owner of a plantation in Jamaica, and as Melissa Bennett and Kristy Warren note, some of the ships that left and arrived at the West India Docks shipped enslaved Africans to the Caribbean before loading their hold with plantation products for London.12 The Caribbean context of the West India Docks saw people of colour designated as property rather than the possessors of property, and so the space reinforces a presumption that Kiro is not the owner of the clothes and blanket he carries. British merchants’ relations with the Black Atlantic and Caribbean slavery are an anomalous frame for the Pacific Islander, and yet one that structures how Kiro is read when he arrives in England in 1847.

When the Queen’s officer accosts Kiro as a thief, the insult is all the more dramatic because of the contrast with Kiro’s location and status on board the LMS’s missionary ship, the vessel of an institution that asserted the capacity of all, no matter their skin colour, to become Christian (even if their status within Christianity might be hierarchised). On board the ship, Kiro presumes the legitimacy of his voice in rejecting the Queen’s officer’s command – ‘I objected’, he recounts, and is obstinate in asserting his rights to the goods – but ultimately he is required to subordinate his understanding of the situation to the authority of the officer. Not only is Kiro socially produced as a potential threat to the financial interests of the British merchant class, he is also a threat in the assertion of his agency when he challenges the Queen’s officer and stubbornly claims the right to choose what he carries. But while in this episode the West India Docks reframe the status of the Pacific Islander Christian on the missionary ship, nineteenth-century evangelicalism likewise exerts its disciplinary imperatives on the Pacific Islander. Christianity might offer new opportunities with regard to social status, education, and (as in Kiro’s case) geographic mobility, but it also came with norms and expectations by which the convert was expected to abide, and in light of which the validity of the convert’s faith was assessed. Taking the insights gleaned from the episode at the West India Docks and applying them to Kiro’s status within British evangelical circles, we need to ask how Kiro’s textual production in missionary publications likewise shapes him to the LMS’s ends, and where we might read Kiro as exceeding or challenging this disciplinary oversight.

We know of Kiro’s arrival and reception in England because upon his return to the southern hemisphere he told his fellow Rarotongans about that moment, and a British missionary captured the account on paper. The narrative was then sent to the LMS Directors in London, who ensured its publication in the Juvenile Missionary Magazine (1844–87). This trajectory captures the simultaneous intimacy and distance of our textual relationship to Kiro: we hear his reaction to the sight of the Docks, and his assumption of his rights and agency in interacting with the officer, but we only have this record because a chain of British evangelicals deemed it of interest to British children. Our interest might lie in the perspective of the Pacific Islander, but our knowledge is dependent on his proximity and relevance to a British missionary network and its systems of print publication. The chance circumstances and fleeting record of Kiro’s textual presence makes him a companion to the Māori and Pacific Islander travellers attended to by Alice Te Punga Somerville and Tracey Banivanua Mar, who delve into the challenges of historical investigation of these voyagers given the faintness of the traces they leave in the colonial archives. Writing of Kooley, for example, Te Punga Somerville describes this Māori girl as ‘an almost imperceptible bump on archival pages’, and her own scholarly task as ‘looking for scraps of detail that may reveal something of [Kooley’s] impact on her world and, in turn, on ours’.13

Kiro, however, is unusual in the extent to which he leaves behind an English-language textual record. Residing in England from 1847 to 1850, he wrote a travel journal intended for a Cook Islands readership, but that was instead published as a six-part series in the LMS’s Juvenile Missionary Magazine – titled ‘Kiro’s Thoughts about England’ (1850) – when he suddenly returned to the Pacific because of illness. Buzacott translated the journal, and the translation would also have undergone the editorial pen of Joseph John Freeman, the Home Secretary of the LMS and editor of the Juvenile Missionary Magazine. Since to my knowledge the original journal is no longer extant, we only have this abridged and highly mediated text.14

Kiro’s writing about his time in England never made it back to his community; instead, an early example of Cook Islands writing published in English was preserved in a Victorian children’s evangelical magazine.15 In subtitling this chapter ‘an unexpected text in an unexpected place’, I reference my surprise at the location of Kiro’s travel journal. But the wording is also a deliberate invocation of Banivanua Mar and Rhook’s article, ‘Counter Networks of Empires: Reading Unexpected People in Unexpected Places’ (2018), which asks how ‘Indigenous and subaltern people draw on, intervene in and place themselves in relation to imperial networks, for their own ends’.16 In turn, Banivanua Mar and Rhook gesture to Philip Deloria’s Indians in Unexpected Places (2004), a work that challenges settler assumptions that Indigenous engagements with modernity are somehow anomalous.17 These issues of Indigenous agency and relations to modernity re-emerge as we consider the alphabetic literacy that arrived in the South Pacific with the missionaries, and writing on and by Kiro.

Missionary legibility and alphabetic literacy in the Pacific

In the fourth instalment of his account of England, Kiro tells us he has ‘seen so much of this country’ because he accompanies Buzacott when the latter is sent by the LMS to promote missionary work.18 On these journeys, Buzacott was ‘to tell what he has seen among the heathen’, while Kiro served as a physical manifestation of what the mission had achieved overseas.19 Kiro writes that in Buzacott’s presentation, Christianity is the force that overcomes the anthropophagic practices of the Cook Islanders, and when people in Britain

hear that our land, which was a heathen land, where men killed and ate one another, is now become Christian, and when they are told that some who were cannibals are now men of true piety, who believe and obey the commands of God, their rejoicing is great, because God has heard and answered the prayers of Christians of Baratane [Britain].20

By conflating the Cook Islander with the cannibal, a figure culturally positioned as the antithesis of humanity, Christianity is understood as a benevolent rescuing force, and the movement from ‘heathen’ to Christian is dramatised through polarity. In this framing, agency is accorded solely to the British who convert the Islanders. Whether these are missionaries or missionary supporters, Britons are the source of the Christian mission, as well as those whom ‘God has heard’ and whose prayers are now answered. Notably, agency is not accorded here to the Cook Islanders who chose to incorporate Christian belief and practices into their culture. In occluding the agency of Cook Islanders to reorient their religious practices, we see the British focus on what is recognisable to them as proper Christian practice, and fail to recognise Indigenous continuities and reworkings of traditional practices within the new faith. In the framing of these British Christians, Pacific Island communities are passive and static, only prompted to engage in change and reformation through the arrival of British missionaries, who are funded by metropolitan British evangelicals.

Cook Islands anthropophagy was slotted into pre-existing western constructions of the cannibal, which presented the practice as an all-consuming identity rather than situational and restricted. Maretu, a Cook Islander who undertook pastoral work for the LMS, gives a different account: ‘No one ate human flesh during times of peace; it was only in times of war. … Pigs, matured kava plants and fish poison were substituted for human sacrifices in times of peace, for to eat human flesh then was an offense against the rules of the ariki [ruler] and mataiapo [leader a rank below the ariki].’21 Maretu was about eighteen years older than Kiro, but despite the rapid social change that accompanied the Rarotongans’ shift to Christianity, we can assume Kiro also understood eating human flesh as a highly restricted practice, circumscribed to the martial arena. Nevertheless, Kiro positions himself within the evangelical binarism of cannibal and Christian when, on 14 September 1848, he accompanies Buzacott to Portsea. Kiro states that in front of the British congregation ‘the minister of that town’ asked him, ‘What kind of people dwell in your country?’ and Kiro replied, ‘They were murderers and cannibals’ who are now ‘greatly changed. They have Missionaries amongst them, who have taught them, and told them about the good Word of God, and exhorted them to cast away their old customs.’22 The conversation continues: ‘“And what did they do? … Did they continue their old practices?” “No; they gave them up. They now keep holy the Sabbath, and learn the Word of God. … now our land is filled with good books; murder is abandoned; cannibalism is abandoned.”’23 Here, Kiro makes himself legible as a Christian to his British evangelical audience by acquiescing to the construction of pre-Christian communities as the location of violence, and by asserting his distance from the cannibal. In doing so, he positions himself as not only a Christian but within a community now adept in the new technology of alphabetic literacy insofar as their ‘land is filled with good books’, and as evidenced by his writing of the travel journal itself.

The chapel in which the conversation between Kiro and the British pastor occurs was the former home of Charles Pitman, who had worked in Tahiti as an LMS missionary before establishing a church at Ngatangiia, a district in Rarotonga. Kiro’s interlocutor introduces Pitman into the conversation when he asks whether Kiro is ‘aware that Mr. Pitman lived here?’ and whether the Rarotongans like Pitman and attend to his teachings. Kiro replies that: ‘Our people have been much pleased with him and when he has exhorted them to cast away their sins and evil customs, very many have done so.’24 While Pitman might exhort, he cannot compel, since to ‘cast away … sins and evil customs’ in the name of Christianity has to be a choice of the convert. In Kiro’s statement that ‘very many have done so’ is the unstated correlate that some have not, a reinforcement of Rarotongan agency in matters of faith. Rarotongan agency is present also in the phrasing of Kiro’s assessment that ‘[o]ur people have been much pleased with him’, which suggests that Pitman is subject to the Rarotongans’ evaluation of his worth. While the British assumption is that Christianity is something bestowed by them on the Pacific Islander, through Kiro we can read conversion as co-produced by the Cook Islanders and the British missionary.

The British minister’s questions nonetheless participate in a regular occurrence whereby the faith of the newly converted is tested and confirmed through public questioning, while the minister’s belief that Christianity is something the British bestow on the Pacific Islanders is inherent in his assumption of the right to determine the adequacy of Kiro’s statements, and his attention to Pitman’s role in the conversion of Rarotongans generally. He then positions Kiro in alignment with Pitman, by asking him, ‘When you return to Rarotonga, will you tell Mr. Pitman that you have been to his native town, and spoke from the same pulpit that he once preached in?’25 The British minister thus calls forth a resonant symmetry: Pitman, the British missionary, is in the southern hemisphere preaching to the Cook Islanders, while the Rarotongan convert is in Pitman’s former church in Britain, bearing witness to the power of Christianity. What is articulated as a process of transhemispheric mirroring, however, turns out to be asymmetrical: Pitman has power and authority in the Cook Islands, whereas Kiro’s access to a privileged recognition is dependent on the appropriate performance of Christianity before the British congregation and his proximity to Pitman within missionary networks. Kiro can become a Christian and be celebrated as such in Britain, but he must constantly reassert his distance from the cannibal, understood by the British as the encapsulation of pre-Christian Cook Islands culture.

Moreover, the British minister’s assumption that the key missionary dynamic to be attended to is that between the northern and southern hemispheres, or between metropole and (informal) colony, erases another integral factor in the conversion of the Cook Islanders to Christianity: the arrival and residence of Papehia, a Mā‘ohi from the Society Islands.26 In 1823, Papehia was the first Christian missionary to land at Rarotonga, having already undertaken the task of conversion at Aitutaki, another of the Cook Islands. Four months later he was joined by a fellow Mā‘ohi missionary, and it was not until 1827 that the first British missionary, the aforementioned Pitman, took up residence on Rarotonga. Thus, when Kiro says the Cook Islanders are ‘greatly changed’ through the influence of the ‘Missionaries amongst them’, these emissaries of Christianity need to be understood as not simply Britons, but fellow Pacific Islanders. By shifting our perspective to witness Papehia’s efforts as well as Pitman’s, conversion to Christianity can be understood as an intra-Pacific as well as transhemispheric movement.

In the second instalment of ‘Kiro’s Thoughts about England’, Kiro also positions himself in contrast to the non-Christian, only this time the figure is not the Pacific cannibal but instead the ‘many coloured natives in this country, wandering about the streets, without house or home’.27 Kiro does not read these fellow non-white residents sympathetically, since he understands their destitution to result from their failure to abide by Christian precepts and practices: ‘It is their own fault if some natives get into trouble when they come here. They perhaps drink too much, or get into bad company, and then get taken up and punished; after this they wander about, like dogs in the street, and altogether forget God’s care in bringing them to this country.’28 Through his own care to conform to evangelical expectations, he declares his ethnicity to be subordinated to a shared faith with his British hosts, so that while ‘My skin is dark, and theirs is white … yet they do not despise me, but are greatly delighted to have me amongst them.’29

This precedence of affiliation through faith, rather than shared marginalisation on the basis of ethnicity, becomes more complicated if we turn back to Kiro’s arrival at the West India Docks, a contextualising event that occurs chronologically earlier but is not described in the Juvenile Missionary Magazine until a year later. The lesson of that introductory episode was how rapidly Kiro can move from inclusion as a respected member of the Christian enterprise to being accosted as a thief by the ‘Queen’s man’ – in other words, his affiliation through faith is in fact radically insecure and contingent. For the Pacific Islander in England, Christianity functions as not only faith but also as a means of survival, since although Kiro’s journey from the southern hemisphere to the northern rests on his recognised value to the missionary project of translating the Bible, his relocation also leaves him reliant on British missionary networks for clothing, food, and housing. He might be welcomed by his British hosts, but only as long as he performs the role of the exemplary converted heathen that justifies their evangelical project. Kiro’s rejection of the brown non-Christian, even if we would prefer another response, needs to be read in this context of precarity, which sees him reliant on British evangelical goodwill for sustenance in England and his voyage home to the South Pacific.

Indigenous conversion and Christian universality

For the mid-Victorian community within which Kiro circulates, he is an example of what British evangelicalism can achieve, and the generic stereotype of the Pacific Islander is the cannibal against whom British evangelicals measure the value of their missionary enterprise. In this context, the Pacific Islander Christian is an oxymoron, since ‘Pacific Islander’ encodes cultural practices only understood as heathen, whereas ‘Christian’ is conflated with British cultural practices. We can see the required performance of Britishness enacted visually in the portrait of Kiro that accompanies the first instalment of ‘Kiro’s Thoughts about England’ (Figure 14.1). While his body is that of a Pacific Islander, as seen in the shading of his skin and the depiction of his facial features, the sartorial markers are emphatically British, and his seated posture echoes portraits of prominent evangelical men found in the widely read Evangelical Magazine (1793–1904). Kiro’s portrait functions as a visual metaphor for how British evangelicalism wishes to understand Indigenous Christian converts from the Pacific: as appropriable to metropolitan evangelical concerns, and with their Christianity indexed by their ability to conform to British norms.

Within the disciplinary structures of Christianity, Kiro is required to differentiate himself from the racialised non-Christian, but in an inverse move (or logical extension) this also sees him conflate the white Christian with his own subject position during a speech given at Exeter Hall. In a transcription published in the Juvenile Missionary Magazine, Kiro initially introduces himself in the expected mode as ‘an individual that has come from the heathen country … from the land of darkness’.30 But Kiro’s speech shifts direction when he uses his physical journey from the Cook Islands to England on the missionary ship as a metaphor for the Christian’s journey to heaven:

The distance from my country, which I have had to traverse before coming here, is very great indeed, and the way is exceedingly dangerous; it could not be traversed except by a vessel, and that vessel has been provided. I am reminded, also, of another distant country, which is at a great distance from us, in consequence of sin; – it is the heavenly world. A ship has also been provided for it; that ship is the Lord Jesus Christ.31

While Kiro initially takes up the role of the exotic convert whose presence on stage dramatises the movement from heathen darkness to Christian enlightenment, he then shifts to position himself as a universal subject whose experience encompasses that of his British audience. His transhemispheric journey from Rarotonga to England might be singular, but turned into a metaphor for the journey to heaven it speaks to all, and the description of heaven as ‘at a great distance from us’ includes both Briton and Pacific Islander (my emphasis). Kiro’s physical journey across the ocean pivots neatly into the Christian trope of Jesus as Pilot, with the soul as a boat that needs guidance to its final harbour, Heaven. That is how Kiro’s speech was presumably received by his nineteenth-century British audience. For those from the South Pacific, however, Kiro’s physical journey corresponds not only to Christian images of the soul’s journey to heaven, but also to accounts found throughout the Pacific Islands of the soul’s journey home to ‘Avaiki. In a final twist, while the British audience associates his home islands with a sinful darkness, Kiro reminds them that they are all sinners, and as such reliant on Christ and the Atonement to enter heaven. Rather than Kiro being appropriated to British norms, here Kiro’s auditors are all appropriated to his journey and to the Christian journey more generally: the ‘heathen country’ and ‘land of darkness’ is as much England as the Cook Islands.

British late-eighteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century evangelicalism portrayed conversion as a moment of spiritual enlightenment that saw a rupture with the sinful past. This centring of rupture, however, introduces a misalignment with Cook Islands culture. The problem becomes apparent if we take the common Christian concept ‘they will find their reward in the next world’, which appears in the Cook Islands Maori Dictionary’s entry for ‘muri’ as ‘‘Ei te ao ā muri atu e kiteāi tō rātou tūtaki’.32 In this translation heaven is ‘te ao’, the world, modified by ‘muri’, meaning something that will come later temporally. In a physical rather than temporal context, however, ‘muri’ means ‘(at) the back, behind’. In other words, while the English and Māori phrases share the sense of a spiritual journey and the passage from the present to a future world, the physical positioning of the person on the journey differs. In English we position ourselves as facing the future, understanding it to lie ahead of us and that our movement is away from the past, but in Māori the future lies behind you and you enter it backwards looking towards the past.33 Thus for Cook Islanders, the past (tradition) and the future (modernity) are understood through continuity, not disjunction or removal. In this framing, Cook Islanders’ adoption of Christianity certainly involved changes in cultural practice and belief, but insofar as the future can only be entered by looking to the past their culture emphasises relationality, not the rupture of nineteenth-century evangelicalism. While aspects of Pacific cultures were disavowed or suppressed in taking up the new faith, Christianity nevertheless became the dominant religion through Islanders’ agency in suturing the new to the old in accordance with their own understanding of how one embraces the future. Rather than understanding the Pacific Islander Christian through disjuncture with the past, then, we might look for those moments in which Christianity is positioned in relation to pre-conversion culture.

We can see this at work in the third instalment of ‘Kiro’s Thoughts about England’. Initially, Kiro deploys conventional biblical imagery of famine and plenitude to express a person’s relationship to God:

I am often thinking now of those lands where the Gospel is not known, – where there is a famine of the Word of God. We [Cook Islanders] were once in that state, but now we have it. … Let us not neglect our present privileges, nor think they will last for ever. It will not be harvest time always. Famines often follow plenty. Let us then diligently store our minds with the food of the good Word of God while we have it, lest a fearful time of famine should overtake us, when we could only lament our folly.34

These conventional words urging attention to faith are then followed by Kiro quoting a Cook Islands’ chant that has no explicit Christian content, and may have been composed before the arrival of Christianity, since Kiro places its author (named in the Juvenile Missionary Magazine as ‘Buku’) in the past tense:

While food and plenty stored our home,

None e’er supposed the time might come

When famine might consume;

But now, alas! without relief,

Our land is filled with want and grief.

Death preys on all. The child, the Chief,

Lament a common doom.35

Reading past Buzacott’s Anglicisation of a Māori chant, we see Kiro use Buku to place Christian allegory in the context of Cook Islands oral culture and the traditional transmission of cultural memory and narratives through song. In Kiro’s juxtaposition, Christianity is presented as an extension of already familiar Cook Islands precepts and practices rather than a rupture with traditional culture, while alphabetic literacy and the new technology of writing are integrated with an oral history conveyed through chant. Rather than accepting the nineteenth-century British framework of conversion as a movement away from the Indigenous past, Kiro’s positioning of the present and future in relation to the past offers an understanding of Cook Islands history and culture as essential to the successful negotiation of modernity. The past is not the ossified preserve of a now superseded culture; instead traditional culture is positioned as dynamically engaged with the opportunities and lessons of the present.

While the British missionaries eschewed much of traditional Pacific culture and required a radical break with it, they nevertheless contributed to a blurring of the line between pre-Christian and Christian spirituality. Damon Salesa notes that in the nearby Samoan context, the British missionaries drew on local terms and concepts in explaining and naming Christianity.36 In doing so, they presumably sought only to make western categories comprehensible, but nevertheless the effect was to establish continuities between Pacific religions and the new faith, even as Christianity was understood by the British as requiring the erasure of pre-Christian spirituality and attendant cultural practices. While LMS publications for a British readership drew a sharp line between a pre-Christian and post-Christian Pacific, the reality in the region was more complex.

The connection between the traditional and the new is evident also in the realm of writing, since one of the first uses Cook Islanders found for the alphabetic literacy introduced through missionaries was the recording of family genealogies that were integral to the intergenerational passage of land and hereditary titles.37 Alphabetic literacy might be accessed through and facilitated by Christianity, but its use in the Pacific exceeded evangelical parameters and demonstrated new methods for pursuing local priorities. This indigenisation of alphabetic literacy can be read in its arrival on Rarotonga’s shores: when Papehia landed on the beach at Avarua, evangelical accounts prominently record that he carried a Bible, and so Papehia’s stature within Cook Islands Christianity positions alphabetic literacy as already incorporated into Pacific knowledge and practices, despite its foreign origin.38 Whereas early western accounts of Pacific Islanders’ first sight of writing often suggest the Islanders found it akin to magic, the Islanders’ immediate apprehension of the possibilities of alphabetic literacy points instead to an insight, derived from their own extant signifying systems, into writing’s capacity to transmit meaning over space and time. Thus, in his work on Indigenous appropriations of textuality in Hawai‘i, David A. Chang conveys Pacific Islanders’ relationship to the written word in terms of ‘utility’, rather than the western stress on the miraculous, and highlights the ways in which writing was a means to engage in the wider relationships and appurtenances of modernity.39

Mediated texts and Indigenous voices

Kiro’s writing prompts us to consider how we are to read recovered literary texts by peoples disempowered through imperial processes, when those texts are only deemed worthy of publication and preservation through their conformity with the dominant structures of power, in this case the LMS and its British Protestant norms. Do we read the text’s observance of evangelical expectations, whether these are expressed by Kiro or perhaps amplified through the process of translation and abridgement, as accommodation or consent? How do we wrest a Pacific Islander’s account of his travels in England from the evangelical framework that enabled the text’s publication? Kiro is both a person tied to dates, places, and events, and an interpretive challenge insofar as we learn of him through missionary texts. The LMS’s archives yield historical information on Kiro, while textually shaping him into the exemplary convert required by them as evidence of the mission’s success. Barring privately held knowledge or texts belonging to descendants, those of us operating with publicly available texts are therefore required to navigate the veil of evangelical priorities, assumptions, and blind spots.

Despite the preservation of Kiro’s voice, however mediated, we are also left with a glaring absence. In their scholarship, Te Punga Somerville and Banivanua Mar have steered historical work on Māori and Pacific Islanders to questions of Indigenous–Indigenous relations, in order to deflect a privileging of the westerner as the centre through which all colonial-era interactions pass.40 Their scholarship prompts me to ask what Kiro had to say to Mamoe and Mamoe Fafine, a Samoan couple who travelled to Britain with Buzacott and Kiro in 1847. While the LMS publications and archives attend to Mamoe and Mamoe Fafine on the one hand, and Kiro on the other, they say little of their interactions. The exception is when Kiro arrives in England: ‘On going into the [West India] docks he said to Mamoe, the Samoan native, “Look at those long and lofty ranges of buildings; surely those are ‘te an are bure anga’” [sic] – houses of prayer. But, to their surprise, they found they were “are apinga” – storehouses.’41 The one moment of recorded interaction encapsulates a way of understanding Pacific history: the Pacific Islanders expect Britain to be encountered through a shared faith, only to find instead that the economics of colonial trade dominate.

It seems unlikely that Kiro would not further mention or reflect on the Samoans in his travel journal. The three of them were the only recorded Pacific Islanders on the vessel as it sailed to England, and they shared a common history of LMS missionary presence and the establishment of theological schools in their respective islands (Takamoa in Rarotonga, Malua in Sāmoa). Additionally, the people of Avarua – the Rarotongan district where Kiro had resided – traced their descent to Karika, a Samoan leader who settled in Rarotonga in the thirteenth century.42 Rarotongans and Samoans also had overlapping vocabularies and cultural practices, particularly in comparison to the British people the Islanders now found themselves among. Not long after arrival in England the Samoans fell ill and by July were sent to Brighton for their health; in October 1847 the LMS recorded their departure for the South Pacific, leaving Kiro alone in England.43 ‘Kiro’s Thoughts about England’ tells us about England, as the title advertises, but did the manuscript journal from which the excerpts were drawn widen this focus to include Kiro’s conversations with the Samoans? When the Samoans became sick, Mamoe Fafine quite seriously, what was Kiro’s response, and was their illness on his mind when he too later sickened? What did Kiro think when Mamoe and Mamoe Fafine returned to Sāmoa, leaving him the sole Pacific Islander of the group in England? And what work is done by editing Kiro’s accounts to highlight Kiro’s distinction between himself and the people of colour on the streets, while erasing the lived relationship between Kiro, Mamoe, and Mamoe Fafine?

The published and archival record of Kiro presents us with a fraught opportunity: on the one hand, an opportunity, because we are able to access this Cook Islander’s writing and glimpse the possibilities and costs of his journey to the northern hemisphere; but on the other hand, fraught, because in their representation of the southern hemisphere the LMS’s evangelical and institutional investments see their publications obscure and conceal as well as reveal. Taking as our model the long history of Pacific Islanders’ oceanic movements, extending far earlier than the arrival of westerners in the region, we therefore need our reading practices of Kiro’s transhemispheric texts to be equally mobile and fluid.


My thanks to Jean Mason of the Cook Islands Library and Museum for discussions about Kiro. Thanks also to the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals for an Eileen Curran Award that enabled research on Kiro and the LMS at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


1 A Cook Islander sailor may have preceded Kiro, but the textual traces of such individuals are fainter, and their original Māori name and place of origin harder to determine. Rod Dixon and Michael Tavioni have tracked what appears to be an earlier Cook Islander arrival, Elizabeta Pitiman, named after her adoptive mother, Elizabeth Pitman (the wife of Charles Pitman), in ‘The Mystery of Elizabeta Pitiman’, Cook Islands News (25 August 2018), (accessed 18 January 2020). The Cook Islands consist of fifteen inhabited islands in the South Pacific, of which Rarotonga is the largest. For much of the nineteenth century, the southern Cook Islands, which include Rarotonga, were known as the Hervey Islands; however, I have used the name by which the islands are currently known.
2 William Gill, ‘Kiro’s Return to Rarotonga’, Juvenile Missionary Magazine, 8 (1851), 185.
3 British evangelicalism promoted alphabetic literacy among the poor at home and the so-called heathen overseas since it was understood as necessary for individual engagement with God’s word.
4 The ship was the John Williams. For the history of its relationship to the South Pacific and the role of British children in fundraising for it, see Michelle Elleray, Victorian Coral Islands of Empire, Mission, and the Boys’ Adventure Novel (New York: Routledge, 2020).
5 Much of Pitman’s translation of the Bible had been lost in a hurricane and he wished to begin again, but Buzacott and a fellow missionary, William Gill, who both felt the translation had already been delayed enough, took charge of the project. Kiro is therefore part of a power play within Cook Islands mission politics. The LMS holdings of the Council for World Mission (CWM) archives are held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK; see the years 1847–49 in CWM/LMS, Home, South Seas Committee Minutes, box 1, 1845–68, and the years 1847–48 in CWM/LMS, South Seas, Western Outgoing Letters, box 4, 1846–52.
6 ‘Report’, The Forty-Eighth Report of the British and Foreign Bible Society (London: Richard Clay, 1852), p. cxxiii.
7 While the Cook Islands Māori word for ‘obstinate’ or ‘stubborn’ would now be spelled ‘mārō’, when quoting from nineteenth-century texts, which do not use macrons, I have left Māori words in their original form.
8 Gill, ‘Kiro’s Return’, p. 185; italics in original.
9 Tracey Banivanua Mar and Nadia Rhook, ‘Counter Networks of Empires: Reading Unexpected People in Unexpected Places’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 19:2 (2018), n.p.
10 See Walter Stern, ‘The First London Dock Boom and the Growth of the West India Docks’, Economica, new series, 19:73 (1952), 62.
11 Stern, ‘First London Dock Boom’, 76.
12 On London involvement in the slave trade, including through the West India Docks, see Melissa Bennett and Kristy Warren’s ‘Looking Back and Facing Forwards: Ten Years of the London, Sugar & Slavery Gallery’, Journal of Historical Geography, 63 (2019), 94–9 (esp. 94–5). Bennett and Warren describe Robert Milligan as ‘involved in the business of slave factorage – the buying of enslaved people in bulk from slave ships for sale to clients on the island’ of Jamaica (94).
13 Alice Te Punga Somerville, ‘Living on New Zealand Street: Maori Presence in Parramatta’, Ethnohistory, 61:4 (2014), 662; Tracey Banivanua Mar, ‘Shadowing Imperial Networks: Indigenous Mobility and Australia’s Pacific Past’, Australian Historical Studies, 46:3 (2015), 340–55.
14 Buzacott appears to have been a supportive and sympathetic mentor of Kiro, and there is no basis to suggest any deliberate mistranslation of Kiro’s journal. But Kiro was in England because of questions about the depths of Buzacott’s familiarity with Cook Islands Māori, which raises the possibility of nuances Buzacott did not recognise and translate, and Buzacott reflects his culture and era in his dismissal of pre-Christian Rarotonga as a place of idolatry and violence.
15 In Victorian Coral Islands, I discuss how the shift in readership positions Kiro’s journal as a disciplinary text for British children.
16 Banivanua Mar and Rhook, ‘Counter Networks of Empire’, n.p.
17 Philip Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004).
18 Kiro, ‘Kiro’s Thoughts about England’, Juvenile Missionary Magazine, 7 (1850), 10–2, 34–7, 59–62, 77–9, 107–9, 127–30, 77.
19 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 78.
20 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 78; italics in original.
21 Maretu, Cannibals and Converts: Radical Change in the Cook Islands, trans. and ed. Marjorie Tua‘inekore Crocombe (Suva: University of the South Pacific, 1983), p. 33.
22 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 78–9.
23 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 79.
24 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 79.
25 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 79.
26 Originally named Papeiha in the Society Islands, he became known as Papehia in the Cook Islands. For biographical details, see Taira Rere, History of the Papehia Family (Suva: Lotu Pasifika Productions, 1977); and Raeburn Lange, Island Ministers: Indigenous Leadership in Nineteenth Century Pacific Islands Christianity (Canberra: Pandanus Press, 2006).
27 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 36.
28 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 36–7.
29 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 36.
30 ‘Annual Services of the London Missionary Society’, Juvenile Missionary Magazine, 6 (1849), 139.
31 ‘Annual Services’, 139.
32 My emphasis. Jasper Buse and Raututi Taringa, Cook Islands Maori Dictionary, eds Bruce Biggs and Rangi Moeka‘a (Rarotonga: The Ministry of Education, Government of the Cook Islands, and others, 1995).
33 Epeli Hau‘ofa provides parallel examples of the relationship between spatial orientation and temporality in Hawaiian, Fijian, and Tongan languages, and we can see it also in the Māori saying from Aotearoa New Zealand, ‘ka mua ka muri’, which can be translated as looking to the past in order to move into the future; see ‘Epilogue: Pasts to Remember’, in Robert Borofsky (ed.), Remembrance of Pacific Pasts: An Invitation to Remake History (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 459–60. Outside the Pacific, see Mark Rifkin’s Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), in which he discusses settler erasure of Indigenous temporal sovereignty.
34 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 59–60.
35 Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 60. I have not been able to trace who Buku might be, but given that Kiro is the first generation to be raised within Christianity, and that he refers to Buku in the past tense as ‘one of our countrymen … who used to lament and say …’, it seems at most that Buku would have been alive during the transition towards a majority-Christian Rarotonga. See Kiro, ‘Thoughts’, 60.
36 Damon Ieremia Salesa, ‘When the Waters Met: Some Shared Histories of Christianity and Ancestral Samoan Spirituality’, in Tamasailau M. Suaalii-Sauni et al. (eds), Whispers and Sanities: Samoan Indigenous Knowledge and Religion (Wellington: Huia, 2014), pp. 146–7.
37 See Marjorie Tua‘inekore Crocombe, ‘Tata: Expression through the Written Word’, in Ron Crocombe and Marjorie Tua‘inekore Crocombe (eds), Akono‘anga Maori: Cook Islands Culture (Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, in association with the Cook Islands Extension Centre, University of the South Pacific / Rarotonga: Cook Islands Cultural and Historic Places Trust, and the Ministry of Cultural Development, 2003), p. 81.
38 David A. Chang notes that Mā‘ohi from the Society Islands were similarly foundational to the spread of alphabetic literacy among the Kānaka Maoli of Hawai‘i. See ‘The Good Written Word of Life: Native Hawaiian Appropriation of Textuality’, William and Mary Quarterly, 75:2 (2018), 251–3.
39 Chang, ‘Good Written Word’, 251.
40 In addition to the works already mentioned, see Te Punga Somerville, Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); and Banivanua Mar, ‘Imperial Literacy and Indigenous Rights: Tracing Transoceanic Circuits of a Modern Discourse’, Aboriginal History, 37 (2013), 1–28.
41 Gill, ‘Kiro’s Return’, 185; italics in original.
42 See Ron Crocombe, ‘Land Tenure in the Cook Islands’ (PhD dissertation, Australian National University, 1961), pp. 13–17, 20, New Zealand Electronic Text Collection: Te Pūhikotuhi o Aotearoa (Victorian University of Wellington, 2016), (accessed 31 January 2020).
43 See CWM/LMS, Home, Incoming Correspondence, box 9, 1845–49, folder 5, jacket A, 7 July 1847, J. B. Stair, Brighton, to J. J. Freeman; and CWM/LMS, Home, Board Minutes, 1846–61, 4 July 1847, item 4, and 12 October 1847, item 1.

Worlding the south

Nineteenth-century literary culture and the southern settler colonies


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