On this day in 1797, after a 207-day voyage from London, the three-masted Duff arrives in Tahiti’s Matavai Bay. Aboard the ship were thirty-seven missionaries and their families with the London Missionary Society.
To establish a mission in Tahiti had, as early as 1787, been the dream of William Carey, the consecrated cobbler, who in 1792 inspired the Baptists to organize the first Foreign Mission Society of modern times. But Carey was led instead to India; and to Henry Nott, the consecrated brick-layer, goes much of the human credit for establishing a mission in Tahiti and throughout the Society Islands.
Nott, along with the eighteen of the other missionaries, went ashore at Tahiti. The Duff continued on several other islands, where the remaining missionaries were distributed. When the missionaries went ashore at Tahiti, they found that they had been ill-prepared for the work ahead. Few of them were prepared to live among a people who were “engrossed in strange and dark practices stemming from ignorance and superstition.” It was amusing to see the young king, Otu, and his queen riding on men’s shoulders. They were always carried about in this fashion, lest their feet should touch the ground or some other object, because whatever they touched became their own. The official report of the “First Missionary Voyage to the Southern Pacific,” published in London in 1799, conveys much astonishing information, including the following:
The mode of carrying the king and queen is with their legs hanging down before, seated on the shoulders and leaning on the head of their carriers, and very frequently amusing themselves with picking out the vermin which there abound. It is the singular privilege of the queen that, of all women, she alone may eat the vermin, which privilege she never fails to make use of.
The Duff returned to England, where it was immediately outfitted for the needed supplies for the mission stations across the islands. These supplies where vital for the survival of the missionaries, since they only had the necessities with them before. But on the way back to the islands, the Duff was taken captive by a French ship (France and England were at war at that time). For five years, the missionaries on Tahiti waited for the promised supplies. During that time, several died. Others quit or went crazy. But others, like Nott, faithfully continued on in the face of hardship and persecution.
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