No Longer Captives of the Past: The story of a Reconciliation on Erromango
November 4, 2013
Review By Jean Barman
No Longer Captives of the Past is an important book for two reasons. It offers an excellent case study of modern day reconciliation remediating past wrongs, and it reminds us how, in this interconnected world, events of long ago and far away might well link to those of us who live in British Columbia.
In a pattern familiar from the apologies given to Chinese and Japanese Canadians and to indigenous peoples, this bilingual book recounts a face-to-face reconciliation ceremony held on Erromango, among eighty-some islands comprising the remote South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, formerly the French and English New Hebrides. The impetus was the murder, and by some accounts the eating, in 1839 of English Presbyterian missionary John Williams and a colleague. In 2009, Williams’ descendants travelled to Erromango at the invitation of local descendants who theatrically reenacted the death, apologized, and were forgiven. The book both describes and visualizes the event and related missionary activity with compelling coloured illustrations. The result is a powerful firsthand and interpretive narrative able to be employed to good effect to remediate both comparable wrongs and everyday festering grievances.
The book has two specifically British Columbian connections. The reconciliation ceremony originated with an act of generosity whereby Williams’ descendants offered the missionary’s South Pacific memorabilia to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. The museum’s Pacific curator, Carol Mayer, not only accepted the items but initiated the reconciliation ceremony and resultant book.
Secondly and indicative of enmeshed pasts on the edges of empire, John Williams’ grandson Sidney, whose father was also a missionary, escaped the straight-and-narrow of Britain for the open spaces of Canada in time to make it west to British Columbia on one of the first Canadian Pacific Railway trains to cross the continent, and never left. The same freedom John Williams sought to his peril in the South Pacific his grandson found in British Columbia. Making his mark as a land surveyor, he partnered with the daughter of a Lil’wat woman and Scots riverboat captain based at Soda Creek in the Cariboo. Also emblematic of the times, Sidney Williams, for all the youthful adventures he increasingly sought in British Columbia, in mid life opted for the stereotypical life of an English gentleman set down in the colonies. His grandson David Williams, who wrote the book’s introduction, has described this transition in Sidney Williams – A Life (Privately Printed, 1996).
No Longer Captives of the Past/Ne plus être esclaves du passé: is well worth reading, viewing, and pondering.
No Longer Captives of the Past/Ne plus être esclaves du passé: The story of a Reconciliation on Erromango/L’histoire d’une rèconciliation sur Erromango.
By Carol E. Mayer, Anna Naupa, and Vanessa Warri
Vancouver: Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, and Vanuatu: Erromango Cultural Association, 2013. 128 pp. $25.00 cloth.