Tonga: Christianity trumps Darwin

About the time that Charles Darwin was cruising the world on the Beagle, discovering things that conflicted with the notion of a Creator, Christian missionaries were plying their way around Cape Horn too, spreading the word of God to the uninitiated in the Pacific isles. Among those was Jean Baptiste François Pompallier, a French-born Catholic just a bit over six years older than Darwin. In 1835, at the same time Darwin was making his way across the Pacific, Pope Gregory XVI created the Vicariates of Eastern and Western Oceania. Pompallier was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Western Oceania and Bishop of Maronea and, on 24 December 1836, less than three months after Darwin’s arrival back in England, he sailed from Le Havre aboard the Delphine for Western Oceania and New Zealand.

In 1837 he arrived in Tonga and, although initially refused landing, he returned in 1842 to celebrate the first mass on the tiny island of Pangaimotu. If Tonga at first played hard to get with respect to the Christian missionaries, which were spearheaded by the Wesleyan Missionary Society of the Methodist Church in addition to the Catholics, their resistance did not last long past 1851 with the conversion of the King of Tonga.

Today Tonga is about as Christian as any society can get and, as a consequence, I wanted to go to this place where strangers could arrive telling a story that was so convincing that the locals abandoned their own beliefs in favour of the white man’s God.

I arrived in Tonga on a Saturday, a bustling if laid-back smattering of coral-fringed islands. Come Sunday, however, it was like being in a silent movie being played at quarter speed: there was little noise and virtually all activity ground to a halt. In fact, the only place that produced significant amounts of human-propogated sound was the nearby Catholic church. As large a church as I have seen on the inside, it had enough room for two garrisons of God’s soldiers.

        The next day I went out to Pangaimotu Island, the place where Bishop Pompallier celebrated the first mass in the islands; the exact spot being marked by a white cross. This was an idyllic wee place, all coconut palms and white sandy beach, with the odd shipwreck as testimony to the dangers of its coral reef. The great thing about Pangaimotu is that there is a bar-cum-restaurant-cum-resort that would have been more at home in
Pirates of the Caribbean than any notion of a desert island, and a highly Christian one at that. The pier was a clutter of wood – held together in parts by bits of ship rope – the floor of the bar was sand, and the roof covered in palm leaves. I half-expected Johnny Depp to swagger up doing his Keith Richards impersonation. The beer flowed, the music was loud, the food was excellent and, I daresay, that at least some of the couples had been engaging in illicit sex. It seemed a weird juxtaposition to have this icon of decadence and debauchery but a few metres from Bishop Pompallier’s cross. Though, in fairness to the Tongans, they were mainly catering for Palangi guests who struggled to live up to the Christian dictates of their Tongan hosts.

        Darwin did not stop in Tonga. Had he done so, I think it unlikely the locals would have welcomed his “story” with the same enthusiasm that they have come to embrace the Christian one. When I eventually managed to get my
Palangi butt out of there, reluctantly it must be said, I was left not knowing whether the Tongans were especially gullible or astute. One thing about the Christian religion as practiced by the Tongans is that it gives them a uniformly high moral code to live their lives by: and you’d have to go a long way to find a nicer group of people than the Tongans.
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