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The descendants of John Williams, who was killed and eaten by cannibals on the island of Erromango, have taken part in a unique reconciliation ceremony in the South Pacific. The reconciliation event, marking the 170th anniversary of the death of Mr Williams and his fellow missionary James Harris, has been long awaited.. The current day inhabitants of Erromango, which is now part of Vanuatu, have often believed their island to be cursed because of killing missionaries and that is why it's very important for them to have the reconciliation.
The Reverend John Williams was perhaps the most famous missionary of the age and in the 1830's he travelled throughout the dangerous islands of the South Pacific trying to convert  pagan tribes to Christianity. With fellow missionary, James Harris, he stepped ashore from the ship 'Camden' on Erromango, part of which Captain James Cook had named as the New Hebrides.

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A portrait of John Williams conducting his

missionary work in the 1830's

When the natives saw the two white men walking up the beach they were set upon with spears, clubs and arrows. It was reported that Harris was clubbed down and killed inland whereas John Williams, who had turned an ran towards the sea, was clubbed to death on the sea shore. Some 15 months later a Royal Navy ship went back to the island and the natives confirmed that they had killed and eaten both Harris and Williams. Cannibalism, contrary to what a lot of people think, was traditionally a very ritualistic and sacred practice and Harris and Williams represented a threat to their community. It transpired that just a matter of days before John Williams and James Harris arrived, a group of European sandalwood traders had landed and killed people on the island of Erromango.
So now 170 years after his murder the descendants of those responsible for the killings invited the family of John Williams to Erromango, part of the island nation of Vanuatu, to this special event and 18 members of his family travelled from around the world to the small island.

During a day of ceremonies in Erromango, the community re-enacted the killings and dozens of descendants of those responsible for the deaths queued up to ask the Williams family for forgiveness.

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Present day members of the Williams Family attending

the reconciliation ceremony

The Williams family have agreed to take on responsibility for the education of a seven-year-old girl who was ceremonially handed over to them in exchange for the loss of John Williams. A member of the Williams family was reported as saying that, having expected to be dispassionate after 170 years, the overall event was just raw emotion and that the genuine contrition and heart rending sorrow of the islanders had been hugely moving.

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Dillons Bay now renamed Williams Bay

As a final act of contrition and concern for the Williams Family, the islanders announced that in future the bay where the atrocities occurred, currently know as Dillons Bay, has now been renamed Williams Bay as a mark of respect and reconciliation.

Alan Swain - December 2009

Note: The reconciliation event was screened on the BBC South's programme 'Inside Out' on Monday 7th December 2009

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