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Cannibals, Christians and the Bible: A look at the missionaries buried in Stoke Newington’s Abney Park

PUBLISHED: 15:40 20 February 2019 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2019

Missionary graves in Abney Park Cemetery. Leota's path with Leota's grave on the left. Picture: Polly Hancock

Missionary graves in Abney Park Cemetery. Leota's path with Leota's grave on the left. Picture: Polly Hancock

Polly Hancock

Alan Gartrell tells Emma Bartholomew about the missionaries buried in Abney Park who went to all corners of the world

Missionary graves in Abney Park Cemetery. The memorial stone of Samuel Oughton is on the wall inside the mausoleum close to the Stoke Newington Church St entrance. Picture: Polly HancockMissionary graves in Abney Park Cemetery. The memorial stone of Samuel Oughton is on the wall inside the mausoleum close to the Stoke Newington Church St entrance. Picture: Polly Hancock

Alan Gartrell’s interest in missionaries began with “the classic missionary who was eaten by cannibals”, John Williams.

Williams spent two decades “converting” foreigners in the South Pacific to the Gospel and was famed in Congregational circles.

Unfortunately, in 1939 the natives of Erromango – one of the cluster of islands now known as Vanuatu – killed John and his London Missionary Society colleague James Harris.

“He turned up there on the wrong day, sort of thing, with people he didn’t know, and he was killed and eaten,” Alan, a retired chartered surveyor, told the Gazette.

Missionary graves in Abney Park Cemetery. Williams family.  Picture: Polly Hancock`Missionary graves in Abney Park Cemetery. Williams family. Picture: Polly Hancock`

Alan leads public tours around Stoke Newington’s Abney Park cemetery every so often to share his knowledge of the people buried there.

“Abney Park was set up by the Congregationalists,” he said, “and they got active in missionary work in the south Pacific.

“Purely by coincidence, because it was the nearest church to where I grew up in Cockfosters, when I was 11 I used to go to a Congregationalist church.

“They were always stiffing me for my pocket money to pay for John Williams the Sixth and their T-shirts.

“There were six or seven missionary boats that went around the south Pacific from the time he died. You tend to think about them going around telling the indigenous inhabitants to wear T-shirts. I am still bitter about all those sixpences they got from me as a boy.”

While Williams is not buried at Abney Park, his wife and children are. So, too, is Tatoa, a converted Samoan who Williams brought back from his exotic voyages to London to train for the ministry.

The cemetery even has a path named after Tatoa, who didn’t survive the climate in the UK and died soon after he arrived.

Interestingly in Samoa there were so many missionaries that the Congregationalists and Methodists were forced to come to an agreement to divide the island between them.

“It was the east for the Methodists and the west for Congregationalists,” he said, “but they had both been around for some time and it was a bit like northern Ireland. There were non-conformist groups and there were battles.”

Many missionaries were active in the abolitionist movement to end the slave trade. Although that was abolished in 1805, slavery itself continued in Britain until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which banned slavery in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, South Africa and Canada.

Part of the impetus was the Christmas Uprising, or Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831 to 1832 – an 11-day rebellion that began on Christmas Day and involved up to 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slaves.

“The spokesman was Samuel Sharpe, who was a black deacon of a Baptist church, and the minister was Thomas Burchell, who is buried in Abney with a new modern gravestone which I think was put up by his family,” said Alan.

“Sharpe was hanged but he’s featured on currency in Jamaica and Burchill is still a common Christian name there.”

Another missionary buried at Abney is Baptist parish priest Samuel Oughton.

“The freedom in 1831 wasn’t quite the answer people had been hoping for, because there was this harsh system of indentured labour which continued, and at times you’d find it difficult to distinguish that from slavery,” explained Alan.

“Oughton said: ‘Let the cane rot in the fields rather than work for these wages.’ They say that Oughton was lucky to escape from the plantation owners with his life.”

Missionaries were recruited and paid by the London Missionary Society to spread the supposed word of God.

“Jamaica is obviously a settled country to a degree,” said Alan, “but sailing around the south seas they must have known the risks – not least the risks that you would get disease despite the thing of running into angry inhabitants.

“I’m still working out how many missionaries are buried here, but interestingly there is someone who translated the Bible into Mongolian.”

The man who took the Salvation Army to India and was arrested for it is also buried at Abney.

Alan’s next tour on Sunday, which has a suggested donation of £5, will be about Abney’s four MPs.

Meet at the main gates in Stoke Newington High Street at 2pm on Sunday.

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