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Sorry we ate your great-great grandpa: Island cannibals apologise for killing missionary 170 years ago

In a jungle clearing on a small Pacific island, the descendants of a tribe of cannibals bow to a British pensioner and apologise for having his relative for dinner - literally.

The man they were apologising to was Charles Milner-Williams, 65, of Hampshire.

The meal they were apologising for was his great-great grandfather, the Reverend John Williams, who was killed on the island of Erromango, now part of Vanuatu, 170 years ago.

The people of Erromango hold a ceremony to apologise to Reverend Williams' family about his untimely death

Reverend John Williams
A portrait of Reverend John Williams, who was killed and eaten by cannibals in the 1830s

Williams, a prominent missionary of the 1830s, travelled through 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 to Erromango, part of what Captain James Cook had named as the New Hebrides.

When the natives saw the two white men walking up the beach they set upon them with spears, clubs and arrows.

The captain of the missionary ship reported later that Harris, who was the furthest inland, was clubbed down and killed.

Mr Milner-Williams said: 'John Williams turned and ran towards the sea. They caught up with him on the sea shore.

'They clubbed him and shot him with arrows and he died there in the shallows.

'It was a Royal Navy ship that went back to the island. The islanders then said that yes, they had killed and eaten both Harris and Williams.'

Seventeen decades later, it was a far more friendly group of islanders who greeted Mr Milner-Williams and 17 members of his family, who arrived on Erromango to receive the formal apology.
In the sombre ceremony that followed, islanders bowed before the visitors and grasped their hands, clearing their consciences of past deeds.

Mr Milner-Williams also agreed to accept responsibility for the education of a seven-year-old girl who was ceremonially handed to him in exchange for the loss of his greatgreat grandfather.

He said: 'I thought I would be dispassionate after 170 years, but the raw emotion, the genuine contrition, the heart-rending sorrow, has been hugely moving.'

The tribe also said they believed the act lifted a curse that had dwelt among them, although they did not say what that was.

The reconciliation event marked the 170th anniversary of the death of Williams and Harris.
'Erromango needs it very much,' said Mr Iolo Johnson Abbil, president of Vanuatu.

He told the BBC, which showed the ceremony on Inside Out, BBC1, last night: 'People always look upon them that they killed a missionary.

'They think that it has a sort of curse on Erromango and that's why it's very important for them to have this reconciliation.'

Anthropologist Ralph Regenvanu, who is also a member of the Vanuatu parliament, said: 'Saying sorry is part of it, but all reconciliation ceremonies require something from each side - there's always that element of exchange.

'Cannibalism, contrary to what a lot of people think, was traditionally a very ritualistic and sacred practice.

'It was not something like, you know, have your neighbour for lunch.

'It was practised in a very ritualistic way and was considered to be a very sacred activity.'

Anthropologists believe Williams and Harris were eaten because they represented a threat as an enemy - an incursion of European civilisation that was coming into Erromango.

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