IN 1821, AFTER some convincing by the London Missionary Society, Yorkshire philanthropist George Bennet and 49-year-old widower Daniel Tyerman set sail for Tahiti to find out how Christianity was faring across the globe. In the course of their eight-year journey, the two men visited more than 30 Protestant missionary outposts, then reported back on those who had dragged their families to often-inhospitable places to spread the word of God.
Combining historical anecdotes with journals, reports, and letters written by Bennet and Tyerman, author Tom Hiney pieces together a trip that only a zealot could love. Bennet and Tyerman travel to Tahiti and India recording tales of infanticide and widow burning as told to them by frustrated missionaries and their mail-order wives. The natives, it seems, have not embraced the word of God, as the despairing missionaries report. But the missionaries make no mention, Hiney notes, of the fact that their presence in these distant lands has brought about the introduction of European-bred illnesses and sexually transmitted diseases--scourges that would kill off far more people than the natives' own wars, infanticide, or human sacrifices ever did.
Though the book is fraught with these kinds of contradictions--not the least being Britain's simultaneous embrace of piety and colonialism--Hiney is sparing in his criticism. Preferring to let history speak for itself, he packs his paragraphs full of details, names, dates, and places that make the book feel like an interminable vacation slide show. The reader is left to try to imagine the native people who linger silently in these documents and encounters, and the book that could be created from their experiences with such strange white interlopers.