New Title: ‘Food for the Flames: Idols and Missionaries’

Posted in books by Editor on August 2, 2011

Press release from Sue Bond Public Relations:

David Shaw King, Food for the Flames: Idols and Missionaries in Central Polynesia (San Francisco: Beak Press / London: Paul Holberton / Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 256 pages, ISBN: 9781907372162, £50 / $80.

Twenty-five years after Captain Cook’s historic voyage, the London Missionary Society sent its first representatives to the South Seas landing on Tahiti in 1797. Their goal was to eradicate heathenism and idolatry but, unwittingly, they became agents for the preservation of Polynesian culture through their diligent recording of language and religious practices.

Appalled by the pagan customs which included human sacrifice, they persuaded the people to convert and to make bonfires of their ‘idols’. While they were changing Polynesian culture, however, they were also preserving it. In particular, the Rev. John Williams selected the ‘best’ of the idols, frequently with detailed ethnological information, to be sent back to England for exhibition in the Mission Museum in London so that their followers might understand their victory over paganism. The works were eventually sold to the British Museum where they have been for the last 120
years for the most part unpublished and un-exhibited.

This book focuses on these artefacts, the idols that avoided the flames. With the scientist’s belief in letting the evidence speak for itself, the author (a biochemist with a passion for Polynesia) has mined a wide range of primary sources to bring together a wealth of new information on a generally controversial subject, the missionary endeavour. The book fills in some background about the first English missionaries to come to Polynesia, and presents as much informa¬tion as possible about central Polynesian idols, gar¬nered from the accounts of the explorers and visitors to the Pacific in the late 18th century, and from the London Missionary Society archives, publications, and collections – the earliest sources available.

As David Attenborough says in his foreword: “These discoveries…are fascinating and revelatory. And sometimes they are very surprising indeed for they shed new and intriguing light not only on the beliefs and attitudes of the Polynesians, but on the extraordinary Europeans who devoted their lives to trying to destroy those beliefs and yet enabled this book to resurrect them.”

David Shaw King is a scientist, a protein chemist, and director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley. He grew up partly in the West Indies where he became interested in the islands, especially Polynesia. He met David Attenborough at an auction at Christie’s over 30 years ago when they bid on the same object and they have been friends ever since.

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