William Ellis was not only a remarkable missionary to Madagascar, but he was also an important writer in relation to Madagascar and Polynesia. He was born in London on August 29, 1794, and he became a missionary with the London Missionary Society (LMS). His first missionary station work was in the Society Islands, Tahiti, especially in Huahine, from 1817 to 1822. After he visited the Sandwich Islands in Hawaii, he was invited by the king and the chiefs of Hawaii to work among them, so he was seconded to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission.
For the sake of his wife’s health he had to return to England in 1824, but the time he had spent in the Pacific had led him to write two important works, one of which was Polynesian Researches (1829). Ellis had only received a primary school education, and he was not familiar with the principal older civilizations of Europe. For that reason, when he arrived in Polynesia, he was astonished and overcome by the Maori civilization. He made an earnest effort to understand it and to describe it straightforwardly, without eliminating or hiding what seemed to be “barbarous” about it. Like all missionaries, he had learned the local language, and his text is not only replete with Maori expressions, it also contains a great deal of Polynesian vocabulary.
From 1826 to 1831, Ellis gave a series of lectures in England that were meant to make the mission’s work more widely known, and in 1832, he became a co-director of the LMS. After having suffered some health problems, he became a parish pastor in Hoddesdon from 1847 to 1952.
From 1853 until his death twenty years later, Ellis’s name came to be more closely associated with Madagascar. The LMS had started its’ work there in 1818, but after promising beginnings under Radama I, the small Christian Malagasy community there endured a period of disfavor and even of bloody persecution. Because of the significant interest in England related to the LMS work in Madagascar, Ellis (who was head of the mission at the time), was invited to write a history of Madagascar. This probably came about because he had shown in his Polynesian Researches that he was capable of writing a book that could not only encompass a large subject, but also remain accessible to the general public. His History of Madagascar was published in two volumes in 1838, and it became one of the classic works on the island nation. It was more than a history, in the narrow sense of the word, because it was also full of information on the lifestyles and customs of the people, principally the Merina people of the high central plateau, who were also known as the Hova. He drew on previously published work, on firsthand documents, on the remarks of his missionary colleagues or their research, and even on documents in the official British archives. Apparently, Ellis was the first Madagascar scholar to have used those archives.
In light of his missionary experience and of his considerable knowledge of the island, the LMS sent Ellis to Madagascar in 1853 to attempt to negotiate a return of the missionaries that had been forced to leave in 1835-1836, and to contact the Malagasy Christians, many of whom had already been tortured. Ellis and his colleague James Cameron, who had been one of the pioneer missionaries to Madagascar, were given permission to stay in Tamatave, an east coast port town, for only three weeks. In 1854, Ellis was able to return there for three months, after which time he spent six months visiting the missionary work in South Africa. Finally, by invitation of the government of Madagascar itself, he was able to make a third visit, and he spent one month in the capital city of Antananarivo, in 1858. A detailed description of those travels was published as Three Visits to Madagascar, which became a popular work.
Following the death of Ranavalona I in 1861, Ellis returned once again to the capital city for three years as the senior member of a group of LMS missionaries. He had a close relationship with Radama II, who was assassinated in a palace coup in 1863. The various diplomatic difficulties and the religious competition that arose at the time led to certain accusations against Ellis: that he had exerted too much influence on the foreign and domestic policies of Madagascar, or even that he had become involved in local politics. Some went so far as to consider him as being almost an official representative of Her Majesty. These types of accusations came from a variety of sources for many decades. The Jesuit father A. Boudou’s work entitled “Le meurtre de Radama II” [The Murder of Radama II], published by the Malagasy Academy in 1938, presents a more impartial view of the facts that were established in a definitive manner by R. Delval’s “Radama II” (L’Ecole, Paris, 1972).
It was thanks to Ellis that land in Antananarivo was purchased for the stone churches that were built to commemorate the martyrs of Madagascar. Those churches are some of the oldest and strongest monuments in the country to this day. His book, Madagascar Revisited, contains important information on the political, social, religious, and cultural changes that occurred during a critical time of contact between different civilizations in Madagascar.
Ellis returned to England in 1865 and spent his retirement doing horticulture. He became quite renowned in the field because of the orchids he had brought back from Madagascar. Earlier, he had introduced the “plaited potato” (ovirandra) to Europe, a plant that became popular in aquariums under its botanical name, Aponogeton fenestralis. He was elected a member of the Royal Geographical Society. William Ellis died on June 16, 1872.
J. T. Hardyman, L. Molet
Tour in Hawaii, London, 1826.
Polynesian Researches, London, 1829. Often reprinted, including the 1853 edition that was the basis of the French translation that was published by the Société des Océanistes du Musée de l’Homme [South Sea Islands Society of the Museum of Mankind], entitled, “À la recherche de la Polynésie d’autrefois,” [The Search for Yesterday’s Polynesia], Paris, 1972.
History of Madagascar, London, 1838.
Three Visits to Madagascar, London, 1859. Very freely translated in Voyages du Dr William Ellis à Madagascar [Dr. William Ellis’s Travels in Madagascar], by O. Sachot, Paris, 1860.
Madagascar Revisited, London, 1867.
The Martyr Church of Madagascar, London, 1870.
See also: Life of William Ellis, by John Eimeo Ellis, London, 1873.
The above article, reprinted here by permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [People and Destinies: an Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.