The Pre-Post Office Era: Nisbet Letters I
The New Hebrides Nisbet Letters

Pre 1895 Era


The Pre-Post Office Era: The New Hebrides Nisbet Letters:
Some Nisbet Letters which could have had a chance to reach him in Tanna as he was there only from 30 June 1842 to end of January 1843 when he and Rev. Turner and their families were rescued by the "Highlander", Captain Lucas, from Hobart Town and brought to Samoa. Some were written in the New Hebrides to Henry Nisbet in Savai'i, Samoa.
Nisbet was born in 1818 and died in 1876. Rev. Henry Nisbet was a missionary of the London Missionary Society, left England for the Pacific Islands in August 1840. He reached Samoa from Sydney in August 1841 together with Rev. Turner and went with him from there to Tanna where they arrived in June 1842. The only date mentioned in Nisbet's diary when they received mails was Friday 9 December 1842 when a ship arrived which had intercepted the Camden on her way from Sydney to Rarotonga. (Information thanks to Martin Treadwell).
After returning to Samoa in February 1843 he was stationed there for the rest of his life. In 1846 and 1848 he visited Niue, the New Hebrides and the Loyalty Islands on behalf of his mission. He visited Australia in 1854 and 1867-1868; and England and Canada in 1868-1870.
His correspondence was detected in the 1970s and sold on the phliatelic market.


Letter from Glasgow to Reverend Nisbet on Tanna. Tombstone cancel London Ship Letter 20 April 1842, Sydney Ship Letter 29 July 1842.

("Mele" coll.)

26 May 1842: four-page letter from Andrew Macfarlane in Glasgow addressed to Nisbet on the island of Tanna.

("Mele" coll.)

1842: One page letter from Lydia Crook in Sydney to Nisbet in Tanna, dated September 1842.

("Mele" coll.)


25 November 1842: Three page letter from Reverend Mills at Apia to Nisbet in Tanna. The latter may have reached him in Tanna before he had to leave the island.

("Mele" coll.)

By the early 1850's, London Missionary Society stations existed throughout the southern islands of the group. No official system of mail existed, but the mission brig Camden under Captain Morgan (until 29 September 1842, when she departed Sydney for Samoa and from there to London) and, October 1844, the barque John Williams, also under Morgan, attended to the pickup and delivery of mail. Of course every whaler or trading ship transported mail too. Post destined for the civilised world was taken to Sydney, where it was placed in the ordinary mail. Letters bound for other stations in the South Pacific were carried to their destinations. Quantities were small and there was no need for any system of franking.

Until the discovery of the Nisbet correspondence in the 1970's, it was believed that no missionary correspondence had survived in private hands.

Nisbet letter

31 October 1853
(Treadwell coll.)

Stampless entire from Aneityum to Faasalaleaga, Samoa, endorsed on receipt by Rev. Henry Nisbet "Aneiteum, Oct. 1853, Simiona". Seven letters written to, or by, Reverend Nisbet comprise the earliest known surviving mail from the New Hebrides. This letter (the third earliest) was written to him at the London Missionary Society mission at Laloma- lava, Faasalaleaga, Samoa on 31 October 1853 by Simiona, on Aneityum. The two Samoan teachers Simiona and Apolo had been stationed at Aname on the north coast of Aneityum together with another Samoan couple (Tavita and his wife, who both died in 1845) since 30 March 1841.

On 17 April 1845, Simiona was relocated with the help of Rev. Turner to Anelgauhat, the main harbour of Aneityum, on the south-west coast, together with another Samoan teacher Pita (Peter). In 1846, both fled to the north of Aneityum. Later, in September 1846, all the Samoans at Aname were uplifted by the John Williams, with Rev. Nisbet on board, as life had become too dangerous there. Nisbet has recorded that it was then decided that Simiona and Pita should stay at Anelgauhat on their next visit, though other commentators (ie, Rev Murray and Rev Turner) are clear that it was a spontaneous offer by the two Samoans later, in 1848.

On 13 July 1848 the John Williams returned to the New Hebrides because Nisbet wished to establish a station on Efate. On arriving there, however, they found conditions at Erakor still too precarious and so headed south for Aneityum. Revds. Turner, Powell, Archibald were also on board, together with Rev. Geddie and his family, who it had been intended to leave on Efate. On reaching Aneityum, the conditions at Anelgauhat seemed favourable and, in a discussion on board, Simiona and Pita made the courageous offer to stay on the island with Rev Geddie. This became the establishment of the first permanent LMS mission station in the New Hebrides. Simiona became one of the longest serving Samoan teachers, surviving on Aneityum until he died there during the terrible measles epidemic in 1865.

The letter, written in Samoan, bears no postal markings and was carried by the mission barque John Williams ( from April 1845 to 1855: Captain Robert Clark Morgan), which had left Sydney on 13 October 1853, bound for "Anatam and Tahiti", according to the Sydney Morning Herald. It called at Anelgauhat on Aneiteum on 22 October 1853, made a journey through the islands up to Havannah Harbour, then swung south-west to the islands of Mare and Lifou in the Loyalty islands, before returning to Anelgauhat, where this letter and others were picked up. It departed on 15 November 1853, visiting Niue before reaching Samoa on 4 January 1854. Captain Morgan's original log for the voyage is now held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Among many other fascinating details it records that the ship's cook died on the leg to Niue and, in spite of it being an LMS ship, full of missionaries who held services twice a day, Christmas Day 1853 passed without any mention in the log whatsoever.


This man, Captain Robert Clark Morgan, most likely accepted this letter personally and delivered it to Henry Nisbet.

Picture thanks to Graham Whyte, Great Great Great Grandson of Captain Robert Clark Morgan.

Robert Clark Morgan

Click on this map to see a map of the New Hebrides
South Pacific
Thanks for the map to the
Perry-CastaŮeda Map Collection at the University of Texas at Austin

John Williams
John Williams I - Picture thanks to
J. Graham Miller: "Live", Sydney (1976?)

Cover 11.1853

November 1853

Letter from Aneityum to Savaii, Samoa. As there are no postal markings on these letters, the date can be determined by the content of the letter only. This one most likely has been carried together with the one above by the John Williams too.
The author of this letter was the missionary John Inglis, who came to Aneityum together with his wife on the 90t vessel Border Maid (later, in 1857, it was succeeded by the Southern Cross), at the behest of the Anglican Church's Bishop Selwyn from New Zealand. They arrived at Anelgauhat, the station of Rev. Geddie, on 1 July 1852 and later opened a station at Aname on the northern coast, where this letter was written. (Goron coll., ex "Santo" coll.)

Cover 18.7.1855

18 July 1855

Letter from Erromanga to Lalomalava, Savaii, Samoa. It is written in a native language but in Roman script., datelined "Bokala 18 Julii 1855" and addressed to "Ma Misi Nisapeti i Lalomalava", with Nisbet's filing endorsement "Eromaga 18 July 1855, Elia".
In October 1854 the mission ship John Williams had four Samoan teachers on board which were placed on Erromanga : Maili (or Mailei), Isaaka (or Isaako), Paulo and Elia. As the Samoans were not used to Malaria and had no medicine, Paulo died very soon and Maili and Isaaka fled to Aneityum to Rev. Geddie with their families.
In this letter Elia tells that he is now alone on the island together with one teacher (Meariki? from Rarotonga?). (Yeomans coll., ex "Santo" coll.)

28 July 1855: Three page letter written in native language by Mailei in Eromango, addressed to Nisapeti at Malua, Samoa.

("Mele" coll.)

Cover 10.1857

24 October 1857

Letter from Erromango to Safotulafai, a village on Savai'i, Samoa, headed "Erumago 24 Oketopa 1857" and addressed to the Rev. Nisbet in Samoa as "Ma Missi Nisabeti, i Safotulafai". The sender is a Samoan teacher at Dillon's Bay, Erromango, named Elia. He was one of four Samoans who came to Erromango in 1854 (see letter above). In summer 1857 he was found in Negone on the island of Mare in New Caledonia together with Meariki. They had left Erromango in bad health but were well again and wanted to go back there. There were brought to that island by Rev. Geddie in the mission ship John Knox. Paulo and his wife, Elia's wife and 12 children of the teachers died at Erromango before they fled to Mare. Teacher Vao died on the Isle of Pines on the way to Negone. Poito and Meariki's wife died at Negone.
But Elia wanted to be brought back there. Later he was teacher on Savage Island (Niue) before coming back again in 1862.
In Robertson's book "Erromanga the Martyr Island" Elia is characterized in 1862 (when he returned to Erromango with Rev. Copeland) as being "well known and... much liked by the Erromangans".
The letter was not carried by the mission ship John Williams. She visited the New Hebrides in June/July 1857. I have still to find out which ship carried the letter. Maybe it was the John Knox".

In this letter he writes:
Euromanga 24 October 1857
To Missionary Nisbet
Greetings to you and your wife and your children. May the blessings of our Lord Jesus Christ be upon you all. I have heard that you have suffered a lot in the construction of your house, and that people have not been helpful. Perhaps many are giving up in the ministry of the Lord hence the attitude shown to you in your missionary work. It is my prayer that this evil will not remain but be eliminated.
We are working tirelessly with Missionary Gordon in Godís work in this village. But many are not happy including the chiefs of the village as they are still talking about continuing the civil war. They really want to fight and attack the opposition. However, there are still others who want to stop this war but build the church. Thereís so much tension and uncertainty in the minds of many people at where we live. But pray for God's power to turn the hearts of many from evil ways that the knowledge of God will shine in this village.
On the other hand even in their world of darkness and in their desire and eagerness to wage war against one another we are all safe and protected, and they never say any bad thing about us or trying to harm us. The church is made up of four villages and thatís where we live. I think the distance is between Iva and Amoa (villages in Safotulafai - about 8km). We have 50 people attending church at the moment but there are other villages and chiefs who are requesting to have their own pastors.
Thatís all the news we have for you now. May our Lordís kindness and blessings be unto you all and help you in your ministry as well as us over here.

I am Elia.

Translation thanks to Pastor Keneti Leota of Mount Warren Park Community Church, 4 Mountain View Crs, Mt Warren Park 4207, Queensland, Australia

(Klinger coll., ex Goron coll., ex "Santo" coll.)

The Pre-Post Office Era: The Nisbet Letters from the New Hebrides:

These letters from Rev. Nisbet are the oldes ones known from the New Hebrides. The text is the original description from the 18 June 1985 Christie's Robson Lowe catalogue:


1842 (27th July) E. L. headed "Port Resolution Tanna" from Rev. Nisbet to his sister in Glasgow, rated "3" and "8", showing on face "PAID SHIP LETTER/ CROWNS/SYDNEY" oval d.s. and on reverse London and Glasgow d.s. The long and interesting contents, basically a resumť of "how we have got thus far", include a reference to "3 vessels in the harbour wh have been at various islands in search of sandalwood", his comments on the building of his house, the native being friendly, native chiefs being given presents."The volcano sometimes makes a great noise and sends out clouds of sparks" and the setting up of classes for boys and girls. A fascinating insight into early missionary life in the South Seas. The earliest recorded cover from the New Hebrides.

oldest Nisbet letter

1848 (1st Aug) E.L. headed "Island of Aneiteium On Board the 'J.W.' " (John Williams) from the same correspon- dence as last, rated "3" and "1/-", showing on reverse "GENERAL POST OFFICE/ CROWN/SYDNEY" c.d.s., London and Glasgow d.s. The long and closely written letter refers to his voyages to Samoa and New Caledonia and a protracted essay on the teachers and teaching of the natives. The second earliest recorded cover from the New Hebrides.

second oldest Nisbet letter

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