William Ellis (missionary)

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William Ellis
Revd. William Ellis, Hoddesdon, Herts. painted by W. Gush; engraved by J. Cochran.jpg
From the London Missionary Society
Born(1794-08-29)29 August 1794
London, England
Died9 June 1872(1872-06-09) (aged 77)
Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, England
Spouse(s)Mary Mercy Moor
Sarah Stickney
William Ellis (missionary) signature.svg

William Ellis (29 August 1794 – 9 June 1872) was an English missionary and author. He travelled through the Society Islands, Hawaiian Islands, and Madagascar, and wrote several books describing his experiences.

Early life[edit]

He was born in London of working-class parents on 24 August 1794.[1] His father and a short-lived older brother were also named William. If a child died young, parents often named another child by the same name, especially if wanting to pass on a parent's or grandparent's name.

Not much is known of his mother; her maiden name was Bredborough, she was born in Reading, England, and married William Ellis on 13 August 1792.[2]

Young William developed a love of plants in his youth and became a gardener. He worked first in the East of England, then at a nursery north of London, and eventually for a wealthy family in Stoke Newington. Being of a religious nature, he applied to train as a Christian missionary for the London Missionary Society and was accepted to the school.[3] He began writing at the age of 12, on being urged by an elementary-school teacher, who discerned his talent at an early age.[citation needed]

Mission to Polynesia[edit]

After attending Homerton College, then in Hampstead, Ellis was ordained in 1815. He married Mary Mercy Moor on 9 November 1815.[1]

He was soon posted to the South Sea Islands with his wife, leaving England on 23 January 1816. They arrived at Eimeo, one of the Windward Islands, via Sydney, and learned the language there. During their stay, several chiefs of nearby Pacific islands who had assisted Pomare in regaining sovereignty of Tahiti, visited Eimeo and welcomed the LMS missionaries (including John Orsmond and John Williams and their wives) to their own islands. All three missionary families went to Huahine, arriving in June 1818, drawing crowds from neighbouring islands, including King Tamatoa of Raiatea.

Illustration of ruins south of Kailua-Kona from his journal

Ellis and a small group travelled from Tahiti on the schooner Mermaid to the Hawaiian Islands, known then as the "Sandwich Islands". On the same voyage, another small schooner called Prince Regent, outfitted with six cannons, was presented to King Kamehameha II. The party arrived in Honolulu on 16 April 1822. Although the plan had been to also visit the Marquesas Islands, they returned to Tahiti on 27 August 1822.

Ellis was invited to stay, and he arranged for his family to come to Hawaii, where they arrived on the Active on 4 February 1823.[1] In June 1823 Ellis joined American Missionaries Asa Thurston, Artemas Bishop, and Joseph Goodrich on a tour of the island of Hawaiʻi, to investigate suitable sites for mission stations. On the way he stopped at Maui and met and baptized Queen Keōpūolani. Their first stop was Kailua-Kona, where they met the Governor of the island Kuakini, known as "John Adams".

They visited Kealakekua Bay, and toured the historic sites nearby, such as the Puʻuhonoua o Hōnaunau. They travelled south past the Mauna Loa volcano. They were some of the first Europeans to visit the caldera of the Kīlauea volcano, which was active at the time. On the eastern side they visited Hilo and Waipiʻo Valley, and some of the party continued up snow-covered Mauna Kea.

Some of the important missions set up as a result of this trip include Mokuaikaua Church, Imiola Church, Kealakekua Church, and the Haili Church. Returning to Honolulu, Ellis learned the Hawaiian language, transcribed the language into a Roman alphabet, and helped set up a printing press.

In England[edit]

Mary Ellis, 1836.

In August 1824 he had to return to England since Mrs Ellis was in poor health, and so took a ship via America. Back in London, Ellis published his narrative of travels in Hawaii. He was selected as Assistant Foreign Secretary of the London Missionary Society (1830), and then Chief Foreign Secretary in 1832.[3] His wife Mary Ellis died on 11 January 1835, after having four children.[1] He published a biography of her in 1836.

Ellis remarried two years later, to Sarah Stickney (1799–1872). She had been brought up a Quaker but had latterly chosen to become an Independent or Congregationalist, as were many of those involved in the London Missionary Society, albeit non-denominational. She shared her husband's love of books and of writing. Ellis had started to become a successful writer about the topography, history, botany, and ethnography of Polynesia since returning from the South Seas. Sarah Ellis gained her own success, primarily with books on women's role in society.

Ellis's most important work was Polynesian Researches. This firmly established him as a talented enthographic and geographical writer. The book was reviewed in the Quarterly Review by Robert Southey, who wrote: "A more interesting book we have never perused." This and similar acclaim for Ellis's writing from others influenced investors to regard the missionaries more favorably, particularly the LMS missionaries. They had previously been portrayed as naively raising the expectations, educational level, liberty, and status of slaves and native peoples, rather than taking a traditionally hard-headed approach to trade and commerce.

Ellis was asked by the directors of the LMS to write up his studies of Madagascar. His work was published in 1838 as the two-volume History of Madagascar. In 1844 his first volume of a History of the London Missionary Society was also published. Due to ill health, Ellis resigned from the LMS; he also wanted to spend more time with his wife Sarah in their house in the country village of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, twenty miles north of London. Three years later in 1847, he was offered a post there as pastor of its Congregational church.

Mission to Madagascar[edit]

William Ellis in later life.

After five years, Ellis recovered his health, and he accepted an offer from the LMS to travel to Madagascar as their official emissary. Arriving in 1853, he was rebuffed by officials in attempting to establish a mission and refused permission to go to the capital. Establishing a temporary base in Mauritius, he again sought entry to Madagascar but was refused. He made a third visit in 1856, but the Queen permitted him only a one-month stay. In celebration he wrote a book entitled Three Visits to Madagascar (1858).

On his fourth attempt in 1861, Ellis was finally permitted entry. French influence in the area was said to have been a factor hitherto, as the French did not want other Europeans gaining a toehold on the island. Ellis stayed until 1865, gradually laying the foundations for Christianity. He returned to a great welcome in England in 1865 and was asked to lecture widely about his travels and his religious influence in the islands. Four years later, in 1869, Queen Ranavalona II and the royal court of Madagascar converted to Christianity.

Ellis wrote books about his experiences and the history and geography of the island – Madagascar Revisited, 1867, and Martyr Church of Madagascar, 1870.


William Ellis' tomb at the Abney Park Cemetery

In 1872 Ellis caught a cold while on a train journey and died on 9 June 1872. Sarah Ellis died seven days later on 16 June. They had been married for 35 years.

Ellis is buried in a venerated spot in the Congregationalists' non-denominational Abney Park Cemetery in London, near where Isaac Watts once lived. His intricately carved hip tomb is aligned with its chapel. His wife preferred to be buried near their country home. A biography written by his son John Ellis and Henry Allon was published soon after his death.[2]



  1. ^ a b c d Hawaiian Mission Children's Society (1901). Portraits of American Protestant missionaries to Hawaii. Honolulu: Hawaiian gazette co. p. 10.
  2. ^ a b John Eimeo Ellis and Henry Allon (1873). Life of William Ellis, Missionary to the South Seas and to Madagascar.
  3. ^ a b Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ellis, William" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 294.


This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). "article name needed". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne.

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