Weird Norfolk: The Great Yarmouth man eaten by cannibals
PUBLISHED: 09:00 09 March 2019
In the midst of the dead, one name stands out: Oliver Tomkins, the Great Yarmouth man who went to preach the word of God to "savages" but whose reward was to be cooked and eaten by cannibals almost 120 years ago.
Oliver Tomkins’ last ever diary entry after arriving at an island filled with cannibals read as follows: “they tried hard to persuade us to come ashore…we promised we would visit their village in the morning” – within hours of these words, the Great Yarmouth man was killed, dismembered, cooked and eaten by cannibals.
In a Great Yarmouth graveyard and a Norwich church, memorials mark the remarkable life – and death – of 28-year-old Oliver whose religious fervour was met with brutality a world away from his Norfolk home, stone whispers of a story which nearly 120 years later, still has the power to drop jaws.
A stone cross marks the place where Tomkins is remembered in the cemetery off Kitchener Road while a plaque in the United Reformed Church on Princes Street in Norwich commemorates poor Oliver Fellows Tomkins, fourth son of the late Daniel Tomkins formerly of Great Yarmouth who it says, somewhat coyly, “was taken by the natives”.
Born in Great Yarmouth in 1873, Oliver Fellows Tomkins was a schoolboy in the town before travelling to Switzerland to finish his education. He spent five years in business in Norwich before becoming a student at Dr Henry Grattan Guinness’ Training College in London where he took a medical course.
During holidays and half-terms, Tomkins would preach evangelism to the fishermen of the North Sea fleet and undertake mission work in English country villages, travelling to each in a caravan and camping at night.
He was delighted when he was appointed to work in the Torres Straits – New Guinea – and half the cost of his support was paid for by members of the Home Magazine Missionary Band which helped pay to send enthusiastic bearers of God’s word to far-flung corners of the world.
In December 1899, he sailed with the Reverend Albert Pearse, celebrating the beginning of a new century at sea before joining Scottish-born missionary James Chalmers in New Guinea who had ignored calls from his friends to return to England after the death of his second wife, declaring: “I cannot rest with so many thousands of savages without a knowledge of Christ near us…The ramparts of heathenism can only be stormed by those who carry the cross”. He was to die alongside Tomkins just over a year later.
Cannibalism was once common in many parts of the South Pacific (Fiji was formerly known as the Cannibal Isles) and dozens of missionaries were killed by hostile islanders who did not welcome Christ’s word via the Bible and made their displeasure painfully clear.
By the time Tomkins met his unpleasant end, missionaries were aware of the cannibalistic traditions of the region they were bringing the word of God to, with fellow missionaries reporting seeing smoke-blackened human jaw bones dangling from the rafters of village huts, smoke-dried human flesh and notches in trees which denoted the number of humans who had been cooked and eaten in a community.
The practice lingered into the early 20th century and one tribe in New Guinea were still reported to be cannibalising those they killed in battle in 2006 as part of their system of justice, placing the victims’ bones by the tracks that led to their treehouses and allowing the killer to keep the skull.
In November, on an obscure island in the Indian Ocean, John Allen Chau – a 26-year-old American adventurer and evangelical missionary – was killed by the isolated tribe he was attempting to convert to Christianity, but the Sentinelese tribe does not, it is believed, practice cannibalism.
Back in New Guinea, Chalmers was keen to visit the area around Cape Blackwood on the eastern side of the Fly River delta which he knew was inhabited by a ferocious tribe who were both skull hunters and cannibals – they were, he thought, ripe candidates to hear Christ’s words via the Bible.
He and Tomkins set out in the Mission vessel, the Niue, on April 7 1901 and arrived at the Aird River of Goaribari Island the same evening.
In an entry in his diary, Tomkins was optimistic: “In the afternoon we were having a short service with the crew, when about twenty canoes were seen approaching…They hesitated as they got nearer to us, till we were able to assure them that we meant peace. Gradually one or two of the more daring ones came closer, and then alongside, till at last one ventured on board.
“Then, in a very few minutes, we were surrounded by canoes, and our vessel was covered with them…On this, our first visit, we were able to do really nothing more than establish friendly relations with the people. They stayed on board about three hours, examining everything, from the ship’s rigging to our shirt buttons. They tried hard to persuade us to come ashore in their canoes, but we preferred to spend the night afloat, and promised we would visit their village in the morning.”
The next morning, Easter Sunday, Chalmers agreed to go ashore. He tried to persuade young Tomkins to stay on board the Niue, but the Yarmouth man refused and by Chalmers’ side, the pair unwittingly waded through sea at the aptly-named Risk Point, towards their demise.
The villagers enthusiastically invited the men and their native helpers into their newly-built dubu, a special communal house for the use of warriors – they were keen to consecrate the building and the two men of God were key: consecration, involved, as the men found out to their cost, human sacrifice.
Within minutes, the festive atmosphere had evaporated as the British missionaries walked into the house to find piles of human skulls next to crude wooden idols in the corner of the hut.
There was no warning, no hint of what was about to happen: in a frenzied attack, both men were attacked, murdered, dismembered and their limbs were passed to the women of the tribe to be cooked with sago for a ceremonial feast. The 12 native Christians who accompanied them were also murdered.
In Adventures of Missionary Heroism by John C Lambert, the full horror is described: “The first to be killed were the two missionaries, who were knocked simultaneously on the head from behind with stone clubs. Both fell senseless at the first blow and their heads were immediately cut off.
“Their followers were then similarly killed and then beheaded, thought one of them, a powerful man, managed to snatch a club from one of his assailants and kill another at a blow before being himself felled. The heads were distributed as trophies among the murderers. The bodies were cut up and handed to the women to cook. They were cooked at once.”
A month after the massacre, the Governor of the Colony visited the island where Chalmers and Tomkins made the ultimate sacrifice to their God – he and his men went looking for remains in order to give the men who died a Christian burial. All they found was Chalmers’ hat.
For more Weird Norfolk stories click here.