Thomas Powell (botanist)

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Thomas Powell - missionary to Samoa Thomas Powell Missionary Samoa.JPG
Thomas Powell – missionary to Samoa

Rev Thomas Powell (1809–1887) [Note 1] was a British missionary sent by the London Missionary Society in 1844 to Samoa where he remained for 43 years. He was interested in botany, zoology and anthropology and was elected as a Fellow to the Linnean Society of London. During his time on the islands he recorded details of flora, fauna and the culture of the indigenous people. [1] [2]

London Missionary Society British religious organisation (1795-1966)

The London Missionary Society was a predominantly Congregationalist missionary society formed in England in 1795 at the instigation of Welsh Congregationalist minister Dr Edward Williams working with evangelical Anglicans and various nonconformists. It was largely Reformed in outlook, with Congregational missions in Oceania, Africa, and the Americas, although there were also Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and various other Protestants involved. It now forms part of the Council for World Mission (CWM).

Samoa country in Oceania

Samoa, officially the Independent State ofSamoa and, until 4 July 1997, known as Western Samoa, is a country consisting of two main islands, Savai'i and Upolu, and four smaller islands. The capital city is Apia. The Lapita people discovered and settled the Samoan Islands around 3,500 years ago. They developed a unique Samoan language and Samoan cultural identity.

The Linnean Society of London is a society dedicated to the study of, and the dissemination of information concerning, natural history, evolution, and taxonomy. It possesses several important biological specimen, manuscript and literature collections and publishes academic journals and books on plant and animal biology. The society also awards a number of prestigious medals and prizes for achievement.


Samoa mission

Thomas Powell was born in Cookham Dean, Berkshire and attended Hackney Theological Academy from 1839. [3] He was ordained 29 May 1844 and left London 6 June 1844 with his wife on the inaugural voyage of the missionary barque John Williams . They arrived on the Samoan island of Tutila 31 January 1845 en route to their posting at Savai'i. [4] Powell had little knowledge of the language at this time so his missionary work was initially limited, but he did have medical knowledge and used this to treat those in need. In 1846 Powell was stationed at Pago Pago and in 1848 he went with John Geddie to Aneityum, in what is now Vanuatu, returning in 1849 in bad health to Samoa. [5] He was suffering from malaria, but went against Geddie's wishes. [6] He later wrote that a disagreement had occurred between the missionaries. On his return to Samoa, Powell was stationed at Tutuila where he remained for a large part of his time. [7]

John Williams was a missionary ship under the command of Captain Robert Clark Morgan (1798–1864) and owned by the London Missionary Society (LMS). She was named after John Williams (1796–1839), a missionary who had been active in the South Pacific. She sank in 50 fathoms after drifting onto a reef at Danger Island (Pukapuka) on 16 May 1864. The passengers and crew were rescued.

Pago Pago Place in American Samoa, United States

Pago Pago is the territorial capital of American Samoa. It is in Maoputasi County on the main island of American Samoa, Tutuila. It is home to one of the best and deepest natural deepwater harbors in the South Pacific Ocean, sheltered from wind and rough seas, and strategically located. The harbor is also one of the best protected in the South Pacific, which gives American Samoa a natural advantage with respect to landing fish for processing. Tourism, entertainment, food, and tuna canning are its main industries. Pago Pago was the world's 4th largest tuna processor as of 1993. It was home to two of the largest tuna companies in the world: Chicken of the Sea and StarKist, which exported an estimated $445 million in canned tuna to the U.S. mainland.

John Geddie (missionary) Scots-Canadian missionary

John Geddie was a Scots-Canadian missionary who was known as "the father of Presbyterian missions in the South Seas." He pioneered missionary work in the New Hebrides islands, now known as Vanuatu. He became Doctor of Divinity in 1866. On December 14, 1872 he died in Geelong, Australia.

Grave of Rev Thomas Powell Rev. Thomas Powell Grave 2.JPG
Grave of Rev Thomas Powell

As a botanist, Powell had special interests in bryophytes, fungi and lichens. Herbarium specimens collected by him in the south Pacific region between 1860 and 1890 have been indexed by the Linnean Society of London and a list of the material was published by the society in 2011. [8] He identified many of the Samoan names of plants and his paper on the subject, On Various Samoan Plants and Their Vernacular Names, was published in the 1868 Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, volume 6. [9] Other papers forwarded to the Linnean Society by Powell included details of the poisons used by Samoan islanders to tip arrows and spears. [10] He also submitted a paper on the formation of Atolls. The paper was read, but due to a critical review by Charles Darwin, it was not published. [11]

Bryophyte terrestrial plants that lack vascular tissue

Bryophytes are an informal group consisting of three divisions of non-vascular land plants (embryophytes): the liverworts, hornworts and mosses. They are characteristically limited in size and prefer moist habitats although they can survive in drier environments. The bryophytes consist of about 20,000 plant species. Bryophytes produce enclosed reproductive structures, but they do not produce flowers or seeds. They reproduce via spores. Bryophytes are usually considered to be a paraphyletic group and not a monophyletic group, although some studies have produced contrary results. Regardless of their status, the name is convenient and remains in use as an informal collective term. The term "bryophyte" comes from Greek βρύον, bryon "tree-moss, oyster-green" and φυτόν, phyton "plant".

Lichen composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi in a symbiotic relationship

A lichen is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship. The combined lichen has properties different from those of its component organisms. Lichens come in many colors, sizes, and forms. The properties are sometimes plant-like, but lichens are not plants. Lichens may have tiny, leafless branches (fruticose), flat leaf-like structures (foliose), flakes that lie on the surface like peeling paint (crustose), a powder-like appearance (leprose), or other growth forms.

Herbarium scientific collection of dried plants

A herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens and associated data used for scientific study..

Powell helped George Pratt compile his dictionary of the Samoan language. [12] He also transcribed the Samoan story of the creation, told to him by a Samoan chief – Taua-nu'u. This is a valuable record of the islanders beliefs before the arrival of the missionaries. [13] In 1886, he published a book called A Manual of Zoology Embracing the Animals of the Scripture, in the Samoan dialect. Many of the animals would have been unknown to the Samoans, so Powell included illustrations where possible. [14] [15] After his death his wife forwarded some of his papers written in Samoan to Rev. George Pratt in Sydney Australia. Due to failing eyesight Pratt was unable to make use of the works but a colleague, John Fraser, translated the manuscripts of Samoan myths and folks songs and published them in 1896. [16]

George Pratt (1817–1894) was a missionary with the London Missionary Society who lived in Samoa for forty years from 1839–1879, mostly on the island of Savai'i. Pratt was from Portsea, Portsmouth in England. He also served in Niue, the Loyalty Islands and New Guinea. In Samoa, Pratt lived at a mission station in Matautu on the north coast of Savai'i island.

Samoan is the language of the Samoan Islands, comprising Samoa and the United States territory of American Samoa. It is an official language – alongside English – in both jurisdictions.

His interests extended to ornithology and he corresponded with Philip Sclater, secretary of the Zoological Society of London, sending specimens for identification. These were passed to Osbert Salvin who presented his findings to the Society in a report 6 January 1879. [17]

Philip Sclater English zoologist, ornithologist, and lawyer

Philip Lutley Sclater was an English lawyer and zoologist. In zoology, he was an expert ornithologist, and identified the main zoogeographic regions of the world. He was Secretary of the Zoological Society of London for 42 years, from 1860–1902.

Osbert Salvin English naturalist

Osbert Salvin FRS was an English naturalist, ornithologist, and herpetologist best known for co-authoring Biologia Centrali-Americana (1879–1915) with Frederick DuCane Godman. This was a 52 volume encyclopedia on the natural history of Central America.

Bully Hayes

Bully Hayes was a notorious recruiter of native labour in the South Seas using trickery or kidnap. The practice referred to as blackbirding, supplied plantation owners with workers who often never returned to their homeland. In 1872 Hayes was arrested by Captain Meade of the USS Narragansett in Samoa. However, after investigation, he was released due to lack of evidence. Powell, who had tried before to have Hayes prosecuted, wrote:

Bully Hayes American ships captain

William Henry "Bully" Hayes was a notorious American-born ship's captain who engaged in blackbirding in the 1860s and 1870s.


Blackbirding involves the coercion of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers. Generally, persons of European ancestry, or others being paid by them, coerced persons of non-European ancestry to work as labourers throughout the Southeast Pacific region. Blackbirders sought labourers for several major industries or plantations.

How is it that with such a mass of evidence as was collected on his detention here, which is in British blue books proving his kidnapping of the people of Manahiki, that he is allowed to go at large?

He had previously written:

It will be a lamentable inconsistency on the parts of the British and French governments if this iniquitous traffic be allowed under their flags after their intervention, only a few years ago to put a stop to Peruvian proceedings of the same character. [18]

Bully Hayes was killed by a crew mate in 1877.


Powell died on 6 April 1887 in Penzance, Cornwall and is buried in St John the Baptist Churchyard, Eltham, Royal Borough of Greenwich, London, England, with his wife Jane Emma and one of his daughters – Hannah. Thomas and Jane Powell had at least seven children; their eldest daughter, Jane Anne (1846–1920), married wealthy James Spicer Jr.(1846–1915), who ran the wholesale paper merchants James Spicer & Sons Limited with his brother Sir Albert Spicer. James Spicer was named as Powell's executor in his will.


  1. Note that the inscription on the gravestone indicates that Powell was born in 1817 and not 1809.

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  1. "Powell, Thomas (1809–1887)" . Retrieved 11 November 2014.
  2. "Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London". Internet Archive . 1886–7. p. 428. Retrieved 11 November 2014.Check date values in: |year= (help)
  3. "Powell, Thomas (c.1817–1887) 'Register of Students, Hackney Theological Seminary (1803–1926)', Dr Williams's Library, MS NCL/79/1". Dissenting Academies Online. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  4. "The Shipping Gazette and Sydney general trade list; 1844". The Ships List. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  5. Doug Munro; Andrew Thornley (1996). The Covenant Makers: Islander Missionaries in the Pacific. p. 48. ISBN   978-982-02-0126-2.
  6. John Garrett (1 January 1982). To Live Among the Stars: Christian Origins in Oceania. p. 169. ISBN   978-2-8254-0692-2.
  8. Mitten, William (1868). "A List of the Musci collected by the Rev. Thomas Powell in the Samoa or Navigator's Islands. (Continued.)". Journal of the Linnean Society of London, Botany. 10: 193–195. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8339.1868.tb00436a.x.
  9. Powell, Thomas (1868). Journal of botany, British and foreign. v.6 1868: On Various Samoan Plants and Their Vernacular Names. Seemann, Berthold. p. 287. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  10. "ARROW POISON". The Northern Argus . Clare, SA: National Library of Australia. 11 October 1878. p. 4. Retrieved 26 December 2015.
  11. Darwin, Charles (2015). The Correspondence of Charles Darwin:, Volume 23; Volume 1875. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 26 December 2015.
  12. Cluny Macpherson; La'avasa Macpherson (1 January 1990). Samoan Medical Belief and Practice. Auckland University Press. p. 42. ISBN   978-1-86940-045-3.
  13. Powell, Thomas. "The Samoan Story of Creation". Internet Sacred Text Archive. JOURNAL OF THE POLYNESIAN SOCIETY. Retrieved 25 December 2015.
  14. Powell, Thomas (1886). O le tala i tino o tagata ma mea ola eseese. Unwin Brothers. Retrieved 25 December 2015.
  15. Cluny Macpherson; La'avasa Macpherson (1 January 1990). Samoan Medical Belief and Practice. Auckland University Press. p. 73. ISBN   978-1-86940-045-3.
  16. Fraser, John (1896). Some Folk Songs and Myths from Samoa (Vol. 5, No. 3(19) ed.). The Journal of the Polynesian Society. pp. 171–183. JSTOR   20701427.
  17. Salvin, Osbert. "On some Birds transmitted from the Samoan Islands by the Rev. T. Powell". BioStor. The Zoological Society of London. Retrieved 26 December 2015.
  18. Darch, John H. "Missionaries as Humanitarians?" (PDF). St John's College Nottingham. Retrieved 2 January 2016.