This film is held by the BFI (ID: 13477).


An introduction to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, including footage of fauna, flora and the local way of life, and showing the work of London Missionary Society/ CCWM (Congregational Council for World Mission) missions in the islands. The film follows a Samoan (?) LMS pastor as he travels between the islands of the group aboard the LMS boat 'John Williams', visiting his flock and the local dignitaries at each stop, before returning home to a warm welcome from his family.



Among the smallest and most remote scraps of empire, the group of coral atolls and reef islands that made up the colonial Gilbert and Ellice Islands are scattered across the equator at the point where the Micronesia area ends and Polynesia begins. Though they were assimilated under British rule, the languages and peoples of the two Pacific island groups are distinct from one another, a distinction confirmed by the break up of the colony into two separate entities just before independence. The nine islands of the Polynesian Ellice group achieved independence as Tuvalu in 1978, while the sixteen Micronesian Gilberts, together with the Phoenix and Line island groups and Ocean Island (Banaba), became Kiribati a year later.

Contact with Europeans for most of the nineteenth century was chiefly determined by the growth of the whaling industry and the trade in migratory labour. Despite a certain amount of naval regulation to curb more unscrupulous elements in the labour trade (a Pacific Islanders Protection Act was passed in 1875) no detailed responsibility was accepted for the islands until the 1880s. The Anglo-German Agreement of 1886 partitioned New Guinea into British and German spheres, and the partition of influence extended into the Pacific, with Germany claiming islands located to the north of a line drawn south of Nauru and the Marshalls. The Gilberts lay south of the line in the British sphere, but it was only in May 1892 that the latter were declared a Protectorate. The Ellice group was similarly designated later that year (Burroughs, 1999, 193; Macdonald, 1982, 64-70; Scarr, 1968, 252-8.).

However, with the exception of the phosphate mines in outlying Ocean Island, there was little to recommend the islands to their new Imperial masters, and despite being annexed as a Crown Colony in 1916 (a change in status which had no real effect on administration), the Gilbert and Ellice groups became ‘a neglected backwater of the Empire,’ where central control ‘became an end in itself’ in the decades up to the Second World War (Macdonald, 75, 93).   

As elsewhere in the Empire, the post-war years saw attempts to increase local representation in government, but these were largely ineffectual, as they were both applied unevenly and received uneven levels of interest from local people on the variously differing islands. The impetus for decolonisation in the Pacific, when it came, began in the British determination to shed its colonies, and was spurred along in the islands themselves more by the ethnic and political antagonisms that had been growing between the Gilbert and Ellice Islanders than by any hostility to the Imperial power. From the mid-1960s onwards various new forms of representation were instituted, but at centre stage at all times in these new debates about governance was the desire of the Ellice Islanders to separate themselves from the Gilbertese, and it was the achievement of this aim at the end of 1975 that would finally precipitate independence in the following years.

Coral Islands Minister was produced by the Congregational Council for World Mission (CCWM). The successor organisation to the London Missionary Society, the CCWM was formed in 1966 from the merger of the L.M.S. with the Commonwealth Missionary Society. A 1960s production, Coral Islands Minister revisits a theme many previous L.M.S. films (e.g. From Island to Island, or Pacific Schooner) had explored: the scattered Christian missions and churches of the Western Pacific, and the travels of L.M.S./CCWM missionaries and pastors on board the ships of the L.M.S.

As with its predecessor films, Coral Islands Minister functions as both an introduction to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and an exposition of the work of a church minister in the isles. L.M.S. missionaries had been present in the Ellice Islands since 1865, and by the 1870s they had established mission stations throughout the group and into the southern Gilberts (the north Gilberts had had an American Protestant missionary presence since 1857, but were increasingly being evangelised by Roman Catholic missionaries as well; (Sabatier, 1977). Christianity was accepted quickly, not least because the first missionaries were frequently Samoan, and brought a Samoanised Christianity which was conceptually congenial to island sensibilities. (In popular Ellice thought the legendary homeland of the people lay to the west, and thus the fact that the Christian message was being brought by Samoans may also have hastened its acceptance. (Macdonald, 41.) 



The major part of the film follows Eretaea, ‘one of the senior Gilbertese ministers’ (CCWM cat., 1968, 6), on one of his periodic journeys from island to island as he visits local deacons and congregations ensuring all is well with the flock. However, before this loose narrative commences, the viewer is introduced to the islands, starting with the geography and proceeding through the fauna and flora. At length, the human population of the islands arrives on the scene, introduced as though part of an exotic, abundant natural history: they are described as being ‘of a mixed race, Melanesian and Polynesian’, and the pseudo-scientific appeal of this racialised language appends them to the sequence of wild creatures.

The ‘mixed’ nature of the Islanders is immediately linked with a hoary stereotype of the romantic South Seas: the beauty and nobility (the ‘inherent dignity’) of the people. They are poor, we learn, but ‘in spite of their poverty they have a dignity and character which many wealthier races do not possess’. They ‘listen to advice and profit from encouragement’: in short, they are decent people and good Christians, who are not prone to backsliding. Thus the film begins, introducing the Islanders with a set of the most well-worn clichés concerning the people of the Pacific – that they are wild, noble, beautiful and willing.

Most of the scenes in the film are staged for the camera, with apparent good humour. In keeping with the presentation of the Islanders as poor but dignified, the narration is at pains to inform the intended British audience of the fact that everything which appears alien in ‘the Coral Islands’ is not evidence of savagery, but is either merely novel or some sort of analogue for English village life. Thus a dance of welcome for Eretaea is presented as being ‘as traditional in the Coral Islands as a Mayor’s procession would be in Britain’; village elders are likened to ‘magistrates’, and so on.

The film closes with the usual missionary reminder to the audience that the CCWM’s work will always require both spiritual solidarity and material assistance. This is an entirely unremarkable closing note for a missionary production, but what makes Coral Islands Minister rather unusual is that the appeal for contributions is not made in the context of helping civilise the uncivilised, convert the pagan, or heal the sick. Rather, the ‘Coral Islands’, despite of course being very exotic, are presented as a kind of tropical English country village – a little basic, a little unusual, but fundamentally similar, and populated by noble, hardworking Christians surely deserving of support.

Francis Gooding (October 2009)


Works Cited

Congregational Council for World Mission 1968 Audio Visual Aids Catalogue (London: CCWM,1968).

Deryck Scarr  Fragments of Empire: A History of the Western Pacific High Commission 1877-1914 (Canberra: Australian National University Press,1968).

Barrie MacDonald  Cinderellas of Empire: Towards a history of Kiribati and Tuvalu  (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1982).

Ernest Sabatier  [1939] Astride the Equator tr. Ursula Nixon (Melbourne: Oxford University Press,1977).

Pearl Binder  Treasure Islands: The Trials of the Ocean Islanders  (London: Blond & Briggs,1977). 




Technical Data

Running Time:
28 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film

Production Credits

MOREY, Geoffrey
MOREY, Geoffrey
Congregational Council for World Mission
London Missionary Society
MOREY, Geoffrey
Production Company
Congregational Council for World Mission





Production Organisations