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Christian missionaries were murdered by the Aucas Indians of Ecuador

Posted in Anthropology, Historical articles, Missionaries on Wednesday, 11 December 2013

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This edited article about missionaries first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 488 published on 22 May 1971.

Ecuador, picture, image, illustration

The highest peaks of the Andes are found in Ecuador

It was Friday, 6th January, 1956. On a strip of sand by the Curaray River, which they called Palm Beach, five men in T-shirts and jeans worked busily. Anxiously, they looked at intervals towards the deep jungle of Ecuador.

Nate Saint, the pilot, fiddled with his yellow Piper Cruiser; Peter Fleming was cooking. Roger Youderian, Jim Elliot and Ed. McCullay shouted into the dense foliage, phrases of friendship and reassurance in an obscure Indian tongue.

Suddenly their calls were answered and three Indians stepped out on to the strand – a man, a woman and a girl. They were Aucas, members of a ferocious tribe of primitive Indians, who had slain the few white men bold enough to violate their territory. Now, at last, the five Americans from a missionary organisation had succeeded in overcoming the Aucas’ suspicion and resentment.

The Americans had worked slowly and systematically to make their missionary enterprise a success and had begun to fly regularly over the Aucan country. They discovered the Indians’ settlements and, dubbing one Terminal City, they began to drop gifts there. Kettles, knives and gaily-coloured clothing were trailed at the end of a long wire to entice the Indians into the open. One day, the villagers of Terminal City caught the line to which gifts had been attached and tied to it a present of their own – an elaborate head-dress.

Once this break-through had been achieved, the missionaries waited eagerly for their first visit from the Aucas and they were overjoyed when the three natives stepped out of the jungle on to Palm Beach. After a friendly meeting, the Aucas departed. The missionaries had hinted broadly that they would like an invitation to visit the Aucan village and they hoped that their visitors would be able to arrange it. For a time nothing more was heard. The missionaries began to wonder if they had been over-confident. At last Nate Saint took his plane up to find out what was happening. Circling over Terminal City, he noticed that the village was largely deserted. Then, on the flight back, he noticed a group of about ten Aucas, apparently unarmed, making their way towards Palm Beach. “This is it, guys,” he told the others when he landed, “They are on their way.” And that night, over the radio he told his wife: “Looks like they’ll be here for the early afternoon service. Will contact you next at 4.30.”

At 4.30 that afternoon, Marjorie Saint switched on her receiver for the transmission that would tell her how the first encounter with the Aucan party had turned out. But the receiver was silent. She waited by the set for hours but there was no sound except the crackling of static. When nothing had been heard by the next morning, the headquarters of the missionary organisation was alerted and a plane was sent at once to Palm Beach. At 9.30 that morning the pilot radioed that he had found Saint’s yellow Piper. It had been destroyed. There was no sign of the men.

Soon the news was flashing around the world. A rescue operation was immediately mounted by the U.S. Air Force. Using a helicopter and canoes, it carried out a thorough search of Palm Beach. Gradually, the bodies of the men were found, floating in the River Curaray. An Aucan lance was still embedded in one, with a Gospel tract wrapped around it.

The bodies were buried at Palm Beach. While the service was in progress a violent storm broke, drenching the mourners and terrifying the native guides who believed that Aucan witch-doctors created such storms before their warriors attacked. The rescue-party returned safely, nevertheless.

No one will ever know what happened at Palm Beach. How did a small party of unarmed Aucas overcome five strong men armed with guns? It is probable that the unarmed group was a decoy and that while it occupied the missionaries’ attention, armed Aucas ambushed and killed them. The missionaries appear to have backed their way across the sand into the river; it is likely that, reluctant to use their guns except as a last resort, they had retreated for as long as possible to show their pacific intent. Then, before they could defend themselves properly, they had been overrun and murdered.

After the tragedy more missionaries came to the area and were soon flying once more over the Aucan villages, now decorated with the fabric from the missionaries’ plane. They were ready to build on the foundations which the first five had given their lives to lay.

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