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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter XIX. — The Second Phase

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Chapter XIX.
The Second Phase.

Sed tacitus pasci si posset corvus, haberet
Plus dapis, et rixae multo minus invidiaeque.

(If the crow had been content to eat his prey in silence he would have had more meat and less strife and envy.)

Horace, Epistolae, 1.17.50.

Now join your hands, and with your hands your hearts,
That no dissension hinder government.

Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III.

In every new colony a dangerous phase of reaction manifests itself soon after the initial stage of plantation. The glow of adventure burns down; the first enthusiasm begins to wane; the stern struggle with the forces of the wilderness loses its intensity; and "other things entering in," such as real or fancied slights, misunderstandings, jealousies, and dissensions, choke the good seed of unity and concord. The pettiness of human nature seldom fails to assert itself in a small community. This phase of the social climate has blighted the fair prospects of many a promising settlement in a strange land. The Colony of Otago, with its predominant Scottish group of immigrants, settled among a number of individuals whose interests were different from theirs, could scarcely hope to escape such a stage of controversy. The fact that the forces of unity triumphed in the long run proved the stability of the enterprise into which so much religious and social enthusiasm had been poured.

For a considerable part of the new year things went smoothly enough. Work, the greatest solace of the human heart, kept all happily engaged for the common weal. Ships arrived with keen immigrants, mostly like the original contingent, from Scotland, although London was the port of sailing. On January 6 the Ajax, on April page 21511 the Mary, on June 5 the Mariner arrived at Port Chalmers. The newcomers soon settled into the routine of colonial life. By the Ajax Mr William H. Valpy arrived, and used his capital to the advantage of the settlement, establishing mills for timber and flour in the valley of the Leith and making his home at Forbury, near St. Clair. His rural allotments at the Waihola and Horseshoe Bush soon became runs for sheep. Although he came of Episcopalian and clerical stock he was a supporter of the ministry of Mr Burns and the religious basis on which the Colony had been inaugurated. Mr and Mrs Burns visited Mr and Mrs Valpy on January 26, 1849.

In the meantime Burns had been busily engaged in extending his range of activities to meet the needs of the growing community. On January 12 he bought a grey mare, Sally, from Mr Pelichet for 30 guineas, with 10s for the groom. Mr Burns had spent an afternoon two days previously in trying the horse at Duff's paddock, so that, although he paid a good price for it, he could not be charged with "buying a pig in a poke." Riding Sally on his pastoral errands, he was able to reach places inaccessible by the usual means of the rowboat.

On January 31 he was able to gratify his long-cherished ambition to pay a personal visit to the Taieri. Accompanied by Mr Kettle he rode to the surveyor's sheep station on the plain, and was deeply impressed by its potentialities for agricultural and pastoral uses. Valuable coal had by this time been discovered on the western side of Saddle Hill. Burns rode for several miles, filled with admiration for all that he saw. Even the swamps failed to damp his ardour, for he declared that they could be drained and changed into valuable land for farming. On Wednesday, February 21, he paid his second and more extensive visit to the Taieri. He visited and preached to page 216the Native village, where the chief Te Raki lived with about 24 Maoris. It was situated near the spot where the bridge now crosses the main south road. Burns held a thorough "visitation" of the village, and drew up a careful census of the individuals who formed the camp. Burns also baptised three children, one of whom was the child of Te Raki. The best description of his impressions is found in a letter to his old friend of Ayrshire days, the Rev. Ebenezer B. Wallace, dated from Dunedin on April 26, 1849 1.

Some months ago I rode down to the Waihola and spent a couple of days visiting the Native village about six or seven miles from the mouth of the Taieri River. Riding along the whole eastern side of the Taieri Plain, I then sailed down the river from the Native village to the river's mouth, through scenery of the most romantic grandeur. It is a noble river, two to four fathoms deep, as broad as the Clyde at Glasgow, till it becomes confined within the precipitous wooded banks for several miles from its mouth. I sailed also to the Waihola Lake. Altogether the Taieri district is the most magnificent plain I ever saw, 14 or 15 miles long by four and a-half and five miles broad—perfectly level, being evidently the bottom of a former lake which must have covered the whole plain, with high hills surrounding it on every side; very rich land, requiring, however, to be drained in some places, but the water to be drained off all lying on the surface. When cultivated and waving with yellow corn it will be one of the richest sights in the world, I believe. Every one who has seen other colonies at their starting says that we have done wonders, and certainly Dunedin for the last twelve months has been a busy, industrious scene. The town already presents a town-like aspect. Aa to cultivation, there are patches in all directions, and enclosed gardens in the town.

Various incidents occurred in the early part of the year which are recorded in the diary. On January 8 Mr (afterwards Sir) William Fox, the acting principal Agent, visited Otago in the Government cutter Fly, after page 217stopping en route at Akaroa. In company with Captain Thomas he was on a tour of exploration, seeking for a site for the Canterbury settlement, which by this time was being formed in England. Although the site of Otago hardly came within the scope of the mission of Mr Fox and Captain Thomas, the former gentleman examined it with genuine interest, and reported very favourably upon the settlement of Otago in every respect2. Port Cooper was definitely chosen for the Anglican class settlement.

Burns preached at Port Chalmers in the afternoons of Sundays, October 15, November 12, December 10, 1848, January 7, February 4, 1849 (every four weeks). On the last-mentioned occasion he used his mare for the journey. It must have been a rough trip along the merest bridle track over the hills to the Upper Junction and down to Port Chalmers. Sally objected to the innovation, and jibbed at Sawyers' Bay, refusing to cross the stream. The minister had no alternative apparently but to leave his horse there and walk the rest of the way to Port Chalmers, where he found a number of tents pitched, the Ajax having just taken her departure. On the return journey Burns reached Dunedin within an hour and a-half after leaving Sawyers' Bay. Four weeks later Mr Kettle accompanied the minister to the service at Port Chalmers. On this occasion the surveyor's horse jibbed at the same spot on the homeward trip, and his horse was left behind! In the old days the horse was a great educator! On Sunday, April 1, the services at Port Chalmers came to a stop until after the winter months. Burns says:—

At Port Chalmers for the last time this season—roads: very bad. Got home in one hour and 40 minutes. Had I been any later I would have been benighted in the swamps.

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The main causes of dissension in the community may be attributed to opposition to the idea of the class settlement which lay at the foundation of the Scottish Colony, and to racial and religious prejudices connected therewith. A very small section of settlers who had no affinity with the Scottish and Presbyterian origins of the main body endeavoured to raise an agitation against the leaders, and they succeeded, up to a certain point, in making a stir in the community. With the issue of the first newspaper, the Otago News, on December 13, 1848, under Henry B. Graham, who was editor and compositor, the alleged grievances of the small section which came to be known as "The Little Enemy" found a medium for expression.

The first anniversary of the arrival of the John Wickliffe gave evidence of differences of opinion. The simplest mode of narration may be to let Burns speak for himself. In his letter to the Rev. E. B. Wallace, previously quoted, he gives his version of the situation:—

Five weeks before the anniversary sermon I intimated from the pulpit that the day would be observed as a day of public thanksgiving and humiliation before God. Immediately thereupon commenced very active measures by a small party, which is headed by an English attorney (a bitter enemy of the Free Church and of the ecclesiastical branch of our settlement ), to counteract my intentions by getting up a set of public sports for that day. They easily enlisted in the cause some of the storekeepers who have come down here from Wellington, where these gentry (storekeepers, tavernkeepers, etc.) drive a profitable trade by such a mode of celebrating their anniversaries. They have also got over to their party the editor of the Otago News, this being the only newspaper in the place, and lending itself to this small party enables it to present to people at a distance the appearance of representing the spirit and sentiment, the actings, sayings, and habits of the page 219entire community, and we sober Free Church, honest, well-meaning folks are fairly swamped—never seen, never heard of any more than if we had no existence, and yet we are not only the (though we say it who could not say it) best, but by far the largest portion of the community. The News, immediately succeeding the anniversary, instead of containing the slightest mention of how we, the largest majority, had been spending the day had its whole columns filled with a full and particular account of the sports—horse race, boat race, foot race, sack race, greasy pole, rolls and treacle, and all the other choice and tasteful pastimes of these worthies. When we saw this and how the matter would look elsewhere, wherever the News should travel, as if our people, instead of going to church, had gone to the races, we felt that something should be done. Nothing better could be thought of than printing the forenoon sermon and sending it Home with an explanation accompanying it. After all, the sports were miserably attended—nothing but some drunken do-no-goods, runaway sailors, sawyers, whalers, who have repaired to Otago, most of them since we came, whilst the church was filled forenoon and afternoon, same as on a Lord's Day.

Having contended stoutly for the ideals of the system of colonisation on a religious basis through four trying years in Scotland, Burns was not likely to abandon his position after arriving on the soil of the land of promise. To his mind the obligation of thanksgiving to Divine Providence on the completion of the fist year after the foundation of the settlement was supreme and unquestionable. But, after all, there is something to be said for a festival of joyful celebration in the cycle of the year. Human nature cannot be repressed unduly without the risk of a "complex," to use the modern term. Looking back after the lapse of time one may ask whether it would not have been wiser to countenance the sports, provided that they did not interfere with a service in the church.

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The anniversary sermon preached by Mr Burns was printed in the Otago News (and paid for) and also separately as a pamphlet3. It was a noble discourse, well worthy of being preserved, especially when it is remembered that it is probably the first pamphlet published in Otago. In the closing portion of the sermon, which was based on Psalm 144, 15: "Happy is that people that is in such a case; yea, happy is that people whose God is the Lord." Mr Burns said:—

We have just come out from the midst of a large and old-fashioned community at home, where we had our path hedged about by the innumerable checks and salutary restraints of a strictly governed, well-regulated society; and the tone of our morals and the standard of our religious practice were maintained at a steady pitch by the prevailing example of many surrounding Christian Churches. Here we are a solitary congregation —isolated from the rest of the Christian world. When we think of all this, and then cast our eye upon the backward courses into which all the other British colonies have fallen, how rapidly the spirit of vital religion has decayed, and the shocking vices of profanity and drunkenness have increased in them all, we must be blind indeed if we do not see what a serious risk we ourselves run of resting contented with a lower standard in religion and morals than we have been accustomed to. It is like the letting out of water; it may seem at first a trifling matter, but let it alone and in time it will gather increasing force, till at length it will be found breaking forth into the headlong impetuosity of a raging flood, bearing clown all the ancient bulwarks of social order, overthrowing the hallowed institutions of the community, and covering the land with the wrecks of violence and disorder, of confusion and anarchy.

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At first sight it might appear as if there were no very great danger of this in our own case; inasmuch as, being a class Colony, taking up new ground and being ourselves at once the materials and the fabricators of a new society, we must have the formation of the habits and practices of the Colony, as well as our own individual habits, entirely in our own hands, and under our own control. But it is impossible to think of the manner in which this anniversary is being held out of doors at this moment without being aware that already there is a division of sentiment amongst us. It is not the same for us and for others to renounce principles which we profess. For rarely in the history of the world have hereditary principles come down to any people enshrined in such awful associations —such kindling, heart-searching recollections. Shall we, my friends, ever renounce these principles ? No, never. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy."

In the meantime Captain Cargill had withdrawn his order for 40 copies of the Otago News on account of an article criticising the Otago Block, which appeared in No. V issue. The article was certainly likely to damage the settlement in the eyes of readers in the Homeland, and it was unfortunate, to say the least, that the little news sheet should attack the agricultural possibilities of the district and the motives of those who were inducing emigrants to choose Otago as their future home. Cargill's action, however, made matters worse than before. The paper thenceforth treated Cargill as an enemy, and championed the sentiments of the small section which was opposed to the leaders. Another incident savoured of sectarian intolerance. The Rev. Charles Creed, who had commenced services at the gaol (apparently the only room available for the purpose), ostensibly on behalf of the Episcopalians and others who were not Presbyterians, received a letter from Captain Cargill suggesting that it would be better for him to confine his ministrations to page 222Waikouaiti, where his duty properly lay as a stated missionary of the Wesleyan Church. Mr Creed handed the letter, together with a rejoinder by himself, to the Otago News, and it was published on May 2, along with an editorial strongly protesting against the action of the Resident Agent in this matter. Mr Creed contended that he had visited the various stations at Otago, Otepoti, Taieri, and Molyneux long before the arrival of the Scotch settlers under their minister. Creed's statement was reasonable enough, apart from any reference to Cargill's argument that there were only three or four Wesleyans in Dunedin, and that Mr Burns was acting on behalf of all denominations until the bishop should make other arrangements for the Episcopalians. About this time Burns was attacked in the Otago News by two anonymous correspondents. Burns took no part in the controversy regarding Mr Creed's activities, the only items from his pen being the entry in his diary on January 28, a Sunday:—

Full church to the door in the forenoon. Mr Creed read the Episcopal service in the gaol to a few, forenoon and evening. Mr C. also baptised Mosley's and Ross's children without any communication with me.

Burns busied himself in getting the library into working order for use by the people of the town. He spent his spare time for several weeks in numbering and cataloguing the books which had been donated for the ships' parties, beginning with the Philip Laing. There were by this time more than 1000 volumes, mostly theological and biographical. There were books of standard fiction by Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray; poetry by Shakespeare, Milton, Scott, and Burns, and works on the arts, sciences, and agriculture. In addition, the Encyclopædia Britannica presented prior to the sailing of the Philip Laing, and the works published and presented by the Chambers Brothers, completed the library.

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It was located in the session house of the church, and was opened for the issue of books on Saturday evenings. The charge made was 1s 6d per quarter. Many duties fell to Burns in regard to the general well-being of the population. In addition to acting as librarian he often sorted the mail, and read extracts from the newspapers to those who gathered after the day's work was done. Many were the uses to which the hall was put in the early years of Dunedin. It may be compared to a Y.M.C.A. hut during the war. It was the rendezvous of all who wished for a meeting place with their fellows, and it served every common interest that was helpful to the community. During the day time Mr Blackie conducted school there. The Kirk Session supervised the school and fixed the fees at 2s per quarter for every child learning English reading and 3s per quarter for all other children. The fees were to be paid to Mr Blackie in advance 4.

Saturday, May 12.—Called upon this morning to announce to Angus M'Phie's wife that her husband was drowned on Wednesday morning last in attempting to cross the Taieri from Mr Lee's—body not yet found.

Saturday, 26.—Public meeting 3 p.m. on the subject of introducing convicts into these colonies—unanimously opposed.

Sunday, 27.—Thin attendance—cold, disagreeable weather. Intimated two congregational meetings. Opening of library and class for church music.

The public meeting held in the church on the subject of extending the transportation system to New Zealand, as had been suggested by Earl Grey, found the little community of Dunedin united against the proposal. The Australian colonies were protesting against the system, page 224and, despite claims advanced on behalf of a more plentiful supply of labour through the channel of transportation, the people of New Zealand joined in opposition to the scheme. Mr Valpy took the chair at the meeting, and Mr Burns proposed the resolutions which voiced the prevailing opinion. The notes of Burns's speech, in his hand writing, are included in the bound volume of Otago manuscripts in the Hocken Library. This meeting and the discussions which it aroused in the community gave force to the growing demand for self-government on the part of the settlers.

In 1846 Earl Grey had granted a constitution to the colonists, but on the recommendation of Governor Sir George Grey the Act was suspended for five years, as he considered that it would be dangerous to give self-government when the country was disturbed by Native unrest and threatened with a fresh outbreak of hostilities. Accordingly the settlers continued to be under the autocratic rule of the Colonial Office in name and of the Governor in fact. New Zealand had been divided into two provinces, the northern known as New Ulster and the southern as New Munster, but these distinctions meant little or nothing to the new Colony of Otago for the first two years of its existence. Mr Burns was one of the most powerful advocates of the right of the colonists to govern themselves.

On June 25 Mr Woehlers, from the island of Ruapuke, visited Dunedin and spent much time with Mr Burns during his stay. The two men had much in common, and held each other in high esteem. In view of the increase in the attendance at church the building was enlarged to accommodate the congregation. The second observance page 225of the Sacrament took place on Sunday, June 15, but owing to the bad weather and the almost impassable state of the roads the attendance was small.

Towards the end of October Burns fell ill with what he believed to be cholera, and was very weak for a few days after the illness abated. The months passed away without any event of note taking place. Church work proceeded steadily. On December 26 the ship Mooltan arrived with 120 passengers. Cholera had occurred on board the vessel, and a few days later a letter was addressed to Mr Burns by the captain and surgeon, Dr William Purdie, commending to his care four orphan children whose parents, Mr and Mrs Harrison, had died of the disease during the voyage. Burns took the matter to the Kirk Session, and reported that the children had been received by the Harolds for temporary care and subsistence. The Session approved of the arrangements made, and gave authority to the Moderator to administer the estate of the deceased parents.5

In a letter to his brother Gilbert6 Mr Burns stated that "the New Year (1850) was ushered in with some of the signals we were accustomed to in Scotland—shouting and firing guns. Some scamps loaded and fired off repeatedly the 8-pounder cannon that stands on the jetty, and clambered up on to the church until they caught the rope and rang the bell."

The story of this bell, which is now in the Early Settlers' Museum, was a strange one. It had been a ship's bell on one of the convict transports. Then it was used on the Magnet, which conveyed the early settlers to Waikouaiti in 1840. Mr Jones used it for the mission station page 226at Waikouaiti, and transferred it to Dunedin for the church and schoolhouse there. The minute of the Kirk Session, dated July 21, 1850, throws further light upon it, showing that Mr Jones had offered the bell as a gift to the church, and that the Session gratefully accepted it on the date mentioned.

In 1851 some friends in Scotland sent out a bell to Mr Burns. The office-bearers of First Church, regarding the new bell as too grand for "the queer-looking fabric of a church," hit upon the idea of setting it up on top of Church Hill, thus taking legal possession of the site for their future church.

As an accommodation to the inhabitants of Dunedin leave was granted to the authorities on week days to make use of the bell to regulate the working people's time. This use of the bell came gradually to be regarded as its proper and principal use, and the hill itself to be spoken of as if its only use was to be the site of the bell.7

It was called Bell Hill. At a later stage people began to deny that either the bell or the hill belonged to the church. Even in the Provincial Council statements were made to this effect. It so happened, however, that repairs were needed, and the workman copied out the inscription which had been originally stamped on the bell. It stated that the bell was the gift of a few friends in Scotland to the minister and congregation of the First Church of Otago, 1851. This bell now reposes, badly cracked, on a pedestal in the shadow of First Church. And shortly afterwards the issue of a Crown grant to the Church Hill "as the site for the First or Principal Church of the Presbyterian Church of Otago" settled the ownership of the hill.

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The year 1850 was notable for the large attendance at Communion In the church. People came far and near despite the difficulty of walking along the rough tracks. Over 200 partook of the sacred ordinance, which was held at three tables with all solemnity on January 20. Soon after, on February 14. Burns had the grief and misfortune to lose his old grey mare Sally. She was drowned in fording the Taieri at the Native village. After becoming heated by the journey at midsummer the mare was allowed to cool down before entering the water, and she was seized with cramp. Burns never owned another horse; he so deeply regretted the loss of Sally, his faithful steed; and thenceforth he performed most of his journeys on foot.

The following note in his visiting book shows his wonderful powers as a pedestrian:—

Note of walking distances from Saddle Hill to Dtmedin on July 21, 1852, the roads being pretty hard with frost, but otherwise very fatiguing. From William Jaffray's at Saddle Hill to junction of Main road to Dunedin, 35 minutes, thence to Mrs Shand's 45 minutes, thence to top of ridge, 40 minutes, thence to junction of road to Mr Macandrew's lime quarry 30 minutes, thence to Mr Reynolds's gate 15 minutes, thence to manse 15 minutes. 8

1 This letter is preserved in the Early Settlers' Library, Dunedin.

2 The report is printed in the Otago Journal No. V, p. 69.

3 "A Discourse Delivered in the Church of Otago on Friday, March 23, 1849, Being a Day of Public Thanksgiving, Humiliation, and Prayer, and the Anniversary of the Arrival of tho First Party of Settlers." By the Rev. Thomas Burns, minister of the Church of Otago. Published by request. Dunedin: Printed at the Otago News Office, Rattray street, 1849 (12 pages). The copy from which the above extract was quoted was kindly loaned to me by Professor T. D. Adams.

4 First Church Session Minutes, July 16, 1849. The minute book has been kindly loaned to me by Mr William H. Adams, to whom I am indebted for other materials in connection with this work.

5 Minutes of First Church Session.

6 "Early Otago," by Bannerman, p, 7.

7 Taken from a brochure entitled "A Brief Account of the Origin and History and Also the Income and Expenditure of the Presbyterian Church of Otago, as Contained in an Address Delivered by the Rev. Dr Burns at the Congregational Soiree of the First Presbyterian Church on February 16, 1865." Mills. Dick & Co., printers, Stafford street, Dunedin, 1865. Page 13.

8 Roughly, about 13 miles of very hilly country in three hours!