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

Chapter XIII. — The Darkness Before the Dawn

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Chapter XIII.
The Darkness Before the Dawn.

Behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Lowell ("The Present Crisis.")

The inauguration of the Lay Association in Glasgow was followed by a similar function in Edinburgh, during the sittings of the Assembly. The account of this meeting is given in the letter wrongly dated 1843 (May 30), to which reference has been already made. 1The occasion exactly fits the same date in 1845:—

I succeeded yesterday in getting a much better meeting at the Canonmills Hall than I expected, to adhere to our Glasgow resolution—Fox Maule in the chair… Sir James Forrest, Sir William Seton, of Pitmedden, Sheriff Spiers, Sheriff Monteith, George Buchanan, of Kelloe, J. M. Hogg, of Newliston, Jas. Hamilton, of Ninewar, Geo. M'Miehen Torrance, of Threave. P. B. Mure Macredie, of Perceton, Adam Holland, of Gask, W. H. Crawfurd, of Crawfurdland, Dr Smyttan, Jno. Hamilton, advocate, J. B. M'Combie, of Gellybrand, Aberdeen, J. Wyld, of Gilston, J. M. Nairn, of Dunsinane, General M'Dowall, of Stranraer, Robert Roxburgh, of Greenock. Dr Candlish mentioned our scheme very explicitly to the House last night… Were the Company once agreed with Lord Stanley, and the title to hand, we might move with spirit and persevering energy till the affair were established.

The closing part of the letter touched upon the great difficulty which confronted the founders of the Colony. The relations between the New Zealand Company and the Colonial Office were strained almost to breaking-point. References to the report of the Select Committee on New Zealand Affairs were made in Parliament during the month of March, and Mr Charles Buller took the leading part in attacking Lord Stanley's administration. It was evident page 128to all observers that a crisis was at hand. The situation, as reflected in the correspondence of Burns and Cargill, throws a ray of light upon the character of the former. Burns confessed to a feeling of panic in his mind regarding the cherished scheme, and attributed the hindrances to direct Satanic agency (June 5, 1845):—

I am aware of a constitutional tendency in myself amidst adverse circumstances to magnify the evil that is apparent, and to apprehend worse than appears. My present impressions, therefore, may possibly be corrected by fuller and more accurate information. And, accordingly, you will, I hope, receive what I now write as the confidential flowings of my own feelings than as the deliberate determinations of my made-up mind. …My feeling is that we can do nothing just now, till it is seen what turn things are to take in London. And I confess to you that I say so under a sort of apprehension that the chance is that our entire scheme may be knocked on the head. Meanwhile, my own position is such as will not admit of an indefinite delay. And I have been turning in my own mind whether by accepting a call to one of our congregations at home or taking some appointment in the Colonies I might not bide the time till our enterprise could be started with more prospect of success, when I might be enabled to join it. … May Almighty God direct us all wisely to judge and act in this matter, and then all will be well.

On June 17 the Parliamentary debate began between the Company and the Colonial Office, when Mr Charles Buller moved: "That this House resolve itself into a committee to consider the state of the Colony of New Zealand, and the case of the New Zealand Company." During the three days' discussion which ensued the weaknesses of the Government's policy were frankly stated, and although the motion was defeated by 223 votes to 173, it was felt in the country that the Company had gained somewhat in prestige. A second debate occurred in July, and negotiations between Lord Stanley and the Company for a settlement of existing differences were continued.

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Burns ruefully discusses the situation in his letters to Cargill, and mentions " the impossibility of persuading any body of our countrymen to proceed " to Otago under the existing state of affairs. The great historian D'Aubigny wrote at this juncture that the Tahitians should be given a safe quarter in the Pacific, and the suggestion was made that the Scotch Colony might accommodate them. Burns writes grimly, "I doubt poor Queen Pomare would find no crown nor kingdom among our Free Church Presbyterians."

Burns sought advice as to his future course of action from the leaders of the Free Church, including the Rev. John Sym and the Eight Hon. Fox Maule, M.P., the chairman of the Lay Association. This gentleman, afterwards Lord Panmure, and later the Earl of Dalhousie, used his high political position for the furtherance of colonial enterprise, and was a staunch friend of the Otago scheme from first to last. He was a pronounced Free Churchman; and he held cabinet rank under Lord Melbourne, and at subsequent periods, under Lord John Russell and Lord Palmerston. He died in 1874. Writing to Cargill on July 18, Burns says:—

The idea which he (Mr Fox Maule) casually throws out has often been present to my thoughts… that, if all this delay should compel me to withdraw from the scheme, I shall at least have prepared the way for some other Free Church minister occupying my place as soon as the first party shall be in condition to move… And I confess to you that it is soothing to my mind to suppose that by my two years' waiting and co-operating with yourself for this object, some good service has been rendered… even though I may be compelled to form some ministerial connection which may prevent me from accompanying you to Otago when you shall be ready to go.

Suggestions were made that Burns should go to Australia, to Canada, or to Auckland in New Zealand; and his situation was so desperate that he pondered over page 130his future course of action. But he clung to the Otago scheme with great loyalty and affection. It had become part of himself. Even if he should be compelled to take some other work, he would go back to the Scotch colony when the opportunity came to him. From the New Zealand Company the promised recompense to Burns had not been forthcoming, and his finances were almost exhausted. Former friends turned against him, and charged him with various sins of omission and commission in regard to his Church. But he stood by his ministerial appointment to the enterprise as long as he could. It was a season of great darkness and agony of soul, to which he looked back with a full heart in later years. Writing-from Otago, in 1862, to his brother Gilbert on the success of the experiment in true colonisation by means of the class settlement, he says:—

It was the idea that first fired my imagination when the New Edinburgh scheme was first broached to me in June, 1843 2—a few weeks after the Disruption, when I and my congregation left the Established Church. It was that idea which supported me in clinging to the Otago proposal from its initiation in 1848 until its completion in 1847, amidst the wonderment and charges of Quixotism, romance, "bee-in-the-bonnetism," by which I was assailed by the entire body of my clerical brethren in the Free Church. After 14 years' experience in Otago I now more pronouncedly than ever believe the class settlement to be the only Christian mode of colonization… The contract to which we became parties should be maintained and fulfilled.

From May 23, 1845, when Burns left his home at New Prestwick, he had been lodging in Ayr with his devoted wife and family. On August 12 he moved into a house near the mouth of the River Ayr, and he wrote:—

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We are all here in the midst of confusion. The house we engaged in spring was a-building, and was to have been ready at Whitsunday to receive us. We have been in furnished lodgings. I am in the midst of flitting. The house we go into is on the edge of the quay, like an emigrant's. I fancy myself at Port Chalmers sometimes when I look out the window on the vessels.

In September Lord Derby (formerly Stanley) granted the request of the New Zealand Company for a loan of £100,000, and promised to instruct Governor Fitzroy "to make an unconditional grant of the Otago Block of 400,000 acres, the Company engaging to select the 150,000 acres proposed, or any further quantity required, and to reconvey the remainder to the Crown." This gave a more hopeful aspect to the movement in Scotland. A pamphlet was to be prepared, bringing the undertaking into comparison with the colonisation of New England in the early part of the 17th century. The religious and educational aspects were to be stressed in this new circular, as the only true foundation of a successful colony. Various suggestions were made as to the author to whom this pamphlet should be entrusted, including Hugh Miller, the then famous author of "The Old Red Sandstone"; but he declined the task; and it was finally written by Dr Aldcorn, with much help from Thomas Burns. Throughout the whole period of the organisation of the Scotch settlement. Burns kept himself in the background, avoiding all publicity, while really inspiring all the activities on its behalf in Scotland.

Writing on September 12, Burns deals with the naming of places in Otago, and expresses his disapproval of "the sort of heathen deification of individuals by conferring a species of immortality to which they are in no page 132respect entitled." He indicates three sources from which names may be drawn:—

1. Old historical names like Dunedin, not previously given to existing towns. 2. Such names as Free Church land, Free land, Free village, Free cape or river, "Land o' Cakes," etc., might be translated into as euphonious Maori as the literary resources of the Colony could accomplish. … I agree with you that it will be impossible to retain all the Native names. Tokomairiro, Towitoratu, Purehurehu, Waiwakaheke, etc., are rather "long nebbit," and would prove sort of clumsy stumbling-blocks in the speech of our colonists, especially when they happened to be in a hurry—as will, no doubt, often happen, for some years to come! 3. There are many beautiful names in Scotland of sequestered glens," etc. … Otago, I think, it would not be easy to change now. I like it just as it is … if people would only learn to pronounce it right— "Otawgo." …

During September a meeting was held in connection with the Glasgow branch of the Lay Association, at which Burns and Cargill were present. An arrangement was arrived at between the New Zealand Company and the Lay Association, known as the "Terms of Purchase," which stated the respective obligations of the two bodies in regard to emigration, surveying, transport, the erection of buildings, the making of roads and bridges, etc. The Free Church aspect of the movement was committed to the Lay Association, also the important business of recruiting suitable emigrants, and "the eligibility of persons desirous of purchasing land, and of effecting the sale of the properties." The matter was submitted to a full meeting of the Association held on October 10. Burns writes on the following day:—

The sanction of this large Lay Association, nominal as in great measure it is, may serve our cause both here and in London 3; but, depend upon it, it is a most perilous thing to page 133submit such a string of well-considered proposals to the criticisms of so many judges, who, with all their business knowledge, like Sheriff Spiers, and all their divinity, like my brethren in Glasgow, are mainly and marvellously bad judges of such a matter. … We thought ourselves most fortunate in getting such a large and wise Association … but, lo and behold, once buckled to such a great lumbering body, we must ever after move with "weary steps and slow," dragging at our tail the monstrous bulk of such a cumbrous commodity!

In December, the pamphlet was published at the office of the Scottish Guardian. It was entitled, "Scheme of the Colony of the Free Church at Otago," and contained two maps of the Otago Block and 52 pages in all.

Armed with many hundreds of these pamphlets, Messrs Burns and Aldcorn, like friars of old, again resumed their journeyings into the highways and byways of Scotland, distributing as they went along, and seeking to entice. But pipe as they might, the people would not dance, and after six months of much disheartening work the pair were obliged to confess that their labour was in vain. Still, the bread had been cast upon the waters, though there seemed no likelihood of ever finding it again. 4

Burns himself visited Renfrew, Beith, Kilwinning, Saltcoats, and Ardrossan in February, 1846. Next on his itinerary were Paisley, Hamilton, Johnstone, and then Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen, etc. In the course of his wanderings he fell in with a Mr Dalziel, who had travelled widely in Australia and New Zealand. He claimed to have been over the Otago area (of which he thought very little) "and several other places besides in the Middle Island, one of which, Timoru (sic), immediately south of the Banks Peninsula, he declares to be the best in the Island, i.e., in point of soil, for he admits that there is no harbour to it nearer than Banks Peninsula, the road to which would be long and difficult." Burns continues in this letter page 134(February 14, 1846) that he suspects that Dalziel belongs to the party of Dr Martin and a Mr Brown, who had returned from New Zealand and expressed preference for the placing of the settlement near Auckland, where there were about 1700 Presbyterians without a minister, according to the statement made. 5Whytlaw also spoke much against Otago as a site.

It was the discovery of this that led us to add a dozen more pages to our pamphlet, giving information as to the Middle Island, and particularly of Otago. … It is pretty evident that we shall have a battle to fight with these men, armed as I suppose they are with Dalziel's damaging testimony.

So the propaganda went on. Burns postponed his northern trip, and visited Kirkintilloch, Stirling, Kirkcudbright, Wigton, Galloway, and part of Dumfries. The Maori troubles in the North Island of New Zealand were hindering the progress of the peaceful campaign in Scotland. He writes of his lack of financial support from the Company, from which he has received no compensation, despite Rennie's written assurances, and of the unresponsiveness of the people to the appeal for colonists. But he says grimly, "Scotland will move, and must move … but time must be given for that purpose; and, more especially, more favourable intelligence must come home from New Zealand." Burns visited the presbyteries of the west and south, and approached the deacons' courts, but heard on all sides that the time was inopportune for action. Business failures were taking place in Glasgow, while the wages of labourers were on the up-grade. Railways were being built, and workers were finding employment at 3s 6d per day. On March 27 Burns writes that Dr Aldcorn agrees with him as to the necessity for further delay, adding that, "if circumstances should be favourable, a page 135movement might be tried towards autumn to get up a party for 1847, perhaps not very large, as a precursory and pioneering effort."

And what was Burns himself to do in the meantime? The question returned with fresh force at each disappointment and delay. He might perhaps go out as minister of Wellington or Nelson, and afterwards link up with Otago. Whytlaw revived the claims of Auckland. But the New Zealand Company had made no recent offer to fill any of these positions. Meanwhile, the Colonial Committee of the Free Church made an alternative proposal, that Burns should go to Australia at the head of a party of young ministers who were to be sent out to supply the needs of the Presbyterian Church in that country. He took time to consider this project. Another suggestion came from Dr Candlish, that he should become an evangelist to the Free Church stations at home. He placed himself under the Home Mission Committee in the meantime, and preached in Portobello, and then at Aberdeen, where his old friend, the Rev. James Stewart, of the South Church, Aberdeen, formerly of Wallacetown in Ayr, lay dying. He filled this post in June, 1846. His son Arthur wished to go to sea, and he sailed on the ship Tamar from Newport for Hongkong, after getting his outfit at Dublin.

It was now accepted that the first party could not be assembled for at least a year. From Aberdeen Burns wrote to his friend and correspondent Cargill a kind of swan song, which, however, may be interpreted, as Socrates in the Phædo spoke of it, as a song of hope and not of despair6:—

It would be very gratifying to my mind if by any means Otago could be kept for the Free Church; and all our labours for the last three years, instead of sinking like water into the sand page 136and disappearing for ever, should yet meet with a fair chance of being carried out to their intended result. In short, I would like that the Otago scheme should not be hopelessly abandoned, but only suspended … in some way that would facilitate its revival.

Even in Aberdeen, and under the shadow of possible failure, Burns used his opportunities for advancing the interests of the scheme. One of the settlers of Otago, a highly gifted man, gave his impression of a meeting held by the leaders 7:—

Fifty years ago, having heard that two gentlemen from Edinburgh were to address a meeting in Aberdeen on the subject of "Emigration to the South of New Zealand," I resolved to hear what could be said about the remote islands of this stern, unknown land and its cannibal inhabitants. On entering the church where the meeting was held, I saw several gentlemen on the platform, one of whom (late Dr Bonar) was called to the chair, and introduced to the audience Dr Aldcorn and Rev. T. Burns. The addresses of both gentlemen were very short, and the information they gave of a very limited kind, for they were speaking of a country they had never seen, and of a life to which they were utter strangers. I was, however, favourably impressed with what Mr Burns said. Being a nephew of the Scottish bard, he might have been expected to have some influence upon Scotch emigrants—if there were any poetry in the life of an emigrant—but he made no attempt to elevate the hard facts of toil and labour in an emigrant's lot into the region of poetry and fiction. … But I had sense enough to know that toil, and perhaps danger, were the concomitants of life in New Zealand. The simple facts that Mr Burns had resigned his charge, had cast in his lot with the emigrants, and would sail with the pioneers, gave confidence in the statements of the reverend gentleman, so that the seed fell into soil prepared and ready to receive it. At the end of the address I stepped forward and had a conversation with Mr Burns, which ended in my receiving an immediate offer of a free passage to Otago.

The vacant charge of Portobello, a seaside resort about ten miles from Edinburgh, petitioned the Presbytery of Edinburgh for moderation in a call, and proceeded to page 137extend the call to the Rev. Thomas Burns, then acting as locum tenens in Aberdeen for the Rev. James Stewart. Burns writes to Cargill very frankly about the whole situation in which he finds himself, financially and otherwise. There is a note of mortification as to the apparently hopeless state of the Scotch Colony. On June 5 he intimates his intention to accept the call, and adds in his note to Cargill, "I have just seen in The Times that the Company are all up." And nearly a week later he writes of the passing of his friend Mr Stewart, of South Aberdeen. He reviews the strange events of life for both Cargill and himself during the past three years:—

I look back sometimes in wonder at the tenacity with which we have held on amidst obstacles and difficulties appearing insurmountable and rising thick in succession after each other, and yet every one of them surmounted—the series is still going on—the last obstacles and difficulties just as great and numerous as at the beginning of the series—the finale seems to be approaching at last. … How often has it (the Otago movement) been hopelessly down, the next day to uprear itself again with new promise! And is not this present crisis in its fate likely to prove another and perhaps a concluding exemplification of the same remark? Time will show.

On June 25, 1846, the Rev. Thomas Burns was inducted into the Free Church parish of Portobello by the Presbytery of Edinburgh, and he and his wife and family took up their residence at Rosefield Place, Portobello. Three toilsome and apparently fruitless years had passed since he accepted the appointment of minister to the Colony of New Edinburgh. Yet, as the Psalmist says, "Unto the upright in heart there ariseth light in the darkness."

1 Chapter ix, footnote (2).

2 This statement disproves Hocken's assertion, referred to in chapter VIII and footnote (3), that there bad been a tacit understanding between Burns and Cargill for some time previous to this date, that Burns should receive the appointment.

3 A London branch was formed to work through deacons' courts of the Presbyterian Church of England. Cargill was intimately associated with this branch, and the sailing of the John Wycliffe from Gravesend in 1847 was arranged through this agency, at least in name, Cargill himself being the chief instrument of its success.

4 Hocken, op. cit. page 71.

5 This was an exaggeration.

6 Phædo, 84 E.

7 " Twenty-five Years of Emigrant Life in the South of New Zealand," by James Adam.