Missionary and martyr

2014-07-09 00:00

ALLEN Francis Gardiner was born on January 28, 1794 in the parsonage at Basildon. He was religiously educated and in May 1808 he entered the Royal Naval College as a cadet at Portsmouth. His parents were devout believers, who encouraged regular church attendance and daily family prayers. Their simple but abiding piety had a profound influence on his life.

As a missionary, he was a man of extraordinary courage, faith and vision. He founded and established the church in Natal and Zululand and Durban, in what was to become the colony of Natal. In so doing he played a vital role in the early history of both the church and the colony. As a man of vision he brought the gospel to the indigenous people of Zululand and Natal.

Gardiner’s life involved a narrative of epic proportions against a background of very historic events both in Europe — the Napoleonic wars involving Nelson and Wellington, and South Africa, with the Frontier and Zulu wars and the Battle of Blood River. It was indeed a heroic age and Gardiner must be seen in the context of his time. He was essentially a Victorian missionary and acted according to the light he had. Gardiner was, however, a product of his time, which involved British hegemony and imperialism.

Naval Career

Gardiner had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy, which he joined in June 1810 as volunteer on board HMS Fortune. He saw action against the French navy during the Napoleonic Wars and against the American navy during the war of 1812. He rose to the rank of captain before retiring in 1827. He applied for other positions in the Royal Navy, but never succeeded.

Gardiner served on several ships — the Phoebe, Ganymeade, Leander, and Dauntless — in various parts of the world. He distinguished himself in the capture of the American frigate Essex, and was sent to England as acting lieutenant of that prize.


Allen Gardiner was devoted to his mother. Her early death in 1810, when he was at impressionable age as a youth, profoundly shook his religious belief.

As a result he became rebellious and flippant and on one occasion it is recorded that he declared “the study of the Bible folly”. During this period he lived a hard and reckless life, as a sailor.

When in 1822 he became seriously ill and as a result experienced a prolonged period of recuperation, he had time for deep self -reflection and reviewed his belief and attitude to God. With a renewed faith he was determined to devote his life to missionary work. However, his attempts to apply this in South America were unsuccessful. He therefore rejoined his ship, and travelled to many parts of the world, bringing him into contact with the indigenous people in these lands. He was impressed by the work of Christian missionaries among these people especially on the island of Tahiti, where missionary endeavour had brought peace and harmony to the native people of the island.

As a result he offered himself to the London Missionary Society. He wanted to go to South America, but was refused and discouraged. He was also prepared to enter the Church of England ministry, but this too was denied him. This left him with a deep feeling of unworthiness.

In 1823 he married Julia Reade, a woman of singular religious faith, who died in May 1834. This grievous event precipitated his decision to become the pioneer of a Christian mission to indigenous people, choosing Zululand as his field of mission. Once his decision was taken, he lost no time and before the end of 1834 he was on his way to South Africa.

After arriving in Cape Town, he travelled overland via Grahamstown to Port Natal. He was accompanied by a Mr Berkin, a Polish refugee. The journey was accomplished with inordinate hardship and discomfort. They had to ford swollen and crocodile-infested rivers, survived on meagre rations and were delayed by the outbreak of the Sixth Frontier War.

Arrival at port Natal

Gardiner arrived as a missionary at the settlement known as Port Natal in 1835. He had been inspired by a vision to bring the gospel to the great Zulu king Dingaan.

At the time the small and motley settlement of Port Natal consisted of a collection of wattle and daub huts clustered under spreading indigenous forests not far from the bay. The settlers urged Captain Gardiner to stay with them as they desperately needed a spiritual and educational leader as much as the Zulu king.

Gardiner could not be dissuaded from his mission and as soon as he could he proceeded north across the Tugela River to the royal kraal at Umgungundlovu. He was driven by a restless energy and fiery spirit. Although the Tugela was in flood, he crossed the raging river in a canoe made of skins and reached Umgungundlovu on February 10, 1835. Although he obtained an audience with the Zulu king, and informed him of his mission, the monarch was inherently suspicious. Also, he soon learned from the king’s indunas that they were more interested in and wanted to know more about guns than about God. He was curtly informed that he could build at Port Natal and teach people there and not north of the Tugela.

Therefore, in effect he was repulsed by the Zulu King. Gardiner returned crestfallen and profoundly hurt, to the settlement of Port Natal. He was to learn that Dingaan’s attitude to white persons was bedevilled by what historians refer to as “Jacob’s prophesy”. Jacob, who had acted at times as an interpreter for the traders, was an ex-convict who hailed from the Eastern Cape. He informed Shaka that “… a white man assuming the character of a teacher or missionary would arrive amongst them and obtain permission to build a house: that shortly after that he would be joined by one or two other white men; and in due course of time an army would enter the country, which it would subdue, and eventually white people would rule in his stead”.

Origin of the Church in Berea

Gardiner, having regained his composure, reminded the settlers of the similarity of his experience at the hands of the Zulu king to that of St Paul, Christianity’s greatest missionary, who although he had been repulsed by the Thessalonians, was warmly welcomed by the people of Berea (Acts 17, 10-11).

Thus gesturing to the wooded ridge dominating in the west of the low-lying flat plain on which they stood, he solemnly promised to establish both a church and school there, and decided to name the place Berea. Less than two weeks after this on Tuesday, March 24 1835, Gardiner held a great meeting for about 30 settlers and 600 indigenous people. This was the beginning of his missionary work in Natal.

Gardiner lived in a hut provided by Mr Berkin at a spot near the bay. The next day Gardiner established Durban’s first school. It was housed in African huts, starting with six African children, two girls and four boys. At the time there were no white women or children in the settlement. This was the beginning of the task of educating indigenous people to which the missionaries were committed.

Meanwhile, Gardiner entered into a contract for the necessary buildings at the Berea. This included a school house, which was also to be used as a church, two dwelling houses and some huts. For this purpose Gardiner had to make the perilous journey to Cape Town to obtain supplies to start his building project.

Further Negotiations

with Dingaan

During the early months of 1835, a frightening rumour persisted that Dingaan was contemplating an attack on the traders at Port Natal. Urgently, at a meeting arranged to discuss this situation, Gardiner was asked to intercede for the traders and negotiate a treaty with Dingaan.

This he accepted and it meant he was moving away from his missionary endeavour into the fraught and precarious world of politics. The two were however intertwined, since his work and vocation as a missionary could only succeed if there was peace, order and security in the region.

Gardiner therefore donned the full regalia of a commander of the Royal Navy to impress the Zulu monarch. A treaty was negotiated and agreed on, in terms of which Dingaan guaranteed the lives of all individuals, white and black, at the Port Natal settlement, in return for which the traders agreed not to receive or protect any more deserters from the king’s domain. In addition, Dingaan agreed that Gardiner could carry out mission work between the Tugela and Amatikulu rivers. Gardiner selected a site and called it Khulula, which means “to be set free”.

In complying with the terms of the treaty Gardiner immediately had arrested and returned to Dingaan a woman who had been accused of adultery and who had fled with her family. They were handed over to the king and subsequently tortured and executed. This caused him profound emotional stress. Indeed he had entered into the realm of bloody politics, with all its attendant risks and dangers! There was however no going back.

The Establishment

of the City of Durban

The treaty did however bring about a welcome respite for the traders, who then decided to make their settlement more permanent. As a result, a meeting was convened on June 23, 1835, and presided over by Gardiner, in order to lay out a township. Streets were marked out, plots allocated and regulations formulated. This was the embryo of what was to become the great metropolis that it is today. The town was named D’Urban, in honour of Sir Benjamin D’Urban, the governor of the Cape Colony.

Negotiations with

Dingaan and D’urban

Feelings of security were soon shattered when news came that Dingaan had stopped all trade with Zululand. Gardiner hastened alone across the Tugela to seek another audience with the king, who claimed that the traders had broken the treaty by smuggling deserters out of Zululand. Gardiner explained he had no power over the traders, other than that of persuasion. Dingaan was prepared to give Gardiner authority by recognising him as the “chief of the white people” at Port Natal. Gardiner realised that to enforce the treaty he needed the support of the British authorities in the Cape.

Gardiner therefore decided to leave the settlement and his servants and travel south to Cape Town at a hazardous time, as the frontier wars were taking place. He proceeded first to Grahams­town and then to Port Elizabeth, where he obtained an interview with D’Urban, who approved his actions. As a result he dispatched a letter to Dingaan, informing him that “… an officer on the part of the King of England … shall speedily be sent to Port Natal”. This never materialised, as D’Urban had no authority to extend British authority to Natal, an act that was legally and constitutionally the prerogative of the imperial government at Westminster. On his way to Cape Town, Gardener encountered three American missionaries on their way to seek permission from Dingaan to establish mission stations. Although he tried to dissuade them from doing so, fearful that they would upset his careful diplomacy with Dingaan, they proceeded and were given permission, and two started their work north of the Tugela and one at Umlazi, where George Champion established a mission station, and at the same time ministered to persons at Port Natal.

Gardiner’s trip to England

Gardiner decided to travel to England in February 1836 to obtain support for his missionary endeavours. He found that a select committee of the House of Commons had been set up to investigate the treatment of aborigines in the British colonies. He gave evidence with the purpose of persuading the British to take political control of Natal. This evidence was controversial as it portrayed the conduct of the traders in a negative light, in order for him to strengthen his case for obtaining some form of authority. It contributed to the decision of the committee to make the traders of British origin subject to the jurisdiction of the Cape Courts.

He was however severely criticised for handing over deserters who were subsequently tortured and executed. Although he was accorded the status of Justice of the Peace, this did not mean that Britain was assuming political and constitutional responsibility for Natal.

Next, while in England, Gardiner reported back to the Church Missionary Society and it undertook to take control of the Berea and Khulula missions, as well as the management of all future missions in Zululand. Although recruitment proved to be problematic, he persuaded the Reverend Francis Owen, a graduate of St John’s College, Cambridge, to come to Natal as a missionary.

Return to South Africa

Gardiner sailed from England in December 1836. Included in his party were his second wife and three of his surviving children from his first marriage, as well as Owen, his wife and sister. On board the vessel Skerne, on May 11, 1837, his daughter Julia died, two weeks before they reached Port Natal. Once again he was overwhelmed with grief and sadness. She was buried one day after arrival at the Berea Mission on May 26 1837, in the old St Thomas Church graveyard.

Gardiner was thoroughly alarmed by the developments that had occurred during his absence at Port Natal. The number of traders had increased and some had become more militant. Many of the newcomers rejected Gardiner’s treaty with Dingaan. Others had allied themselves with the Zulu king in his wars with neighbouring tribes. He called a meeting on June 1 to inform them that he had a crown commission as a magistrate. At the same time he announced a ban on the sale of guns to Dingaan. The attitude of the traders towards Gardiner became increasingly antagonistic, partly because they had become aware of his negative portrayal of their conduct to the House of Commons select committee.

As a result of this state of affairs, Gardiner left the Berea Mission and established one near the Tongaat River, at a location called Hambanathi (Come Thou with Us), where 40 Zulu families agreed to accept him as their chief. Things proved to be more settled here and he began to teach the scriptures to the Zulu persons at the mission station.

This was preceeded by a visit to Dingaan and received, after negotiations, a document granting to the King of England, the land granted to him previously. Neither however knew that by that time, William IV had died and the young Victoria was on the throne. Britain had entered the Victorian age of Empire.

The Reverend Francis Owen

At this time, Dingaan proved to be more amenable and at last accepted the presence of a mission station near Umgungundlovu, where a suitable location was found. Owen travelled via the Berea to this place and began his work as an ordained Anglican minister, the first one to serve in Zululand. Although its duration was to be only four months it was reasonably successful. Unfortunately, conflict of historic proportions was about to engulf the entire region.

Arrival of Voortrekkers

and slaughter of Retief

Early in October 1837 the Voortrekker parties under Retief and Maritz as part of the Great Trek, descended the Drakens­berg in their wagons in search of a new home in Natal. Their entry into the land of the Zulus had an electrifying effect.

The disastrous episode of Retief’s ill-fated visit to Dingaan is part of the tragic and traumatic history of South Africa. Dingaan’s fateful and violent response to the Voortrekkers’ request for land, was obviously influenced by Jacob’s prophesy. Owen was witness to these events and although he and his family were assured that no harm would come to them, they left the mission station at Umgungundlovu and made their way to Hambanathi, where they were joined by American missionaries in Zululand.

Their fears of a full-scale war were justified when Zulu warriors attacked the Boer laagers at Blaaukrantz Valley and annihilated a trader force at Port Natal near the Tugela River. Jacob’s prophesy may significantly have contributed to engendering a fear in Dingaan that the arrival of the Boers meant that the whites were going to take over his land. This extraordinary saga was to culminate in the Battle of Blood River, December 16, 1838.

These and other related events induced Gardiner to depart with his family from Natal, as he feared for their lives and safety. They departed before the sacking of the Berea Mission. Although departing from Natal with a sad heart, Gardiner had planted a seed that was to grow and blossom in time. His moral and spiritual courage, and profound Christian faith were to bear fruit on the native soil of South Africa and leave a great legacy.

Subsequent Missionary

Activities of Allen Gardiner

After briefly stopping at Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, Gardiner proceeded to South America, where he was to spend most of his missionary career. This involved Chile, Papua New Guinea and Patagonia. None of these were successful. However, Gardiner felt that “all the world was his parish”. He was prepared to go to the ends of the earth to bring the gospel to indigenous peoples. In so doing he suffered great tribulations and his life was often threatened.

His last fateful missionary endeavour in 1851 involved Tierra del Fuego, in Patagonia, one of the most desolate and remote regions of the world. He faced incredible hardships. The party’s food ran out and relief vessels failed to reach them. He, with the rest of his party was to die of starvation. Lying at the point of death he recorded his last thoughts: “I neither hunger nor thirst, though for five days without food — marvellous loving kindness to me, a sinner’. [1]

Help arrived too late on October 21, by which time he and all his fellow missionaries had died of starvation.

The work that Gardiner started was ultimately to take root and flourish.

St Thomas Church is a part of the seeds that Gardiner planted and Old St Thomas Church is a memorial to this exceptional man of faith and vision.

In her biography of Allen Gardiner, Jessie Page states: “Gardener was one of those pioneers who never lived to see the fruit of their labours and the changes wrought in the nature of the country during the intervening years, prove that no work for God fruitless falls”.

• Professor George Devenish is a parishioner at St Thomas and Professor Emeritus in Constitutional Law at UKZN.

Captain Allen Francis Gardiner.

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