Review: Captain Allen Gardiner of Patagonia

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Captain Allen Gardiner (1794-1851) was a British Navy officer, explorer, and pioneer missionary to several indigenous people groups. He spent some time among the Zulus in South Africa, founding a mission station there. When the mission was no longer viable, he turned to the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego.

Captain Gardiner is best known for the tragic end he met with his mission crew in Tierra del Fuego, but his exploits before that time were numerous and interesting.

The author, Jesse Page, authored a number of interesting and readable missionary biographies around the beginning of the 20th century.

Overview: Adventure stories captivated Allen Gardiner as a child, and his mother once found him sleeping on bare floor boards, “to accustom himself to roughing it some day” (loc. 205). In adulthood, he entered the Navy and travelled all over the world. He had a hairbreadth escape from death off the coast of Peru, in which he had to swim to shore.

Gardiner came to true faith after being impressed by missions work among the indigenous people of Tahiti. The transformation taking place there led him to reconsider his life, and eventually use his sailing skills for pioneer missions work.

His first few years of mission work (1834 to 1838) were spent among the Zulu of South Africa, and he published a narrative of this time. He founded a mission a Port Natal, which later became Durban. He left South Africa because of political turmoil and tribal issues.

His appeals for funding to the Church Missionary Society, the Wesleyan Missionary Society, and the London Missionary Society were all rejected. As a result, Captain Gardiner founded the Patagonian Mission in 1844, which later became the South American Mission. Although American missionaries are extremely active now in Latin America, it was then a neglected field, as Jesse Page takes pains to show.

The situation slowly increased in desperation until one by one his crew died of starvation over the course of a two-month period. The missions work, however, continued, and Allen Gardiner’s son also worked in missions in Patagonia.

Meat: The most impressive aspect of Gardiner’s life is his fortitude against material obstacles. He survived a number of treacherous voyages and shipwrecks. His missions lacked funding and were hedged in by political obstacles. In South Africa he dealt with tribal conflicts; in Tierra del Fuego he dealt with theft and treachery; finally, his crew of eight were stranded, but held out hope until the bitter end.

Bones: This book is concise and interesting but doesn’t provide any information about Gardiner’s pioneering strategy.

The author also seems to treat indigenous peoples as one unit, with one simplistic language, following the stereotypes of the time period. But we now know these stereotypes to be false, and their languages and customs to be more complex than a brief tour can justify.

Quotes: The most interesting passage from the book is undoubtedly the poem that Captain Gardiner penned while slowly dying on Picton Island:

“A moral desert, dark and drear;
But faith descries the harvest near,
Nor heeds the toil—nor dreads the foe,
Content, where duty calls, to go. …
The troubled sea, the desert air,
The furnace depth, the lion’s lair,
Alike are safe, when Christ is there.” (loc. 78)

The author’s words about South American missions are also prophetic:

“Some day the Church will wake up to its responsibility in this matter, and an impetus of zeal, something like that which created the China Inland Mission, will send forth the labourers by hundreds into this field, which is white with opportunity and need.” (loc. 1688)

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