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A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter VIII. On the Way to Panama

IT would be difficult to picture a more animated scene than that which is presented by the after-deck of a Hamburg and American liner every Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning, just before it is time to start from Jamaica to Colon.

"All the world is looking towards Colon." At one time there was no more ill-omened word in Europe--and especially in France--than "Panama." It stood for national disaster and calamity, and for many had meant utter and irretrievable ruin. This is only twenty years ago, and now, since the United States acquired the assets of the old French company and leased that strip of territory which is known as the "Canal Zone," and entered upon one of the greatest engineering enterprises ever yet attempted, the old ill-starred word "Panama" has been quite forgotten, and "Colon," so full of hope and daring, has taken its place.

Colon and Panama, perhaps it may be necessary to explain, are the two ports, one on the Atlantic and the other on the Pacific, between which the Americans are making the canal across the isthmus. Nowhere has the attractiveness of the new work been felt more keenly or widely than in the island of Jamaica. There are 33,000 men at work now on the Canal Zone, chiefly West Indians and almost entirely Jamaicans, and week by week they are passing over from Kingston to Colon.

I was on my way in October, 1909, to my Diocese of British Honduras, which extends from Mexico to the Canal Zone, having taken Jamaica on the way, so as to spend a few days with the Archbishop of the West Indies, who lives in Kingston, and who is the Primate of my province, and on Sunday morning, the 24th, was standing upon the saloon deck of the S------, looking down upon the after-deck; and I thought to myself that I had never seen anything more interesting and picturesque in all my life.

A large awning was spread above the deck and protected everything and everybody from the fierce heat of the morning sun, and underneath there was gradually being heaped up the most extraordinary collection of personal property and "household gods" imaginable. The scene was full of colour and interest, unique in character. The light-hearted Jamaicans were swarming everywhere, like ants about their ant-hill, as friends on shore handed over the side, and those on board received and stowed away, pathetic little bundles containing all that some poor creature possessed, imposing tin boxes and portmanteaux, pillows, beds, chairs, cooking vessels, garments, fruit, flowers, sugar-cane, an endless stream flowing over the side of the vessel. Shrieks, shouts, laughter, cries to attract attention, resounded on all sides.

It was a scene of the wildest excitement, a dense, struggling mass of humanity! And yet there was no confusion; no one was cross or out of temper; there was no selfish pushing others out of the way, so common in an ordinary crowd. Everyone was polite, gentle, and considerate. Our Jamaican negroes have very good manners, not only in their own island, but all through Central America, where they work in such great numbers on the banana plantations of the five republics. I knew them well, and it interested me profoundly to see them now setting out from home, some of them for the Zone and some of them to claim acquaintance with me later, no doubt, in my own jurisdiction.

As soon as we were at sea, and I had given them time to settle down, I went down amongst them for a chat and to propose a service. Everything was now neatly arranged and in order, for their two days and nights at sea had to be spent just where they had put down their belongings when coming on board. Chairs, beds, boxes were all placed so that their owners could sit and rest and eat by day and sleep, or rest, by night. They were just deck passengers. To me, personally, it all seemed quite luxurious, as I thought of my own experiences in the miserable little gasoline launches in which I had had to travel on the Nicaraguan coast; and they were perfectly contented.

"We are all so happy, Bishop," they assure me, and the shining smile, only seen on the faces of the dark race, enforce the words. "That's quite right," I answer cheerily, "and so you ought to be. We carry our happiness with us, we don't leave it behind, do we, if it is the real thing?"

And then I propose the service. Four stalwart negroes are the churchwardens, and they very soon clear a place as well as they can, right in the sun's eye, of course, and get the people together. Hymn-books are scarce, except "Sankey's," about which unfortunately I have to plead ignorance, and so I line out a verse at a time, and we begin with "As pants the hart," and have a very simple service of prayers with a lesson.

It is a service under difficulties, for it has been raining and the deck is streaming, and they have begun to clear out cinders and ashes from the stokeholes, and the clouds of steam used to expedite matters come pouring over us. There are some Spaniards at a little distance, who have just left Cuba to "try their luck" on the Zone, and they are loud in their disputation and wrangling; but our worship goes steadily, and earnestly, and enthusiastically on. We sing "Through all the changing scenes of life," "Thou art the Way, by Thee alone," and, of course, "Eternal Father, strong to save," and I preach from the Epistle, which might have been specially chosen for them: "See that ye walk circumspectly." The women, with their children and the young girls, all seated or reclining amongst the household stuff, the old men with grey beards and moustaches on their dark faces, the fine young fellows, of superb physique, standing all round me, listen with the deepest attention as I plead with them, as earnestly as I know how, for this "walking circumspectly," of which St. Paul speaks and of which he was such a grand example himself.

It is a moving sight, this picturesque crowd going forth to a new life, our own fellow subjects, our own fellow Churchmen most of them; and as one speaks to them, in the name of CHRIST, asking them to be faithful to their early training, to country, Church, and GOD, the quivering lips, the intense straining gaze as they listen, and here and there a tear, tell how the appeal goes home. The Blessing brings the service to a close, and one cannot but thank GOD for such an opportunity.

When this service was over I thought I should have no other that day, for we were on board a German liner, I and my son being the only Englishmen on board; but, as I left the saloon after luncheon, the captain, who had had to be asked to give his permission for the Jamaican service, asked, a little shyly, "Bishop, do you think you could give us a little service to-night in the smoking-room? I and the officers and others will be sure to come."

Needless to say I accept such a hospitable offer with great alacrity and many grateful expressions!

And he was as good as his word. At eight o'clock he and his officers came, big, thoughtful, capable-looking Germans, with some Americans on their way to the Zone, a hard-headed, virile-looking set, enough in these days to gladden the heart of any bishop to whom they were willing to listen for half an hour, and with whom they were willing to join in Sunday evening worship.

We had prayers, standing after the German Lutheran custom; the General Confession, Absolution, and LORD'S Prayer were singularly impressive said thus; the Gospel for the day was our lesson, and then the prayers for Evensong fitly followed; and I am sure, though it was the smoking-room of the ship, all felt the appropriateness of the prayer of St. Chrysostom, with its "where two or three are gathered together in Thy Name."

I preached to them from the Gospel for the day, the parable of the marriage feast. There was, of course, the undying teaching power of these divine stories to be acknowledged by way of beginning, and then the grand illustration which the parable gives us of the ideal life now given to the world, and which is treated with such carelessness and neglect as so many hurry on, absorbed in business, "one to his farm and another to his merchandise." Never was a simple illustration better devised to appeal to men in this part of the world, in the presence of this great banana cultivation, this huge development of German and American commerce and enterprise; and my Jamaicans, earlier in the day, gave me no more attentive hearing than these busy, capable men of the world, as f

I set before them the ideal--the "Vision" so eloquently put before the Church Congress three weeks before--and then the simple Gospel of the wedding garment, or putting on of the LORD JESUS CHRIST, by Whom we not only aim at the ideal, but in Him and through Him hope to attain. The Blessing concluded the service, but it did ij not seem at all incongruous, and it certainly was j not meant to be so, when the strong and clever-looking American doctor rose at once, and in a 'few simple words expressed the thanks of all present for the service which they had had, and the words which had been spoken to them.

And so ended a typical Sunday of one's life just then, for there was little that was conventional in that diocese of Central America, and every day was full of interest and opportunity. Few English readers who travel in Europe only can picture the tremendous energy, activity and interest called out by what is going on at Panama.

There is a constant stream of going and j coming between Colon and Kingston, composed of the labourers who go there for work, and return either disappointed or satisfied with what they have earned. Then there is the official and professional class, exceptionally large owing to the exceptional character of the work, constantly coming and going between Colon and the States; and finally there is the tourist class from all countries.

The very keenest interest is taken by the educated classes in the United States in the problems of Central America and the Panama canal zone, as is evidenced now by the number of books, pamphlets and articles written within the last twelve months, and the large number of beautiful and well-equipped vessels engaged in the passenger service, which is constantly being increased year by year. Those which are best adapted for tourists, fitted up with every comfort and luxury, are the banana boats of the United Fruit Company, upon so many of which I have ever been a very welcome and grateful guest.

No one would imagine when they are returning after their holiday;:n Columbia or at Panama, visiting Costa Rica and Guatemala also it may be, as every opportunity and facility is offered, that there are some 45,000 or 50,000 bunches of bananas stowed away in the capacious holds below, and that they furnish nearly all the profit of the trip.

The dining-rooms, reading and drawing-rooms are fitted up in the best taste, light and French in character, in keeping with the brilliance of the sunlight and the gaiety suggested and promoted by the pure air and glorious colours on sea and land.

The state-rooms are all unusually large, and some are as spacious and as well fitted up as one's bedroom on shore, and as well equipped with every appliance and comfort; and every room on board used by passengers is supplied with electric light and fans.

Every year sees these liners rise higher above the water, and so there are windows to most rooms, and not portholes any longer, looking out upon the decks, and doors and windows alike can stand open all the night if there is no rain or wind. Upper and lower decks stretch the whole length and breadth of the ship, and one feels able to go for country walks by way of exercise.

There can hardly be more sumptuous travelling, even in these luxurious days, than that which is afforded to those going to and fro between New York, New Orleans and Panama.

On these vessels also when Sunday has come there has always been the invitation to hold a service. My last was on the Santa Marta in February, on its way from Colon to New York by way of Kingston and the Bahamas.

We had it in the saloon, captain, officers and nearly every one on board being present. It is a delightful thing to find in the tropics how people of all creeds, and of no creed at all, will cheerfully join in the same service, and how very general is the knowledge of certain well-known hymns, such as "O GOD our Help" and "Rock of Ages" and "JESU, Lover of my Soul."

Amongst those on the Santa Marta that morning were Unitarians and Agnostics, who declared themselves to me afterwards, and gave one much to think of in the conversations we had as we tramped the deck together. One preaches, of course, on these occasions, sermons suitable to circumstances and people, and on board the Santa Marta they appreciated the straight talk they had had so much that a deputation came on Sunday afternoon to ask if I would have a Missionary Meeting in the evening and tell them about my own work, and have a collection for it.

It had come from the captain and the doctor, and was an opportunity not to be lost, and with a good map which I had with me and a crowded saloon, I had as good a meeting and as encouraging collection as I ever remember.

That was not all. On the next night I was asked to speak again on the Panama Canal, an interest to every passenger, and as I have always remembered that it was said of Kingsley that he could preach as good a sermon on "Broom-handles" as many clergy could preach from the most suggestive of texts, one welcomes every such opportunity, for in some way or another it is possible to convey to one's audience, whatever the subject of one's lecture or address, something of what one considers to be the chief aims and ideals of a true life.

It is strange too to notice how quickly circumstances and opportunities can change. I was on another great liner a little later this year, with a huge number of passengers, first, second and steerage, and as soon as the captain saw me come on board he marked me with a disapproving eye, and determined that I should have no service on his ship when Sunday came.

He told me later that he had once asked a bishop to have a service and been refused, and so had said to himself, "Never again." He kept quite clear of me for two whole days, but late at night on the second he came to me very much upset, and with a sad little story to tell. A young fellow, who ought never to have been taken aboard at all, in an advanced stage of consumption, had just died. He was only twenty-six, with no friends or relations on board, though there was someone who knew him as an acquaintance.

"Will you take the service to-morrow at eleven, Bishop, if you please?"

"But that's the captain's office, is it not, in a death at sea?"

"I know it is, but I can never take that service; it upsets me altogether. Will you be so kind?"

Of course there could be but one answer. It was my first burial at sea. All who could possibly attend were there, and it is impossible to describe the impressive and affecting character of that simple service in which one committed to the deep the body of one who had died so young, and whose arrival was being so anxiously expected by friends at home. At once it seemed to put one in touch with all on board. We were united, it seemed, immediately, by those noble words of our simple burial office in a common sense of sympathy, and a deep consciousness of the seriousness of life and the solemnity of death.

There was no question now with the good captain whether I should be permitted to do anything on Sunday. He took me into his confidence and told me his past experience, and how in consequence he had determined never to let anyone take a service again on Sunday but himself, and that crew and stewards all knew that he never allowed clergy to officiate, whatever their denomination, but--

"I can't keep to that now, can I, Bishop, after that funeral service?"

"Well," said I, "suppose, captain, you take the service on Sunday as usual. It think it is a grand thing for the captain to do it and give such an example to laymen on board; and, as everyone will expect it now, and it would be wrong to lose such an opportunity, I will take the sermon."

His brow cleared at once, and that was how we arranged it. The saloon was crowded to its utmost capacity, all classes being allowed to come, and with such an object lesson as we had just had, so short a time before, and the hymn "Days and moments quickly flying"--the captain's choice--the eager looks and tearful faces on all sides assured one how wrong it would have been to lose such an opportunity.

I venture to assure any clergy who may read these pages, that if they will only persevere, when there are these unconventional opportunities of taking a short service, or saying a few words by way of address or sermon, or asking if there are any who would like a Celebration of Holy Communion, when meeting a few English-speaking people on travels or a holiday, they will be more than encouraged by the result, and will often have great cause to be thankful.

This is what passed between the captain and the clergyman I have mentioned, according to his version of the encounter, which, if true, will speak for itself, and I have since heard it defended:

"I see you are a clergyman," said the captain.

"Yes!" was the answer.

"Will you take a service to-morrow for us?"

"Not much, captain, thank you, I'm on my holiday."

It was probably very thoughtlessly said, but I think he would have been sorry if he could have known how the story would be told again and1 again, as I have not the very least doubt it will be as long as the captain lives. He was not ill, but in the prime of life and in excellent spirits--but "on his holiday!"

Services on board ship on the road to Panama, and coming away from it, will always be remembered amongst my most encouraging and helpful experiences. Some of the greatest festivals of the Church's year for me in the last three years have been spent at sea, and often the service has been on the deck of the ship where "seas and floods" seemed to "bless the LORD and to praise and magnify Him for ever."

Last year, on Easter Day, on board a small banana boat, where we had stokers, crew, and officers for the morning service, and I had given them Psalm evil, instead of those appointed for the day itself, just as it ended a whale came up alongside, frisked and played about, and then dived out of sight, in striking illustration of the words we had just said, "They that go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters, these men see the works of the LORD, and His wonders in the deep."

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