Early days of William Henry Brett--Schools--The Rev. T. Medland-- Selwyn--Narrative of voyage from England to Barbadoes, and thence to Guiana.
WILLIAM HENRY BRETT was born at Dover on the Feast of St. Thomas, the 2 of December 1818. That his birth should have taken place on the festal day of this Apostle, who was the great missionary of the distant Indies, is a coincidence worthy of note. We are told that it was through the exertions of this Saint that we owe the evangelisation of the Malabar Coast in South India, and to William Henry Brett we owe, under God, the conversion of entire tribes of Indians in British Guiana. We feel sure that had I Brett ever thought on this extraordinary coincidence, he would have exclaimed, as he did on an occasion when a like coincidence was pointed out to him, "It is one of those singular things which sometimes happen, and seem to indicate an overruling and providential influence."
His father died when he was a very young child, and, his mother having the care of a second family, he was brought up by a pious grandfather. He very early evinced a studious and thoughtful disposition, and he had a wonder fully retentive memory, which was of great service to him in after years. From a very early age reading was an absorbing passion with him. The school to which he was sent was conducted by an elderly lady, who fostered his talents and supplied him with suitable books. He was afterwards sent to a day-school, where the master offered the loan of books to those boys who did their lessons best and most quickly. Under these circumstances, young Brett was not long in attracting attention, and he soon became his master's favourite scholar. He had, previously to this, attended a Sunday-school, then in its infancy, in the parish of St. James, in which the curate, the Rev. Thomas Medland (afterwards Vicar of Steyning, Sussex), took a deep interest. His attention was soon drawn to the steady, studious lad, and he too lent him books, amongst others, the "Life of Henry Martyn," which subsequently led to his consecrating himself to missionary work. At the age of thirteen or fourteen, Mr. Medland made him one of his Sunday-school teachers, and he subsequently became an assistant superintendent.
We are told that "no one could have been a more regular or a better teacher than Brett," and he continued to labour in the Sunday-school for nearly ten years, until, indeed, he left Dover. He was most anxious that the children under his care should be Christians, not only in name, but in reality. Sometimes he would walk with them along the seashore, and talk to them very earnestly about the duty and happiness of serving God faithfully; and he would sometimes take them to a cave, and there kneel down and pray with them.
But besides his duties as teacher in the Sunday-school, our future missionary had his daily work to attend to. At one time he was apprenticed to a tailor; but his master having failed, he never served his time, and had to earn his bread by doing any work that he could get. He gained some influence amongst the townsfolk of Dover by his steadiness of character and by his abstemious habits.
It may be seen from this account that the education which the future missionary received was very slender, but it must not be thence concluded that education is unnecessary for the mission-field. Men of the highest ability, men who have received the most liberal education, are the persons required for the work. There is an idea afloat that any one will do for the work of the Church in foreign lands. This is a mistake, and the sooner it is rectified the better. It may be that some of the most successful missionaries have been self-taught men, and such a one Mr. Brett proved to be. Extracts from his works, given later on, will show that his English was singularly pure and of considerable force. Most of the knowledge that he acquired was self-acquired, and was by no means confined to a narrow range. He was a fair Latin and Greek scholar, and his knowledge of his Greek Testament was very good. He set aside a part of every day for the reading at least of one chapter of the New Testament. This he continued to do as long as his health permitted him, that is to say, to within a few months of his death. The translator of portions of the Old Testament into four different languages must of necessity have known something of Hebrew. French, Spanish, and Portuguese were sufficiently known to him to enable him to read anything in those tongues that came in his way.
Young Brett was carefully watched by Mr. Medland, who thought that he would do excellent work in the mission-field as a catechist; and by and bye the opportunity of enlistment in such work occurred. The Rev. H. Duke, Rector of Holy Trinity parish, Essequibo, British Guiana, felt that something ought to be done for the wild Indians of his parish, and he visited one or two of their settlements, and succeeded in baptizing a few of them. Encouraged by this success, he then applied to Bishop Coleridge for a catechist, and he in his turn applied to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in foreign parts. About this time Mr. Medland had recommended young Brett to this Society, and he had gone up to London for his examination. It was on this occasion that he first came in contact with one of the greatest missionaries of the nineteenth century, George Augustus Selwyn, for the latter had been appointed by the Missionary Board to examine him. On this occasion two men of like mind stood face to face--two men who, though separated by vast oceans, were yet to do the greatest work in the mission-field--one as a bishop of the Church in New Zealand, the other as a priest in Guiana--one with the best and noblest training that Eton and Cambridge could give, the other with the limited education such as a humble school at Dover and the few spare hours of a busy curate could give. And yet the two, the examiner and examinee, each in his own sphere, have made a name for themselves that will last as long as the lands where they respectively laboured--aye, and longer, for are not their names written in "the Book of Life"? Selwyn and Brett parted. They met once again in 1868, on board the royal mail steamer Neva. The Bishop and Mrs. Selwyn were going out to take leave of the New Zealand diocese; Mr. Brett and family were returning to Guiana after a year's visit to England. They parted on board the steamer at the island of St. Thomas, with mutual regrets that they could not be fellow-voyagers on the longer journey, but we may rest assured that they have met again in the "Better Land," and are now enjoying together their well-earned rest.
Mr. Medland was delighted when he heard that the Society had accepted his protégé. And as probably there will be no opportunity of referring to Mr. Medland else where, it may be as well to state here that he remained on terms of close friendship with Mr. Brett to the end of his days. Mr. Brett spent some time with him at Steyning during the three several visits he made to England in 1849, 1867, and 1874. The writer had the privilege of seeing the venerable Vicar of Steyning in 1881, and then, although bedridden, he still showed unshaken love and the greatest veneration for his former pupil, with whom he kept up a close correspondence until increasing infirmities on both sides caused its cessation. Mr. Medland passed away to his rest in 1882.
Mr. Brett had just entered his twenty-second year when he sailed from England for British Guiana, the only colony, by the way, that England possesses in South America. Unfortunately he did not keep a diary, but he has left us a narrative of his first voyage which is given in extenso.
"In February 1840 I left England for missionary work amongst the aborigines of Guiana.
"It was the time of the Queen's marriage. I had seen Prince Albert land at Dover, my native town, and pass slowly through it amidst the waving of handkerchiefs and hearty rejoicings of the people. The same feeling was manifested everywhere, the whole South of England (or as much of it as could be seen from the top of the mail-coach) being in a state of loyal excitement. The print-shops of Exeter and Falmouth were surrounded by crowds gazing at the portraits of the Queen and the Prince; and even on board the mail-packet the passengers discussed the royal marriage. But the weather was stormy, and ere we reached the Lizard, sea-sickness and night came upon us together.
These were the olden times, when steam navigation was only feeling its way upon the ocean. In those days the mails were sent to the West Indies monthly, and in ten- gun brigs. Our packet was the Penguin. We encountered very heavy weather for the first fortnight, though making progress, as the gales were not dead against us.
"Few passengers were able to appear on deck during the first week. But when we were about 300 miles to the westward of Madeira, the cry that a 'ship in distress' was 'in sight' brought all of us from our berths to look at her.
"We found that our commander had altered his course, and that we were running down before the wind towards a vessel, whose hull we could not discern above the tem pestuous waves. Her three masts were standing, and her canvas, even to top-gallant sails, was set; but all had been blown to ribbons, and now looked like so many flags streaming horizontally from the yards. She was a water logged, timber-laden ship, and as we drew near, we saw the waves bursting upon her deck, and pouring like cataracts over the lee side, as she heaved heavily up and down. Her stern was broken in, and of her name there only remained 'D,' the first letter. Boards and planks were working their way through that breach into the sea, and floating all round her. The crew had evidently taken shelter in the tops, and made there canvas tents of the torn sails. Whether they were living or dead we could not tell, and were all in a state of anxious excitement about them. A round dark object, which looked like a man's head, was protruding from the mizzen-top. Our crew hailed, but no reply came; and the passengers said, 'Poor fellow! he must be too exhausted to call out.'
"As we ran in nearer, we heard a faint wail of misery from the wreck, which made us shudder, and caused the men who had manned one boat to pull more strenuously to the rescue. For some time they could not get on board, but at last one jumped on to the forecastle, and we then heard the same feeble cry as before.
"We saw the boat's crew ascend the rigging and overhaul the tops, and bring down something from one of them; after which they tenderly lifted from the forecastle into the boat what seemed to be a child in dark clothing, and pulled back to us.
"It was not a child, however, but a dog, which they had rescued. And such a dog! I have since seen hundreds of Indian hunting-dogs, looking all skin and bone, but never such a sight as that poor dog presented. The skin of his belly seemed cleaving to his backbone, and it was marvellous how such a miserable object could still retain life.
"Our doctor took him in hand, and dropped two or three slices of meat, cut very small and thin, and a very little water, into his mouth as he lay on the deck. Then our commander's dog, a huge mastiff, came and smelt him, turning away rather contemptuously, and finally he was borne forward to the berths of the men, who were not a little pleased at having saved him. No men, living or dead, were found on the water-logged ship. The crew had evidently lived some days in the tops, and had not been starved, for the round object we had mistaken for a man's head was a bag containing biscuit, and water was still left in a keg. A poor cat, which could not get at either biscuit or water, was lying there dead. The captain's desk was brought away by our men. From it we learned that the derelict was the Dorothea of St. John's, New Brunswick. But no one knew how the crew had left the vessel, or what had become of them. On the forecastle, near the dog, were found the enormous horns of an elk or moose deer, which the poor animal had gnawed in his ravenous hunger. These were brought on board with him. Some of the projecting points had been thus consumed, and fresh marks of his teeth were visible on the edges of the broad blades. A few days after this we were enjoying warm weather, as our vessel lazily rolled on with the trade wind. The order, discipline, and cleanliness of a man-of-war, albeit only a small brig, were gratifying to witness.
"Sometimes the men were exercising the guns or pre paring to resist boarders, going through the forms of a naval engagement. The Sunday at sea was, however, to me the most interesting thing. The demeanour of both men and officers during Divine service was reverent, as beseemed those who were in peril on the sea continually; and during the after part of the Lord's day many of the sailors brought out Bibles, and Prayer-books, and religious tracts, and sat reading them.
"Meanwhile the rescued dog had become the pet of the whole crew. When the doctor had pronounced him convalescent, and removed the restrictions at first placed on his diet, he was to be found in every mess and in every watch. In a fortnight he was getting fat, and having a thick curly coat, he looked fatter than he really was. No one could find out his former name, for he answered to none. So, as it was necessary to give him some name, he was called 'Wreck,' in remembrance of the scene of his former sufferings.
"'Wreck' had been taught various accomplishments by his former masters. When half a dozen men were hauling at a rope, he would encourage them by a cheerful bark and a few jumps, then seize the slack with his mouth and pull too. He would run and fetch any small object that might be sent rolling along the deck; and if a sailor looked over the side of the ship and said 'Fish,' he would jump up, place his forefeet on the bulwarks, and assume the knowing aspect of a pointer with a bird before him, to the great amusement of the men. These accomplishments brought poor 'Wreck' into serious trouble before the voyage ended. The captain's old mastiff viewed with secret indignation the tricks of the parvenu, and saw even the passengers, whom he considered in some respects his own property, faithlessly amusing themselves with him. One day something was thrown by a young passenger, which rebounded on to the quarter-deck. 'Wreck' sprang up to fetch it, and was immediately seized by his powerful rival, and received a terrible shaking. Of course he was pulled away as soon as possible, but after that mauling he never ventured up there again. The mastiff allowed him the whole run forward, and never interfered with him there; being apparently satisfied with having vindicated his own exclusive right to the quarter-deck, and shown the intruder that naval discipline and distinctions must be observed by dogs as well as by men.
"'Wreck's' next mishap was still more serious. One evening a sailor said 'Fish,' and the dog sprang up to point as usual; but the brig giving a heavy lurch at the same instant, his feet slipped forward, and he went headlong into the sea. A loud cry of 'Overboard! he's overboard!' was raised; and a dark object passed rapidly from us in the white foam of our wake, which I at first thought was a mart. So thought our commander, who was shaving at one of the windows of his own stern cabin, and he shouted up orders to 'bring to and lower a boat.' Very promptly these orders were obeyed, but ere the boat could be manned the dog was lost to our sight among the billows. A man at the masthead could see him, however, and pointed with his arms like a semaphore in the right direction, until it grew so dark that even the boat was lost to view.
"Meanwhile the commander had come on deck, and seemed much surprised to hear that it was only the dog which had gone overboard. It was necessary, however, to wait for the boat, which at length came alongside, having rescued the unlucky animal from death a second time. As 'Wreck' was handed up the gangway, where all were again waiting to receive him, our commander gave him notice (probably intended for the crew) that that was 'the last time H.M. mail-packet would be delayed' to help him. To this he replied, in dog's fashion, by a deprecatory wag of the tail, and shaking the remaining salt water over us from his shaggy sides. But during the remainder of the voyage I never saw his attention called to a 'fish' again.
"On the twenty-eighth day after leaving Falmouth we sighted Barbadoes, looking like a golden bank on the western horizon, in the reflected rays of the rising sun. As we ran round the south-western extremity of the island, the cocoa-nut and other palms showed that we were in the tropical regions of the New World, and the contrast between the numerous white cottages and the deep green of the vegetation struck me as exceedingly beautiful.
"We were congratulated on our passage; for the mail which had left England the previous month had met unfavourable weather, and only got in just before our arrival. The Barbadians had thus two months' news together, and were soon loyally discussing the marriage of the Queen. My companion, the Rev. C. Carter, and myself were most kindly received by Dr. Coleridge, the first Bishop of the diocese, which then included the Leeward Islands and Guiana. During a month's residence at Bishop's Court, I learned to love and revere him. When we left for Guiana, he gave me his blessing, and a few books, the engravings in which I afterwards found useful in attracting the attention of wild races, whose languages were yet to be learned."
Thus far Mr. Brett wrote. After leaving Barbadoes, four or five days' sail brought him to the vast South American continent.