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From Cape Horn to Panama
A Narrative of Missionary Enterprise among the Neglected Races
of South America, by the South American Missionary Society

By Robert Young

[London] South American Missionary Society, 1905.

Chapter VIII. Among the Patagonians

THE reader hardly needs to be reminded that when the South American Missionary Society was formed in 1844 it took the name of the "PATAGONIAN MISSIONARY SOCIETY," the field in question being the one to which Allen Gardiner's sympathies were strongly drawn. Accordingly, in the following year, he and Robert Hunt proceeded to Oazy Harbour, in the extreme south of that vast territory, in the hope that it might prove a suitable centre from which the work might, in course of time, be extended in a northerly direction. Having been, from various causes, disappointed in this, they were reluctantly obliged to seek an opening elsewhere.

After the death of Captain Allen Gardiner, voyages were made periodically by the Allen Gardiner along the Patagonian coast, but these did not come to much from a missionary point of view, owing to the wandering habits of the various tribes. A station was thought of on the Rio Negro, in the north, but the necessary means not being then forthcoming, Mr. Schmid volunteered to travel with some one of the Patagonian tribes, hoping by so doing to acquire, the language, and to prepare the way for more settled missionary work. In furtherance of this project, Mr. Despard and he proceeded in the mission vessel, in March, 1859, to Sandy Point, where, by leave obtained from the Chilian governor, the latter remained till the Indians came on a trading visit. The account of his interview with them is as follows:--

The chief and other Indians declaring themselves willing and glad to let me go with them, I promised the chief that, if he would protect my person and property, supply me with sufficient food, and otherwise treat me well, I should pay him, on the return of the Allen Gardiner, one barrel of bread, one of flour, half a barrel of sugar, and tobacco; and that the vessel would bring presents to all the Indians. I wrote out the contract, read it to the Indians, and then delivered it to the governor, agreeably to his request.

The bargain having been thus struck, Schmid started with his new friends. It was a bold and confessedly somewhat doubtful venture, but he-left, committing himself to the keeping of a Covenant God. His first day's experience was by no means pleasant, so far as roads and swamps were concerned; but he got accustomed to the unwonted and irregular life of these Patagonian Bedouins. And he testified that their behaviour towards him was all that could have been desired. When in camp, he lived with the chief, by name Ascaik, and when moving from place to place he was mostly with Geinoki, his eldest son, a young man about twenty-four years of age. In the course of their travels the Indians came upon a wreck, a fine Liverpool barque. In it they found a quantity of wine, with the result that they got terribly intoxicated, so much so that it was said two of their number were killed, and others wounded, in the drunken brawls that ensued. Similar scenes were repeated later on, nor did they cease till the party had left the neighbourhood. It seems doubtful if the chief had much power, or, if he had, whether he was disposed to exercise it in the way of preventing such outbreaks. Schmid bore testimony to his general good character, as may be gathered from the following incident:--

On one occasion, some seamen belonging to the Chilian colony were returning home from a wreck. They were without food for some time, and their way to the colony was yet a long one. Ascaik, as soon as he heard of their being in the neighbourhood, brought the case before me. He proposed that two or three should go with him, each with a spare horse, on which to bring the sailors over. Accordingly, Ascaik, Kaili, and two others went, and in the meantime some of the women made up the fires, and set about preparing a pot of rice with which to regale their expected hungry guests.

Ere the year 1859 closed, Ascaik had died, and, as the schooner with the longed-for supplies and the presents for the Indians had not yet arrived, Schmid's position became increasingly awkward. He little knew at the time the cause of the schooner's non-appearance. In the circumstance he was glad of an opportunity that offered of proceeding to Valparaiso, whence he went to England. In 1861, along with Mr. Hunziker, a fellow-labourer, after spending some time at Keppel Island, he was again at Sandy Point. Both missionaries were warmly welcomed by the governor and other friends in the colony. Shortly after, they journeyed to the banks of the river Gallegos, in the company of some Patagonians and of Casimiro, who had come from the neighbourhood of Rio Negro, and who, though not a chief, had considerable influence with the Patagonians, and bore a character among different nationalities for honest dealing. There they met with the main body of the Patagonians, and availed themselves of the opportunity of distributing the presents they had brought with them. With these the chiefs especially were greatly pleased, Gemoki, in particular, showing his gratitude by gifts of ostrich meat, obtained in connection with his hunting expeditions. Casimiro, too, manifested his confidence in the missionaries by entrusting to them his two sons for instruction. They did what they could for them, and, in every way, by precept and example, sought to influence them and the natives generally for good. But the wandering life which they led was by no means favourable towards securing any permanent result.

After taking counsel with the brethren at the Falkland Islands, it was resolved to fix on one of the places which the Patagonians were in the habit of frequenting when on their hunting excursions. A station was formed at Weddell's Bluff, ten miles up the estuary of the Santa Cruz. It was hoped that the Indians might be attracted to the spot, and that some of them would be induced to follow Casimiro's example by handing over their sons for instruction and training. Mr. Stirling, in January, 1863, paid a visit to this first Protestant Mission station in Patagonia, conferring with Schmid and Hunziker as to future operations. He was struck with the air of cheerfulness and comfort that prevailed, and in his journal he wrote that "the meeting with these brethren in Christ was a most happy one to us all." Previous to the departure of the Allen Gardiner, the Lord's Supper was dispensed in the cabin, greatly to the refreshment of the little company.

For months no Indians appeared. It was a great disappointment. At length a considerable number found their way to the station, some 800 being encamped a few miles off. Mr. Stirling, who had again come to Santa Cruz in the Allen Gardiner, entered into conversation with them, Mr. Schmid interpreting. One of them (Platero) asked for brandy, and was treated to some lime juice instead. He expressed a wish to visit the Falklands, to see the Governor, etc., a wish he again and again repeated, as also that his daughter (Mariquita) and his son (Belokon) should be allowed to accompany him. He was told that the Governor gave no brandy to the Indians, and that the Mission station was far away from where he lived. Still he wished to go. They had a long palaver as to opening a school at Santa Crux for the children; but neither he nor the other Indians would make any promise, not even Casimiro, notwithstanding that he wished his own children to be instructed.

My own view of the matter is, however (wrote Mr. Stirling), far from gloomy. I see a people presenting many most interesting features of character, a fine race, barbarous indeed, and superstitious, but practising no cruel rites, and shut out of the pale of the Church of Christ, not from hostility to its truths, but by the perverse example of a conquering race too little amenable to the precepts of the Gospel, The language of the people is now familiar to our Missionaries, who have-gained their confidence by the blameless character of their lives while wandering with them for months together, away from all European presence, over the hunting grounds of the south. I see, too, the children of this people, capable of instruction, giving every indication of intelligence, and offering a most inviting field for sowing the seed of the Word of God. . . .

The Allen Gardiner returned to Keppel and brought over the two missionaries, who stood greatly in need of a change, as also the three Patagonians above referred to. The latter were getting on fairly well, when Mariquita was taken ill and died suddenly. This sad and unlooked-for event was keenly felt by the girl's father and brother, who gave vent to their grief in wailing, the former especially for a day or two going up and down among the hills singing a dirge. He firmly believed that his daughter had been bewitched by the Indians--a belief that has a strong hold on the Patagonian mind. The missionaries assured him of their deepest sympathy, and he in turn expressed his friendly feelings towards them.

On her voyage out from England to the Falklands in December, 1862, the Allen Gardiner visited the Rio Negro, in the north of Patagonia, and located at Patagones, or El Carmen, two young men with the view of acquiring first the Spanish and next the Indian language. The position was one of no ordinary difficulty, in consequence of the presence of a large Spanish-speaking and Roman Catholic population, and the strong; opposition of the padre who ministered to it. The settlement is included in the Argentine Confederation, and is intersected by the river Negro, the name Patagones including both divisions--that on the north being named El Carmen, and that on the south El Merced or Viedma. It has been for many years an important trading centre, and as it was expected that the Government would offer inducements to the Indian races to adopt fixed stations and pastoral pursuits, it was mainly for their benefit that a basis of missionary work was formed at Patagones.

In October, 1864, the Rev. George A. Humble, M.D., as medical missionary, undertook the charge of the mission there. Some time afterwards the padre, to whom reference has been made, died. Previous to his departure there had been a remarkable softening of his hostility. This was shown in his last illness by his expressing a willingness to accept the ministrations of Dr. Humble, and he even granted his flock permission to read the Word of God, which formerly was to them a sealed book.

Funds, to a limited amount, for the erection of a mission-house, school, and dormitory were provided by friends at Buenos Ayres, and by the Committee at home. While these were being slowly built the missionaries were not idle, but scattered the seed far and wide.

I have had (wrote Mr. Stirling) deeply interesting and prolonged conversations with an Indian who belongs to Osorno, a railway station to the south of Valdivia, in Araucania, but who is connected with, and much in the confidence of, the Indians of the Andes. He is a man of small stature, but keen and intelligent, a man of prudent counsels and in favour of peace, if it can be honourably secured. This man is most earnest in his entreaties for the location of a Missionary among his own people. He would receive us with open arms. "Many sleepless nights," he said, "he spent thinking of the woes of his country." As we talked together far into the night on the subject of our work and its special features, he expressed a desire that the conversation might continue, all night, for we "might not meet again," and he longed to see his wishes fulfilled. Having slept on board the Alien Gardiner (lying at anchor in Rio Negro), he was up before myself, ready to depart; but, asking permission to come into my berth, he most touchingly bade me goodbye, kissing my hand, and saying he regarded me henceforth as a brother.

Thus was the way being opened up for the furtherance of the Gospel in that portion of the South American Continent. Before proceeding further with the narrative, it seems suitable at this point to make a little digression in explanation of the action taken in reference to the work at Santa Cruz.

Messrs. Schmid and Hunziker having been in some measure invigorated in body and refreshed in spirit by their stay at Keppel, they returned to the scene of their labours, accompanied by the natives. On reaching it they were grieved to find that a trading vessel from Stanley had been there for some time, the captain of which had debauched the natives with rum and other spirits, and excited in them a spirit of restlessness, insomuch that they were in no mood to profit by the counsels of their true friends. It is the same, alas! elsewhere--notably in Africa and the South Seas. The godless trader, with some praiseworthy exceptions, recklessly scatters firebrands among peoples already deeply sunken and degraded, and proves a mighty hindrance in the way of those who, by God's help, are seeking to uplift and save them. The results of their nefarious conduct are fearful to contemplate. It must have been with a sore heart that the two devoted missionaries viewed the havoc that had been wrought in their absence.

At the same time, letters were received by the Superintendent from the Committee discountenancing the proposal for a fair and regulated system of exchange for the goods the Indians desired to part with; and as without some arrangement of this kind they could not be expected to visit the district regularly--in fact, could not afford to do so--it became almost a necessity to abandon Santa Cruz as a basis of operations. This accordingly was done, and the Allen Gardiner having again reached the Rio Negro, conveying the Mission staff and property from Santa Cruz, the determination of the Superintendent was to concentrate and direct the efforts of the mission at and from Patagones.

Before settling down to work, Mr. Schmid visited England and Germany; was ordained deacon by the Bishop of London; married, and then returned with Dr. Humble to Patagones. A sphere of usefulness having presented itself at Bahia Blanca, some distance to the north, he proceeded thither, full of hope as to the future; but his health, never robust, becoming seriously affected, he was reluctantly compelled to retire from the field. Mr. Hunziker had also married, and was associated with Dr. Humble at Patagones.

The mission church was opened on August 13, 1865. Dr. Humble thus refers to it, and to the work generally.

Could the friends of our Society at home have seen the church and congregation, it would have cheered their hearts, and they would have felt that a real work was going on in Patagones. ... I purpose opening the boys' school in a week or two, and am only waiting the completion of the building. I am not quite decided about a girls' school. I fear it will be impossible to get a Protestant teacher in this place. For some months past the measles have been raging here, both among the adults and children. Being the only doctor in the place, you may fancy how important have been the demands made upon me. I have often hardly time to take my meals.

In a later letter Dr. Humble wrote:--

A few Sundays ago we had the church almost full of Indians in their quaint costumes and painted faces. Tehuelche Indians come for trade. I begin to rind the Indian work very interesting; and, as very many of them speak Spanish, I am able to converse with them, though not, of course, with proficiency.

The foundations of the work were thus being solidly laid at this important centre, a dispensary being added to the ministerial, evangelistic, and educational departments. Much was done also year after year in connection with Bible and tract distribution. Dr. Humble was from the first a missionary in the truest, fullest sense--carrying out alike in letter and in spirit Christ's commission: "As ye go, preach, saying, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Heal the sick. . . . Freely ye have received, freely give." From the Governor down to the poorest Indian wanderer, his help was sought and readily rendered in time of need," English, Spaniards, Indians, and other nationalities sharing in his kindly attentions.

About 1880, a chronic state of hostility prevailed between the Government of the Argentine Republic and the Indians, who resented the loss of their hunting grounds. In consequence, missionary work was much hindered. The mission was, as it were, between two fires--the civil war on the one hand, and the savage Indians on the other--a position by no means enviable. The storm after a time passed over, and the mission proceeded quietly on its beneficent course.

A few years later, the worthy doctor was called to mourn the loss of a beloved and only daughter. He was a little anxious too about his wife's health--she proved a true help-meet to him--while he himself had been about the same time far from well. But God graciously restored both husband and wife, and in view of their great loss enabled them to say, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

To show the confidence reposed in him, Dr. Humble was informed by the Governor's Secretary that he had been proposed as a member of the Council of Public Instruction, no small honour in the case of a Protestant missionary in a country where Roman Catholic influence is paramount.

For a number of years the town of Viedma, where the headquarters of the mission are, as well as Patagones on the north side of the river, have been in a most stagnant condition. The English, as well as the Indians, latterly were nowhere, while the little congregation has been composed chiefly of Danes and Germans--many of whom reside on the other side of the river, and urge that as a reason or excuse for not attending the services. Various projects for improving the state of matters have been spoken of. These include a railway between Bahia Blanca and Patagones, a bridge between Patagones and Viedma, a bank in the latter place, and a railway from Viedma to the Andes. From various causes, chiefly because the tribal system of the Patagonian Indians has been so broken up by the Argentines, Viedma gradually became more of a chaplaincy and less of a missionary station, so far as the Indian element is concerned, than it was formerly; but Dr. Humble, though somewhat infirm, continued as devoted as ever to the work which in God's providence had been laid to his hands.

Until a recent date, the Patagones Mission had been self-supporting, by reason of the fees for medical attendance being placed by Dr. Humble to its credit. The opening of the Salesian Hospital and Dispensary in 1892, and the coming into the district of additional medical men seriously affected the finances of the mission, as the people naturally objected to pay for services which could be had gratuitously at the public dispensary.

In 1897, Dr. Humble passed away to his heavenly rest. His exemplary life, his sound doctrine, his strong sense of duty, and his readiness to do good unto all men, combined to make him a worthy witness to Christian truth, and a genuine ornament of the English Church, while his unostentatious piety, his medical skill, and his desire to benefit others commended him naturally to the respect and love of not only his flock, but of all his neighbours. The Buenos Ayres Standard testified that there was no more familiar name in the far South, nor one more revered by Christians and Indians than that of the Rev. George Humble. Mrs. Humble, and her son, Mr. George Humble, are doing their utmost to carry on the work at Viedma until such time as the Committee have decided as to what is best to be done as regards the future of this station. Operations are carried on in other parts of Patagonia, but as these belong rather to the chaplaincy work proper, it is judged better to reserve the reference to them to the following chapter.

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