Chapter III. Arrival in the Bahamas--Blockade-running--Early Visitations--The "Wreckers"--Disendowment Troubles, and first Return to England
"Domine Deus Eterne et Omnipotens, sacro Tuo verbo coelum, et terram, et mare creasti: benedicatur et glorificetur nomen Tuum, laudetur Tua Majestas, quae dignata est per humilem servum Tuum, ut Ejus sacrum nomen agnosocatur et praedicatur in hac altera mundi parte."--Prayer of Columbus on landing in the Bahamas.
"Not sedentary all: there are who roam,
To scatter seeds of life on barbarous shores,
Or quit with zealous step their knee-worn floors
To seek the general mart of Christendom.
Like the Red Cross Knight, they urge their way
To lead in memorable triumph home
Truth--their immortal Una!"--Wordsworth.
It was early in March 1864, the end of the cool weather, that Addington Venables landed for the first time in his newly chosen home; and with his arrival, the humble diocese of Nassau may be said to have entered upon that troublous yet withal progressive stage in her history, which accompanied the whole course of a thirteen years' episcopate. In earlier days the whole Bahama group had, as an archdeaconry, formed the vast and unwieldy appendage of the diocese of Jamaica, receiving [20/21] occasional visits from that Bishop; but in 1861 the governments of the Bahamas and Turk's Islands were erected into a separate see, under Dr. Caulfield, the first Bishop of Nassau. Dr. Caulfield, however, only survived his appointment a few months, and with the succession of Bishop Venables the active missionary work of the diocese may only be said to have in truth begun. The colony, too, at this time was enjoying a season of unwonted commercial prosperity in connection with the Confederate ports, and blockade-runners were entering or leaving the Nassau harbour at all hours, and, as may be supposed, a pretty brisk trade was being carried on.
The Bishop was naturally eager to get afield, but a touch of yellow fever, taken not long after his arrival, necessitated an absence for change of air during convalescence, and obliged him to defer his first visitation till the latter part of the year. His first impressions were, however, far from discouraging.
"The prospects of the Church here," he writes in April 1864, "seem hopeful as far as Nassau itself is concerned. The cathedral cannot supply sittings to meet the demand; two churches, attended principally by the coloured people, require enlargement; and by the next mail I expect the arrival of a clergyman to open an upper-class school, from which I hope much good may result. Andros and some of the more accessible islands I purpose to visit at once, but my general visitation must be deferred till the end of the year. I fear, however, instead of the resources of our out-islands being [21/22] developed by the commercial activity which prevails at Nassau, that they have rather suffered by the war, as their population has been attracted to the capital by the high price of labour, so that I cannot expect the people in these out-islands to do much towards the support of their own clergy."
Towards the close of the year (1864) the Bishop made his first trip to some of the out-islands.
"I found much both to dishearten and to encourage us. Dissent has eaten deep into the people in some of the parishes, and the consequence (I hope I am not uncharitable in thinking so) has been a loss of Christian love."
Efforts were, however, speedily commenced with a view of recovering these lost children of the Church; and a mission of a hopeful character was launched amongst the Baptist population of Fortune Island, in the more southerly division of the colony. After a visit to inspect the progress of the undertaking, the Bishop writes--
"Mr. Ward, the young American whom I ordained at Christmas to take charge of the Fortune Island district, promises to turn out a first-rate man. He will, I trust, by God's help, be enabled to build up the Church in that district. At Fortune Island the church fabric, after having been closed for so long--two years--is now, although a large one for the population, so crowded that application has been made to the Legislature for assistance to enlarge it. At Crooked Island the Baptists have [22/23] placed their chapel at his disposal, and show a disposition to join the Church in a body, their leader applying to be employed as a catechist. At Acklin's Island the principal person in the place has offered to convert a building belonging to himself into a chapel, and to serve it himself as the catechist; and lastly, during the two months that Mr. Ward has been at work, he has baptized over a hundred children, and this among a population of 'Baptists'! The black people are not to be depended on for steadfastness, but still I cannot but be hopeful about this mission." But when, in one of these early trips, the Bishop's course brought him to the Biminis Islands, introducing him to the home of the Bahama "wreckers," and their unprincipled traffic, his tone changes. "I cannot say much that is hopeful of the Biminis; the inhabitants seem nearly the most degraded people that I have yet visited. These islands are the great 'wrecking' rendezvous, lying as they do on the edge of the Gulf Stream, where the force of the current, together with adverse winds, drives many a vessel ashore on the shoals which abound in the neighbourhood. This, and the baneful traffic which it fosters, may account for much of the debased condition of the people, but as long as the system prevails little advancement can be made either in material prosperity or morality. For not only is it a most lazy occupation, as those engaged must cruise about in idleness for months on chance of a wreck, which, if met with, does not bring them in what might have been earned by honest labour in less time, but the [23/24] way in which this wrecking is carried on is most demoralising. Captains are bribed, or, as the phrase here is, their fingers are 'buttered,' to put their ships aground. Wrecked property is considered fair plunder; and as every hand engaged on a wreck has a share of the salvage, shares are created by taking out wrecking licences in fictitious names. I am credibly informed of a case in which licences were taken out for three unborn children, two of which, when born, turned out to be girls! And I know of another man, of whom it is said that he used to take out wreck licences for his horse and cow. The worst of it is, that, as with smuggling at home, there exists a conventional morality with respect to wrecking, and the people do not recognise the sin of it. Mr. Lightbourne told me that a man applied to him to be admitted to Holy Communion, who yet did not see the iniquity of a pilot putting on a reef a vessel that he had undertaken to bring into port. The Governor is trying to enforce our wrecking laws, and the Trinity House is about to erect some new lighthouses, which will, I trust, in some measure check the abominable system."
From wild and lawless Bimini it was a relief to pass on to Andros Island, and to note the orderly Christian homes of its people, showing what the exertions of a faithful native catechist may effect. "Mr. Sweeting," adds the Bishop, "himself a black man, has been for years catechist, schoolmaster, magistrate, and friend to the people of this settlement, and his influence has told. I should be glad indeed if every place in our [24/25] out-islands presented so good a specimen of a Christian settlement. Last year I confirmed there twenty-eight persons, and this year eighteen. There would have been more, but that a vessel from a neighbouring settlement some fifteen miles distant, bringing some more candidates to meet me at Fresh creek, had to turn back in consequence of a head wind. Mr. Sweeting himself has had several escapes in one way and another, and amongst other deliverances was one from premature burial. He had nearly died of cholera, which carried off all his children but one; and while himself in a state of collapse, he was conscious of all that was going on, but could not speak, even when they were measuring him for his coffin. Fortunately he recovered in time, and one of his sons was buried in the coffin which had been made for his father.
"There had been a good deal of distress at this place, caused by heavy rains and floods, and the Governor had sent by us some corn for distribution to such as would undertake to plant cotton on Government lands, on the understanding that all the profits over and above the . value of the corn advanced, should be the planter's own. We had our doubts as to the success of our mission, as the people of these islands have very little idea of depending upon their own exertions under such circumstances. The inhabitants have, however, undertaken to plant a good large field. I hope the results will be satisfactory, as, if so, it may lead to the continuous cultivation of this staple in the islands. I shall be anxious for its success, for I am convinced that the future of these [25/26] islands depends upon the successful growth of cotton, for which our soil is admirably adapted, and which we are now attempting to introduce into the colony. There is but one difficulty--the unwillingness of the people to work."
In this way the Bishop was engaged during the first two years of his episcopate, visiting in detail all the scattered portions of his diocese, and quietly though actively pushing forward the moral and material well-being of his people. But a period of greater trial and difficulty was at hand, requiring all the resources at his command to cope with it; and after two years of comparative peace, the diocese, and indeed the colony itself, passed under a dark and troubled cloud, from which they are only now slowly emerging.
In 1865 the American War came to an end, and with it the speedy subsidence of the unnaturally inflated commerce of Nassau during its continuance. "Our, trade," writes the Bishop in the summer of that year, "since the capture of the Southern parts, has collapsed. The merchants who made so much money in the blockade business have left the colony, and we have not now even the legitimate trade that we had in former years. I hope we may be in a transition state to terminate in the development of fresh branches of industry, but just now we are in the depths." But lower depths had to be reached before long; and the diocese itself began to experience a variety of misadventure and ill-fortune. In the following year (1866) a terrible hurricane swept [26/27] away eleven churches and five schools in a single night! The Bishop gave up the whole of his yearly income to replace the loss. And these devastations had hardly been repaired before a second hurricane, happily not inflicting so much damage, followed a few years later.
But a danger of a more serious kind was now beginning to threaten the very existence of the Church in these islands by the withdrawal of its endowments. The reaction which succeeded the commercial activity of the last few years was producing a general depression in every quarter of the colony. Money became scarce, the finances of the colonial exchequer grew embarrassed, and a cry for retrenchment was seized upon by the political Nonconformists for an attack upon the Church.
In 1868 a Radical majority was returned as the result of a general election, and the disendowment of the Church became only a matter of time. The Bishop wrote: "Church affairs are still in a most unsettled state, and have been so for months. I am sick at heart from anxiety. When the worst comes (whatever it be), I trust that I shall have strength heartily to adapt myself to the altered state of things. To remain passive, watching the course of events, is most trying." A month later (September 1868) he resumes: "We are fast nearing a crisis. The colony may now be considered bankrupt. The expenditure amounts to £50,000 and our income only reaches £40,000. The people are too poor to bear further taxation, and a loan from the imperial treasury has been refused. The two Houses [27/28] of the Legislature cannot agree upon a scheme of retrenchment; the storekeepers clamour for the reduction I of the salaries of the public officers, while the latter, on the other hand, are for fresh taxes. Every man for himself. I fear that amid the general selfishness the Church will go to the wall, and that unless something is settled before matters turn worse, the immediate disendowment of the Church will in an extremity be decided on."
In the beginning of the new year, 1869, he continues: "Our new Governor, who has lately been sent here to settle the disendowment question, and who has had considerable experience of other West Indian islands, realises strongly the exceptional case of the Bahamas, and expressed to me his opinion that Great Britain, so long as she retained her possession of islands so scattered, so destitute of resources, so incapable of self-support, ought to make some provision for the spiritual welfare of the inhabitants." But the blow was not to be averted, and in 1869 the Church of England was disendowed in the Bahamas, and soon after the remainder of the diocese in the Turk's Islands was similarly treated. Incumbents were permitted to retain their salaries during life, but the measure called at once for a re-endowment of the diocese, and Churchmen had been already heavily taxed. The repair of Church property destroyed by hurricanes had of itself called for a large outlay. Ruined buildings, however, might be re-erected, but to create a Bishop and Clergy [28/29] Sustentation Fund in a country where the resources were almost nil was another matter. The Bishop's life henceforward was one prolonged struggle to keep the fabric of the Church together, and gradually to consolidate its shattered framework. In 1869 he returned to England for the first time, remaining some seven or eight months. But it was not to rest, his time being chiefly occupied in raising funds for his crippled diocese, and in framing the constitution of a Church Synod and measures for future self-government. In the early part of the following year he returned again to Nassau, and the first session of a Church Synod was held. As this, however, was eventually superseded by a more regular and representative assembly, little need here be said of it. something was effected. A Diocesan Council was formed and an Endowment Fund begun, with an appeal to England for help. To this the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge made a most generous response, voting a sum of £5000, which, together with a further sum of £5500 raised subsequently by individual effort, made the first nucleus of a re-endowment of the diocese. The work was, however, necessarily a slow one, end lost much of its object by the adoption of a narrow system, by which each parish somewhat selfishly sought its own endowment, to the neglect of the formation of a Central Diocesan Fund, upon which each parish, as it lost its state-paid clergyman, would have a claim. This the Bishop much regretted, and in his charge of 1873 said--"I regret this, because I think it tends to keep up the [29/30] isolation of the different parishes, and to introduce the unsatisfactory American system, which makes each parish independent of the diocese. The Apostle's principle that care for ourselves should ever be accompanied with care for others--'Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others'--should be the rule, not only for the individual Christian, but also for the same man when acting in a corporate capacity; and further, I believe that in matters spiritual the generous course is the most successful as implying more faith, the appeal to which is the same now as in old time, 'Make me a little cake first, and afterwards make for thee and for thy son.' And here, as I am speaking of finance, I would express my regret that the system of obtaining contributions in kind has not been more generally introduced. Persons unacquainted with the out islands have no idea how little money circulates there, in consequence of the prevailing 'truck' system. It is this that makes it impossible for the people to give of their substance, if money payments are alone received; and the Synod would do well to impress upon the out-island vestries the necessity of adopting more generally the only method which would give the people an opportunity of contributing their alms. In relation to this subject I would notice a very kind offer lately made to the clergyman at Long Island by the people of the neighbouring island of Exuma, which may perhaps suggest to the inhabitants of the out-islands a way in which they may assist their clergyman's work in other ways than [30/31] by the gift of money. The offer was, that if Mr. Crowther would spend certain periods of the year amongst them, the people of Exuma would provide him during his stay with house, maintenance, and a horse on which to perform his visitations. Such an offer is, I think, most praiseworthy, and I hope Mr. Crowther will accept it."
It was at this time that an invitation reached Bishop Venables from another quarter of the vast mission-field of the world, to exchange his West Indian diocese for the then vacant Bishopric of Orange River. But the offer, which came to him from Bishop Gray of Capetown, he had, in truth, little hesitation in declining, he wrote to that effect to the Secretary of the S.P.G.
"A few years ago the Bishop's offer would have been very tempting, as an active life in the saddle, with a pure, healthy air to breathe, has a great charm for me. But my lot is cast in with the West Indian disendowed Church, and with the poorest diocese thereof. I am the last Bishop who will receive a salary from the imperial treasury, and that salary is very necessary to the diocese in its present circumstances. I must stick to it as long as I can do my work with tolerable satisfaction. It is true the climate has told on my strength--on my mental, perhaps, more than on my bodily vigour. But still the diocese would have a difficulty in finding a man to supply my place. Will you kindly say this for me to the Bishop of Capetown? And also tell him how much [31/32] gratified I am by this expression of his confidence. I would write myself, but I have at present a pressure of work, and every additional letter tells upon my head."
Most welcome, too, was the addition which the Bishop I received to his scanty staff of workers, soon after his return from England, in the person of the Rev. W. Hildyard, an English clergyman who had volunteered for work in the Bahamas, and having some private means, took the first disendowed parish, and worked it as it had never been worked before. Of the same school and theological college as the Bishop himself, Eton and Wells, they had naturally much in common; and this, circumstance, added to Mr. Hildyard's gentle and spiritual character, soon cemented a close friendship between the two, which came to the Bishop, in the midst of his, anxieties, as the very blessing of God, to be by Him only too soon taken away again. Mr. Hildyard was sent to the out-islands, and was put in charge of the parish of St. Patrick, comprising the important island of Eleuthera.