Project Canterbury

Florence Buchanan
The Little Deaconess of the South Seas

By Emlyn Jones

New York: The Macmillan Co., 1921.
London: The Central Board of Missions, 1921.

Chapter I. The Adventure

IT was the first evening meeting of the great Church Congress held in Brisbane (Queensland) in 1913. Among the men speakers sat one woman, a frail little lady in blue linen uniform with a ready smile, and merry brown eyes; her short dark hair was brushed close to a shapely head; across the forehead over the right eye was the seam of an old scar; by her chair leaned a crutch and a stick.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss "The Mission Field as a Vocation for Women". A stalwart man uprose, and spoke at some length upon the necessity for a rule that women candidates for the mission field should furnish a medical certificate, testifying to strong bodily health. This, no doubt, is an excellent rule, but the speaker was not aware that the "Little Deaconess" sitting there with one foot in steel splints served as the magnificent exception, whom a medical certificate would at every stage have debarred from nearly thirty years' service in the mission field. Having a private income and placing no value upon anything she had, "except in relation to the Kingdom of God," the Deaconess as an honorary worker had placed herself entirely under the direction first of Bishop Barlow and secondly of Bishop White.

Bishop Barlow speedily discovered her genius as a leader, a teacher, and an organiser, and entrusted important work to her as such, in his Cathedral parish of Townsville, from which he was absent for long intervals travelling in his great scattered diocese of North Queensland. When at home, he commanded her presence at Bishop's House one evening each week for tea and a [1/2] review of the week's work. One of the outstanding features of Miss Buchanan's methods was her daily habit of recording faithfully and methodically such details as served for the consistent carrying on of the work either by herself or others; even when her "Dear Bishop" was away in England gathering funds for the endowment of the new diocese of Carpentaria she kept him in close touch with the work in Townsville. At the time of the appointment of Bishop White to Carpentaria she was working in Thursday Island, but her extreme sensitiveness, lest she should appear to thrust her services upon the new Bishop, caused her to withdraw from the diocese; however she returned the following year in answer to his call, and worked for the remainder of her life in his diocese except for two short intervals at Singapore. Of his high regard for her, let the Bishop's own words speak:--

The earth, to keep its best too little prone,
While yet for common things with longing hint,
Has rendered heedless hack to God His Own,
His best and greatest gift to man--a saint.

A few short years thou didst make glad our sight,
We saw the peace of God within thy face;
And then thy body for this earth too slight
Was broken in its all too rough embrace.

For God all Wise, for others' good, by pain
Did crush from thee the fragrance of true life;
Smitten, thou didst not feel the sword in vain
No pang but helped another in the strife.

That we have loved-thee, makes us bow the head
With shame, we are so little worthy thee;
That thou lov'd'st us, a ray of hope doth shed,
That God will see some good where thou didst see.

Beloved soul, we bid thee thus good-bye,
May God Himself grant every joy divine;
And dry each tear with comfort from on high,
'Till light eternal round thy pathway shine.

("In Memoriam," Florence Griffiths Buchanan.)

Florence was the youngest of the six children of Captain Neil Griffiths Buchanan of the 93rd Highlanders. [2/3] Born at Barton Fields, Canterbury (England), on September 16, 1861, she lost both parents before reaching her seventh year. During the next few years she lived at Torquay with her guardian, Mrs. Richard Griffiths, but later joined her sister and brothers who were at school at Clifton. Here she was confirmed at Christ Church on December 1, 1877. Florence Buchanan had been brought up in an atmosphere of simple personal religion, the outcome of which in her own life was entire devotion to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Her religion was her life, her life was her religion; and her every thought and act were coloured by the will to serve. On reaching the age of twenty-one she became mistress of her own income, and free to lay down her own lines of life; her freedom of action was, however, severely hampered by an extremely delicate constitution. For several winters her friends had found it necessary to take her to the warmer shores of the Mediterranean; her eyes, too, at this time were so weak as to make her almost blind. It would not therefore have been surprising had she decided to live a quiet life, caring for her health, but Florence Buchanan had not so learnt Christ, and in the intervals between serious illnesses she interested herself in many good works. A silver inkstand in the possession of one of Miss Buchanan's brothers bears the following inscription: "Presented to Miss Buchanan by the railway employees at Bristol station as a slight mark of their esteem and respect, and in humble acknowledgment of her unwearied exertions for their spiritual welfare, 20/v/85"

She also took an active interest in the work of a Home at Hastings for the children of missionaries serving abroad. After a serious breakdown in health in 1887 the doctors advised a warmer climate; at the same time Miss Buchanan's two brothers in Queensland were pressing her to come to Australia. It also happened that Miss Saltan, the head of the Children's Home at Hastings, needed a guardian for two children who had to make the voyage to Melbourne to meet their parents. [3/4] This work Miss Buchanan gladly undertook, and after leaving her charges, she visited Miss Saltan's brother and his wife in Northern Tasmania, and spent some of the happiest months of her life helping them in the work of their mission, but, with the approach of winter, she again took up her voyage to Queensland, arriving in 1888 in Bundaberg, an important centre of the sugar growing industry. This was the great turning-point of her life; in the equable heat of the Queensland climate she found a new elixir of life, and among the South Sea "Boys" (or Kanakas) she heard her call to a life-work in the greatest cause in the world, the carrying forth of the Gospel message to those who sit in darkness.

The work among the "Boys" could be done only at night and on Sundays; Miss Buchanan's days, therefore, were devoted to other activities such as Bible lessons to the children at the State School, where the Bible was not taught; out of this work grew a new occupation, that of honorary secretary to a branch of the International Scripture Union; she eventually became secretary for the whole of Queensland with four thousand members on the roll, and in this as in all her work she retained an active interest to the end of her life. After a visit from an English representative of the Y.W.C.A., Miss Buchanan became first honorary secretary for the Association in Queensland; she personally met the British India boats, which brought out batches of girls from England; these she entertained at her own house in North Bundaberg, where she had fitted up the coach house as a big dormitory, where the girls might sleep for as long as was necessary till they could proceed to the town where they were to find work.

Having survived a very serious horse accident in 1888, and the great flood and a serious illness in 1893, she followed, the South Sea "Boys" to Thursday Island in 1895, in and around which place her work centred for the remainder of her life. It is not possible in this short sketch to touch upon her work in Townsville or Port [4/5] Darwin, or at length in any place; our endeavour is simply to give pictures of the Deaconess in the settings of her work among the Islanders, the Japanese, and the Chinese. But it must be remembered that Deaconess Buchanan lived at all times a most active and complex life, except when wholly prevented for two or three days at a time by "blind headaches," or for longer periods by "breakdown". The most notable aspect of her life is in the multitude of her friends, of every station and degree, of every colour, clime and tongue, men, women, and children, for none ever came closely under her influence without loving her; and the quality of her love was such that it embraced many whom she had not seen. The Deaconess not only supported an Indian Bible woman, but wrote regularly for many years to her and kept her photo in a silver frame on her table. She wrote letters and sent little gifts for years to a children's nurse, in grateful appreciation of her services in coming out from England with some dear friends of hers. After the Governor of Queensland visited Thursday Island she sent "missionary shells" to his little daughter, about whom he had talked to the Deaconess. At Christmas time, when she was in Thursday Island, there was always a great Christmas tree; on it was hung a present for every child on the Island, each present having been selected, roll-book in hand, months before, from the catalogue of William Whiteley, London. When a new vicar came to the Island from the parish of Woolwich (England), in which there are many poor children, she got up a great surprise for him in the shape of a big box for his old parish full of warm clothing, which her friends in the Island had made as a "thank-offering". Year after year a similar gift was sent, and the good custom still prevails.

The men on the lonesome lightships sent her gifts of their own workmanship in tortoise-shell and pearl as a token of their appreciation for her continuing care for them, shown in knitting Balaclava caps and sending out [5/6] newspapers and books year in and year out. The children of the lighthouse keepers could not share in Island festivities, but Deaconess never forgot them, and sometimes she accompanied her own gifts, taking her magic lantern with her. The soldiers of the garrison were also her friends; glad they were to be her "bearers," carrying her in her chair up the hill to give them a "Lantern," followed by a coffee and cake party.

If all the letters the Deaconess wrote during the last thirty years of her life, in her beautiful "copper plate" writing, had been preserved and could be collected, surely it would take a great house to contain them. The length and quality of her letters are all the more remarkable when it is remembered that they were often written while others slept, and at Moa, as she wrote by a dim light in a native grass house, she often found it necessary to use double spectacles, and to sit stifling under a mosquito net. Some of the most beautiful letters she wrote were those sent regularly to a humble little widow who supported herself and her two children. On one day each week the widow did a very heavy "wash" at an hotel; on these days the Deaconess specially remembered her. We quote the letter sent to her by the Deaconess at the close of the week during which the latter sat for her examination for the diploma of Associate of the Australian College of Theology (which she gained with first-class honours):--


"I want you to praise God for all His great goodness to me last week. He never failed me, tho' I failed Him with my fearful heart, for the examination has been over me like a cloud, but it broke in blessing over me, teaching me how mindful the Lord is of His children.

"I had a full week of it, the Bishop and Mr. Glover sharing the hours to sit with me. I thank you, dear one, for your help by prayer and sympathy, for I felt I had [6/7] them both, and I want to tell you how from the Sunday to the following Sunday I wore the precious brooch of Hope. The Bishop thinks it is beautiful, just too lovely in thought and deed, and wearing it seemed to help me. God bless you for your love to me, so, so unworthy, words fail me when I try to thank you. My love to the children, and grateful love and sympathy to your own dear self from F. G. B."

Although Florence Buchanan's life is notable for her strength and patience in suffering, to which qualities were joined those of gaiety and humour, yet in her life "nothing became her like her death". Throughout the long last weeks of dreadful suffering, no word of complaint or regret passed her lips; and even as she passed into unconsciousness, she recited her favourite prayers and hymns.

She once wrote to a friend, after a trying battle with native stupidity, "I want to be a faithful shepherdess, but feel the need of the patience of Jesus". Surely none more perfectly attained.

On the last day of the year 1913, the early morning light passing through the East window of Brisbane Cathedral fell in many shafts upon the white cross of flowers, which rested upon the casket containing the earthly remains of the little Deaconess. The eager spirit, always outpacing the frail body, had at last darted from its hold, and sped forward to deliver up the torch to the Author and Giver of Life.

If in the paths of the world,
Stones might have wounded thy feet,
Toil or dejection have tried
Thy spirit, of that we saw
Nothing--To us thou wast still
Cheerful and helpful and firm!
Therefore to thee it was given
Many to save with thyself;
And at the end of thy day,
O faithful shepherd to come
Bringing thy sheep in thy hand.

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