Allen Gardiner is a most unusual man whose life is little known and who, in the eyes of the world, seemed dogged by failure; but he was a man with a vision that was never dimmed. Born in England in 1794 into the family of a Berkshire squire, he had travel and adventure in his blood. As a young child he devoured adventure stories. His heroes were great men of the sea, and he determined to be a sailor. He knew that sailors had to be hardy, able to endure long privation and to forego normal comfort. One night, while he was still a small boy, his mother found him sleeping on the floor. When she questioned him, he said he knew that sailors had to rough it and he wanted to get used to it now.
He entered the naval college at age 14 and went to sea at age 16. He traveled widely, seeing all parts of the world and living the rowdy life of a sailor. He first encountered real violence in a battle with a U.S. ship called the Essex. The dead and dying seamen greatly affected him. Back in the U.K. he secretly bought a Bible and read it at times when he was alone. He came to faith in Christ in 1820 at Penang Malane Strait in a Chinese temple, where he had secreted himself after receiving word that his mother had died.
In his travels he saw the sins of the Roman Catholic Church, and this made a deep impression upon him. He also was deeply impressed with the needs of the aboriginal tribespeople, particularly those in South America. While traveling through the South Sea Islands, he saw the results of the ministry of the London Missions Society missionaries. Many South Sea Islanders had turned from savagery and cannibalism to a quiet, peaceful life, trusting in the Lord Jesus.
In 1821 he married. He and his wife had five children, but he was greatly distressed when his wife sickened and died in 1834. During these years, he had risen to the rank of commander in the Royal Navy; however, he left the navy in 1826, and little is known of his life during the following eight years. After his wife's death, he offered to serve in South America but was turned down by the mission societies of his day. He was a layman, and they were looking for ordained men. This was a keen disappointment to him.
He turned to South Africa with a goal to win the Zulu chief to Christ. This most warlike tribe was notorious for its savagery. He made contact with Dingran, the king of the Zulus, and was able to win his confidence, bring about peace between the warring tribespeople of that part of South Africa, and negotiate a peace treaty between Dingran and England. This opened the door for missions among the Zulus, a remarkable work of missionary statesmanship in a relatively short time.
Upon returning to England, he remarried. Elizabeth, half his age, mothered his five children. He returned to Natal with a missionary whose plan was to work with the Zulus. As they approached South Africa, his oldest daughter died. She was buried there in South Africa. This was a great sorrow to him. For several years he worked with a small group of English colonists as well as the Zulus and started a school for the native children. It was during this same period of time that he laid out the basic plan for the city that is now named Durban. A bitter war broke out between the Dutch settlers and the Zulus. Due to the fighting, it became impossible to continue the work among them. It would prove to be a number of years before a permanent work could be established in that area.
Seeing little hope for a ministry among the Zulus, he and his wife and family sailed for South America. He wrote, ". . . disappointed but not cast down. Thankful for having been permitted to engage in any work that might contribute to the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom on earth."
He arrived in Rio de Janeiro in June of 1838 and began one of the great missionary sagas. He and his family began a journey by mule train across the whole continent of South America. This journey from Rio to Santiago was at times through the treacherous Andes Mountains, and oftentimes they followed very precipitous pathways over the higher reaches. He went in search of some aboriginal Indian tribes he had seen earlier while on voyages with the Royal Navy. He and his family headed south from Santiago, meeting with the Indians first at Concepcion and later at Valdivia. He saw his family settled in this city while he explored further south. He met with many of the aboriginal Indian tribes and personally had good reception but soon learned that the Roman Catholics would not allow him to stay; so he had to abandon work with the aboriginal tribes in that part of Chile.
He then turned to New Guinea, where he thought the Protestant Dutch Government would welcome missionary work among the neglected aboriginal tribespeople. But he was obstructed. "You might as well try to instruct the monkey as the natives of Papua," said the Dutch Geneva Resident scornfully, after listening to Gardiner's request for permission to proceed. "Don't interfere with the natives; they'll never be any different." "They are men, not animals," retorted Gardiner, "and they are included in our Saviour's command to preach the Gospel to every human being." But his argument got him nowhere. The Resident steadfastly refused to give him the pass he required, and he eventually gave up the idea.
Having been denied permission to work in New Guinea, Gardiner returned to Cape Town for a bit of vacation and for the purpose of writing a book about his experiences thus far. He again returned to Chile, but the road to a fruitful ministry among the sedentary aboriginal tribes was blocked by the Roman Catholic Church. He saw that he would have to go to those areas that were not under the domination of any government or of the Roman church; so he looked toward Patagonia. He settled in the Falkland Islands and made what appeared to be friendly contact with one of the major Patagonian chiefs. After nearly a year, he and his family returned to England. He had high hopes of interesting some of the established mission societies in inaugurating a work in Patagonia, but none would accept the challenge. He then organized his own mission society called The Patagonian Mission. With a zealous young missionary, Robert Hunt, he returned to Patagonia in 1844. They were not at all well received. The chief who had previously seemed so favorable was now very surly and treated them harshly, and they had to abandon the area. They were rescued from their beachhead by a British ship and returned unannounced to the United Kingdom, having lost all but the clothes they wore to the thieving Patagonians.
In September 1845, Gardiner turned again to South America--this time to the Gran Chaco, an area that then embraced a number of South American countries (Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia). He was accompanied by a young Spanish Protestant evangelist named Gonzalez. Broadminded Bolivian officials allowed him to settle Gonzalez in their territory. For awhile it seemed they had at last found an area where they could reach the aboriginal tribes that were so close to Gardiner's heart, but an overthrow of the government forced them to leave—another setback, another failure.
By now the mission committee was ready to abandon any work in South America or elsewhere—but not Gardiner. He made plans to go to Tierra del Fuego, where there was no government or Roman Catholic Church to interfere. He, with five companions, sailed for Tierra del Fuego. They established a beachhead, built huts, and pitched a tent. Again they were harshly treated by the people, and all of their supplies were stolen. They escaped on a passing ship.
Gardiner realized that the work would need to be based on a floating mission station from a ship. He failed to raise sufficient funds to get the size ship needed and settled on two very small launches named the Pioneer and the Speedwell. He returned with a total of seven in his new party. One of them, a Dr. Williams, had closed his medical practice to join the party. There were also three fishermen. It was hoped that these men would be able to help supply food for the party. One man, who was to be a servant and a carpenter, had been with him on the last trip. They left Liverpool in September 1850. Most of them had not met before arriving on board. They were never to part again. They sailed on the Ocean Queen and several months later arrived in Tierra del Fuego waters. It was very stormy, as is usually the case in that part of the world. They disembarked at a place called Banner Cove and were left alone as the ship departed the area. Arrangements had been made to replenish their supplies from the Falkland Islands in about four months. They had come to evangelize the Fuegians.
Twenty years earlier in 1831 while on his famous voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin had expressed many times his conviction that it was "completely useless to send missionaries to savages such as the Fueginos, probably the lowest example of human race."
A fence of thorns was made and a tent was put up to protect their supplies; but the natives again started to steal. They had to retreat to the launches, having lost much of their food supply. In moving to a more protected anchorage and a source of fresh water, one of the launches went aground and was damaged beyond repair. The two launches became their living quarters. Month after weary month passed with only occasional contact with the Fuegians. Food supplies ran low and were finally exhausted. One by one the men died of starvation.
The diaries of Williams and of Gardiner relate what transpired during this time. One of the remarkable things is the unity of spirit among these men. There was no accusation or dissension, and each ministered to the other to the very end. The last entry was in Gardiner's hand, September 6, 1851. It would appear that he had attempted to leave the launch to get some fresh water. His body was found on the beach. Both his and Williams' diaries were scattered along the beach. Twenty days later the long-awaited help came, but it was too late. The news electrified the Christians of England and elsewhere.
Noted here are some of the final diary entries. Williams, too weak to rise from the narrow bunk, had written:
Ah, I am happy day and night, hour by hour. Asleep or awake, I am happy beyond words and the poor compass of language to tell . . . As I day by day and night by night lie here, what a world, unknown to the world, do I live and have my thoughts, and move my affections in! God is indeed about my bed . . . Let all my beloved ones at home rest assured that I was happy beyond expression the night I wrote these lines and would not have changed situations with any man living . . . that heaven, and love, and Christ, which means one and the same divine thing, were in my heart.
On his birthday in the month of June, Gardiner had written, "If I faint or die here, I beg of you, oh, Lord, that you would lift up others and send more workers to this great harvest field."
Among the possessions found along the beach and on the launch was a letter that Gardiner had written to his son Allen, Jr. He was among the first party to return to South America, and he eventually settled among the Araucanians and the Mapuches in South Chile, an area where as a boy he had seen his father set out on some of his first journeys to the tribesland.
The death of these seven men seemed to be the first of a number of similar incidents that have electrified, each in their time, the church of Jesus Christ to the grandest cause of all-that of world evangelization. Both God Planted Five Seeds by Jean Johnson and Through Gates of Splendor by Elizabeth Elliott tell of five men who laid down their lives while attempting to reach the aboriginal tribes of South America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In each situation, the seeds sown have sprouted and brought forth abundant harvest to the glory of the Lord.