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Captain Allen Gardiner (1794-1851)

Category Articles
Date October 11, 2013

Born in June of the year of the French Revolution, in the then village of Basildon, Essex, Allen Gardiner longed to go to sea, to fight the French, and to follow Mungo Park in exploring the interior of Africa. By 1810 he was at sea and engaged in fighting in the Pacific in the Phoebe against the Essex, an American frigate which they captured. He was now drifting into a godless naval life, mocking the Bible and the truths his parents had taught him. But his mother’s prayers followed him, and those of others who knew him.

Inspiring others to follow

Looking ahead in his life, he became later a man of prayer, greatly used of God, but whose life was a growing list of disappointments, discouragements, and difficulties. His life is instructive, both in the navy in India, Penang, Santiago and Tahiti and then, when called by God to spread the gospel, as a missionary in South Africa amongst the Zulus, and in Chili, Tierra del Fuego, and Bolivia. He died of hunger awaiting supplies, but his life inspired many to follow him in the South American Missionary Society.


Gardiner came from a praying home, where every day family prayers were said. His life was a series of incessant difficulties, but marked by a sense of God’s presence with him and a yearning for the souls of men. His prayer was: ‘Grant, O Lord, that we may be instrumental in commencing this great and blessed work; but shouldest Thou see fit in Thy providence to hedge up our way, and that we should even languish and die here, I beseech Thee to raise up others, and send forth labourers into this harvest.’

A great change

Whilst living this godless life in the navy, he purchased a Bible in Portsmouth, although so ashamed to go into the shop to buy it, he spent time walking up and down to make sure no one saw him do so.

He was greatly affected by several deaths around him, especially news of his godly mother’s passing. He was in Penang and shortly after in Santiago, and saw at first hand the unconverted Roman priests and the godlessness of it all, especially in Lima where he toured the building which had earlier housed the Inquisition. Calling at Tahiti on his way back to China, he was greatly struck by the quiet peace and rest during the observance of the Sunday in the transformed lives of the Tahitians. He listened to a catechist teaching the children in church. He saw the 6,000-seat main church. Visiting Cape Town on the way to China, he wrote:

The last time I visited, I was walking the broad way, and hastening by rapid strides to the brink of eternal ruin. Blessed be His name, who loved us, and gave Himself for us, a great change has been wrought in my heart, and I am now enabled to derive pleasure and satisfaction in hearing and reading the Word of Life, and attending the means of grace.

God’s call

He returned to London and offered himself to the London Missionary Society, whose work he had seen so blessed of God in Tahiti. He felt God wanted him in South America, but was refused and was discouraged. So he prepared to enter the Church of England ministry, but was again refused. He felt he was unworthy, and accepted these disappointments.


He married, and returned to his career in the navy, this time in North America. He then settled with his wife and daughter in England and, his wife dying, he was remarkable in his quiet acceptance of God’s will without rebellion or bitter thoughts. He only felt he was unworthy, and determined, with his wife’s agreement, to throw heart and soul into the service of God. He decided to go to the Cape, and into the interior of Africa, at that time unknown. His friends frequently remarked: ‘Poor Captain Gardiner. We shall never see him again.’

South Africa

Gardiner’s prayer at this time on his voyage to the Cape was:

Oh that, if it be Thy will, I may be a humble instrument in Thy hand for good unto their souls. But I am as unequal as I am unworthy to do Thee any service. I know, O Lord, that without Thee I can do nothing that is pleasing in Thy sight. But at the same time, I thankfully believe that with Thee all things are possible. Save me from the galling yoke of my besetting sin, and bring me wholly to submit myself cheerfully to Thy yoke, which is indeed easy, and Thy ways are pleasantness. Having put my hand to the plough may I never turn back. May Thy strength be made perfect in my weakness.

He had many disappointments and losses, but was used of God to the Zulu people. On his return to Port Natal his testimony was:

The Lord has answered my prayers and given me good success — blessed be His holy name. May I ever regard myself as only a humble instrument in His hands, unworthy to be employed in His service, and ascribe to Him all the wisdom, all the power, and all the glory. He works not as man works.His ways and His times are the fittest. Oh that He may prepare me by His grace for the work which He has before me, and grant that the door which He has so graciously opened may be effectual in giving light to those who now sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and incline the hearts of many to go forth as labourers into this harvest.

South America

Gardiner returned to England and went back to the Zulu people with another missionary from the Church Missionary Society. He never lived to see the fruits of his toil, but it has stood the test of time. God called him from South Africa to South America, where Rome had held sway for most of 400 years of the crucifix and the Inquisition and the Jesuits, and their ill treatment of the people. When the Dutch Moravians brought the gospel to South America in 1738, they faced immense difficulties as they worked amongst the original inhabitants.

Gardiner arrived in Rio de Janeiro, and, now remarried, he left his wife and family in Concepcion up country and travelled on. He went through very great difficulties, only to be told no Spaniard was allowed to live amongst the people, and his having Bibles and saying he was a missionary only got him refused by the people. They equated him with the Jesuits. The door being shut, he tried to take the gospel to Papua, New Guinea, but was refused permission by the Dutch Resident.


Returning to South Africa, he took a ship to Valparaiso in South America, where he was again thwarted, but spent his time replenishing his stock of Bibles and tracts in Spanish. He went on to the island of Chiloe, but the priest, Friar Manuel, poisoned the minds of all against him by malicious rumours, so that in the end he could get nowhere and had to depart and look for some open door in South America. He went to the Falkland Islands off the coast of Patagonia. Here the Lord provided two ships from Britain on their way to explore the Antarctic, whose captains helped him. He then chartered a boat so unseaworthy that its owners had condemned it, had to sail with a drunken crew, and so arrived in Patagonia.

After trying another landing, being unwelcome at the first place they put ashore, the inhabitants only smiling when they shook hands in departing. They landed at a second place and built a hut. A Patagonian tried to turn them out of the hut. Thus Gardiner arrived in Tierra del Fuego. He appealed to the CMS for missionaries, but was refused as funds were low, so he sailed back to England, arriving in 1843 after six years away. CMS again refused help. But Gardiner felt ‘all the world was his parish’, and was content to wander alone to reach the heathen who were without hope and without God. He appealed to friends in England for help and funds. He wrote:

The people on behalf of whom I am now pleading are the scattered tribes of Patagonia, but more particularly those who are found in the immediate neighbourhood of the Straits of Magellan. The present appeal is put forth simply with a view to afford information, and to solicit the aid of a few Christian friends who are interested in the promotion of the same great cause throughout the world, and is not intended for more general circulation. Let us remember Him who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, who willeth that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, and who will not be satisfied until He has received the fullness of that harvest which the travail of His soul is still ripening; until many from the east and from the west, from out of all kindreds and nations and tongues, shall be gathered into His fold, and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of His father.

The result was a group who committed themselves to send the gospel to Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. Great advances start with the day of small things.

Discouragements in Patagonia

In 1844 Gardiner and a companion called Hunt sailed. In Patagonia they pushed into the interior, and even had to leave their warm garments hidden in bushes as Hunt was too weak through lack of water to carry them. They found it impossible to sleep for risk of exposure, and in the end were forced to turn back without having met one Patagonian. They tried again and got to the people, but they were unfriendly and they found the chief plotting and threatening death to them. They said,

. . . we now betook ourselves to that sure refuge, the God of all means and the Father of the friendless, assured that if it should be consistent with His glory, not a hair of our heads should be touched. We read the first four verses of the twenty-sixth chapter of Isaiah, and then committed ourselves and all our circumstances, in prayer, to the gracious care and providence of our Heavenly Father.

On the Sunday when they had finished their little service together, an English ship came, and sent a boat ashore. The two decided to stay, and the ship left. The threats and demands grew worse, and ‘before we retired at night, and again early in the morning . . . We referred our case in prayer to God.’ Another English ship arrived, and they left on it, but a storm arising they almost immediately lost nearly all their possessions. Supporters at home grew discouraged.


They returned to Montevideo with a young Spanish Christian. There on inquiry they found the priests had got all the Bibles Gardiner had left on his last visit, and burned them. There was war with France and England and a blockade of Buenos Aires, and great feeling against them, so they had to depart. He wrote, ‘Humanly speaking there is but one path open for us — viz, to visit the Grand Chaco’. So they sailed for Bolivia. Here they entered Inca land in the mountains, a difficult journey. They asked the Indians if they could bring them the words of salvation and peace, but met difficulties. Gardiner’s prayer on this occasion was wonderful, ending, ‘Let the light of Thy truth shine on these poor blind Indians, for Jesus Christ’s sake’. Their party were ill with fever, and so weak that they could not go on or back, and without food and water. Never was that gracious promise more fully verified: ‘As thy day, so shall thy strength be.’ The government gave them permission to work amongst the Indians, in spite of Gardiner being told it was impossible. Gardiner went to England to obtain help, but the government fell, and the priests at once stopped the mission, forcing its abandonment.

Tierra del Fuego

Gardiner returned to Tierra del Fuego, first going to England to ask help in reaching the Patagonians. Although they admired him in England, help was not great. He went back to Patagonia with seven months’ stores; the party arrived and made their way through drenching in continuous spray in a little boat, and walked a month up to their knees in mud and bog. He wrote at the end: ‘Surely the Lord has been our help and our shield, and His fatherly care over us has been conspicuous. May His goodness be had in continual remembrance.’

They found the Patagonians were such thieves that nothing could be left unattended. They could not be excluded, nor could the party separate from one another in safety, so had to leave. Gardiner returned to Britain and sought help from the Moravians in Germany, and the Scottish Presbyterians, but was disappointed. But a Patagonian Society started in Cheltenham and a lady gave £6,000, and volunteers came forward, and they sailed in 1850.

No ship could be found to carry replenishment stores to Patagonia, although the Admiralty sent a ship — too late — in 1851. The party received rough treatment from the Patagonians, re-embarked, and Gardiner saw that unless provisions arrived they would not survive. The party were sick, the Patagonians clearly intent on attacking and robbing them, and storms arose. They ate a fox, and then members of the party gradually began to die through hunger and illness. At last only two could walk about, one being Gardiner, who wrote:

In noting down our wants and difficulties, I would not conclude without expressing my thanks to the God of all mercies for the grace He has bestowed on each of my suffering companions, who, with the utmost cheerfulness, endure all without a murmur, patiently awaiting the Lord’s time to deliver them, and ready, should it be His will, to languish and die here, knowing that whatever He shall appoint shall be well. My prayer is that the Lord may be glorified in me, whatever it may be, by life or death, and that He will, should we fall, send forth other labourers into this harvest, that His name may be magnified, and His kingdom enlarged, in the salvation of multitudes from among the inhabitants of this pagan land . . .

The little party were now one-by-one dying, one being just strong enough to dig a shallow grave. Gardiner was the last to die. He wrote on Sunday, 10th August 1851, that he had just strength to go to the cavern. He was full of praise to God for His many blessings. He wrote on 27th August,

I pray that in whatsoever state, by His wise and gracious Providence, I may be placed, I may therewith be content, and patiently await the development of His righteous will concerning me, knowing that He doeth all things well.

He died lying under a boat, so as to see if a ship came looking for them. On 3rd September he wrote,

My care is all cast upon God, and I am only waiting His time and His good pleasure to dispose of me as He shall see fit. Whether I live or die, may it be in Him. I commend my body and soul into His care and keeping . . .

He wrote again on 6th, a letter to another member of the party, but it is indistinct. Help arrived on 21st October.

Darwin and the South American Missionary Society

Darwin, who had seen the Patagonians in their unconverted state and reckoned nothing could be done with them, they were so evil, on a subsequent visit saw for himself the vast difference the gospel had made to them, and used to attend the annual meetings of the South American Missionary Society and give to the work. It is worth thinking about that when reading of Darwin and Lady Hope.


From an account by Jesse Page in Captain Allen Gardiner, Sailor and Saint (London: Partridge & Co). Taken with permission from the Gospel Magazine, September-October 2013.

The story of Allen Gardiner can also be read in Faith Cook’s Singing in the Fire, published by the Trust.

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