Conway’s Journey Round the World, 1883–84: Part 1

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In 1882 Robert J. Jeffray and Henry Gyles Turner invited Moncure Conway to lecture in Australia. I know only that Jeffray had been a gold miner, but Turner (1831–1920) was a prominent Melbourne citizen and a leading member of the Melbourne Unitarian Church. Moncure discussed the invitation with his wife Ellen. He accepted it and decided to make the journey a trip round the world. The journalist, theatrical manager and entrepreneur Robert Sparrow Smythe was engaged as Conway’s Australian lecture agent.

Conway left England on 21 July 1883 on the Arizona, bound for New York, where two of his sons lived. His fellow passengers included a Catholic monsignor (Capel), an eminent Jewish writer, an evangelist going out to assist the revivalist Moody, and a well-known actress, Georgie Cayvan. One of the people Conway visited in New York was Robert Green Ingersoll, whom Conway, in 1881, had heard lecture on “The Mistakes of Moses”. It had been, in Conway’s words, “a memorable experience”. Conway also quotes an anecdote he had heard about Ingersoll, who had been asked by a man in his audience: “Do you believe in baptism?” Ingersoll’s reply had been “Yes, especially with soap!” Conway regarded Ingersoll as “the ablest freethinker America has produced”.

Conway also visited some of his old haunts in Virginia. He was of the opinion, by the way, that Virginia had not been named after the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I, but by the Spaniards after the Virgin Mary, as what they called the Bay of Santa Maria was later named Chesapeake Bay. After this he went to Washington and Cincinnati (Ohio) and then spent five days and nights travelling by train to Salt Lake City, Utah. The journey was enlivened by Conway’s fellow traveller, John Willard Young (1844–1924), a son of Mormon leader Brigham Young, no less. The two had long discussions on the pros and cons of polygamy. Conway regarded Mormon polygamy as “the outcome of an extreme biblical letter-worship”, but he was thoroughly cynical about the United States government’s opposition to it, which he called “an unconstitutional policy animated by an immoral spirit under the mask of morality”. He added: “The law against polygamy had been worded so that a man might maintain as many women as he pleased provided they were not conceded the dignity
and legal protection of ‘wives’.”[40]

In Salt Lake City Conway found the Mormons to be “by no means the vulgar people some supposed them, nor the puritanical sectarians I had imagined them, but the Salt Lake aristocracy”[42]. He went to a performance at the Opera House and gave a lecture in the same building. He also attended a Sunday morning service at the Mormon Tabernacle, where the congregation numbered more than ten thousand. From Utah Conway travelled to California and San Francisco which, he says, “struck me as cosmopolitan, occupying a place similar to that of ancient Venice”. His hotel was crowded because his arrival coincided with the national “Great Triennial” of 5,000 members of a body called the Knights Templars.Conway visited a Chinese temple and attended a Chinese theatre. He quoted an anecdote he had heard about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said of the Yosemite National Park: “It is the only thing I have seen out here that comes up to the brag”. Conway then adds words of his own: “But San Francisco travels fast; it has left brag behind so far that nobody advised me to see Yosemite.”[49]

From San Francisco Conway took the mail ship Australia bound for Hawaii and Australia. He was surprised by the number of mail bags that were loaded: 150. “Every sack,” he wrote, “was a witness to the vast numbers who had come to the golden shore only to find it a gate to shores beyond.”[50] On reaching Hawaii Conway was looking forward to a whole day in Honolulu, but he and many others received a very unpleasant surprise. Protestant missionaries had arrived years earlier, and the ship arrived on a Sunday.

We were all in a manner wrecked there. The desert on which we were cast was the Sabbath… A man may be arrested for even having his shop window open. Our ship’s company went about in the fervid heat with parched throats, unable to get even a glass of soda water – nor indeed any cold water at all, the sale of ice being prohibited. So far as the natives were concerned, instead of their sports and dances which a civilized Sunday would have shown us, they were about as lively as a cemetery. Apparently the police were doubled for the purpose of pouncing on any poor Hawaiian attempting to sell souvenirs or fruit, and to prevent our having comfort, much less fun, on shore.[54]

Conway went for a wander and, just inside a small chapel, he spotted a bucket of water with a coconut for use as a dipper. He walked in and took a drink. Then he observed that “A Hawaiian preacher was speaking to a small company of his own race in English. All were dressed in solemn and heavy black – on that burning day – and after listening a little the black garb seemed but too true a symbol of the gloomy gospel imported into the once happy islands.”[54] Afterwards Conway visited a church where, he wrote, “a white preacher was holding forth to humble Hawaiians, offering them dogmatic stones where they needed bread”. And he added wryly: “I imagine that he was at Honolulu because elsewhere no congregation would listen to such stuff.”[54 & 55]

Eventually Conway and an English acquaintance found a Hawaiian who would take them for a drive into the countryside. “We thus had a few hours’ enjoyment of the beautiful trees and flowers and birds, [and] a delicious bath in the sea”.[55,56] Conway concluded that the rapid success of the missionaries had been because their vengeful Jehovah much resembled Pele, the old Hawaiian volcano god.

On the ship, after leaving Honolulu, Conway’s reading included an almanac of 1883 containing Hawaiian proverbs collected by H. L. Sheldon. One proverb impressed him: “The kalo root is dead, but there are live maggots enough.” Kalo, Conway explained, is the taro of New Zealand, and when it dies the root soon fills with maggots. He added, “Mr. Sheldon says this proverb was ‘formerly applied to battles in which the bravest had perished, but in these modern times has been applied by scoffers to the overthrow of paganism and the growth of Christianity in its place.’”[56]

Conway clearly loved steaming across the Pacific in the Australia, and waxed lyrical about the clouds and the dawns and sunsets. But then something very  unusual happened. Here are his words:

As for the sun, . . . One day he came forth as mariners had never seen him before – pure blue; all day everything and everybody looked
blue. Captain Bannerman said this was new in his experience; the astonishment of the crew was evident, and it became anxiety when
about three in the afternoon there appeared around the sun a vast ring of copper-tinted mist. Two hours later this mist sank and made the horizon seem brass; after sunset there flamed up an afterglow that appeared mingled of blood and fire. On the following day the sun was blood-red and an hour before the time for sunset sank behind the wall of copper that made our western horizon. I say “wall”, for it was not a cloud; it was fixed there motionless and opaque evening after evening, the rest of the sky being clear.[60]

What they were witnessing were the atmospheric effects of the eruptions of Krakatoa, in the Dutch East Indies, on 26 and 27 August 1883. They were heard in Perth, Western Australia, 3000 km away, and on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, 4800 km away. The largest explosion had the power of 200 million tons of TNT, and threw something like 20 cubic kilometres of ash and débris into the atmosphere. Estimates of the death toll vary from 36,000 to 120,000 people.

The ship eventually reached New Zealand. Conway does not say where the Australia docked, but I presume Auckland. He had only a day there, so Conway secured the services of an English-speaking Maori to act as guide and interpreter, as he wanted to see as much of the Maoris as possible. He was not disappointed: “In my conversations with them through my guide I found them candid and witty.”[65]
It was a shame that Conway had so little time in New Zealand because, although the population was quite small, about 562,000 in 1883, the country already had a flourishing freethought movement in places like Auckland, Christchurch and Wanganui, and he would have been a welcome visitor. Indeed, he writes:

I left New Zealand with reluctance, and with hope in my heart that I might some day return. For in a certain part of the island an influential family belonging to my London chapel had settled, and in laying out a village they had after a sharp controversy succeeded
in naming the streets after the great scientific heretics – Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall streets, etc., and they had often demanded that I should come over and lecture in that ideal village.[65,66]

After a brief mention of “the sublimities of Sydney Harbour at dawn”, Conway mentions nothing else of his arrival there [22 September] and his narrative moves to Melbourne, where he arrived three days later. He visited the Chinese Joss house, which he found very interesting, and was received by the governor of Victoria, the Marquis of Normanby. Other people he met included the Anglican Bishop
James Moorhouse and the Rev. Charles Strong of the Scots Church. He also made notes on the variety of religions and philosophies available:

The census of 1881 gave Victoria a population of 862,246 and registered 144 denominational names. Some of these names in the official Year-book are novel: “Godfearing”, “Saved Sinners,” “Silent Admirer,” “Free-Trade,” “Nature,” and three men gave their name as “L. S. D.” . . . . One woman records her faith as a “Walkerite”, Mr Walker being a secularist lecturer in Melbourne. . . . There were 53 “Agnostics”, 37 “Atheists”, 14 “Infidels”, while 7277 registered themselves as without creed or sect. The number of those who rejected every form of Christianity was 20,000.

The Unitarians numbered about one thousand. In 1851, when registration of opinions was compulsory, seventeen hundred confessed the Unitarian faith. In that year the Victorian government voted to divide fifty thousand pounds among all the churches in proportion to their members (giving the five talents to him who had five and the two to him who had two), and the subsidy was continued many years. Under that arrangement the Unitarians received a good piece of property. It now had for its minister Mrs. Webster, who began preaching there as Miss Turner. She is a sister of Henry G. Turner of the Commercial Bank of Australia, himself a literary man and editor of the “Melbourne Review.” Mrs. Webster is a rationalistic Unitarian, and her discourses are very impressive. I had the pleasure of preaching
to her society, which consists of educated and influential families.[72-73]



History, Humanism

Nigel Sinnott has been active in the freethought movement since 1963. He is a member of Conway Hall Ethical Society, the NSS and Humanist Society of Victoria, has been editor…

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