OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fourth Series (1887-92)
by Henry Steel Olcott
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I CANNOT turn my back upon the Colonies without mentioning a few more of the notable acquaintances I made besides those mentioned in the last chapter. First, then, Mr. A. Meston, of Chelmer, near Brisbane, a well-known littérateur. He was a Magistrate, an ex-member of the Queensland Legislature, was leader of the Government Scientific Exploring Expedition of 1889, and an author and journalist of wide reputation. A sumptuously illustrated work on the British acquisition of Australia, which came under my notice, had filled me with a horror of the devilish cruelty and merciless extirpation of the dark races by the conquering whites; and in introducing to our readers an article contributed to the Theosophist by Mr. Meston1 on the subject of the Aboriginals, or so-called blackfellows, I said that they were being treated “with the same concomitants of ferocity, selfishness, and
1 “Religious and Other Notes on Queensland Aboriginals,” Theosophist for July, 1891. p. 605.
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faithlessness as darken the history of Mexican and Peruvian conquests by the Spaniards. From what I have learned on the spot, from living witnesses and current histories, I am inclined to believe that my own Anglo-Saxon race is as devilishly cruel upon occasions as any Semitic, Latin, or Tartar race ever was”. The historical work above mentioned gave among its illustrations a picture of armed white men hunting black-fellows in and out of a stone-quarry as if they were so many goats or monkeys; and one could see in one place murdered victims who had fallen, and in another, other poor wretches brought down from the steep walls of the quarry up which they were scrambling for their lives by the gunshots of their “civilised” pursuers. It was when my blood was boiling with indignation from this cause that I met Mr. Meston, who was recognised as the best-informed authority on the subject of the religions, languages, manners and customs, and ethnical traits of the black people. His article in the Theosophist embodies more information on these subjects than any other publication made up to that time; I recommend my readers to refer to it. It appears that there are many tribes, and almost everyone with its own dialect--in Queensland alone there are perhaps fifty. Mr. Meston described them to me as a light-hearted, laughter-loving people, with a keen sense of the ludicrous, excellent judges of character, and having astonishing powers of mimicry and caricature. “Some of them,” he says, “are born low-comedians,
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and if trained as such would excite shrieks of laughter in any theatre in the world. They imitate the cries and movements of birds and animals with surprising fidelity. Some are capable of sincere gratitude, possess keen sensibilities, and can be faithful even unto death. Many are ungrateful, treacherous, revengeful, and as cruel as the grave; but exactly the same verdict may be passed on all civilised races of men. Human nature is the same in London as in the tropical jungles or western plains of Australia, in New York as in equatorial Africa. In fact, the great cities of the Old World can show human specimens far baser and more degraded than any Australian savages. The race would be noble indeed in comparison with the ruffianism of Paris and the scum of London.”
The other day Reuter published an interview with the Rev. S. E. Meech, the first refugee missionary to reach England from China since the recent dreadful massacres. Mr. Meech tells us that the Boxers, finding seventy Catholic Christians at Larshuy, hiding in a pit, threw in fuel and literally burnt them alive. Christendom stands aghast at these horrors, as it does, equally, at every similar tale of non-Christian savagery but after a few lip protests, it seems always willing to throw a veil of oblivion over identical acts of pitiless cruelty towards a dark race on the part of the representatives of Christianity. The last survivor of the slaughtered Aborigines of Tasmania died but a few years ago, and desolation has everywhere followed
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in the track of the white man’s relations with the poor, usually helpless tribes, whose countries they wish to steal under the hypocritical pretext of “promoting civilisation”. Does anyone remember the story of the stormings of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo by the British? In 1858 I lived two months in the Tower of London with one of Wellington’s veterans, who wore the medals of the forlorn hope given to the storming parties on those two occasions, and he told me the sickening details of the brutal cruelty shown when those places were captured. But why go back so far when similar black pages have been written ever since in the world’s military history? We have seen what the Boxers did to the Catholic Christians; on the other side, the correspondent of the Times at Neuchwang tells us in his letter of the 13th August last that the Russians butchered from 1,500 to 2,000 fugitives indiscriminately, and says that “outside the walls, men, women, and children were killed, and from all sides came reliable reports of violation of women. There is no possible doubt about the truth of these reports . . . The soldiers, both infantry and Cossacks, have been allowed to do what they liked for some days”. Furthermore, the N. Y. Evening Post of 21st September publishes an account by Mr. Wright, of Oberlin College, Ohio, giving details of the alleged massacres by Russians in Manchuria. The peaceful inhabitants of Blagovestchensk, numbering from 3,000 to 4,000, “were expelled in great haste, and being forced upon rafts entirely inadequate to the passage
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of such numbers, they were mostly drowned in attempting to cross the river. The stream was fairly black with bodies for three days after”. So that Mr. Meston was right in saying that the race of the poor black-fellows would come out nobly in the comparison of all the evil things they had done with the ruffianism of us whites. My interesting conversations with that gentleman were held at Brisbane and out at his country-place.
Two points struck me forcibly in his narrative. It is the custom of the southern tribes, when a man dies, to tie his hands and feet together, sling the corpse on a pole, and carry it off to the grave. It was there placed in a sitting posture in a hole about 5 feet deep, covered by sticks and bushes, overlaid with mould crumbled to the fineness of flour, and all crevices carefully closed to keep the ghost, or “Wurum,” from escaping. He also, but another informant more fully (Honorable W. O. Hodgkinson), told me that for three days and nights the tribesmen carefully scrutinise the loose mould over the corpse for marks of a track or tracks of an animate creature—be it a bird, insect, or beast—as from them may be known what sorcerer has compassed the death of the supposed victim, and in which direction to look for him. It interested me much to hear this because, in his Travels in Peru, Dr. Tschuddi relates that among Peruvian Indians it is the custom to shut up a corpse in the hut, after sprinkling the floor with wood-ashes, and then watch and wail outside until morning. The door is
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then opened, and, from bird-tracks or those of animals or insects seen in the ashes, the state of the defunct is ascertained. How remarkable a coincidence that this mode of divination should be common to two dark races separated by the diameter of the earth! The other point which I noted was the black-fellows’ use of the rock-crystal as a divining-stone, and the way in which it is carried by the wearer. Mr. Meston told me a legend of theirs that the tribes of the Russell River had been long engaged in deadly warfare, and so many of the young men were being killed that all the women assembled and united in a pathetic appeal to the souls of their ancestors for help. Then there came down from the stars the beautiful spirit of an old chief called Moiominda, who appeared in a gigantic shape, and in a voice of thunder that made the mountains tremble called the hostile tribes together and ordered them to make peace. This being consented to, “the mighty Spirit called up the oldest man from each tribe, and advised them all night on the top of Chooreechillam, and gave each one a magnificent rock-crystal, containing the light and wisdom of the stars, and departed in the morning to the Pleiades, leaving the tribes at peace from that day to the present time.
“The rock-crystal is regarded as a mysterious power by many Australian tribes. With some it is always in the possession of the oldest man, who never, allows it to be seen by the women or the young men. I have seen famous chiefs wearing the crystal rolled up in the hair on the back of the head, or concealed
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under the arm, attached to a string round the neck.” Now if the reader will turn to Isis Unveiled, ii, 626, he will see what Madame Blavatsky says about a carnelian divining-stone in her possession, and its unexpected and favorable effect upon a Shaman to conduct her through Thibet. She says: “Every Shaman has such a talisman, which he wears attached to a string, and carries under his left arm.” How the magical powers of the stone worn by the Shaman were proved she tells in a most picturesque narrative, well worth the reading.
I have just barely mentioned above Mr. Justice G. W. Paul, of the District Court of Brisbane, but he is worthy of much more notice than that. Judge Paul is—for happily he still lives—one of the most brilliant counsellors and erudite judges in all the colonies. The tie of the friendship which sprang up between us had, however, nothing to do with our common profession, but it was based originally upon our common interest in spiritual philosophy and practical psychical research. When I met him he had been for many years, like myself, studying these problems, and while in London on a vacation, had become intimate with the family of Florrie Cook, Mr. Crookes’ medium. The stories he told me of the wonders he had seen in the privacy of the domestic circle were even more wonderful than any which I have seen reported in connection with the mediumship of Miss Cook. The Judge has also made many most successful experiments with mesmeric subjects. I could well believe all he told me because of his strong personal
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magnetism. The evening when he went with me to my lecture at Centennial Hall, some Sinhalese were present, so, by request of the audience, I gave them “Pansil”. To the several clergymen present this incident was especially interesting.
My return journey from Brisbane to Sydney was made by rail, which gave me the chance of seeing the back country of the two colonies. I was much struck with its resemblance to the rural districts of the Western States of America in the appearance of the buildings, the fencing, the slovenly cultivation, and the appearance of the people whom we saw clustered at the railway stations. At Sydney I met a gentleman, a successful young physician, whom I mention because he was a type of a certain class whom every public man is continually meeting. I withhold his name because I shall have to speak of him in terms not quite complimentary. He had become interested, it seems, in Theosophy, and when my name was mentioned to him at our introduction, he seemed ready to explode almost with enthusiasm. He counted as precious every minute he could snatch from his professional engagements to spend in my company; went about with me, especially to the theatre, and took me every night to his house for supper, keeping me up to chat until the small hours of the morning. I never met a more enthusiastic candidate for membership in our Society. Out of the crowds of visitors who called at my hotel, I had no great difficulty in getting members, nor in forming the Sydney T. S. My fervent friend was
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unanimously elected President, and I left the place with rosy hopes of the benefits that would accrue from the acquisition of this ideal President. But he was a Roman Catholic, and a considerable share of his practice came from the patronage of the Bishop. He, hearing of the monstrously heretical action of his protégé in joining a Society which was anathema maranatha, gave him very clearly to understand that he would have to choose between the loss of his practice or loyalty to his new connection. Alas! our colleague’s courage was not equal to the strain; he swallowed all his fine professions, resigned office, and from that time to this—if he be still living—buried his Theosophical aspirations in the cesspool of self-interest. Many cases like this have combined to make me very suspicious of over-protestations of new members, and exaggerated declarations of affection for myself and other leaders of our movement. In Bulwer’s play of Richelieu, the great cardinal, standing and looking after his familiar agent, Joseph, who had just left the room with a profound obeisance, says, in a thrilling aside: He bowed too low. How often and often have H. P. B. and I, after some unusually gushing visitor had departed, said as much as this to each other! Though no words would pass between us, my eyes would sometimes put to her Hamlet’s question: “Madam, how like you this play?” and her responsive look would suggest the Queen’s reply: “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.” Fortunately for the welfare of our Sydney Branch, it contained members, like Mr. George Peell
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and some others, who were made of entirely different stuff, and in whose hands it has been carried on from that time to this on the footing of a working body, and has exercised much influence on contemporary thought in that part of the world.
I was fortunate enough to meet some of the leading statesmen of different colonies whose names have figured largely in the recent Federation movement, such as Sir Samuel Griffith, Hon. Mr. Barton, Sir George R. Dibbs, Alfred Deakin, Hon. John Woods, and others. Two or three of them occupied the chair at my lectures, and my conversations with them, both upon occult and political matters, were highly interesting; they have enabled me to follow recent events with intelligent understanding of the undercurrent of colonial feeling.
On 17th May, at Melbourne, I enjoyed the rare pleasure of hearing a Christian clergymen, the Rev. Dr. Buchanan, in preaching to an audience of 1,500 people on “Buddhism and Christianity,” praise our Society. Well, I thought, the old saying is true—wonders will never cease!
From Sydney to Melbourne, and Melbourne to Adelaide, as from Brisbane to Sydney, I travelled by rail, so that I may say that I have had very fair chance of seeing the country. No sleeping-berth being available in the train from Sydney to Adelaide on account of a crowd going to the races, I passed one of the most miserable nights in my life in a compartment crowded with horse-jockeys and book-makers. In the
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abstract, it was worth while having experience with those animals on two legs, but the knowledge was gained at the expense of a whole night in an atmosphere of pipe-smoke, whisky fumes, profanity, and vulgar language, the like of which I never heard before: may I never have it again!
The notable person at Adelaide, for whose sake this paragraph is written, was Mr. N. A. Knox, who was a man extremely worth knowing. He was one of the most influential men in the colony, a member of, I think, the oldest law firm of Adelaide, prominent in the local club, and the owner of a beautiful place at Burnside, a suburb of Adelaide. Both he and his gifted wife are leading spirits in the local Branch which I formed during the visit in question. Miss Pickett, the devoted daughter of Mrs. Elise Pickett, of Melbourne, had volunteered to go to Colombo and take charge of our Sanghamitta School, and her steamer touched at Adelaide on the second day after my arrival there. Mr. and Mrs. Knox and I went by rail to Largs Bay, and thence by steam launch to her steamer, to visit her, but she had gone ashore and we missed her. Mr. Knox, finding that she was travelling third-class from motives of economy, and appreciating this proof of devotion and self-sacrifice on the part of a refined young lady, with characteristic generosity paid the difference and had her transferred into the second-class saloon. This is one of those unconsidered trifles which indicate the character of a man as clearly as any amount of panegyric.
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My work in Australia being finished, I embarked on 27th May for Colombo on the P. & O. S.S. “Massilia,” as above noted, and was warmly welcomed by Captain Fraser, the commander, whom I had met at dinner at Government House, Sydney, and who took me to his own table. Barring the lecture on Theosophy already mentioned, the voyage homeward was pleasant and uneventful. We reached Colombo on the 10th of June, and our steamer, leaving Adelaide two days later than Miss Pickett’s, anchored in Colombo harbor a few hours earlier; so that I was able to go on board her boat with a committee of Sinhalese ladies, bring her ashore, and escort her to Tichborne Hall, the school building. Mr. Keightley, happening to be in Colombo at the time, was also present, and I made an address of welcome on behalf of the Women’s Education Society. Calling up Mrs. Weerakoon, the President, I had her take Miss Pickett by the hand, give her a sisterly welcome, and acknowledge her as Principal. The hall was decorated with the taste for which the Sinhalese are conspicuous, and Miss Pickett was charmed with her first view of her new home. The next morning I took Miss Pickett to see the High Priest and his College; and as she was willing and anxious to become a Buddhist, the High Priest and I arranged for a public meeting at our hall the next evening, for her to take Pansil. The room was packed to suffocation, and there was a roar of applause after she had gone through with the simple ceremony. By request, I lectured on the Buddhistic incidents of
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my Australian tour. The creation of a Blavatsky Scholarship Fund for the education of Buddhist girls being suggested, I took subscriptions to the amount of Rs. 500 towards it, but the idea was never carried out. On the following day a garden-party in honor of Miss Pickett was given at the Sanghamitta School. At this time Dr. Daly was showing the worst side of his nature, and he had grossly insulted the faithful Sinhalese Committee, who had been working so hard with me during the previous ten years. The situation was altogether very strained; and when I left for Marseilles with Mr. Keightley, on the French steamer, on the 15th of June, the feeling was very bitter on both sides.
The homeward voyage was smooth and without notable incident: we reached Marseilles on 2nd July, Paris on the 3rd, and London on the 4th, where I arrived at 6 p.m. W. Q. Judge, who had come over from New York in response to my telegram, met me and took me to the Headquarters at 19 Avenue Road, where I had an affectionate greeting from Mrs. Besant and the other residents of the house. Mrs. B. and I visited the bedroom of H. P. B., and, after a time of solemn meditation, pledged ourselves to be true to the Cause and to each other. The death of my co-Founder had left me as the recognised sole centre of the movement, and it seemed as if the hearts of all our best workers warmed towards me more than they had ever done before.
A general Convention of our Branches in Europe having been called for the 9th of July, the Delegates
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from Sweden reported themselves on the 6th, and others from different countries, including Great Britain and Ireland, kept coming up to the time of opening. I have noted in my entry for the 8th of July a domestic incident which I think worth registering here, because it is so illustrative of the spirit of devotion to our Society which has been showing itself at intervals throughout our whole corporate history. Although it poured in torrents on the day in question, a number of ladies and gentlemen, one or two, I believe, of noble birth, gathered together at Avenue Road and shelled peas by the bushel, scraped bushels of potatoes and other vegetables, and did a lot of miscellaneous housework in preparation for the entertainment of Delegates in a large marquee erected in the garden. There were grave literary men and women, artists, members of the learned professions, and others of dignified social position cheerfully undertaking this menial work for the sake of the Society which they loved. On that same evening, by request, I gave personal reminiscences of H. P. B. to an informal meeting of Delegates; and the questions put to me elicited an amount of detail about the private life, habits, and opinions of our dear, never-to-be-replaced, Helena Petrovna. It touched me to see the evidences of her strong hold upon the affections of all who had been associated with her. Smarting, as I was, from a bereavement which was to me inexpressibly greater than it could have been to any of the others who had been less mixed up in her life than I, their evidently sincere grief
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strongly excited my emotions. It was only now, when I stood in her London home, where we had passed many pleasant hours together during my visits to London, and saw myself surrounded by the objects she had left on her desk, the latest books that she had been reading, the big chair she had sat in, and the dresses she had worn, that I felt the full sense of our irreparable loss. Although I had known for years that she would die before me, yet I never expected that she would leave me so abruptly without passing over to me certain secrets which she told me she must give me before she could go. So it seemed almost as though there was some mistake, and that, instead of having gone on the long journey to the higher sphere, she must have just taken temporary leave of us, with the intention of coming back to have those last words with me, and then get her final release. I even expected that she would come to my bedside that night, but my slumbers were not interrupted. And so I braced myself up to carry the heavy burden that had fallen upon my shoulders, and do my best to keep the vital power unweakened within the body of the Society which we two had built up together.