OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fifth Series (1893-96)
by Henry Steel Olcott
AUSTRALASIAN SECTION FORMED
BEGINNING with some stormy weather we soon settled down to a voyage of smooth seas and bright skies. A few hours’ detention at Gibraltar enabled us to go ashore and look around. At Malta we had more time and availed ourselves of it to visit St. John’s Church, which is surely one of the most interesting religious edifices in Christendom. The floor is paved with tombstones bearing the names, arms, and epitaphs of the knights of St. John and Malta, of various nationalities, who took part in the Crusades and other wars. I was much interested in reading among them nearly all the Portuguese names that are so familiar in Ceylon, the Pereiras, de Silvas, Fernandos, De Mels, etc., etc., the families of none of which supplied Crusaders but which simply bought of the holders of those patronymics, for agreed sums in hard cash, the right to bear them along with the nobiliary prefix of “don”. After an uneventful voyage we reached Bombay at daylight on the 15th of September.
One of the last things that I did in London was to officially adopt a scheme of international correspondence devised by Mr. Oliver Firth, F. T. S., of Bradford,
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England, and by him called “Hands across the Seas,” and to recommend its plan to all Sections and Branches. Properly speaking, this duty would belong to the Corresponding Secretary of the Society, but in our case it was impracticable, H. P. B. having been our Corresponding Secretary from the beginning, and in respect to her memory, the resolution having been taken not to choose a successor to her. Mr. Firth’s scheme was in the nature of a substitute and a very useful and practical one, too. To carry it out I appointed Mrs. Cooper-Oakley to the office of “Federal Correspondent,” defining her duties to be “to answer inquiries from strangers or unattached members of the Society living in parts of the world not yet brought under the Constitutional supervision of a chartered Section, and to aid them in obtaining our literature and forming permanent relations of correspondence with willing members or Branches”. I appointed Messrs. Firth and M. U. Moore, of London, as assistants. The advantages of such a regulated system are too obvious to require dwelling upon. Scattered over the world are many isolated members-at-large who have near them no Branch nor Centre with which they can correspond, and so are, perforce, driven to confining themselves to the reading of books and magazines, without the possibility of getting solutions to the questions which arise in the course of study. To such persons the creation of a correspondence agency is a real boon.
Among the exasperating petty annoyances that I had to undergo at the time of which I am writing,
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was a scheme for removing the T.S. Headquarters to some other place and selling the Adyar property: a visionary scheme, propounded at a time when I was in disfavor among my London and New York colleagues who had got tired of me as President and were not disposed to regard my opinions or preferences. To settle effectually this question I issued an Executive Notice on the 27th of September containing the following points:
“1. That the Adyar Headquarters property was only bought after all parts of India had been visited, and the comparative advantages of many sites had been carefully studied.
“2. That the Founders were encouraged to purchase it by the superior Advisors whom they recognised as authoritative.
“3. That the undersigned has seen no other site at the same time so pretty, healthful, geographically convenient, commodious, and cheap. The sole annual expense is within Rs. 40, for taxes, for which sum per mensem it would not be possible—so far as the undersigned knows—to hire a Headquarters one-fourth as suitable for our purposes. And wherever we might be, it is doubtful if any smaller sum than we now spend would suffice to pay wages, horsekeep, repairs, etc.
“4. That, for the foregoing and other reasons, the undersigned, Managing Trustee for life of the T.S. and responsible for the safe custody of the archives, library books, and other property, will not—unless circumstances entirely change—sell the Adyar property
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nor remove the T.S. Headquarters to any other country or place.”
A reception was given me at our Bombay headquarters with the usual exchange of addresses and the bedecking with garlands; a lecture on “The Ideals of Theosophy” followed at the Novelty Theatre on the afternoon of 17th September, and I left for Madras by the mail train of that evening. A great mass of editorial work and correspondence had to be disposed of during the first days after my return. On the 24th His Holiness the Swami of Sivagangam Mutt, a very important guru of the Advaitis, came to visit me, with forty followers tramping after the palanquin in which he was carried, after the old Hindu fashion. It was a most picturesque scene when the procession filed up through our leafy avenue towards the house. He was most gracious in the lengthy conversations which were held between us, and spoke with great appreciation of the collection of manuscripts in our Oriental Library. When he left us—at 3 p.m. the next day—he gave me a red shawl, two limes and some red rice, adding his blessing.
By the foreign mail of that week I sent to the Trustees of the British Museum my copy of the Proclamation of Secretary Stanton offering $100,000 as a reward for the capture of Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln, and his accomplices, Surratt and Herold, together with the photographs of the three conspirators attached to the document. This was a great rarity, perhaps the only copy that had been preserved during
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all those years. On the morning after Lincoln’s assassination, the Secretary of War telegraphed me to New York to come to Washington and assist in the attempts to capture the fugitive assassins and prepare the evidence for the trial when it should come off. I was at that time Special Commissioner of the War Department, and so under the direct orders of Mr. Stanton. On my arrival he associated me with two other officers as a Military Commission, and so the document in question came officially into my hands.
On the 30th of September the cooking class was begun at the Pariah school which had been opened, sixteen children were taught curry-making, Mr. Ryden and I tasted the result and the teachers and pupils had a hearty meal: the class has been kept up ever since.
By the 1st of October the entire sum embezzled by the late Treasurer had been made good to the Society through the generosity of members, and the deficits in the H. P. B. Memorial, the Olcott Pension, the Subba Row Medal, the Headquarters, and the Permanent Funds, together with the sum stolen out of my private account, were transferred to those accounts respectively from the Suspense Account which I had created for the intermediate custody of the subscriptions until the deficit had been made good. The whole amount so generously contributed was a trifle over Rs. 9,000. About this time I devised and superintended the alterations in the room intended for Mrs. Besant’s occupancy when she should be at Adyar.
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Meanwhile Mrs. Besant had safely reached Australasia and was carrying everything before her. The Melbourne Argus, Age, and Herald spoke in enthusiastic terms of her lectures on Theosophical subjects and said that large and appreciative audiences were crowding the halls where she spoke. The Age said that “Mrs. Besant, with her charming fluency and her impressive style kept the audience in the most rapt attention during the whole evening”; the Herald described one of her discourses as “more of a poem than a lecture—an ethereal kind of epic, such as Shelley might have recited after a course of training as a platform orator”; as one paper put it, “she drew a magic circle round the audience and they continued under the influence of the spell from start to finish.” In a racing community like that the closing phrase was only to have been expected. The whole tour was a phenomenal success, and for this, large credit is due to Mr. Smythe, the famous Australian Manager, who possessed that in-born tact which enables the manager of public entertainments to know exactly how to create and keep alive popular interest in the matter which he has in hand. She made her acceptance of the offer of the tour conditional on her being allowed to discourse on Theosophical subjects and, beyond doubt, did more than any other agency to draw the attention of the pleasure-loving Australians to these high themes. On the 25th of October she sent me the following official notification:
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“DUNEDIN, N. Z.,
25th October, 1894.
“Acting under your authority, I have arranged with the Branches in Australasia to form them into a Section, and they have accepted the proposal of Mr. J. C. Staples as General Secretary for the coming year. Later it is hoped that there may be two Sec-tions, Australia and New Zealand, but for the persent they unite to form the Australasian Section. Will you therefore kindly confirm this action, and give them the authority and privileges as to Lodges, Charters, Diplomas, etc., enjoyed by other Sections.”
It will be remembered that Mr. Staples came to Adyar in December of that year, on his way out to take up the appointment of General Secretary. How admirably he performed its duties is known to all who are acquainted with the history of our Society, and if one cares to learn how lovingly his memory is preserved one need only ask the first member of an Australian Branch whom one may chance to meet.