South American Mission Society

The South American Mission Society was founded at Brighton in 1844 as the Patagonian Mission. Captain Allen Gardiner, R.N., was the first secretary.The name "Patagonian Mission" was retained for twenty years, when the new title was adopted.[1] The name of the organisation was changed after the death of Captain Gardiner, who died of starvation in 1851 on Picton Island in South America, waiting for a supply ship from England. Gardiner thought that the original mission should be expanded from southern South America (Patagonia) to all of South America.[2]

The Society's purpose is to recruit, send, and support Christian missionaries in South America. There were nationally based SAMS organisations in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States but during the 1990s those in Australia and New Zealand were merged with the Faith2Share the international network of mission agencies, and the SAMS organisations in Ireland, Canada and the USA continue to play an active role within that network.

Captain Gardiner's attempts

Commencing in 1838, Captain Allen Gardiner made several attempts to bring Protestant Christianity to the native peoples of South America. Returning to England in 1843 he sought support for his efforts; no British church or missionary society offered to help, so he founded his own South American Mission.[3] His first effort to set up a mission at Gregory Bay in the Straits of Magellan in 1845 was repulsed by the natives. He worked in Bolivia in 1845–1847, but that mission effort was suppressed by the Roman Catholic clergy.

Gardiner organized another effort through the Society. With four sailors and a carpenter, he left Cardiff on the Clymene on 7 January 1848. They landed at Picton Island in Tierra del Fuego on 23 March. After being harassed by the natives, Gardiner’s party re-boarded the ship. It sailed for Valparaiso on 1 April and they eventually returned to England.

Based on these experiences, Captain Gardiner decided that to be successful, he needed a small seaworthy vessel as a base from which he could approach the natives with some degree of security. The Reverend George Pakenham Despard of Redlands, Bristol was appointed Honorary Secretary of the Patagonian Missionary Society in March 1850. With his organisational skill the society obtained donations, but not enough to build the 120-ton schooner Gardiner wanted. Two 26-foot launches, Pioneer and Speedwell, were built for his use in the islands.

Gardiner and six other men were landed at Picton Island on 5 December 1850. After again failing to engage with the Fuegians, and beset by planning failures and mishaps (such as leaving all their shot behind), by March 1851 they had fled the island, sailing east along the Beagle Channel to Spaniard Harbour, a bay at the mouth of Cooks River. By September, all had died of starvation, the delivery of fresh stores organised by the Society in England having also been delayed .

Despite its overtly religious character and mission, Charles Darwin supported the Society financially and rhetorically.[4]