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A STRIKING PERSONALITY, Evening Post, Volume XCIII, Issue 99, 26 April 1917
A STRIKING PERSONALITY
The death of Robert Cunningham Bruce removes one of tlie ,most picturesque personalities New Zealand and the New Zealand Parliament has known. Back in the 80's and 90's he was known from one end of New Zealand to the other as ail orator of the first rank, -a perfervid 1 Celt, a ! man of high ideals and warm and generous impulses. No great Caledonian gathering or Burns anniversary was complete without him. His magnificent rich' voice, his tense earnestness, his wonderful knowledge of the poets generally and the Scottish poets in particular, with a memory that was absolutely phenomenal, | enabled him to quote with telling and dramatic effect, and his commanding presence all combined to make him a man unique 'in type ' and attributes. Scores of thousands have heard him at the Caledonian and fanners' gatherings. For over a score "of years no farmers' festivity in the middle North Island was complete without a speech from B. C. ,Bruce, but those who remember the great patriotic citizens' gathering at Wellington addressed by Mr. Seddon in connection .with the sending of the Rough Riders to the Boer War will remember the fervour aroused by Mr. Bruce's magnificent oration in support of the patriotic movement of the Premier, to whom he was strongly politically opposed. It was a thrilling effort of high-souled loyalty to the Empire and liumanity. Mr. Bruce, though an undoubted orator, was not an impromptu speaker. His addresses sounded spontaneous, • however carefully prepared and memorised. Dnring the present war Mr. Bruce has been in failing health, and the loss of life and suffering, often of those" dear to him, affected him deeply and caused him great depression. But under other circumstances it is easy to imagine how the theme would have fired his oratory, and, as it was, at local gatherings near his own home he sometimes came out of the retirement which ill-health had forced upon him and spoke with something of the old charm and fire. '
He was born at East Lothian, in Scotland, in 1843, but at seven years of age the family took him over to County Cork, Ireland. He was a'descendant of The Brnce, and his knowledge of Scotland and of her history and the districts associated with his family was intimate and profound. Sir Walter Scott's home at Abbotsford had been the family seat of his mother's people, and all of Scott, and the country of the novels, and also of Crockett, was as a household word to him. At 13 years'of age the call of adventure came to the boy, and he went to sea- as an apprentice, ■ sailing in an Indiaman from London. He sailed many seas, and in 1860 came to New Zealand in, the ship Blue Jacket; The circumstance that the writer's father, a passenger in that ship, won the whole-souled admiration of the ardent young sailor through a mutual fondness for athletics, was years after to bring the writer into close and affectionate contact, with the warm-hearted Celt. He left the ship and sought adventure on the goldfields of Otago. He found adventure, but not gold, and returned to the sea. Wild adventures in many lands followed. Some of them are recorded in his book, " Reminiscences of 1 a Wanderer," by "An A.8.," published in 1914, and hailed as one of the best books of its kind ever published. But though Bruce had never done a dishonourable thing, he had done many a dangerous and risky thing, and there were many that he would not let be known lest the actors shouldbestill living. Resentment of the actions of Yankee mates, leading even to mutiny, in which thesailor's wonderful physical prowess and indomitable courage made trouble, culminated on one' occasion in the steamer arriving at a/Chinese port with Bruce holding the ioc'sle against the powers aft. Police boats Were signalled for, but the rebel against injustice got down the anchor chain and swam to the Chinese quarters before he could be captured, and there hid. Finally he swam out to an American warship, where he was hailed as a valuable recruit. But there was friction with Britain at the time, so when Bruce found that he would have to fight against his own country if war broke out he preferred to swim back through the night to the dangers of the Chinese shore. Ultimately he got down to North Australia and away on other ships. He had other weird adventures in California, where ho was noted as an athlete, ■; and right across the States, where with other sailors he followed the harvest. On the great lakes, and on the Atlantic as quartermaster' and mate of liners, he served on ■ many a voyage, always, a personality in. whatever ship he was on and a hero to the crews. His people came'out to New Zealand and settled in the Turakina, where they won very great respect, and in 1877 he settled down at their urging in the dense bush country of the Paraekaretu, and hewed out a home at Ngaruru, on the banks of the Turakina. There were two beautiful lakes on tho property, and Bruce, always a deep lover of nature, felled the bush with his own hands in belts in such a way that he was able to burn it separately and preserve the great beauties of the Manu Manu Lake, one of the most exquisite scenic spots in New Zealand, a perfect gem among the hills, which has been visited by Governors and leading men of New, Zealand and visitors, who enjoyed tfte. Bruce hospitality at the simple mud-walled thatched " whare," where they got as warm and as appreciated a welcome as though it had been an ancestral castle of the Bruces of old. He loved to take his guests over the steep hills and bring them in sight of the Manu Manu, and hear tlieir exclamations of surprise and delight at it. This for years, till failing health intervened. However, the above is anticipating, because after six years at Paraekaretu the call of the sea came to him again, and though he could now well afford to go as a passenger, he once more shipped before the mast (I believe he was a guest at an Australian Government House when he was shipped on one occasion), and revisited' Britain, and again saw the great world. But he came back to Ngaruru , which Was henceforth to be his delight, in 1884, and was urged by the settlers to stand for Parliament. . This be did, and as member-for the Rangitikei district he was long one of the bestliked men in Parliament, his fellow-mem-bers nocking into their seats whenever he rose to his feet to speak—which was not often—and delighting in his sea yarns that became a feature oi the lobbies. Of Bnice at this period the late Joseph Evinson, himself an ex-sailor, wrote in his contemporary " Parliamentary Portraits," reprinted ' in 1892 from the Chriatchurch Press, a sketch of " the member for Rangilikei," from which these extracts may be recalled now:—
." Whenever in the House I hear Mr. Bruce's deep rolling polysyllables, and that inflection of moumfulness which runs through them, I am irresistibly reminded of gome such old shellback's shanty a» that fnom which 1 have rjuotod, 23^ for_,.tTco _x«a«®!UsL
First, because Mr. Bruce has himself been a seaman; and, second, a note of melancholy and weariness is ever distinguished alike in the songs and sayings of the Ancient Mariner who, talcing his somewhat sad pleasures while he may, cannot forget that death is always waiting for him beyond the harbour bar. ... I wonder with unextinguishable wonder how Robert could have brought himself to forsake the music the ocean makes, the glories of southern seas, and the honest simplicity of ancient mariner turned politician, of good height, strong build, and well set up. ... For one who has seen hard times he is wonderfully preserved, and is, mentally and physically, ' fit as a fiddle.' •'. .-.
Oftentimes he-is quite eloquent, and always has a command of words only to be attained by mn.ch thinking out of subjects in long night watches or in bush solitude. His voice, too, is resonant and musical. ... A good honest Scotchman, whose knowledge of men and mariners has been acquired in many journeyings to and fro and in many climes, ready, but not rough, eschewing bald personalities, a reader and a thinker, Mr. Bruce is a member of whom any constituency might feel proud. ... . As to the melancholy of his manner, there need be no surprise as to that, when we remember that not only .was he a sailor, but he sailed in Scottish ships. For there, too, he who writes has once been, and the mournfulness of the experience will cling round him for ever and for ever. For .most Scotch ships mean high think-
ing and low living. . . There must have been a day in his career when Robert Cunningham was the curly-haired darling of his ship, for even now, when he has ■ touched the half-century and struck his spars, the hull is well-looking enough. He is still curly, the sort of man good to N have for a shipmate or comrade when the gale blows on the shore and the cruel rocks are close beneath the lee."
True friend and staunch, lovable comrade Robert Bruce continued in his retirement from public life. He was.never a politician in the ordinary sense, or he might, have continued in the House for long. He would kow-tow to no man, no matter how he influenced votes, and stood for his ideals above all expediency. Malarial fever acquired in India left recurrent after-effects in spite of the stalwart form and phenomenal strength. 111Kealth came. It seemed to be near the end a few years ago, when an operation, by the late Dr. Arthur Martin-, the lamented "surgeon in khaki," gave a new lease of life, but since then there has been a failing. Mr. Bruce never married, and in his last illness he has been cared for at his brother's house at Wanganui, where he died. He leaves a surviving brother and sister, and an undying place in the memory of a host of friends and admirers of his great gifts. Verily a man. And, take him for all in all, we shall never look upon his like again.
A STRIKING PERSONALITY, Evening Post, Volume XCIII, Issue 99, 26 April 1917
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