Sunday, April 30, 2017

Do unto others. The strange tale behind an Orkney memorial

Few politicians in our modern world hail from humble or working class backgrounds. These days, the majority seem to be career silver-tails with fancy degrees in politics, economics or the law or have otherwise been aided by inherited or acquired wealth and a network of privileged connections.

So the legacy of one old-style Senator from South Australia who is all but forgotten in Australia and his Scottish homeland lingers on in a rather curious inscription on a memorial stone in the far-off Orkney Islands that reflects a kindness and generosity of spirit that is also too often lacking in our modern-day leadership.

2ND MAY 1916



Gregor McGregor was born in Kilmuir, Scotland, in 1848, the son of a gardener. His childhood was spent in Argyllshire and County Tyrone, Ireland. Whatever schooling he received seems to have been sporadic and he was largely self-educated. When he turned 18 in 1866 he returned to Britain and trudged his way up and down the country doing a series of hard laboring jobs before finding work in the Clyde shipyards where he first encountered organized workers' groups. Between 1869-76 he was active in the trade union movement and was successful in getting a reduction in hours for blue-collar workers.

Senator Gregor McGregor. Copyright National Library of Australia

In 1877, McGregor sailed to South Australia as an assisted migrant. While working as an agricultural laborer and clearing scrub at Baroota, he was hit in the eye with a wood splinter. In great pain, he managed to walk all the way to Port Pirie (about 30 miles) but was unable to find any medical attention when he got there. Sand blight added to his agony nearly blinding him in the second eye as well but he managed to get on board a vessel bound for Adelaide. There were eleven white men and one Chinese man on board. McGregor said “… the Chinese was the only man who took the slightest notice of me and gave me every care and attention. 

This man carefully tended to McGregor and helped to wash out his eyes. Once the boat arrived at Adelaide, he accompanied McGregor to a hospital where he finally obtained help. The Chinese man refused any recompense and just said: No, some day you may do for a countryman of mine what I have done for you.”

McGregor, however, lost the sight of the injured eye and the other was so badly affected that he remained virtually blind for the rest of his life, but from that day forward McGregor would not hear a word said against Chinese people and often related the story of this unknown man’s great kindness when those of his own race had treated him with scorn.

McGregor had first married in 1880 but his wife died soon afterwards. His second marriage in 1882 was to a widow, Sarah Anne (Ritchie) Brock and he became step-father to her son Charles.

His jobs included being a stonemason and a navvy on the railways. All the while he continued to be active in trade unions becoming a commanding public speaker. McGregor was elected to the South Australian legislature and soon became one of South Australia’s most effective politicians, later the first Labor Party Senator in the new Commonwealth of Australia Parliament in 1901.

Bluff and hearty, McGregor had no time for snobbery or prejudice, religiosity, and wasteful extravagance. He supported a minimum wage for workers, female suffrage, age pensions, land tax, and the white Australia policy - a policy that is now looked on askance but in fact McGregor did not see it in racist terms but actually believed it was the only way of protecting the exploitation and near-slavery conditions that existed for imported workers like the Kanakas and also many Chinese.

When McGregor died just after the outbreak of WW1 in August 1914, it was ironic that this man who ridiculed pomposity was given a grand state funeral and was mourned by everyone who had known him. He was a man “who came from the masses and labored for the masses” and in spite of being nearly blind was one of the best-informed Senators with a career that displayed:

“… a record of great and useful achievements attained by determination and courage in the face of difficulties that would have broken a less valiant heart and crushed a less resolute spirit.”

“Men of the late Mr McGregor’s robust and patriotic type do honor to the State and Commonwealth, and the loss of their public services is more than a party misfortune; it makes the nation poorer”.

One can’t imagine such words being written about a politician today!

And so back to the mysterious Stone of Honour memorial in the Lyness Cemetery,Orkney Islands.

As McGregor died around 18 months before the Chinese man Zu Sing Kang (2 May 1916) the inscription is puzzling as it could not be him who organised the stone, although it transpires that it may have been the action of one of his brothers as an indirect tribute to the unknown Chinese man who helped the Senator many years before. Perhaps it was also erected as an acknowledgement of all those unknown Chinese men everywhere who served, suffered and died in the cause of white men. As Zu Sing Kang was a very old man when he died, could someone have actually tracked him down and identified him as the same man who helped McGregor and, if so, how?

However, according to this report in the Daily Herald of 14 June 1917, this could not have been the case.

… the natural conclusion that one might come to was that he [McGregor] left money for such a memorial to be erected. But this is not correct, for he never even discovered the Chinaman’s name so far as can be discovered. The incident happened between 40 and 50 years ago, so if the Chinaman only died last year, he was a very old man, for he was well on in life when he performed his long-remembered and kindly act. 
Mr. McGregor’s relatives know nothing of the erection of the obelisk and when the matter was brought under their notice yesterday afternoon they could offer no explanation. A peculiarity of the whole thing is that the memorial is erected in England [sic. Scotland actually!] it is understood that Mr. McGregor had a brother in Scotland and it is surmised that he might have shown that appreciation of the kindness done to the man whom Australia honored so highly. 
In any case, it is good to know that kindness is so appreciated, and makes one feel the good is not always interred with their bones.”

Here is the summary of the entry for Zu Sing Kang in the Deaths at Sea records

Age: Unknown

Occupation: Firemen’s Cook

Birthplace: Ningpo

Last Place of Abode:  Shanghai

Name, official Number of Port of Registry of Ship:


Date, Place and Cause of Death:

2 May 1916
At Sea
Senile Decay

Another entry shows that he died “At Sea. Sound of Islay

There appears to have been two vessels during this era called Tascalusa, with No 136062 being a tanker as opposed to freighter. Here are some details of it, apparently sunk in 1940.

The original memorial was recently restored.

Restored memorial. Copyright Robert M. Ross, gardener for Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Biographical details of McGregor taken from