Born in the Scottish highlands, “‘James Cameron was a tall, strong, manly yet gentle brother,’ Grattan Guinness recorded, a shipwright building ‘iron ships’, ‘who came to us in April 1874 from Jarrow on Thyne. He was twenty-nine years of age, sensible, vigorous and trustworthy; slow but impressive and intensely earnest as a speaker, and blessed to many souls’, a man with ‘spiritual perception and cultivated intelligence’” (AJ Broomhall 39).
He joined the CIM in 1875 with four other men as a response to the call for eighteen workers to take the gospel inland made by J. Hudson Taylor in 1875. A farewell meeting at Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle brought fifteen hundred people to send Cameron, George Clarke, and George Nicoll off before they left for China on August 4, 1875.
Frederick Baller met them in Shanghai on September 26. “They were put straight into Chinese clothes and the Chinese way of life” Baller, who took them up the Jiangzi (Yangtze River) to Jiujiang. [Frederick] Baller and his wife gave Cameron six months of intensive initiation into things Chinese in Jiujiang and then at Nanjing. In 1876, McCarthy took him to visit CIM stations in Anhui at Ningpo and Huizhou. He was “left alone at Anqing (scene of the 1869 riot) to sink or swim while he soaked up Chinese speech and ways. He learned fast and soon began travelling with a Chinese companion” (AJ Broomhall 56). “The experience was the making of him as a pioneer, fluent in the language, feeling at home living as a Chinese, and accustomed to travelling with little more than a bed-roll and a minimum of necessities” (AJ Broomhall 64).
Only two months after the signing of the Chefoo Convention in September, 1876, which allowed foreigners to travel in inland China, he “and Nicoll started for Ichang (Yichang) as a halfway station for work in the province of Szechuan (Sichuan)” (M Broomhall 107).
“Together with Jiang (Zhang) Suoliang, the Zhenjiang pastor, and two Wuhan Christians surnamed Zhang, [Cameron and Nicoll] travelled to Shashi,” where they encountered hostility and missiles thrown at them (AJ Broomhall 93). After a riot occasioned by the presence of other foreigners in Western dress, Cameron went up the Wushan rapids, becoming the first member of the CIM to enter Sichuan. “Of Yichang he remarked, ‘The evangelist says that (people) are well pleased to have the foreigners beside them,’ a tribute to their adaptation to things Chinese” (AJ Broomhall 93-94).
In 1877, he and Nicoll left Yichang and entered Sichuan, where they took possession of the premises in Chongqing (Chungking) rented earlier by McCarthy. They were soon joined by an American Presbyterian, Mr. Leaman, and set out together for Chengdu, the political capital of the province. As Marshall Broomhall relates:
With three Chinese Christians, Cameron and Nicoll travelled on a public goods’ boat towed by ‘trackers’ up the awesome Yangzi gorges. ‘Their stern and solemn grandeur baffles description,’ Cameron wrote. ‘I had passed through them several times previous to this, yet I could not leave the front of the boat, but had to sit (with Nicoll) drinking in the scene’” (AJ Broomhall 144).
They finished the journey by land.
AJ Broomhall describes their purpose and methods: “As always, whether by boat or by foot it was, in the words of the conference [ ] agenda, ‘itineration as an evangelistic agency.’ ‘Far and near’, to fellow passengers and the inhabitants of hamlet, village, market, town and city they spoke about ‘Christ Jesus crucified for sinners and raised to life again,’ selling Gospels and explanatory books, always at risk ‘of getting into trouble on account of recent disturbances with Roman Catholics.’” (AJ Broomhall 144).
It was all part of Taylor’s grand strategy “deliberately to put down roots, to raise up Christian churches and so to achieve ambitious results, far removed from the haphazard wandering which appearances suggested. Echoing Charles Gutzlaff’s policy of sending a mature Christian missionary to lead Chinese evangelists into every province, Hudson Taylor had declared his aim in 1873 to ‘attain to one superintendent and two assistant foreign missionaries in a province, with qualified Christian helpers in each important city, and colporteurs in less important (ones, and to commence a college for the more thorough training of our Chinese helpers’” (AJ Broomhall 52-53).
Cameron’s first journey
“From [Chongqing], after a brief stay, they proceeded to Yachow and Tsingkihsien, from which point Mr. Nicoll, who was ill, accompanied by Mr. Leaman, returned to Chungking, leaving Mr. Cameron to go forward alone to east Tibet. Crossing the border at Tatsienlu, Mr. Cameron visited Litang, reported to be the highest city in the world. From thence he passed on to Batang, a centre of great importance, partly administered from Peking and partly from Lhasa. Crossing the Kinsha, or the upper reaches of the Yangtze, he continued along the borders of Tibet Proper and Assam to the last Tibetan town, Atuntsu, in Yunnan. Thence via Talifu he crossed into Burma, where he experienced the same unwillingness on the part of the Indian Government in regard to re-entering China [as had McCarthy]. In consequence of this prohibition, he proceeded south to Rangoon, and then to Canton, where he once again turned his face inland, journeying through Kwangtung, Kwangsi, and Kweichow back to Yunnanfu” (M Broomhall 113-114).
After setting out alone “he wrote, ‘I have a good mule, and also a good coolie as servant … My books and tracts, also a few more things, are in saddle bags carried by the mule I hope to ride. The bulk of my silver I carry on my person … and find it rather burdensome when I walk.’ He rode for five miles and walked twenty when climbing, but on easy stretches rode more” (AJ Broomhall 146).
As he traveled, he observed and recorded what he could of each local language and culture. “Pages of his journal are filled with descriptions of the people, their houses, customs, and language… In a manzi [name given to a minority group by Han Chinese] shack he took down a list of phrases. ‘After I had written them down the host requested me to read them over, and was highly pleased with their correctness… . We were soon like old friends… . Supper being over … our sitting-room became the common bedroom… . He told me if I ever passed again, to be sure and put up in his house’” (AJ Broomhall 147).
He also made “lengthy and detailed observations of [Litang, 13,280 feet above sea level], “the gilded lamasery, the lamas, the appearance and dress of the men and women, the Shaanxi origin of most of the one hundred Chinese” in the city (AJ Broomhall 148).
Seeing their lost spiritual condition, however, he wrote, “Oh! When shall ‘Christ and Him crucified’ be preached to the multitudes who speak (Tibetan)? … My hope is in God – I know He will open it in His own time and way. He may not see fit to send me, but He will send his prepared ones, and when His time comes, they will have entrance” (AJ Broomhall 148).
Traversing this rugged terrain required the utmost courage and perseverance:
We had a huge snow-clad mountain to cross … It was bitterly cold, and the wind often seemed (to) enter our bones. Both of us have swollen and sore lips, and heavy colds with sore throats (AJ Broomhall 147).
At one stage, “they climbed up and over a snow-clad pass with their faces and hands scorched by reflected sunlight and the biting wind. So painful were his eyes that he tried to walk with them shut. Untrained and probably unfamiliar with travel books about the dangers and difficulties of such conditions, his intelligence and indomitable spirit saw him through, enabling him to encourage his man and goad the mule over the worst stretches … His own shoes became unwearable, … yet they pressed on” (AJ Broomhall 149).
They were taken in at various critical times by compassionate locals, both men and women, friendly mandarins, and kindly Roman Catholic priests. Without such hospitality, Cameron and his faithful coolie would have perished. Many times they came very close to being killed by robbers.
The initial journey into the borderlands of Tibet involved crossing twelve passes, the lowest being 14,500 feet above sea level and the highest 17,000. “In the nearly 400 miles traversed, the traveler will find 180 miles over 13,000 feet, 120 miles somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000… In addition to this altitude must be allowed the inadequate means of transport, the insanitary and unsuitable accommodation, and the absence of centres where suitable provisions may be bought” (Huston Edgar, letter quoted in M. Broomhall, 282-283).
The South. January 1878–June 1879
Making his way back from Burma to Hong Kong and then Guangzhou (Canton), Cameron met Anglican Bishop John Shaw “Burdon, who provided one of his students as a companion on the next adventure, and put his Beihai premises at his disposal as a base for penetration through Guangxi to Yunnan and Guizhou” (AJ Broomhall 216). On this second journey, he went through Guangxi to Kunming, in Yunnan, then to Guiyang in Guizhou, Chongqing in Sichuan, and back to Beihai, preaching and selling books in each place. After a short rest he was off again, this time to Canton. He had learned some Cantonese, so he could preach some in the local language, while relying mostly on Mandarin. “He was always learning. His time he found that by using his daylight hours ‘working’ in the towns and villages when people were gathered at markets, he could sleep on ‘passage boats’ at night and wake up at the next busy place” (AJ Broomhall 219).
In March, 1879, he set out on another itineration with a Hakka Christian. They crossed the mountains into Jiangxi, where a mandarin harassed them. Visiting cities systematically, he sowed gospel seeds throughout the province and in Fujian. When his helper fell ill, he hired a wheelbarrow to carry the man and their supplies, including books and tracts. Sometimes he met people who had a knowledge of Christianity from the visits of other missionaries.
He had learned that Protestant missions had made a good start in the southern provinces, where they used the local dialects. This knowledge led Hudson Taylor to direct the attention of the CIM to other regions, where the gospel had not yet been preached.
Though physically tough, he was emotionally sensitive. After a few days with CIM missionaries at Qu Xian, “He could not bring himself to go on, he ‘liked the people and place so much’. ‘In my life, parting seems to be the rule, and yet one never feels (able) to get used to it. On the way to Shaoxing I felt very lonely’” (AJ Broomhall 221-222). He took a ship from Shanghai to Yantai, where, he says, “I found I was more run down than I was aware of” and allowed himself to rest and recuperate.
The Northeast: June 1879–December 1882
With Thomas Pigott and a Chinese colporteur named Guang, Cameron now toured the northeast, beginning with Shandong and then going through Manchuria, the provinces now called Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang. A winter storm of intense ferocity forced them to take shelter under their cart for four days. Though usually well received, they sometimes braved hostile crowds. “In eight months, they had sold 20,000 Gospels and other portions of the Bible, distributed thousands of tracts, and preached to tens of thousands of people” (AJ Broomhall 227).
The Northwest: May 1880-August 1882
Along with Frank Trench, Thomas W. Pigott, and Hudson Taylor himself, Cameron was issued a passport that permitted travel in all eighteen provinces, and he made good use of it.
After preaching and distributing literature in the region of Beijing and Tianjin, Cameron set out towards the northwest. Accompanied at times by A.G. Parrott and Thomas Pigott, Cameron systematically visited every city in Shaanxi, Shanxi, Gansu, and what was called Greater Mongolia, preaching and distributing literature as they went. “The thoroughness of these journeys, penetrating the remotest regions, surprises anyone investigating them in detail” (AJ Broomhall 229). At the end of this trip, he desperately longed to rest, but responded to the urgent plea of a Chinese Christian to go with him to Sichuan to preach the gospel to his family at their request.
He finally returned to Yantai in August of 1882. “Only one province, Hunan, had escaped him – and the outlying dependencies of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan” (AJ Broomhall 231). Back in England, he told people of how, “Time and again, ‘literary men’ would sit for hours talking with him at his inn. To encourage them to buy his books he would say, ‘Take these home, look them through, and bring them back.’ Trustful friendliness won him friends. And mandarins too, ‘there were very few who were not friendly and somewhat kindly in their manner … I liked to come into contact with them and to speak the gospel to them in their own homes’” (AJ Broomhall 231).
Cameron “was indeed the Livingstone of China, and during the next few years, traveling nearly always on foot, he not only traversed seventeen of the eighteen provinces, but journeyed extensively in Manchuria, Mongolia, Sinkiang, Eastern Tibet, Burma and Hainan” (M Broomhall 114).
James Cameron was a pioneer. Though forbidden to enter Tibet, he paved the way for an eventual total of forty-nine workers sent by the CIM into that harsh territory.
Later career and legacy
In 1883 Cameron sailed for New York to undertake medical training. Medical education involved less knowledge in those days; in September, 1884, he was listed as “James Cameron MD (USA).”
After his return to China, in 1886 he became superintendent of the CIM in Shandong and worked as a doctor at Chefoo, where the mission had a school, rest home, and hospital. In 1888, he married Mrs. Maky Rendall (a widow) at Chefoo. He later returned to Chongqing to engage in settled missionary work.
The extensive tours that he and the other pioneers had made earned great esteem for the CIM among the Christian public in Great Britain and did much to stir the enthusiasm that led to the joining of seventy more new workers in 1883 and 1884. The publication of his detailed journals describing the epic journeys he took must have fueled this new surge of interest.
Cameron was but one of twenty pioneers who “scouted the land” for the CIM over a period of several years. By these arduous journeys, reported on in great detail, “Hudson Taylor and the CIM achieved the recognition denied them previously. But more, by such thorough penetration of the empire they were going towards the fulfillment of the twin aims, ‘ to carry the good news of the love of God in Christ to the nation; and to awaken the Christian Church in other lands to China’s claim upon it’” (AJ Broomhall 211).
AJ Broomhall says, “Many remarkable things were done in China by many remarkable men and women, but perhaps none comparable with the ‘itinerations’ of this calm, courteous Scotsman preparing the way always self-effacingly for others to reap where he sowed” (231).
- Broomhall, A.J. Assault on the Nine, Book Six in Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. London: Hodder & Stoughton and OMF, 1988 (now published as The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2005).
- Broomhall, Marshall. The Jubilee Story of the China Inland Mission. London: Morgan & Scott, 1915. Reprinted by ULAN Press, Lexington, KY, 2012.
- Cameron, James. “In Journeyings Often,” China’s Millions, 1884.
- Zi Yu. “A Description of CIM Missionary Workers to the Tibetan Highlands Prior to 1950.” Mission Round Table 12:1 (January–April 2017), 42–46.