Bishop’s book lifts lid on life in Argentina - including Falklands War death threats
07:00 02 June 2012
© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2012
The Falklands War polarises opinion - even 30 years after it ended.
But one Norfolk man is better qualified than most to have a view, having been born and raised in Argentina, then spending most of his working life living there, rising to the rank of Bishop of Argentina.
The Rt Rev David Leake, who lives in retirement with his wife Rachel at East Runton, near Cromer, has published a memoir about his life in the South American nation, called Under an Algarrobo tree.
Typical of a humble and quietly-spoken man, he does not dedicate much space - and much less opinion - to the controversial conflict, which broke out when he was Bishop of Northern Argentina.
But, in a laid back way that understates a terrifying situation, he tells of a death threat received while it was at its height.
After the Argentine landings, Bishop David and his family received a letter telling them that they would be blown up.
Having spent one night away from home, the family returned, with a three-month police guard, to face down the threat and “remain at their post”.
Many of the expatriate missionaries were subsequently evacuated to Paraguay for their safety, but Bishop David and his family stayed put.
That decision reflected a love for the land its people that was in Bishop David’s blood as soon as he was born in an adobe hut in an Argentine forest among the Mataco Indians.
His links with Argentina go back to his parents, Alfred and Dorothy, who were pioneer missionaries to the Mataco and Toba people.
The couple are buried in West Runton churchyard, where their gravestone gives a hint of their remarkable trans-Atlantic work. Mr Leake’s name includes “Pites”, which means “tall man” in Mataco language, while Mrs Leake’s includes “Locaina” - “tall woman” in Toba language.
Mr Leake reduced the complex Toba language to writing and produced the first basic Toba grammar and some selected Bible translations.
David, their first child, was born less than a year after Dorothy arrived in Argentina from her East Runton home to join and marry Alfred, also from East Runton, who had been in Argentina for seven years.
The young David was so immersed in the culture of the people that his first word spoken was coic, which means tobacco.
After a few years of village life with his Indian friends, David was sent to boarding school for eight years in Buenos Aires, where he was away from him family for nine months at a time.
The family made a visit to East Runton in 1949, having been unable to take up their five-yearly leave in 1944 because of the second world war.
David was sent to the village school while there, but felt so out of place that he was soon moved to the newly-established Beeston Regis Hall School - now Beeston Hall School.
After returning, in 1952 David finished secondary education and took up his father’s offer of working for a year on the mission station, with responsibility for the buying and selling of native crafts and documenting the branding of the Indians’ horses and donkeys.
It was an example of “fair trade”, long before the phrase became widely used.
At the end of the year most of the family, including David’s mother and two younger sisters, Cristina and Dorothy, moved to East Runton to live in the family home by the village green.
David found work as a farm labourer in Gresham and, having narrowly failed his Overseas School Certificate, he enrolled for some courses at Norwich City College.
At the same time, he began to explore the possibility of training for ordination, and had meetings with the then Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Percy Herbert. He was selected for three years of training at the London College of Divinity.
After graduating, he became a curate at St Mary’s in Watford. By that time, his father had become rector of Guist after retiring from Argentina. He and Dorothy returned to the South American nation within a few years.
David married Rachel Yarham, from Cromer, at Cromer Parish Church on December 30 1961. Within a year, their first child, Andrew, was born and they had been accepted by the South American Missionary Society for service in Argentina.
In October 1963 they arrived in Buenos Aires, before moving to Juarez, just 55 miles from where Mr and Mrs Leake senior were living.
To help them to learn Mataco, David and Rachel were sent by David’s father to live alone by the river at Mision San Andres.
On their return to Juarez, David often acted as an advocate for the local Indians in issues with the police and the authorities.
At the age of 33, as a result of a structural reorganisation, David became Bishop David, assistant bishop of the Diocese of Northern Argentina and Paraguay. He helped to developed education, a food co-operative and job opportunities for the Indians.
The book tells of narrow escapes from snakes, scorpions and piranhas, and close encounters with knives and machetes, which were among the “toys” that children grew up playing with.
In 1979, he became Bishop of Northern Argentina - three years before the outbreak of the Falklands War, which made things more tense for his family.
He said: “As Anglo-Argentine children, we were brought up very conscious of this contention and Argentine sovereignty was clearly supported.”
When the conflict ended, there were years of strained relations between the UK and Argentina, but in the early 1990s Bishop David was invited to preach at Westminster Abbey at a thanksgiving service to mark the formal re-establishment of relations between the two nations.
He said: “It was probably one of my shortest sermons, which took longest to prepare.”
The honour came shortly after Bishop David accepted an invitation to leave his home with the Indians and became Bishop of Argentina, based in Buenos Aires.
He said it was the “first time in our lives that we moved with reluctance”, but said there was a “gradual sense of excitement at something new and different”.
Highlights of the new role included a visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, whose visit included a bridge-building meeting with Argentine president Carlos Menem.
As Bishop David approached retirement, he was made a CBE by the Queen. The investiture included a chauffeur-driven saloon ride, arranged by the footballer Graeme Le Saux, the brother-in-law of the Leakes son, Andrew.
He said: “Looking back on my early lifetime and almost 40 years’ ministry together with Rachel, I feel very privileged to have been close witnesses of big changes amongst the Indians, the completion of the whole Bible in Mataco and the New Testament in Toba, the formal recognition and documentation of the Indians as full Argentine citizens, the openings for the new generation to secondary education, the ordination of many to ministry in the Church and the consecration of the first Indian bishop.”
When Bishop David was 67, the couple retired together to the family home in East Runton. With life coming full circle, the couple again worship at Cromer Parish Church, where they met.
Commenting on the book, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, said: “David Leake’s remarkable story of years in the Chaco in northern Argentina is a rich and compelling account told with disarming modesty.”
● Under an Algarrobo Tree, priced at £9.95, can be bought by visiting www.loxwoodpress.co.uk or calling 01903 232208.