Project Canterbury

Flood Tide in the Pacific: Church and Community Cascade into a New Age

By Frank William Coaldrake

Stanmore, New South Wales: Australian Board of Missions of the Church of England in Australia, no date.




It covers 620,000 square miles and is the largest Diocese in land area in Australia.

It includes the whole of the Northern Territory, part of North Queensland and a dozen populated islands of the Torres Strait.

It stretches from South Australia to New Guinea.

It has all the problems of ministering to three distinct races--Australian Aborigines, Europeans and Torres Strait Islanders, with a sprinkling of Malays, Chinese and Japanese.

It has more missions than parishes, and nearly as many Islander clergy as white. Yet it is not always recognised as a missionary diocese!

Its great area means great expenses in administration and travel, but it has only a small wage-earning population to share the cost of this.


8 Aboriginal Mission Stations (5 under C.M.S.) St. Paul's Mission, Moa Island

St. Paul's Theological College, Moa

8 Primary Schools

1 Nursery School

1 Children's Hostel--another in building

6 Parishes--Thursday Island, Darwin, Alice Springs, Mossman, Katherine, Tennant Creek

11 Island Clergy

20 European Clergy


The 7,500 Islanders of the Torres Strait Islands were converted to Christianity by brown-skinned missionaries from the Loyalty Islands, who came sailing a great distance across the Pacific. At that time the Islanders were savage head-hunters. Their conversion is remembered with great rejoicing, pageantry and Island dancing every year on 1st July, the date when the first missionaries landed on Darnley Island in 1871.. This Festival the Islanders call "The Coming of the Light".

There is an ever-increasing participation of indigenous workers. Ten Torres Strait Islanders are priests ministering to their people and eight more Islanders are in training in St. Paul's Theological College on Moa Island. Five Islanders serve as lay-readers. Almost all Torres Strait Islanders are Anglicans.

The fate of the people of the Torres Strait Islands deserves urgent attention.

Industrially they have become dependent on the shell industry. Serious unemployment and near starvation has [70/71] occurred in recent years when the low price of shell caused many luggers to be laid up and the men paid off. The A.B.M. is actively assisting efforts to develop other avenues of employment, but severe distress continues.

They are Anglicans in poverty and Anglicans in bondage. They are born under the Torres Strait Island Act and remain subject to it until death. There is no provision for exemption from this Act as is the case with aborigines. The Islanders are subject to the Department of Native Affairs of the Queensland Government. The Departmental Officer appointed "Protector of Islanders" may well be above criticism personally and in his administration of the Act. The fact remains that these people are a subject race of Australia and it might well be our concern to initiate action to free them.

The mainland centres in the Mission are at Cowal Creek, Bamaga and Red Island Point. There are Christian settlements on Mabuiag, Boigu, Saibai, Dauan, Yam, Cocoanut, Murray, Darnley, Yorke, Stephen, Badu, Kubun and Warraber. Moa Island, with its Theological College, is not a part of the Torres Strait Mission.

Two things emerge clearly and forcefully, namely:

1. The Islands need money urgently for Church buildings.

2. Unemployment in the Islands is so severe that the people have insufficient money for living and as a result contributions to Church funds have been correspondingly reduced.

The truth of these two claims was obvious in island after island. On the spot, meeting the people face to face, and eliciting the facts in discussion deepened the impression that there are grave dangers in the present situation.

One danger is that the people look finally to the Church for most things. The Church first brought them the new way of life with the new faith and the people still look [71/72] to the Church to bring them the better things they need now. No amount of Government assistance alters this fundamental attitude to the Church. If the present material and spiritual difficulties are not removed the Islanders could think that the Church has failed them.

Another danger is the presence on some of the islands of a sprinkling of Islanders who have worked in the South and become members of some sect. Having returned to their home island they have brought new ideas about Church membership. Strife has already broken out in at least one centre.

Other dangers are rooted in the Torres Strait Islanders Act, 1939, of the Queensland Parliament. Although the Act bears on the educational, social, political and economic aspects of life, the fact that the people under the Act are nearly all Anglicans should lead the Anglican Church in Australia to give special consideration to this Act.

Torres Strait Mission Finance, Church Dues, Church Building Fund and Mission Vessel Costs

The Island Churches make contributions and offerings for the running costs of the Torres Strait Mission. In times of prosperity in the Islands more than half the costs of the Mission were met in this way. The balance was provided in the A.B.M. Budget Grant. With the drop in employment the contributions of local congregations are being drastically reduced, with the result that the A.B.M. Budget Grant must be increased.

The four major items of expenditure are:

(a) Island clergy allowances.

(b) Priest-Director allowance.

(c) Mission Vessel operating costs.

(d) St. Paul's Theological College operating costs.

[73] Each of these items has been kept to a minimum, often probably below the requirements for efficiency and the preservation of human dignity. There seems to be no escaping the fact that the A.B.M. Will have to ask the Australian Church to make an increasing grant to the running costs of the mission and at the same time provide the money for urgent building needs.

If it is left to the people to raise a large share of the costs of the buildings, needed urgently, the contributions to Church dues will drop correspondingly and the A.B.M. will have to provide more money for the operating costs of the mission in its annual grant. It should be possible to arrive at a balance between dues and buildings. Such a balance should allow a sense of self-respecting achievement in Church building, together with a lively sense of duty in maintaining the work of the Church.

The Torres Strait Islanders' Act

The Act was made by the Queensland Parliament in 1939. It establishes Government controls over the Islanders and establishes a certain measure of self rule internally on each island.

In 1937, two years before the making of the Act, a conference of representatives of all the islands was held at Yorke Island. The hopes of the Islanders were freely expressed and the Act was made to give practical effect to the wishes of the people as well as to establish administrative machinery.

The Act is administered by the Department of Native Affairs with a Deputy Director resident in Thursday Island.

The life of the Islanders has been moulded by the Act, but Islanders would now like to see several provisions altered; there is no opportunity for effective expression [73/74] of the Islanders' views. Every two years a meeting of Island Chairmen is called by the D.N.A. Although it is permitted to discuss any island affairs it has no power to carry out its recommendations. The D.N.A. has sometimes adopted proposals made at the Conferences.

New Guinea Contact

Two of the islands, Boigu (population, 200) and Saibai (population, 300) are separated from the mainland of New Guinea by about three miles of water. Daru Island, similarly situated, is part of the Territory of Papua. An independent New Guinea might be expected to want Boigu and Saibai as off-shore islands.

Some of the Islanders would want to join Papua New Guinea when independent, rather than remain under the restrictions • of the Queensland Government Act. The situation could become explosive if it attracted international attention.

Considerable contact between the people of South West New Guinea and the Islands comes from big sailing canoes trading through the Islands. The spread of ideas from New Guinea can be expected rapidly.

Particulars of some observable shortcomings of the D.N.A. Administration

(It must be remembered that visitors are not allowed into the Islands without D.N.A. approval. This is rarely given.)

1. With the collapse of the staple industry--diving for shell--most workers are unemployed but no programme of unemployment relief or alternative industry has been attempted.

[75] 2. Development of island agriculture is neglected. One instance--citrus fruit trees planted on some islands are growing well, but no attention is paid to pruning.

3. D.N.A. is accepting payments from individuals up to £200 for "purchase" of new houses without giving the person any title to the building.

4. Many men go south in search of work with the knowledge and consent of the D.N.A. leaving families at home. The allotment system is not enforced for them, if they work outside the Island area and the families are without means of support.

5. Supplies are carried on the patrol vessel. This causes long delays in the handling of medical cases which is the duty of the patrol boat.

6. Disregard for safety of the Islanders: e.g., on three islands staywires have been run down to the middle of the road and left without markers, a danger to running children or anybody walking at night.

7. D.N.A. stores are placed for convenience of the unloading vessels--often some distance from the village.

Project Canterbury