Project Canterbury

South Sea Epic: War and the Church in New Guinea

Compiled by Ruth Henrich

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1944.

Chapter I. Synopsis

Once or twice during the war a sudden spotlight has revealed New Guinea to the newspaper-reading public as not merely a Pacific theatre of war, but a scene of unrealised Christian enterprise. Papuan stretcher-bearers flashed into focus--not as head-hunting cannibals, but as gentle nurses, ready to carry their charges through the jungle by day and to care for them tirelessly by night. News came of missionaries killed at their posts--Christian martyrs, not in stained glass windows in a medieval church, but on a New Guinea seashore in A.D. 1942. Things have been happening in New Guinea--things which every Churchman should be proud to know.

From Cannibals to Christians.

Only fifty-two years ago the first two Anglican missionaries waded ashore in Papua. A circle of warriors greeted them, with spears poised to slay at a word from their chief. The word was not spoken. Instead the chief made friends with the strangers, and sold them land on the top of Dogura hill for 112 lbs. of tobacco, 10 tomahawks, a bundle of knives, beads and pipes, and a piece of Turkey-red. The mission was started. It grew, despite cruel setbacks, until the 400 miles of coast-line which fringe the diocese were dotted with Christian communities, and missionaries were pushing into the jungle hinterland. In 1939 a magnificent Cathedral was consecrated, built by the natives on Dogura hill as a thank-offering for the blessings of Christianity. Two years later the diocese kept its jubilee.

In other parts of Papua the missions of other denominations have made like progress, all under the wing of a wise administration which protected the natives from being exploited, and encouraged Christian education. As a result, in fifty years large numbers of the Papuans were transformed from cannibals and head-hunters into peaceful, happy and trustworthy folk, still wearing their traditional loincloths and banana-leaf skirts, and untouched by the fevers of industrialism or race-antagonism.

[10] No Retreat.

Then came the war. On Boxing Day, 1941, planes from Port Moresby began to fly white women and children to Australia. Missionaries were not compelled to go, but some sent their women away for safety. The Anglicans remained. In the last week in January the evacuation of Samarai made it necessary to move diocesan headquarters up to Dogura, and the mission schooner made three trips in six days. The day after the third trip Samarai was bombed. On January 31st the Bishop sent out a broadcast message to his staff: "We must endeavour to carry on our work in all circumstances, no matter what the cost may be to any of us individually." That was the keynote of his historic message. All his staff stayed at their posts.

The Japanese invaded New Guinea Mandated Territory, to the North of Papua; Australians and Americans poured in to combat them; Papuan stretcher-bearers won fame in the Owen Stanley ranges; and, back and forth, the fighting went on. So did the work of the Church. On March 10th, 1942, the mission schooner was bombed and the Bishop machine-gunned as he was visiting the northern stations. At Easter he was taking services for the troops at Port Moresby. In early June he was confirming candidates prepared by the priest at Gona. In October came the news that this priest and two women missionaries at Gona had been killed by the Japanese. Five more were reported prisoners, and accounts of their beheading followed. In December the Archdeacon of the Mamba reported his station bombed and burnt, and himself living a nomad life with thirty-three Papuan priests, teachers and womenfolk. A mission hospital orderly from Samarai, his work gone, became "Medical Adviser" to an Australian camp. A native priest was ordained in the Cathedral on St. Thomas's Day, 1942, and the training of ordinands continued.

Striking Results.

The effects of these happenings have been striking. Australian newspapers have been loud in their praises of the heroic missionaries of New Guinea and Melanesia, the adjoining island diocese where similar scenes have been enacted. Soldiers, sailors and airmen of all ranks, from Australia and America, have seen with their own eyes what "missions" are doing, and from the most unlikely quarters has come testimony to the value of their work. The income of the [10/11] Australian Board of Missions has gone up to a point higher than the previous peak year in 1929, and despite all the present difficulties confronting missionaries, new recruits are offering and reinforcements are being prepared to strengthen the front line. These are things in which the whole Church rejoices.

Project Canterbury