Project Canterbury

Round about the Torres Straits

By the Right Rev. Gilbert White, D.D.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917.

Chapter II. Yarrabah

IN August, 1892, I arranged to visit the Mission Station at Yarrabah which had been started on June 17 by the Rev. John Gribble. Mr. Gribble had been always distinguished for his keen love for the natives, and his burning indignation against those who had inflicted cruel wrongs upon them. Shortly before this time he had denounced publicly the cruel treatment of the aborigines in Western Australia, and the mob were so infuriated with him that by order of the Government he was smuggled out of the State by night under a strong police escort to save his life. No one could ever accuse Mr. Gribble of fearing the face of man. I went up from Townsville in a small coasting steamer, and Mr. Gribble was to meet me at night in a cutter between False Cape and Cape Grafton. It was a black night, and midnight before we arrived at the proposed meeting-place, and there was no sign of the cutter. Suddenly we saw the sails of a small cutter illuminated by a sheet of burning newspaper, Mr. Gribble, among whose many virtues remembrance of practical details was not included, having forgotten to bring a lamp of any kind. I got down on to the cutter and the steamer went on. We sailed about for some considerable time without being able to see anything, and without any idea of where we were going, as a compass had also been forgotten. Finally, it was decided that we were close up to the shore, and the cutter was anchored and a very crazy and leaky dinghy was got out, into which we all packed, Mr. G. and I being accommodated with a cushion at the stern, which lifted us so high that I was afraid every moment of a capsize. Everyone had a different theory as to where the land was, and we rowed on hour after hour without coming any nearer to it. Mr. G. seemed to have no sense of discomfort, but discoursed steadily of many things. I was much less heroic, and uncomfortably conscious that the water was rising above my ankles. Finally, I got a tin and devoted myself to bailing. Fortunately, at last someone lit a fire on the shore, and we finally arrived at our destination cold and weary, to find in the morning that the cutter was anchored three miles out to sea.

Mr. G. had put up a small house and had with him one or two South Sea Island teachers, but of aborigines there was not the smallest sign. The white inhabitants of Cairns, about eleven miles away across the inlet, had told them that Mr. Gribble had come to Yarrabah for the purpose of kidnapping their children and selling them into slavery. For a time the wicked lie kept everyone far away. An incident which happened about this time will show the kind of people the natives were, and the power of the Gospel. Two young men of the Yarrabah tribe discovered that one of the old men of their tribe was arranging to have them murdered, and not liking the prospect, they took steps to counteract it. They sent a message to the Barron River tribe that if they would come over and pay them a visit they would kill an old man and give him to their visitors to eat. The Barron tribe accepted the offer, and the programme was carried out to the letter. The Barron people actually borrowed a whaleboat to go over in and carried back the dismembered body hidden under bushes in the bottom of the boat. One of the two young men afterwards joined the Mission, and in the course of tune he became a very faithful and earnest Christian.

Mr. John Gribble wore himself out in his strenuous efforts to start the Mission. I found him living on porridge without milk, and on nothing else, and so poor that he could not post his letters for lack of money to buy stamps. I am afraid I reported my opinion to the management in Sydney in somewhat strong terms, but it was too late to save the founder of the Mission. Like the founder of the New Guinea Mission, he had to leave before seeing any fruit of his labours, before a single native had come to the Mission. He got as far as Sydney, where he died in the Prince Alfred Hospital, on June 3, 1894. Before he left Yarrabah he sent an earnest appeal to his son Ernest, who was working as a layman in New South. Wales, to come to the rescue of the Mission. Ernest Gribble had seen so much of the hardship and suffering of the life of a missionary to the aborigines that he had vowed to have nothing to do with it, but at his father's call he gave up all his worldly prospects and began that life of devotion to the cause of the aborigines in which he has persisted with such remarkable success to this day, having now been about three years without a furlough as head of the Forest River Aboriginal Mission in Western Australia.

He landed at Yarrabah in October, 1892, and it was two months before he saw a single native. At last they began slowly to come in, and four years later he was able to report that a Mission house, church and school had been erected, and about fifteen acres of land fenced and five acres of scrub cleared for bananas, and that as many natives were coming in as they could make room for. I visited the Mission in 1896, and saw an extraordinary change. Somehow Mr. Gribble had persuaded the natives to work, and to work well and cheerfully. There were about fifty natives on the place. Four years later the numbers had grown to 150, and the Mission was developing into a well-ordered Christian community. In order to get the people to take a greater interest in their own welfare a number of the senior men were formed into a governing body called "the Government," and in conjunction with the missionaries met monthly to decide all new work to be undertaken, to frame rules, and regulate the routine work of the settlement. A local police-court was also established. It sat fortnightly in the evening, and dealt with all disputes and offences. The native members of the court were of the greatest service in eliciting facts and assessment of penalties. An excellent brass band and a well-drilled military rifle-club were also formed. The centre of all the activities of the place was the church, and there Mr. Gribble, like an ancient patriarch, would not only lead the devotions of his large family, but issue directions of all kinds for their moral and physical well-being.

The Mission was fortunate in securing the co-operation of James Noble, whose character and example were of immense assistance to his fellow-countrymen. James was born on one of the islands at the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria, of one of the most primitive and least advanced tribes in Australia, people who lived only in a hollow in the sand, and were nearly frightened out of their wits by seeing water boil. When a boy he was taken to New South Wales and given a good education at the Scone Grammar School. I have known him for twenty years, and always accounted him a fine type of Christian gentleman. He holds the Bishop's licence as lay-reader, and he reads the service much better than many of the clergy, while his preaching is simple but eloquent. He has never despised the humblest tasks, and has twice volunteered for distant and dangerous work among his countrymen in the far-off parts of Australia. Three years ago he, with his wife Angelina, gave up a Comfortable home at Yarrabah to accompany Mr. Gribble to the Forest River Mission in Western Australia.

In 1901 Archdeacon White of Muswellbrook, New South Wales, and his brother visited the Mission and were much impressed. The Archdeacon says: "All who are not engaged in necessary household or other work attend Morning and Evening Prayer in church. Of these services, I and my brother were able to attend four during our short stay. I was much struck by the reverent demeanour of all. On coming into church each knelt for a few moments in silent prayer, the men taking their places on one side, the women and girls on the other. The whole congregation rose as the choir (in surplices) and the clergyman entered. All knelt reverently at the prayers, in which all seemed to join in a monotone, assisted by the organ, and all joined in singing the canticles and in reading the psalms. I noticed that several of the elder girls followed the lessons attentively in their own Bibles. They all sang the Glorias, turning together to the east as they did so. In fact, there did not appear to be a voice silent, and I mentally contrasted the heartiness and reverence of the black congregation with the behaviour of many European congregations.

"The first tune we attended Evensong was immediately after reaching the Mission. The bell was sounding as we reached the shore, and the service had begun before we reached the church. One native man was taking the prayers, and another read the lessons in a manner that would have shamed some of our younger clergy! At each service Mr. Gribble, in a practical manner, explains and applies any difficult passage in the lessons. On the second evening, at Mr. Gribble's request, I gave them a short address. I chose the subject of 'The Good Shepherd,' and a more attentive and appreciative congregation I never wish to have. The hymns and canticles were sung with heart and soul, and one could not help feeling that the service was a reality to those simple souls. At 9 a.m. the bell sounded for work. All hands assembled at the store, except those women who were told off for household work, cooking, washing, and cleaning the houses. One band of girls and young women went off under the guidance of a 'Captain 'with their hoes to work in the fields. Another band of men with hoes went to do the harder work of preparing the ground for planting. Others, with Mr. Reeves, carried saws and axes to cut down and saw trees in lengths.

"We saw them afterwards working cheerfully, clearing the banana fields or planting taro, etc. All were steadily and happily working as diligently as any Europeans, and apparently with much greater cheerfulness. Between sixty and seventy acres of heavily timbered land have been cleared and planted with bananas, pawpaws, coconuts, Indian corn, taro, sweet potatoes, yams, coffee, tapioca, and various other fruit-trees and tropical vegetables. It was amazing to see how much has been effected under Mr. Cribble's direction, by a people generally considered lazy and incapable of sustained exertion. One is inclined to exclaim, 'What hath God wrought!' That afternoon was declared a half-holiday in honour of our visit, and the whole community turned out to amuse themselves. The young men, to the number of twenty-five, went through their drill in uniform with old-fashioned rifles. Mr. Grabble was drill sergeant, and put them through their exercises--marching, counter-marching, presenting arms, etc.--as well as many volunteer squads of our own people."

In March, 1902, about ten years after my first visit, I visited the Mission to take a Confirmation for the Bishop of North Queensland. I was most deeply impressed by the reverence and devotion of the candidates, and writing to the Archbishop of Sydney, I reported as follows: "I have just returned from Yarrabah, whither I went at the request of the Bishop of North Queensland to hold a Confirmation, which he was unable to take. I was very much struck by the wonderful advance which had been made since I was last there, some three or four years ago. There was then very much to encourage, especially among the younger generation, but now the whole character of the people seems to me to be changed. The energy, alacrity, and real interest that the men and women threw into all their work was to me marvellous. When I first visited Yarrabah, ten years ago, in the time of the Rev. J. Gribble, senior, there was not one aboriginal near the station, and now I saw a community of two hundred persons living and working together for the common good with a zeal, purpose, and continuity of effort which would put to shame many white settlements. It is not only the material progress that impressed me, the sixty acres of close cultivation, the sawmill, water supply, buildings, and organizations, because all these things might have been accomplished by intelligent direction and forced labour, although it is generally considered impossible to keep the aborigines to continued manual labour. What struck me most was the character of the men and their work, the evident interest they had in everything, their pride in their smartness, the determined persistence shown in their drills and in the heavy agricultural work, which requires constant toil to prevent retrogression, their reverence in church, and the close attention to all that was said, and the universal air of happiness and contentment.

"It is my deliberate opinion that the aboriginals at Yarrabah have shown themselves as capable of those qualities of discipline, unselfishness, self-restraint, and fixity of purpose which go to make up civilized social life as any other race. It is surely a tremendous tribute to the power of the Gospel that it has wrought such a change among a people supposed to belong to one of the lowest human types, and the wonder is deepened when we remember that a large proportion of these people have been taken not from the primitive and unspoiled tribes, but from those who had become degraded loafers and hangers-on on the outskirts of white civilization, with all its vices and none of its virtues. The Confirmation was a most impressive ceremony, and I do not think that I was ever more struck with the intense reality of worship than in the singing of the Te Deum, with which the service concluded. Of course, I do not mean to say that these people have learnt in a few years to stand alone. The human means of their regeneration has been the marvellous energy, wisdom, and sympathy of the director of the Mission, and were his presence withdrawn for long it is difficult to see how the work could continue in its present efficiency. The marks of a strong paternal government are easily discernible under the wise forms of liberty; but who would expect it to be otherwise? The Australian Church has been wonderfully fortunate in securing the devoted service of one with such a genius for the work, and it is to its shame that it is not more alive to the need of giving his work material support."

On the occasion of my next visit the collection was for the Mitchell River Mission, and fifty-three beautifully made shell necklaces were placed upon the plate to be sold for that extension of work among the aborigines. It was difficult to exaggerate the impression of peace, contentment, and happiness that was left on one's mind by a visit to Yarrabah at this time. Mr. Gribble and his helpers did a splendid work, and the Church had every reason to be proud, as it was, of the success of the work.

Trouble was, however, at hand. The Mission was asked to take charge of eighty-three natives from a Government Station on Fraser Island. The Station had not been a success; there had been an almost total absence of discipline, and the majority of the people were diseased, idle, and incapable of work, and accustomed to spend their time in gambling. It was hoped that this unpromising material might be reformed by the Mission, but they introduced undesirable elements and greatly increased the anxieties of the staff, while adding little or nothing to the working power of the Mission. Efforts were made to induce the Government to increase the amount it contributed to the Mission, which in 1905 amounted to only i6s. per head per annum. The number of natives on the Mission amounted at this time to 360. The amount of the grant was afterwards increased, but the Government constantly sent diseased and worn out aboriginals to the Mission, so that the man power was always very small compared to the total number of persons. This has always been the great trouble from which Yarrabah has suffered. Being the most southerly of the Missions, and the most convenient of access, it has always had weak, diseased, sick, and incapable persons sent to it, often by those who wished to get rid of them after they had served their purpose, and got all they could out of them, and then the Mission has been expected to do the work that it could have done if it had had able-bodied men instead of women and children and cripples. This fact must in justice be remembered, for it governs the whole later history of Yarrabah. In fact, the mission was too successful, and achieved such a reputation that it was expected to accomplish impossibilities, and blamed for not doing so.

On January 27, 1906, Yarrabah was visited by a disastrous hurricane, thus described by Mr. Gribble: "As I write, Yarrabah presents a pitiable sight--trees, branches, and green fruits strewn everywhere, mingled with sheets of roofing iron and bits of timber. It was a fearful time for all. The gale began to blow about ten a.m., January 27, and rapidly increased in force. At midday the new building on the beach collapsed. In this building were the stores, Cole's quarters, the museum, and clothing room. Poor Cole loses all his books, etc. The wind carried off papers and records of every description. Finding the wind increasing, we put out another anchor from the launch, but at dusk she went ashore. From three o'clock to midnight the strain was fearful, and the iron from the buildings was carried great distances. One after the other the different buildings went. Poor Reeves (since dead) lay in my bedroom, attended by Mrs. Reeves, and this building we saved by wire and ropes thrown over the roof, and all the men, with Cole, Woolrych, and self, clung to these ropes for six hours, holding the building on the piles. Once it almost went, and actually shifted bodily along the piles. The boys' dormitory is unroofed, also the hospital. The new stories are completely wrecked, and also the new Mission house, just nearing completion; the dispensary wrecked, and all the medicines destroyed; the school hall unroofed and walls blown out, also the school shed. The old Mission house is quite a wreck. The girls' home lost a portion of its roof. The only building intact is the orderly-room. The engine shed went down, and nearly all the married couples' houses. It is impossible to ride out to either Reeves' Creek or Karpa Creek (two other of the settlements), the roads being covered with trees which were blown down. At Reeves' Creek two of the houses were unroofed, also at Karpa Creek. Barka Creek has only one house left. We have not yet heard from Gorragah and Fitzroy (two other Mission settlements). What is to be done? It will need a large sum to rebuild; all the iron is practically spoilt for roofing. The launch we floated this morning. She has lost the copper sheathing, and this must be replaced immediately. In addition to the loss of our buildings, there is the damage done to the gardens and fences. Our losses apart from the buildings are great. Band instruments, stores, medicines, all gone: school material and plantations a mass of ruins. We are passing through troublous times. The fine new building which we built with the timber from Fraser Island is a complete wreck, and is broken to splinters."

Yarrabah was rebuilt after the hurricane, and has continued to do good work. Under the present Superintendent much development work has been done, and the spiritual influence of the Mission is still widely felt.

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