Project Canterbury

Round about the Torres Straits

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

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917.

Chapter III. The Mitchell River Mission

As the result of an appeal to the Queensland Government we were able in 1904 to secure for the purposes of a Church Mission to the aborigines in Northern Queensland the proclamation of a Reserve of 600 square miles at the mouth of the Mitchell River, which was at that time very little known, and entirely unsettled. The country was well watered and grassed and capable of supporting a considerable native population. Before starting the Mission I made a brief visit to the Reserve from Normanton. I was provided with a police escort, as I was informed that the natives were dangerous, a story which I did not then believe, and saw no reason to afterwards. I saw a good many of the men and some of the old women, but the younger women and the children were carefully hidden. I gave the old women some large blue bead necklaces, which were received with shrieks of delight, but as I went away I saw the men going round, and next day it was they who were wearing the necklaces. I had also a few hand mirrors, which delighted the men, who would hold them in front of me to get my face and then try to carry it away on the mirror. They were greatly disgusted when it disappeared, and would return to try the experiment again and again. I told them that we would return next year. The Rev. E. Gribble, with several companions, also came down overland and stayed about six weeks, interviewing the natives and preparing them for the starting of the Mission.

The actual expedition to found the Mitchell River Mission left Yarrabah in May, 1905, and consisted of the Rev. E. Gribble and myself, Messrs. Millar, Williams, and Field, and five aborigines. We had about thirty horses for packs and riding. It was a journey of nearly 400 miles through country which was sometimes very rough, and often without track; we could not press the heavily laden packhorses, and it took us the best part of a month to reach the Reserve. One of our party was a sailor, and he used to lag behind and then come up at a wild gallop. When asked what was the matter he replied: "It is this riding; the steering gear is all right, but the engines seem always full speed ahead or else dead slow "; and he vowed that if he had to stay till he was grey-headed, he would never go back by land. We saw little sign of the natives on the road, but on reaching the Reserve we were met by a party of about 200, who had recognized us and come to welcome us. It was a picturesque scene as we said Evensong that night surrounded by the natives seated at their little fires, with their tall spears stuck in the ground and the women and children in the background. Mr. Gribble addressed the people through an interpreter, a boy whom he had taken back with him the year before. His address ran somewhat as follows: "First the Bishop say thank you that you looked after the little house I built last year, and kept it in good order. The missionaries have kept their word. We said we would be back in six moons, and here we are. We are here to teach you about God the Great Father, who made you and the grass and trees and animals, and the women also. We are very glad to hear you have not speared any cattle since our last visit (grins of conscious virtue on the part of the audience). We do not want to make you like white men, but good black men. Still walk about, still catch possum and wallaby, still make good corroboree, but not kill cattle, not steal, not fight another tribe, not swear, not hit wife on head with waddy (symptoms of disapproval here among the men); and wife also, she not talk-talk at her husband (sudden revival of interest in the front rows and an emphatic click of approval). When you sick you come, we make you well. We teach children read and write in school." All seemed very simple, but few men could have appealed so directly to the heart of this primitive race.

A lagoon called Trubanamando (Trubanaman for short) was chosen for the site of the Mission. The western end was about eight miles from the coast. It was about fifty yards wide, and extended inland for some miles. It was covered with the edible water-lily which forms an important item of native food. In the centre of the camp we put up a large canvas fly to serve as a church, and here on the following morning we had the first celebration of the Holy Communion on the Mission. All was very beautiful in the early morning, with the sun shining on the great blue lilies in the lagoon behind the kneeling worshippers. Some years later the church was built on the site of this fly.

I had arranged for a cutter to come down the coast from Thursday Island, about 300 miles to the north, and bring us provisions, tools, etc., to the mouth of the Mitchell River, which was about twelve miles distant. We were almost out of food, and so Mr. Gribble and I went down to the mouth of the river to meet the boat on its arrival. We had only a few handfuls of flour, but were fortunate in catching some fish. We waited four days without any sign of the cutter, and had nothing to eat but the fish we caught. The last night it rained, and we took off our clothes and sat on them till the storm was over. Mr. Gribble was ill with fever nearly all the time. Next morning we returned to the camp, and sent down another white man, Mr. Field, to watch for the boat, promising he should be relieved in three days. One evening, hearing a report that the cutter had been seen further up the coast, Mr. Field, who was unable to get any of the blacks to accompany him, swam the river, which was about 300 yards wide, and full, not only of sharks and alligators, but of stinging jelly-fish, and walked along the beach for a distance of twelve miles in his search for the boat. Not finding it, and being without food, he returned and re-swam the river before morning. He was so exhausted that he was only just able to land. Meanwhile, we set to work to clear the scrub, and to dig up the ground for a garden with little tomahawks, which were all we had in the way of tools. We also started school with five little boys. We had no paper or slates, so we wrote ABC, etc., on the white side of a packhorse cover and taught them to sing it to the tune of "Auld lang syne." The boys went home and told their fathers and uncles that the white man had been teaching them a new corroboree called ABC, and that night we had the whole camp dancing round the flies and singing ABC to the tune of "Auld lang syne" at the top of their voices.

Meanwhile, there was no news of the cutter, and our provisions were disappearing rapidly. We got a few duck, but our cartridges were almost done, and we could only fire when there was a chance of killing several together. We were even reduced to eating the water-lily stems. Four days later I got a message that Mr. Gribble had sighted the boat just before dark. I set off in the morning for the creek, but there were no signs of a boat, then eleven miles on to the South Mitchell, where I found Mr. Gribble camped without coat or blanket or food. The boat had disappeared. I gave him my oilskin and a small piece of damper I had put in my pocket on starting. I got back in the evening after a thirty-six mile ride and one drink of muddy water. We afterwards found that our skipper had been unable to find the South Mitchell, and had returned, being short of water. It was three weeks later before we were relieved, and then from another quarter. Each of us white men took our lonely three days' watch at the Mitchell mouth while the rest worked at clearing the ground and forming the Mission Station. In this we were readily aided by the natives, who had gathered in considerable numbers. One morning when we were at breakfast we heard a great din in the camp, and found that a fight was threatening. James Noble was the first to discover the trouble, and was on the spot before any of us. The women were shrieking and urging on the men to the fray. The protagonist on the one side was the big Urdell and on the other a man who was so angry that his mouth opened and shut like a rabbit's, while he could not utter a word. We got between the opposing parties and tried to quieten them down by laughing at them, but a good old man whom we called the King knew a better way. While their attention was distracted by us he quietly went round and, collecting all the spears, "planted" them in the bush. So the fight was perforce "off."

After about a month our plight was so serious for lack of food that I determined to break up the camp and set out for the nearest settlement, about 200 miles distant, but before we started we were relieved by the appearance of the Government ketch Melbidir. A report having reached Thursday Island that we had been killed and eaten by the natives, the Government kindly sent down to collect any remains, but thoughtfully put in a few bags of flour in case we were alive. I returned in the Melbidir, and Mr. Gribble went back to Yarrabah overland, leaving the work in charge of Mr. Millar, who was shortly afterwards succeeded by Rev. E. S. Chase, and then by the present devoted Superintendent, Mr. H. Matthews, to whose labours the great success of the Mission is largely due. We found our cutter some 200 miles up the coast, and sent her back in charge of a competent pilot.

Hereafter for eight years I visited the Mission every year, and so was able to mark its steady growth and progress. First of all a certain number of natives were taken on at the Mission to separate them from the bad influences of camp life, small huts being built for the married people and dormitories for the young men and boys, and for the girls. The five little boys with whom the school was started grew up to be men, were baptized and confirmed, and now form the crew of the Mission ship the Francis Pritt, which is somewhat remarkable, as the tribe do not use canoes, even on the rivers, and never go to sea. The school has been training others, the girls learning to sew and to make their own clothes and those of the men, and as well as the boys learning to read and to write intelligent letters. Only about 130 or 140 natives are actually residing at the Mission Station, but the natives on the Reserve number over 1,000, and these are constantly visiting the Mission and coming under its influence, often leaving their children to be taught.

Some years after the Mission had been started, and when we had already resident women missionaries, the following incident occurred when I was paying my annual visit to the Mission. On the occasion of my first visit I had, when doing my three days' solitary vigil at the mouth of the Mitchell, had an interesting visit from a detachment of eighteen men of the Koko-Mindyuno tribe, who, as only two or three of them had ever seen a white man before, had swum the river and come to have a look at me. They had the reputation of being a very bloodthirsty lot, so I was rather relieved when I got rid of them without any contretemps, and later on they were induced to visit our camp. On this occasion I was having tea in our, by this time, quite civilized Station, when, happening to raise my eyes, I saw a long line of dust rapidly approaching the house. Presently it resolved itself into arms, legs and spears, and was seen to be a line of fifty naked warriors in full war-paint, running and leaping and brandishing their spears. With, I confess, a certain trepidation, for we had three women workers besides the men, I asked the Superintendent what it was, and he replied a little doubtfully, "I think it is all right. They are the Koko-Mund-yuno." The warriors continued their rush, leapt the fence, and then, one holding up his spear, they all gathered round him in a dense bunch, holding up their spears and uttering bloodthirsty yells. Then when they had ceased, the leader said quietly in English, "We come to church." The contrast to their formidable appearance was so great that I could scarcely repress a smile. We arranged for an outdoor service, as we had then no church, and in any case their attire was not one for church-going, and they went away quite happy. A few years later a fine church, eighty feet long, was built entirely by the people themselves, the iron for the roof being the only part that was imported. The floor was covered with bricks made on the Station, and the pulpit of a great tree-butt hollowed out and carved.

Many industries have sprung up round the Mission. A rapidly growing herd of cattle promises soon to solve the question of the financial support of the Mission if we can succeed in retaining the whole of the land granted for the Reserve. A large garden and plantations of cassava and sweet potatoes help largely to solve the food problem, though the maize crop has hitherto always been a disappointment, probably owing to the nature of the ground. Two out-stations have been started near the Mission where the natives are learning to cultivate the ground and to put in crops for their own use. These are under the charge of South Sea Island teachers, honest and trustworthy men, though I doubt whether some of the aborigines do not exceed them in intelligence.

Now Christian couples joining the Mission are regarded as married by native custom, but are required to promise publicly to regard their union as lifelong and indissoluble. A number of the younger people have been baptized and confirmed, but it is difficult for the older people to learn.

The moral standard is remarkably high considering the conditions, and that twelve years ago all the members of the Mission were wild and primitive savages. We can fairly claim to have formed a civilized and Christian community where order, peace and goodwill are the rule, and disorder and vice the rare exceptions. The staff consists of the Superintendent and his wife, the chaplain and his wife, and two white men helpers, and one woman teacher, together with three South Sea Island teachers. The cost of the Mission, including the maintenance of the ketch Francis Pritt, is well under £1,000 a year, because, as in New Guinea, the workers receive only maintenance and a very small sum for pocket-money, no more indeed than the South Sea Island teachers. The fact that they are content to go on working year after year under very hard conditions of life and climate is the most convincing proof that they feel that a great work is being done through them. I was much pleased a few years ago when the Home Secretary for the State of Queensland, who had been visiting the Mission, and who was by no means indiscriminating in his approval of missionary work, said to me of his own accord: "I congratulate the Church of England on the Mitchell River Mission. It is a wonderful work; the most successful Mission that I have ever seen."

The great need of the Mission at present is two more men to open out a Mission about twenty-five miles distant, on the other end of the Reserve. The opening of this branch at Yeremundo is a most real and pressing necessity, and without it it is very doubtful whether we shall be able to keep the Reserve for the natives. Attempts have already been made to deprive the Mission of it on the plea that we are not using it.

Project Canterbury