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Round about the Torres Straits

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

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917.

Chapter IV. The Roper River Mission

ON Saturday, June 15, 1907, the Mission ketch Francis Pritt was drifting with the tide out of the harbour of Thursday Island on a somewhat adventurous voyage. The passengers consisted of the Rev. A. E. Ebbs, General Secretary of the Victorian Church Missionary Society, and myself, on our way to discover if possible a suitable site for an aboriginal Mission Station, which the Society wished to found on the Roper River, which runs into the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Our crew consisted of South Sea Island natives, with an ancient white master mariner in charge, but none of us had ever been to the Roper, and we could not get any reliable information about the river or its navigation. We drifted out to sea in a dead calm till night fell, when it began to blow, and during the next three days we had all the wind we wanted, not to say a little over.

It so happened that the Governor-General was crossing the Gulf at the same time, returning from a visit to Port Darwin, and we were amused afterwards by reading the accounts of the terrible gale through which his steamer had passed. It was wonderful to see the way in which the little vessel, skilfully steered by the Fijian mate, climbed up the huge mountains of water, and descended into the still valleys beneath. We had to take in every possible reef and run almost under bare poles. Our crew grew very despondent, as they did not believe that there was any land on the other side of the Gulf, but on the third day, in the afternoon, I caught sight of a sea-bird, and pointing it out to the mate, he managed to pick up a small island, which gave us our bearings. We found that we had been blown about forty miles out of our course. The skipper said that there was only one chance of our making an anchorage before dark, and that was to put full sail on the boat and risk the consequences, otherwise we must go out to sea again, and beat about till morning. As the weather showed no sign of improvement, the prospect was so uninviting that we decided in favour of putting up the mainsail and travelling at a terrific rate. We got under the shelter of an island and anchored in fifteen fathoms of water just after dark. Even here the wind was still so strong that it took up a plate lying face downwards on the deck and whirled it 200 yards out to sea.

For the next two days we coasted down the side of Groote Eylandt, where we were fortunately sheltered from the storm, and anchored in a little bay at the south-west corner of the island. Two natives came off in a very primitive canoe; they understood no English, and apparently had never seen flour, but they asked for rice in Malay. Next morning we determined to land, but as I had received the strictest instructions from the authorities of the Northern Territory not to land unless we were well armed, I took a couple of the crew armed with rifles with us. When our boat got near the beach we saw the sandhills covered with a couple of hundred warriors, who were dancing and waving their spears, but when the boat reached the shore they had all disappeared except the two men who had come off to us the previous night. Seeing that they were alarmed, I left Mr. Ebbs and the two men at the boat, and by advancing alone was able to reach the two men, who were about two hundred yards from the beach.

When, however, I beckoned for my reinforcements to advance, the two men ran for their lives, and I after them. When I reached the top of the sand ridge, I could see nothing whatever but one small dog, who was going for the horizon for all he was worth. After disarming the two South Sea Islanders lest they should shoot us by mistake in their excitement, we went for a tour of exploration, and found the camp about a mile away down the beach, near a spring of fresh water, which, as so often on these coasts, rises through the sand about high-water mark. We found evidence of the visits of Malay proas, which up to this time used to come over with the beginning of the north-west monsoon, returning with the first of the southeast. Their coming is now prohibited. In the camp I found an aboriginal woman's knitting, the thread being made of kangaroo hair. We left various presents in the camp, but did not succeed in seeing any more of the natives. During the night we were rather startled by seeing a canoe stealthily approaching us, but finally discovered that it was empty, and must have drifted off the beach, to which we returned it in the morning.

About sixty miles from here we struck the mouth of the Roper River, which is difficult to find, as the bar is eight miles from shore, and only one bearing can now be obtained on the land. We were, however, fortunate in obtaining a bearing on a second clump of trees, which has since disappeared, so that we got into the channel with comparatively little difficulty. The river is navigable for small vessels for about a hundred miles, but is full of dangerous rocks and snags. Next morning we were met by the trooper stationed at the lonely Police Station at the head of navigation, who came down in his boat and brought a local native to act as pilot. There was a good deal of traffic here about thirty years ago, much of the material for the Overland Telegraph Line having been landed at the Police Station, which was reached by a vessel during a continued flood, but since that time the Police Station has been the only habitation. We saw a tribe of natives, sometimes on one bank and sometimes on the other bank of the river, and had a good deal of talk with them, one old man having travelled as far as Darwin, and speaking English more or less. I asked him how it was they were not afraid to swim across the river, which was full of alligators, as the crocodiles are here called. He replied, "Oh, that all right; when we cross river, alligator only catch him last fellow; when we cross river we always put him old woman last fellow, suppose alligator catch him old woman, no matter!" On another occasion I noticed two long hollow pelican bones, and asked him what they were for. He replied, "To carry poison in." I said, "Poison! What do you want with poison?" He answered, "Suppose you not like man, you mix him poison long o' tucker all same white man!"

It took us seven or eight days to reach the bar of rock which crosses the river close to the Police Station. Here Mr. Ebbs and I arranged to go out with the mounted constable to search for a good site for the proposed Mission Station. We had been recommended to examine a spot which some twenty years or more before then had been a small cattle station, but the only sign of it now left was said to be a stone chimney, and this chimney we set out to find. We continued our search for three days and traversed some very rough, mountainous country, seeing frequent fires and other traces of natives, but never actually seeing the people themselves, who kept carefully out of sight. The country became at last so rough that we had to return, and the black boy from the Police Station who was accompanying us was told to ride ahead and show the way, which, by the by, was quite unknown to him. I usually carry a compass in the bush, and saw from it that the boy was not going in the right direction. I was not therefore at all surprised when he presently stopped and said that he was bushed. The constable flew into a furious rage and said that if I had not been there he would have pulled him from his horse and flogged him till he could not stand, adding that he could not understand why the Almighty ever created the aboriginals, because they were the most useless people on the face of the earth. When he had somewhat recovered his temper and we had got the right direction by the aid of my compass, I could not help recalling a story which he had told me the previous day about this very boy. A couple of years before he had been returning to the Police Station during a period of prolonged drought, and when he was about eighty miles from home his own horse and that of the black boy, who was accompanying him, both died. He tried to walk, but became exhausted for want of water, and lay down under a tree to die. The black boy disappeared, and, as he said, he never expected to see him again. Twenty or thirty miles further on the boy found water, brought it back to the constable, helped him along, and brought him home in safety, thus being by his own admission entirely responsible for the saving of his life. Yet he could not understand why God ever created an aboriginal!

Finally, we selected a site on the river-bank, under the red cliffs of Mount St. George. The site was in many ways an excellent one, but we did not sufficiently allow for the tremendous rise of the river in an exceptionally wet season. During the three weeks that we were on the river the weather was perfect, but we had hardly started to beat up the channel towards the bar when we were met by a violent easterly gale, which tried the skill and energy of everyone on board, as the water was like pea-soup, and we could only tell when to go about by continual casting of the lead. The storm lasted all the way across the Gulf, until we got into the shelter of the land on the eastern side.

The Francis Pritt made many voyages after this to carry supplies to the newly founded Mission, and by degrees the Groote Eylandt natives were won over to friendliness. Some two or three years afterwards I attended an interesting ceremony in the drawing-room of Government House, Darwin, on the occasion of the presentation by the Administrator of the Albert Medal, conferred by the King on an aboriginal called Neighbour for conspicuous bravery. Neighbour was one of the men whom we met on the occasion of our first visit to the Roper, and he was afterwards arrested by a mounted constable on the charge of stealing cattle. It is not at all necessary to suppose that he had been personally guilty of the offence, as it is not infrequently the custom to consider any member of a tribe responsible for any act committed by another member, if the first is available and the second not easily got at. The prisoner was in chains when he arrived with the constable on the bank of a flooded river. The constable rode into the water to see if it were crossable, leaving his prisoner on the bank, when in swimming his horse rolled over, striking him on the head with his hoof, and he was washed down the middle of the stream quite unconscious. Neighbour, chained as he was, sprang into the water, swam out to the drowning man, and brought him safely to the bank. He then caught the constable's horse, and might easily have been a hundred miles away before any alarm could have been given. Instead of this, he rode in to the Police Station, about twenty miles away, and brought help for his captor.

It is pleasing to be able to record that the constable in this instance showed his gratitude by settling a sum of money for life upon his rescuer. All the Government officials of Darwin were present, as well as the Bishop of the diocese, when the Administrator, in the King's name, presented the medal to the first pure-blooded Australian aboriginal to receive this decoration.

The Mission suffered somewhat at first from frequent changes of Superintendent, one of the most fruitful causes of failure in missionary work, but for many years the work has now been going on steadily and successfully. Some years later I paid my second visit to the Mission to introduce some new workers, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, Miss Hill, and Miss Tinney. It was not thought desirable that the ladies should attempt the voyage by the Francis Pritt, so we went down by a small trading steamer from Port Darwin. There was only one cabin (also the dining-room), which was handed over to the ladies, the rest of the passengers having to be content with the deck, and being well content to be still there on one or two occasions when the vessel rolled over on her beam ends. In order to reach the Roper we had to go on some hundreds of miles beyond it to the Macarthur River, and deliver our cargo there, as no one would insure a vessel going up the Roper, and therefore all her insured cargo had to be disposed of first, and passengers landed on the return journey. Altogether we had over a thousand miles to go to reach our destination, and as we were very heavily laden, and the boat leaked so much that the deck was generally several inches deep in water from the pumps, the skipper, to dodge rough weather as much as he could, used to wait patiently behind an island till the clouds rolled by. On one occasion the natives came out to us from an island in a little canoe made of a single sheet of bark. It was blowing hard, and how they managed to keep afloat was perfectly incomprehensible to us. It did not seem to matter much whether the canoe was full of water or not. The ladies excited the admiration of the rough bushmen who formed our fellow-passengers by the courage and determination with which they endured all the discomforts of the voyage.

After nearly three weeks of travelling we at last arrived at the mouth of the Roper River, but the sea on the bar was so bad that the ship nearly rolled over, dipping the boats on the davits into the water. Fortunately, the lashings held, or we, who were dashed against the boats, would have gone overboard too. We went back to Maria Island, about eleven miles off, and got shelter for the night. Next morning we had another try, and, the weather having moderated somewhat, we got in a little way, when we grounded. The Captain was fortunate to get off, and we went back to Maria Island to recover. Next morning we had another try, and sent out the mate in the boat to buoy the channel with kerosene tins. We were not able, however, to get in, and returned to Maria Island. Next morning the mate put down some kerosene tins, and we finally succeeded in getting over the bar. We received a very warm welcome at the Mission Station, which was about forty miles up the Roper River, and not far from the site we selected.

The Roper River Mission has had to contend with special difficulties owing to the fact that the natives are scattered over a very large area, and consist of many tribes. It is proposed to extend the Mission to Groote Eylandt, and also to Blue Mud Bay, about one hundred and fifty miles to the north. A pumping engine has been erected on the bank of the river, and the water, except occasionally, is fresh enough for irrigation. The chief work has been done among the young people, as the older men and women are largely fixed in their own ideas. One great trouble is the custom of betrothing girls, as soon as born, to old men. When they grow up, they naturally want to marry the young men who have grown up with them, but it is contrary to all tribal custom that the claims of the old men should be ignored. Sometimes they have to be resisted, sometimes the girl has to be practically bought from the old man. Sometimes the young people set the old men at defiance, but this generally means a spear sooner or later.

The children attend the Mission school regularly, and have made very considerable progress, though there are sometimes unexpected interruptions. It is part of the routine that the children should bathe daily in the river, the girls opposite the station, and the boys a little higher up. On one occasion not long ago the boys saw a huge alligator rushing, contrary to their custom, along the surface of the water, towards the girls, "making the water boil," they said, "like steamer." They raised a shout of warning just in time, and the alligator had to retire disappointed. Mr. Warren, the Superintendent, took his rifle and went to look for the alligator. He got out on an overhanging tree and looked up the river and down the river and across the river, but could see no sign of the alligator. Then it suddenly struck him to look down, and he saw the head of the alligator coming out of the water for him with a rush. He dropped the muzzle of the rifle and fired without taking aim. The next day the alligator was found dead, the bullet having passed through the eye into the brain.

On my third visit I drove down overland from Darwin and spent a very happy week at the Mission, holding a series of devotional meetings for the staff. Independent testimony to the work of Missions is always satisfactory, and I therefore gladly quote, from the Queenslander of January 20, 1917, the following opinion of Mr. T. J. McMahon, a recent traveller through Northern Australia:

"The Roper River Mission has the distinction of being one of the most isolated Mission Stations in the wide world. Only eight years ago this Mission was founded, and already the results are such as to encourage the Anglican Church Missionary Society of Australia, who are responsible for its foundation and support. I think I am entitled to say this, as during the last two years I have visited many of the different Missions of the Southern Hemisphere and know something of the subject. When one thinks of the extreme isolation of the Mission, the hundred and one difficulties that such isolation does bring to hamper progress, this Mission is, in my opinion, after its eight years of life, making more than ordinary progress. A special article will be written on this Mission, positive facts that cannot be denied will be given, and the people of Australia will then be able to judge of what a band of noble, self-sacrificing men and women have done, and are continuing to do, against privations and hardships that very few people can imagine possible. There is no more hopeful sign that this Mission is doing effective work than this: it has incurred the displeasure of certain people whose misdeeds of lust and exploitation are exposed by the coming and the clean, honest intentions of the Mission."

It is hoped that the Mission will soon be extended considerably. More workers are still needed.

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