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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 V. The Torres Straits: Moa

THE Torres Straits lie between Cape York, the northern point of Australia, and New Guinea, and through them are scattered about a dozen larger inhabited islands and innumerable small islands and coral reefs. There are not many more beautiful spots than the Torres Straits when the waves are dancing in the brilliant sunshine, which is for about nine months in the year. During the three months of the north-west monsoon they are subject to violent gales, with torrential rain alternating with brief spells of blazing heat and calm. For the rest of the year the south-east monsoon blows strongly, tempering the heat and causing the great rollers to break in miles of thundering foam on the outer edge of the coral reef. The living reef itself is a reddish-brown which blends with the bright green of the submerged banks and the purple shadows of the passing clouds on the sapphire sea into a riot of colour which I have never seen approached in any other part of the world. It is possible to land on many of the reefs at low water and to note the wonderful marine gardens of anemones, corals, and sea-plants of every imaginable hue, or to look down on the leeward side and see the great trees of seaweed rising up twenty and thirty feet from the bottom, and waving their branches in the tide, while green, blue, purple, yellow, red, and parti-coloured parrot-fish swim in and out like birds through a tree. Numerous islands are always in sight, some conical extinct volcano peaks, some mere cays a few feet above the water. Navigation is always dangerous, owing to the fierce tides and the fact that the water is too deep to anchor in between the reefs. The usual way is to drop your anchor on the leeward part of the reef and hang on. This is all very well as long as the wind does not shift. If it does the result is apt to be disaster.

The people who inhabit these islands are more akin to the Papuans than to the aborigines. They are strong, capable, and intelligent, and live mainly by the cultivation of their gardens and plantations of coconuts, bananas, and yams. They have probably always had a strong infusion of the South Sea Island blood. Fifty years ago they had a very evil reputation for piracy and murder, and, like the Papuans, used to practise cannibalism regularly. Many a peaceful trader, anchoring too near the islands, was surrounded and sacked by the ruthless islanders. One island indeed had the temerity to attack a British man-of-war in full daylight, and obtained the name of Warrior Island in consequence.

The London Missionary Society began work among these people nearly forty years ago in connection with their work in New Guinea. They did not perhaps teach all that we, as Churchmen, should have liked them to teach, but they taught a great deal and taught it well and thoroughly. The people gradually changed. Old heathen customs and beliefs lingered here and there, and still linger, and some of the older people never really changed, but the great mass of the people not only became Christian in name, but also to a very large extent in practice. Their morality will compare not unfavourably with that of their white neighbours, their liberality, and care for their Church is at least as great, and their observance of Sunday much more strict. So far as I am able to judge, the London Missionary Society succeeded in teaching the people that Christianity meant a certain way of life, and that if they did not practise the way they had no right to call themselves Christians. I would that all white Christians realized it so clearly.

When I came to Thursday Island as Bishop in 1900, I confess to casting very coveteous eyes on the Torres Straits Islands. They were so near, so convenient to work from the centre of the diocese, inhabited by a people so attractive and full of interest that I wished with all my heart that we had them under our care. I felt, however, that as the London Missionary Society was first in the field and doing good work, I ought not to interfere with them in any way. I carried this so far as to abstain from even visiting the islands, lest I should be suspected of wishing to proselytize. We did, however, in one instance, depart from this principle when, in 1908, in response to a request from the Government Resident, and after full explanations to the London Missionary Society, we commenced work on Moa Island. The settlers there were not Torres Straits Islanders, but South Sea men, who had for various reasons been exempted when the rest were deported a few years before. They were mostly members of our own Church, and the London Missionary Society had not done any work among them, and so I gladly agreed to the Resident's suggestion that we should be responsible for their spiritual welfare. Here, in passing, I must testify to the enormous help given by the three successive Government Residents, Messrs. John Douglas, C.M.G., Hugh Milman, and William Lee Bryce. They all had the good of the natives at heart, and spared no trouble to secure them justice. They were all also devout communicants of the Church of England.

The settlers at Moa soon showed themselves so industrious that they used up all the available land in the Reserve allotted to them, and the Government accordingly, at my suggestion, increased the area to at least six times its original size. On this area they were able to support themselves by gardens and plantations.

One great trouble was that we had no teacher to send them, until, in default of an available man, Deaconess Buchanan, who had been a devoted worker for many years at Thursday Island, was sent over by Rev. J. Jones, now General Secretary of the Australian Board of Missions, who was administering the diocese during my absence at the Lambeth Conference of 1908; and for three years she lived quite alone at Moa without another white man or woman on the island. With her small frail body torn and twisted terribly as the result of a riding accident some years before, suffering agonies from continual headaches, and with a diseased foot which made all walking pain, most women would have used their small independence to secure what alleviation of their sufferings they might, but Florence Buchanan had not so learned Christ. All that she had and was was given freely to the service of God and her fellow-men, both before and after her ordination as deaconess in January, 1908, when she had been already working over ten years at Thursday Island. She soon acquired the most marvellous influence over the people at Moa, where she taught the children, nursed the sick, uplifted the women, conducted the services, and ruled the men with a gentle but iron hand.

Her face always reminded me of a medieval saint, and her character was singularly like that of Catherine of Genoa, especially in the keen brain and quiet humour. After three years I was obliged to order her away, much to her wrath, in the vain hope of saving a precious life, but the memory of her work and example will never be forgotten in Moa.

The village consisted of a long sandy street, on each side of which were houses built after the New Guinea fashion, some feet above the ground, with walls and roof of grass. The Government consisted of two elder men called councillors, who sat with the missionary as assessor to try the not very numerous misdeeds of the community, and whose orders were executed by a native policeman. Some of the policeman's duties were unusual. At six a.m. he had to ring a bell and take down all the children to the sea for a swim, keeping his official eye on sharks and sword-fish. Later on he had to go round to all the houses and see whether the women had lighted the fire and were cooking their husbands' breakfasts. On one occasion I had a deputation of women in a high state of indignation. They did not object to the policeman coming round to see if they were getting breakfast ready, but they said they did object to his lifting the lid to see what was in the pot! They thought it an interference with the liberty of the subject to cook what she liked. I had to solemnly decree that the policeman was not henceforth to go beyond the door without a warrant.

On the second Mission festival, though it was in the wet season, I went over in the Francis Pritt, and in the evening we had a striking gathering. The proceedings consisted of a few words from myself and addresses by three elder men on their recollections of the conditions which prevailed before Christianity came to the Islands--"when all was dark," as they put it. First of all came old Kaio, who had caused some excitement earlier in the day by heading a little procession carrying a most realistic model, more than half life-size, of a South Sea Island bier containing a properly swathed and carefully carved and painted wooden human body, the toes projecting from the bier in gruesome fashion. This was erected on four high sticks in front of the Mission house to provide Kaio with a text. He described how, when he was a boy, every man slept weapon in hand, and to be a stranger meant to be instantly killed; how when he came first to Moa and Badu and Maubiag, mutual suspicion and warfare reigned where now all was peace and brotherly love, and how Christian burial had superseded the many superstitious and evil rites connected with the dead. Then came Sonny, the councillor, who told us of the feuds and hatreds that prevailed in his island of Lifu when he was a boy, and of the depths of ignorance and darkness from which they had been rescued by the missionaries who came in their ship with many sails and anchored in the still lagoon "where no tide runs," and where you could see through the clear water the anchor lying on the bottom twenty fathoms below. Now, he said, the Gospel of Jesus Christ had come like dynamite and shattered all the old evil customs and killed them dead, as when dynamite is exploded in the water and kills all the fish around. Lastly came Joe Bann, who also told us of his boyhood and of the heathen tribes up-country, where it was death to wake the King, and where, if a child cried and disturbed him, it was instantly killed and eaten; and how the first missionary came and "called the King for prayers," and paid for his temerity with his life, and how now all was changed, and we were children of the light and no longer of the darkness; and how St. Paul's Mission was working for the people of Moa and filling their hearts with thankfulness. Fortunately, the rain held off during the evening, and as the full moon rose over the rocky point of the bay and shone on the young palm-trees and the brown houses of the village and the breathless, listening crowd, it was a memorable scene.

The work of the Mission went on steadily. A school-house was built, and then the people said that they must have a church. I suggested a wooden building, but this met with no approval. They must have something that would last and would be for their children when they themselves were gone. They set themselves to work to collect money, giving with great generosity. Two men were paid off from the boats on which they had been working for three years, one with £10 and the other with £8. Each brought me £2 for the church. Little by little the fund grew, and at last, by some outside help, we had enough to build a church in ferro-concrete, which satisfied their ideas of permanency. The occasion was a great one. From all the islands round came crowded boats with congratulatory visitors, for whose entertainment booths had been erected and many turtles collected. The procession to the church was impressive, but it was impossible for more than a tithe of our 400 visitors to get inside in addition to our own people. They were, however, determined that if they could not get in for the service they would at least be in for the offering, and so they came in at the west door, filed up to the altar-steps, and departed by the side door. As the representatives of each island entered, the chief man took his stand at the chancel steps with a grass bag, into which the people put their offerings. Little babies had their threepenny bits, which had been held for hours in their hot, sticky little hands, until the mothers had to seize the wrists and shake them vigorously over the bag. When the collection was added up it was found to amount to more than £52, and this, it must be remembered, was not from our own people, but mostly from the London Missionary Society islands.

Deaconess Buchanan was succeeded by a layman, Mr. Cole, and his wife, and the work went on. I used to go over from time to time to celebrate the Holy Communion, and had many proofs of the reality of the people's religious life. On one occasion a fine young fellow came to me and said, "I cannot come to Holy Communion tomorrow: I have sinned." I said, "What is it?" He replied: "A few weeks ago I landed on an uninhabited island where there was a deserted hut. I saw an old tomahawk on the floor and took it away. All the time in the boat I heard a voice saying to me, 'Thou shalt not steal,' and at last I could not stand it any longer. I took up the tomahawk and threw it as far as I could into the sea." I told him that he must pay the value, and I would try to find the owner. When next he came to Thursday Island he brought me 8s., far more than the value, and a big sum for him, and with great difficulty I found and gave the money to the astonished owner. On another occasion a man and his wife said they felt unworthy to come. I inquired the reason, and the man said: "We work in the gardens, and all time my wife, she growl. She say I look at another woman, but I no look, and all time she growl, so at last I swear!" I gave them a lecture, and the quarrel was composed. Human nature is much the same all the world over.

For nearly twenty-five years a daily class was held in the South Sea Island Home at Thursday Island, and to hear some of these rough sailors pray for themselves, their fellows, and their Church, was an education in the spiritual life. Whatever else they had to leave behind them when they went to sea, they would have their Bible, Prayer-Book and hymn-book, and when the day's work was over the soft music of their hymns would be heard across the water in the gathering darkness.

It was not until 1914, and just before the outbreak of the war, that the Church reaped the reward of its patience and self-restraint with regard to the Torres Straits Islands. Without any action or suggestion on our part, the London Missionary Society wrote, entirely of their own accord, to say that they were no longer able, for financial reasons, to carry on the work properly in the Torres Straits in addition to their work in New Guinea, and asking whether the Church of England would take the work over, offering at the same time to hand over all the land and buildings without asking for any kind of compensation. I forwarded the offer to the Australian Board of Missions, as it seemed to be too big a thing for one small diocese to accept on its own responsibility, and in spite of the pressure of the war, which had now begun, it seemed to be such a clear call from God that the Church accepted it without hesitation, and I decided, before leaving Thursday Island for good, to visit all the Islands and prepare the people for the change.

As I am writing this in March, 1917, I have received a letter from the present Bishop of Carpentaria telling me of the latest stage in the growth of Moa. A missionary priest, Rev. G. A. Luscombe, had been in residence for some time, and last month the Bishop solemnly opened a small training college for teachers and clergy on Moa and admitted the first four students, Joseph Lui, Poey Passi, Aviu Ware, and Bawia. Two of these are older men, who have already received some training from the London Missionary Society. A small number of boys will also be taken as postulants. This step augurs hopefully for the future of the Mission, and is the fulfilment of the greatest wish of its first Superintendent, Deaconess Buchanan.

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