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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 VI. The Islands

IN April, 1915, I went round the Islands in the Goodwill, kindly lent to us by her captain, Rev. F. Walker, late of the London Missionary Society, whose desire to assist, and knowledge of the natives, were of incalculable value to us. The Vicar of Thursday Island, Rev. E. J. Nash, and the General Secretary of the Australian Board of Missions, Rev. J. Jones, completed our party. Both of them had the advantage of being personally known to and trusted by the natives. We stayed the night at Moa, and next morning, after a celebration of Holy Communion, at which I bade good-bye to my many friends on the island, we sailed at nine a.m. It was blowing hard, and we were all very glad to lie down on the hatch and hope for better days. After much heavy rolling we reached Yam Island at four p.m., and at once went ashore, and after greeting the people, who were awaiting us dressed in their best, we went to the church for service. Afterwards we met all the men in the schoolroom, and I described the changes that would take place, and reassured them on some points. Mr. Walker was a great help to us, and without his loyal aid matters might have gone very differently. We left again at nine p.m. It was a bad night, with squalls of rain and a head wind, and we made slow progress.

Nothing but the preternaturally sharp eyes of our native crew could have picked out the low island for which we were making, and under which we anchored uneasily in fifteen fathoms at one a.m. The weather was not much better next day, and we did not anchor off Massig until five p.m. We landed and walked a mile through the bush to the village, which was on the other side of the island. We were again welcomed as at Yam. The church was in a grove of coconuts, and was a very resonant building, which made speaking difficult. From here we had a good passage to Darnley, where we arrived at midday. The island is high and picturesque, and the lower slopes well cultivated. We transferred our belongings to an empty house. I confess that I was not sorry to sit down ashore again under the shelter of a roof, and to look out over the reef to the foam-capped waves, and listen to the freshening wind from the security of the land. The sea looks especially beautiful from the land.

Next day was Sunday, and we had a big service in the church. The singing was extremely good, both in English and the native language. The church is of concrete, made with lime from the reef. I had much friendly intercourse with the people, and explained very fully all that we hoped to do, how the new Bishop would come round and confirm them after they had been instructed, and how the native deacons would in future be transformed into churchwardens, and in some instances into lay-readers. This is an important place, and all went without a hitch. The white church, the green palm-trees, purple reef, and blue sea beyond, made a most beautiful picture.

Next morning we were up at five-thirty a.m. and off by seven a.m., and made a good passage to Murray Island, passing through innumerable reefs. The islands are volcanic and three in number. They rise to the height of 700 feet and mark the northern end of the 1,500 miles' stretch of the great Barrier reef, which is visible some miles to the east, with the great Pacific rollers breaking on its outer edge. There is a good road for about five miles round most of the island, through gardens and shade-trees. It is enchantingly beautiful as one looks down on the shore reef with its ancient walls for fish-traps and the deep water beyond. Next morning at the ordinary week-day morning prayer at seven a.m. there were 150 people present out of a total population of 450. Some had several miles to walk. The church was a large and ecclesiastical-looking concrete building, save for a rostrum in the centre. We spent the whole morning discussing questions of Church discipline with the native Church officials, as many wished to be readmitted to Church membership. Out of twenty-five cases there were three of attending forbidden dances, four of drunkenness, and five of immorality, while the majority of excommunications (thirteen) were for an offence which is hardly considered serious among white Christians--namely, quarrelling between husband and wife. As we could hardly receive the penitents into a Church which was as yet Anglican only in name, I asked Mr. Walker to receive back in their accustomed manner those who had been guilty of the lesser offences, while those who had sinned more seriously were put on probation until the arrival of our first white missionary priest.

Old heathen customs and traditions still linger on Murray, which is the most isolated of all the Islands. I was shown the place where the north-west monsoon is manufactured, and when the Government schoolteacher, Mr. Bruce, first introduced a rain-gauge, there was nearly a riot, as the people were convinced that it was intended to prevent the rain from falling. The view from the rim of the old crater is very fine, and the vegetation luxuriant. We were off at daylight next morning, hoping to reach Saibai, one hundred miles away, by moonlight the same night, but when we reached the passage through the Warrior reef the sun was shining in our eyes, and it was impossible to go on, as it is full of dangerous patches. So we had to go back to the nearest island and anchor in the dark on the edge of the reef, a ticklish business, as it shelves from low-water mark to eighteen fathoms in a few yards. We did not reach Saibai until well on into the next afternoon, but found all the people waiting to welcome us. One of them made a very good little speech. He said that since the London Missionary Society had been obliged to curtail their work, they had been like children who have lost father and mother. "We do not know what to do, where to look, where to go. Now you will be our father and show us the way to go. We thank you." I had service, and afterwards several weddings. The elderly native policeman was very busy marshalling the couples and fetching anyone who was needed. He was absent when we began, and afterwards I saw him looking very woebegone. It appeared that he also wanted to be married to a widow. He did not know his age, but it was the same as the bride's.

We left Saibai early next morning, and had a splendid run to Mabuiag. We passed over several large shoals and went through the Mabuiag reef by the narrowest passage that it was possible to conceive. It was not even straight, and in several places there could not have been more than a foot or eighteen inches to spare between the ship's side and the submerged rocks, but the steersman knew his ground to an inch. We landed at two p.m. and made our way to the village, escorted by a number of men. The new concrete church is a handsome building, seventy feet long and very lofty. The roof, which was to be of red tiles, was not yet erected, though the materials were on the spot (having been given by one of the natives as a thankoffering for finding a pearl when fishing), as the people were doubtful of their architectural skill. We were able to arrange for the superintendence of its erection, and also for the raising of the sanctuary, as the floor was fortunately not completed.

We left at two a.m., and with a violent head wind and rough sea got a tremendous bucketing, though the sea had by this time lost all its terrors for us, and about midday reached Adam, a picturesque little village on the western end of Moa Island, and thence on in the afternoon to Badu, the last of the Islands. Next day was Sunday, and we had a crowded congregation at the church at ten a.m., more than half being men. The singing was excellent. Here, as elsewhere, we had a most satisfactory meeting, and by the help of Mr. Walker put ourselves thoroughly in touch with the people. I was waited upon here by an old man, who came anxiously to inquire whether I would continue him in the office which he had held for forty years. It appeared that he was the official Church awakener, and he had an ancient black rod with a silver top, originally, I fancy, part of an umbrella, with which he went round and prodded every member of the congregation who fell asleep under the sometines very long-winded exhortations of the native deacons. "Sometimes," complained the people, "decona preach so long, he altogether break our backs!" and because of the official prodder there was no refuge in sleep. The old worthy was continued in his office, it being understood that he was now old and no longer unduly severe.

There is a flourishing Temperance Society among the men, of whom sixty are pledged to total abstinence entirely of their own motion. In the afternoon, after the Bible-class, we walked up the hill and had a wonderful view of the Islands in every direction. The only view that I know to compare with it is that from Cape Misenum, which protected and served as a lookout to the old Roman naval station, Baise. The Badu view is, however, at once wider and more beautiful. We reached Thursday Island next day after twelve days' absence, all of us deeply impressed by the frankness and kindness with which we had been received, and by the magnificent opportunity offered to the Church among these islanders, a strong and intelligent race, over two thousand in number, and rapidly increasing in population, and one and all prepared to accept our ministrations without qualifications or reservations of any kind. An appeal was at once issued by the Board of Missions for a good vessel and for two priests. The money for the ship was soon forthcoming, but there was a little delay before the men were found in the persons of Rev. J. Done and Rev. G. A. Luscombe, and a third priest has recently been found in the person of Rev. W. H. Macfarlane. The vessel built at Thursday Island has proved herself an excellent seaboat, and bears the appropriate name of the Herald, and the work has gone on quickly since the arrival of the two missionary priests.

It was probably a very fortunate thing for the Mission that my successor, the present Bishop of Carpentaria, had charge of the work so very nearly from the commencement. His knowledge of native character and ways and his experience of the best methods of discipline, gathered from his years of devoted missionary service in New Guinea, made him far more suited than any amateur, however deeply interested, to face and solve the many difficult problems presented by the Mission; and they are apparently being solved with most remarkable success. The Bishop has already confirmed large numbers of the natives, no less than eighty being confirmed on one occasion at Mabuiag, and in a few years the roll of communicants should be a long one. The following quotations from an article of Mr. T. J. McMahon, a perfectly independent traveller and observer, published in March, 1917, will illustrate both the progress of the Mission and the hugeness of the work for which Bishop Newton is responsible in his diocese of 600,000 square miles.

"Fifty years ago the natives of the islands of Torres Straits, North Australia, were in the Stone Age; to-day they give promise of a future that might well buoy up with joyful hope those heroic men and women who, in their grand unselfishness, are contributing to the welfare, spiritual and temporal, of these natives, and by their endeavours at the present moment are making that bright future well assured.

"For forty-five years, through stress and trouble, leaving a history every page of which shines with the noble deeds of the missionaries of the London Missionary Society, the foundation of Mission work has been well laid in these Torres Straits Islands. Recently--since the war--this extensive field has, by a complete and happy agreement, passed under the control of the Australian Board of Missions.

"The sound and practical work which always characterizes the methods of the L.M.S. is very evident not only in the condition of the natives, but in the churches and schools found almost everywhere. The Australian Board of Missions in Torres Straits, with a great and increasing work before it, has the advantage of a start from definite and well advanced conditions, and the authorities are not slow to give generous praise, deservedly merited, to their worthy predecessors.

"One can but marvel at the courage of the authorities of this Mission when, in the time of the clash of the greatest and most awful war of the "civilized" nations, they have taken over the huge responsibility of these Islands. The difficulties of Mission work have increased a hundredfold, making the financial task overwhelming. Nothing daunted, this Mission has cheerfully shouldered these extra responsibilities with a courage steadfast and true, with a determination that cannot fail to achieve success, and with a hope that knows no darkness.

"Few Bishops have such an immense territory as the Right Rev. Henry Newton, or one so scattered to work and manage. It comprises all the northern portion of Australia except the nor'-west, in places right into the centre of the continent, and all the islands of Torres Straits and those that adjoin the coast of the Great Northlands of Australia. It is a diocese of great empty spaces, of great distances, of wild peoples, of unknown and lonely parts of an area covering thousands and thousands of square miles, and withal one of the most amazing possibilities. The Bishops of this little world in itself have been grand men and energetic workers, and the present man, one with strength and health, is a worker as indefatigable as he is persistent and earnest.

"Home life always a far distant joy; travelling in small open sailing boats in all sorts of seas, through all sorts of dangers; riding on horseback in lonely back-blocks and on silent roads, miles away from habitations; driving for thousands of miles over trackless bush beset with the dangers of thirst, hunger, and savage tribes, often travelling in places where few white men have trodden before; camping out in all sorts of weather; living on the plainest and roughest of food; and all the time nothing but work, that goes on year in and year out, and must not stop--that is the life of Bishop Newton and his workers, each day bringing its quota of labour, but each day a brighter day for its coming. It is the cheerfulness of this Bishop and the men and women of the Mission that sheds a glory over their efforts and commands admiration and respect. "Already the results of the Mission in these Torres Straits Islands are apparent; there is a forward movement, decided and encouraging. Yet the task needs giant efforts, giant resolution, giant courage, and above all giant support. Men like Bishop Newton, his priests and workers, can be depended upon to do their part thoroughly." This testimony is true, and it does indeed seem as if the act of faith by which the Board of Missions accepted this additional burden a few months after the beginning of the war were already bearing its fruit in the special blessing of God upon the work. It is a work which seems to me extraordinarily full of hope and promise. There are now 520 Torres Straits Islands communicants, and a large number now under instruction should be confirmed this year.

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