Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter IV. An Outpost of the Empire (1900-1915)

ABOUT twenty miles from the extreme northern point of Australia lies a group of islands, of which Thursday Island is, though the smallest, the central and most important. The island, which was my headquarters for fifteen years, is only two miles long and a mile wide, and a considerable portion of it is occupied by two hills, the summits of which are crowned by forts. It is entirely land-locked by the surrounding islands, and is approached by three narrow straits, of which only one is navigable for large vessels. The islands lie on the southern side of the Torres Strait, which stretches for eighty miles to the north, to the coast of Papua. But though the Strait is thus a hundred miles wide it can only be traversed in a few places owing to the countless coral reefs which are to be found everywhere. The widest passage, which has only a clear width for large vessels of seven-eighths of a mile, lies just to the north of this group of islands, and about three miles from Thursday Island. All the traffic from Australia to the East has practically to pass through this narrow strait or else make a long detour to the north of Papua, hence the great and hitherto little appreciated importance of Thursday Island from a naval and military point of view.

After the visit of Luis de Torres in 1606 we hear nothing of the Strait until 1770, when Captain Cook landed on Possession Island, about fifteen miles from Thursday Island, and claimed the whole Strait for the King. The first settlement in Northern Australia was made in 1824, far to the west, on Melville Island, from which, owing to the hostility of the natives, it was moved to Port Essington on the mainland about a year later. Port Essington was abandoned in 1849, and its place taken by Port Darwin in 1872.

The first settlement in the Torres Strait was on Albany Island, where a company of Imperial Marines was stationed in 1862. In the following year they were transferred to the mainland opposite at Somerset, which became the headquarters of pearling operations. In 1877, owing to the strong tides and bad anchorage, the settlement was transferred to Thursday Island, and placed under the capable administration of the late Hon. John Douglas, C.M.G.

Thursday Island was, and to some extent still is, almost unique among the Australian towns. The population numbers about 700 whites, including a peace-time garrison of 100 gunners, and about 1300 persons of the most varied nationalities under the sun. Mr. Douglas remarked to me when I landed that they had not got a Laplander, but that almost every other nationality was represented.

In spite of the heterogeneous elements, the inhabitants were extraordinarily law-abiding, and but for the historic combat between the South Sea Islanders and the Manila men, disturbances were rare. The struggle referred to arose out of a long-standing grudge between the two parties. Several South Sea Islanders had been stabbed at night, and had accused the Manila men of being the aggressors. Finally, a deputation of South Sea men waited on Mr. Douglas to ask if they might fight their opponents. Report has it that the dear old gentleman, who was rather deaf, understood them to ask that their dispute might be submitted to him at his office, and replied, "Yes, at three o'clock to-morrow afternoon." The South Sea Islanders, who are true sportsmen, immediately notified their opponents, and turned up the following afternoon to the number of about a hundred fighting men, armed with nothing but their fists. About sixty Manila men appeared, all armed with formidable knives. The South Sea Islanders were nothing daunted, and attacking with their fists soon put their opponents to headlong flight. I heard the battle-cries from my house a few hundred yards away, and coming out on the veranda was astonished to see a man covered with blood from head to foot walking in the direction of the hospital: his companions were relieving their feelings by smashing the windows of a Manila tradesman whom they accused, probably without reason, of supplying the knives. The police happened to be engaged at the other end of the town, and when they arrived all was over. One South Sea Island man was killed and several badly wounded, but the Islanders were satisfied that they had gained a glorious triumph, and were proportionately grateful in their hearts to the quite unconscious magistrate.

The Japanese form the largest element in the alien population, being engaged as divers and crew of the pearling luggers, and entirely monopolizing the work of the six shipbuilding yards where the beautiful and Seaworthy luggers are built. They are quite law-abiding as far as the other inhabitants are concerned, but have occasional disturbances among themselves. One morning a Japanese man ran amok with a razor, and mortally wounded two of his compatriots; the doctor was summoned, and while he was examining one of his patients, the alarm was raised that the madman was coming back. The doctor, with great presence of mind, stood so as to be hidden by the opening door, and the man, seeing only his victim, went out again and ran up the steps of a neighbouring house. As soon as the doctor left the house, the man, who had killed a third person in the meantime, ran down the steps, and at the bottom drew the razor across his own throat, falling dead at the doctor's feet.

It would be extremely difficult to exaggerate the beauty of Thursday Island and its surroundings. The sea takes the most wonderful shades of blue, green, turquoise, sapphire, amethyst, and emerald that I have ever seen, and in addition there is the brown-red of the submerged coral reefs, the pale green of the hidden sandbanks, and the inexpressibly wonderful purples of the cloud shadows ever moving and harmonizing with their changing background.

In every direction there are countless islands, large and small, of varied shapes and vegetation. During and after the wet season, which lasts from Christmas to the end of March, and during which an average of 60 inches of rain falls, the islands are of a brilliant emerald green, which contrasts with the dark green of the trees, but later in the year they show all shades of red and yellow, broken only by the grey granite rocks.

Everywhere are reefs, sometimes stretching brown and bare for a dozen miles, and fringed by a long line of white foam, where the great rollers, driven before the south-east monsoon, break in thunder on the coral barrier, sometimes covered with five or six feet of water, and forming an ever-present peril in fine weather to the anxious sailor, who tries in vain in a light breeze to resist the pressure of the tremendous tides which swirl through the passages, sometimes at the rate of eight knots an hour, and carry him helplessly towards the never far-distant reefs.

It is well worth while to land on the lee side and have a closer look at these reefs at low water. The living coral is mostly of a reddish brown colour, but in places it is exactly of the colour of red sealing-wax or a brilliant blue enamel. Anemones of every kind flower in the pools. Looking down from the edge of the reef you see great trees of seaweed, fifteen or twenty feet high, waving great arms in the tide water; and in and out among the branches swim blue, scarlet, green, and purple parrot-fish, like birds flitting about in a tree. In rough weather it is well to give the reefs a wide berth if you can. The remains of many a good ship mark the course of the Great Barrier Reef and the "Long Reefs" of the Strait. The saddest case was the wreck of the R.M.S. Quetta on February 28, 1890. She was carrying home on a visit to the Old Country a number of the best-known and respected families of Brisbane, and at 9 P.M. was passing between Albany Island and Mount Adolphus. A concert was being held on deck when she struck an isolated and uncharted pinnacle of rock. The ship drew twenty-six feet, and the rock was twenty-three feet from the surface, so that the bottom was ripped out from bow to stern. In four minutes the ship was under water and half her crew and passengers drowned. One girl of sixteen, Miss Lacy, after losing her sister and relinquishing her share of a grating to the purser, who could not swim, swam about for thirty-six hours before she was picked up. The beautiful little Cathedral Church at Thursday Island was built in memory of those who were lost, and contains many interesting relics. In front of the altar hangs the ship's riding lamp. This was brought up after sixteen years at the bottom of the sea, and still retains its original glass and fittings. It needed only cleaning and a new wick. It was difficult to get the ship's bell loose, and the captain of the salvage schooner accordingly fastened it to the ship's stern at low water. As the tide rose the schooner was dragged down so low in the water that the captain was on the point of cutting the rope when the bell came away. It now hangs outside the Cathedral. After being eighteen years under water, some two hundred casks of tallow were raised quite uninjured and looking as if they had just been loaded. They continued their interrupted voyage to London from Thursday Island. About seventeen miles to the west of Thursday Island out in the open sea is the little rocky Island of Booby. On the occasion of my first visit the lighthouse men met us in their whale-boat, and rowed us along the fine jagged cliffs full of caves, around which the sea-gulls flew screaming as we passed; the water was beautifully clear, and we could see all the stones in the reef as we passed over it. The island is less than a quarter of a mile in length and breadth, and about sixty feet high, the top being a bare rocky plateau, breaking away into tumbled cliffs hollowed out into caves, and forming half a dozen narrow little sandy coves where a landing can be effected. A cleft in the rock, some fifty or sixty feet wide, runs across the island, and is filled with shady trees and shrubs, forming a grateful shade and contrast to the glare on the naked rock above. Immediately on landing we went to visit the famous post-office cave, where vessels used to leave letters to be called for by some homeward-bound ship, and where stores and water were left for shipwrecked men. The water-supplies, had any one explored the rocky plateau, would have been found to be unnecessary, as there are two natural cisterns in the rock, one about ten feet deep and holding about 4000 gallons, and the other smaller. These are filled in the wet weather from the rain falling on the rock, and last all the year round; but it is the last place one would think of looking for water, though the same kind of wells are to be found in the dry mountains of Central Australia, the water being cool in the hottest weather. In the cave, which runs in some eighty feet, are numerous inscriptions, dating back to 1849, but many are nearly obliterated.

Life on the island must be a very lonely one, but happily the three families seem to live peaceably together, which does not always happen in such cases.

One of the best-known islands in the group is Friday Island, where South Sea Island and other lepers were confined until 1907. It so happened that my first duty on arriving at Thursday Island was to visit the leper station to administer the Sacrament to a dying leper, and I felt thenceforth a deep interest in these unhappy people. They were at that time brought up in wooden cages to the island and regarded with a dread quite unwarranted by this disease, which is not at all to be feared if a few most simple and obvious precautions are taken. I used to visit and hold services for them as often as I could. Among the most intelligent of them was a half-caste aboriginal named Tom Moreton. I asked him to teach some who were desirous of being confirmed. Two notes of visits I paid to these people may be of interest:

"On January 14, 1906, we were off at 7 A.M., en route for Friday Island, where I had told the lepers to expect me, having been down on Friday night with the doctor to take a funeral, a weird scene in the darkness. We had to anchor a long way out, as the bay is very shallow, and I had a somewhat lumpy pull ashore in the dinghy. After a service in which the responses and singing were most hearty and inspiring, I had out in front the fourteen candidates for confirmation, and examined them. Tom Moreton had undertaken to teach them from a simple catechism on the subject. I listened to the answers as they went steadily through the first half of the book, and was amazed at the accuracy with which they had learned everything. Slow as they are to learn and memorize, it must have meant immense and constant labour for all these poor fellows to have learnt perfectly (but for a few long and hard words) some forty or fifty answers, some of considerable length. I warmly praised both teacher and scholars, and promised to return before long to hear the rest of the catechism and to arrange for the confirmation. It was a touching sight to see all these men absorbed in worship under the spreading shade of a great india-rubber tree, with a background of beach and dancing water, and blue distant islands, to think of them as prisoners doomed to a speedy and terrible death, while over their heads I could see the roofs of Thursday Island only four miles away, and the smoke of a great steamer and a forest of masts and all the signs of free and busy life. It was interesting to notice the change in the men themselves. When I first used to hold services and preach down there, the congregation used to come untidy in rags and squalor. Now each man was shaved and clean and dressed in his best and neatest clothes, making even the ravages of disease seem less noticeable."

In the following year the Government determined to remove the Friday Island lepers to a new home near Brisbane, and as they were to leave early in June I determined to go down and say good-bye and give them the Holy Communion for the last time. I had twice fixed a day to go down by the police boat, but was hindered in the first instance by the unexpected arrival of the Governor-General, and in the next instance by the sudden and unexpected death of two residents of Thursday Island. On the following day I arranged to go down in the Francis Pritt, which had returned the previous day from a stormy voyage to the Mitchell River Mission. It was blowing very hard, but I did not like to disappoint them again, and so went on board about 11 A.M. Owing to the strong wind and the shallow-ness of the bay we were obliged to anchor about a mile from the shore, but it was a matter of a few minutes to reach the shore in the dinghy before the wind.

"The strong wind made it impossible to hold the service under the usual tree, so we adjourned to a grassy spot under the lee of one of the buildings where a washing-bench covered with a fair linen cloth served as an altar. The communicants, fifteen in number, were all standing in a line on the grass, with the non-confirmed Christians in the rear. The service opened with a hymn, and all joined with the greatest earnestness in the Creed and Confession. The reverence with which the Sacred Elements were received was remarkable. I only wish there were always such devotion on the part of white communicants; and the Gloria in excelsis was a real hymn of praise. I felt the contagion of their faith and gratitude, and could more easily realize the presence of Christ in the midst there under the sky, with the background of the green hills, than in many a stately church. After the service I spoke a few words of farewell, telling them that it had been a great happiness and a privilege to minister to them, in however small a way, for the last seven years, and telling them what a joy it had been to me when the doctor of his own accord said to me,' Those boys are quite different men since they took to the Church. No more complaining and no more quarrelling among themselves.' Tom Moreton replied for the lepers, bidding me an affectionate good-bye, and thanking the Church for its ministrations to them; and then the poor lepers gave me the only offering that it was in their power to give. They sang with real feeling and earnestness 'God be with you till we meet again.' I took leave of them, feeling that it closed a relationship which had been one of much happiness to me, and I hope of some comfort to them. They proposed to take with them their church bell to their new home.

[I am glad to say that the spiritual needs of the lepers are well cared for in that new home. A few years ago Tom Moreton recovered so much that he was offered his liberty, but as he had a nephew who was a leper on the island he decided not to leave him, and still remains at the Lazaretto.]

"We had a very stiff pull back to the ship in the teeth of the gale, the little dinghy dancing like a cork on the waves, and drenching us with spray. On board the Francis Pritt it was not very much better, and I ate my dinner on deck in the intervals of dodging waves, getting back to Thursday Island about 3 P.M."

An account of a visit in 1903 to Deliverance Island may give some idea of the sea surroundings of Thursday Island. This island is about eighty miles to the northwest at the western entrance to the Strait. I went out with the Harbour Master in a 10-ton cutter, fast, but very wet in such weather as we experienced. After visiting several islands we inspected a swimming diving fleet at Turnagain, a low, uninhabited, mangrove-covered sandbank, where we spent the night. The morning was rough and boisterous, and for some distance we ran south to avoid a great reef which lay in our way. On clearing it we ran to the west, before the wind, over a nasty and confused sea. Our destination was, we knew, a very low island, and we expected to sight it about noon, but an hour and a half more passed before Mr. B. made it out. It is, we afterwards discovered, twelve miles west of its place on the chart. As we approached we could see a forest of masts behind a long sandbank running to the south-west, and also behind another bank, some six miles south, and dignified with the name of Ker Island. The sandbank seemed endless, but at last we rounded it and ran up to the (fleet, gunwale under, at tremendous speed. There were four schooners and their fleets of about eighty luggers under Deliverance, and another schooner and fleet under Ker Island. Anchored in a long line to leeward, they resembled the pictures of the fleets in the good old days of naval warfare. We anchored and went on board one of the schooners, and later in the afternoon went on shore in a whale-boat. If any one wants an exhilarating quarter of an hour, I can confidently recommend an open whale-boat beating up against a strong wind, ballasted, by half a dozen South Sea Islanders standing on the weather gunwale, and sailed by a fleet captain who is conscious that he is the cynosure of all eyes. It cannot be described as either monotonous or dry. The island was inhabited by a civil old German, a regular Robinson Crusoe. He had been there for twelve years, and had not even a boat, though he sometimes was six months without a visitor. His family consisted of five dogs, a dozen Muscovy ducks, and eighty cats, for whom he daily killed a turtle. I have often wondered what would happen to him if he were ill and unable to feed the cats. Would they eat him?

We did not get off next day till 10 A.M., when we ran north-east in a stiff wind until close to the coast of New Guinea, which is here low and uninteresting. About five miles from land we stood to the south, and an hour or so later had an anxious time among the shoals and banks which run north-east from Deliverance to Boigu. The water was so thick that it was impossible to see a shoal until you were on it, and the lead had to be kept constantly going and the course frequently altered. It was a relief to get into deeper water about 3 P.M., although as we went south the sea got worse and worse until we ran north-east again, and got into rather quieter and shallower water, where we had to anchor in the open, as in looking for the shelter of a reef in the dark we might have got on to the top of it. We did not have a very pleasant night, as the sea was high; and it was still blowing next morning when we again stood to the south over what the chart describes as "unexamined coral reefs." It was 10 A.M. before we sighted our destination, Maubiag Island, some ten miles to windward, but tide and sea were against us, and it was nearly 6 P.M. before we succeeded in beating up to the dangerous reef, about three miles from shore (which we had only just barely light to traverse), while it was long after dark when we anchored close to shore on the north-east corner of the island, having been two days in beating some forty miles to windward, a long time for such a fast little boat.

It will be seen that Thursday Island, with its tides and reefs and few and easily blocked channels, is a point of enormous strategic importance, and it was a matter of common knowledge that the reefs are far better known to, and charted by, the Japanese than by the Admiralty.

As the first and last port of call between Australia and Java, Borneo, the Philippines, China, and Japan, it is of value in many ways, and will be increasingly so in the future as the volume of trade and shipping steadily grows.

It was from Thursday Island, appropriately enough, that H.M.A.S. Sydney sailed on August 7, 1914, cleared for action, and leaving behind her boats and furnishings, on that long ocean quest which ended when she met the Emden, en route for Australia, at the Cocos Islands.

Some day it will be one of the most important and most strongly guarded outposts of the Empire.

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