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 XVII. Torres Strait Islands (1915)

IN 1914 the London Missionary Society asked me, on behalf of the Church of England, to take over the Mission work which they had been doing so well for fifty years in the Torres Strait as they wished to concentrate their efforts on New Guinea. After taking time to consider the proposal I agreed to it, and in April 1915 I made a preliminary voyage round the Islands to establish the new regime. We were greatly assisted by the Rev. F. Walker, late of the London Missionary Society, whose knowledge of the natives and goodwill were of incalculable value to us. I left Thursday Island at 7.15 A.M. on Wednesday, April 14, in the Goodwill, with the Rev. F. Walker (her master), the Rev. E. J. Nash, the Rev. J. Jones, and Miss Quinan. There was a fresh breeze, and two of our party soon fell victims, for the boat rolled badly, being light. We made a good passage and arrived at St. Paul's, Moa, at 12.15 P.M. We were met by the whole population, who were enthusiastic in their welcome of Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones was much impressed by the wonderful growth of the settlement since it was founded in 1908, and by the good buildings and the order and contentment everywhere visible. Immediately after dinner, which was rather late, I baptized three children; and after the baptisms, Mr. Jones examined the children in the school, the answers being excellent. After this the great event was the wedding of Bana and Dinah. Mr. Jones gave away the bride, and though I am not able to describe the ceremony in proper journalese, it was evidently a success. In the evening five candidates were confirmed. The church had been decorated, and looked very well. After service Mr. Nash and I returned on board the Goodwill, Mr. Jones staying on shore for the night. I had arranged for a celebration of Holy Communion at 7 A.M., and so was up early, and we landed at 6.30 A.M., to find the whole community wrapped in slumber after the exertions of the previous day. The bell quickly woke them, and there was soon a procession of men and women, in their best, wending their way to the church. Mr. Jones explained that he had spent the night till about 5 A.M. in wrestling with an inquiring and aggressive goat, which apparently wanted to spend the night in his room! The celebration of Holy Communion, with about thirty communicants, was very happy, and brought back many memories of the start and progress of the Mission. After service we bade good-bye to many friends, and leaving Miss Quinan to take Mr. Cole's place, while he and Mrs. Cole went for their holiday, we went on board to breakfast, sailing at 9 A.M. It was blowing hard, and we all fell more or less victims to the sea; at any rate we were very glad to lie down on the hatch, and hope for better days.

After a rather miserable day and much heavy rolling we arrived at Yam Island at 4 P.M. and at once went ashore, and after greeting the people, who were waiting dressed in their best, we all adjourned to the church, where we had a hearty service. Immediately after the service all the men adjourned to the schoolroom, and we had an interesting conversation about the change of ecclesiastical administration, and reassured the people on some points about which they were anxious. They wanted a church bell, and were quite ready to provide the cost, as also some small repairs to the church. The singing was very hearty, and we parted feeling that much had been done to remove misunderstandings.

Mrs. Smallwood, the Government teacher, kindly asked us to dinner, and we went on board again, leaving at 9 P.M. It was a very bad night, with squalls of rain and strong headwind, against which we made slow progress, only reaching our anchorage under Dungeness Island at 1 A.M., and having to anchor in fifteen fathoms of water.

The weather was but very little better when we left again in the morning after an uneasy night, and we still rolled heavily. We made very slow progress all day, and did not anchor off the beach at Massig until 5 P.M. We landed at once, and walked over a mile through the bush to the village, which is on the south-east side of the island. We passed many gardens,.which seemed to be doing fairly well, though wanting rain. Here again we repeated the programme of Yam. We were specially pleased with the singing. After a short visit to the Government teacher we again went on board; and I must confess that I was completely tired out. The church is very resonant, and is under a coco-nut grove. There was a strong wind and the crying of several babies to contend with; however I got through all right, but very tired with the four days' constant work and travelling. We had a good quiet night on board, and left at 8 A.M. At last, for the first time wind and sea were merciful, and we made a good passage to Darnley, arriving at midday. The island is high and picturesque, and the lower slopes are well cultivated. The anchorage is a poor one, and much exposed. We landed after dinner, and transferred our belongings to an empty house ashore. I must confess that for myself it was an immense pleasure to sit ashore in the shelter of a room on a chair at table, and to look out over the reef to the foam-capped waves and listen to the wail of the freshening wind from the security of the land. I love the sea very much--from the land.

Afterwards we walked down to the village, which is scattered along several little bays and buried in coco-nut groves. Here my services were requisitioned to find out what had become of the water which supplied the well, which had recently run dry. I diagnosed that part at least of the supply had become diverted to the right, about twenty-five feet from the well, and suggested for the present distress the digging of another well above the point of divergence. In the evening we had a meeting of the men, the greater part of whom were away on the boats. Those left were chiefly the older men.

Early next morning we had a quiet little celebration of Holy Communion for our own party in the Mission house, and at 10 A.M. a big service in the church. The whole island must have been present, and the singing was most hearty. I preached, and the people were most attentive. All the people were in their best, and there were many most intelligent faces. Before service I took the children for religious instruction. The white church, the green palm-trees, the purple reef, and the blue sea beyond made a most beautiful picture.

Next day we were up at 5.30 A.M. and off by 7 A.M. The wind was due ahead, but was fortunately moderate, and we made a good passage with the engines alone, arriving at Murray Island at 1 P.M. As we neared the island we passed through innumerable reefs. The islands are three in number, and evidently volcanic. They mark the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, which lies some miles to the westward, and rise up boldly to the height of 600 and 750 feet. We anchored on the edge of the shore reef, dropping anchor in seven fathoms of water; a short distance farther in there was one fathom, while under our stern there were fourteen fathoms.

After being welcomed by the people and hospitably lodged by Mr. Bruce, who has been Government teacher for twenty-five years, and has an extraordinary knowledge of the native character and customs, and arranging for a meeting with the men at 5 P.M., we set out under the guidance of two of the Councillors for a walk round the island. There is a good road five miles long round the greater part of the island, and we followed all the way through the miles of gardens and shade trees. It was a scene of enchanting beauty, and I had no idea that there was anything like it in Queensland. It reminded me more of Ceylon or the Philippine Islands, but had the additional beauty of the half-mile wide reef surrounding the island with its endless walls, built in immemorial times of the past for fish-traps, and the sea with its countless reefs rising out of forty or fifty fathoms of water away to the Barrier. About half-way round halt was called, and a boy of our following was sent up a coco-nut tree to fetch down some nuts, which provided us with a refreshing drink. On the southern side of the island the volcanic formation is very obvious.

We got back in time for the meeting of men, and I gave an address and made arrangements for the next day. An interesting evening with Mr. Bruce brought a busy day to a close.

Next morning there were 150 people out of a total population of 420 at church at 7 A.M. I wondered in what white parish the same proportion would attend, especially when we remember that some live two or three miles from the church. This week-day service is held regularly twice a week. I conducted the service and preached. The people were very attentive, but the singing was inferior to that of Darnley. The church is a fine concrete building, much more ecclesiastical-looking than most. Our brief spell of fine weather seemed, alas, to be over; for this morning it was raining, and looked as if it meant to continue, while it was evidently blowing hard at sea, and we were glad of the shelter of the hill. After breakfast we met the native church officials, and discussed a large number of cases of discipline, as many wished to be readmitted to church membership. Out of twenty-five cases, there were thirteen of quarrelling, three of attending forbidden dances, four of drunkenness, and five of immorality. As we could hardly receive the penitents into a church which was as yet only Anglican in name, I asked Mr. Walker to receive in their accustomed manner those guilty of the lesser offences, while those who had sinned more seriously were put on probation until the arrival of our first missionary. It is only fair to say that the offences dated over the last seven or eight years, and that none were more recent than twelve months. In the afternoon I was kept busy with nine baptisms and four weddings. The children were very good, except one of about eighteen months old, who suddenly realized that I was white, and rent the air with convulsive yells. No pen of mine is sufficient to describe the weddings. The four brides and their bridesmaids were adorned with a profusion of ribbons of red and the most brilliant of all greens. To get all the brides and bridesmaids, the grooms and best men in the right places was only possible by the organizing genius of Mr. Nash, and finally the right couples were duly united, Mr. Nash giving a very practical and helpful address. After the weddings I walked out to the other end of the island at the request of Mr. Bruce to try to find water, and was able to recommend a spot where there was a fair, though not large, flow of the indispensable fluid, which the women and girls have now to carry two or more miles.

We were off at daylight next morning (Wednesday, April 21) and cherished ambitions of reaching Saibai, a hundred miles away, by moonlight, but when we got to the passage of the Warrior Reef, sixty miles, about 4.30 P.M., we found that the sun was shining right down the passage, and that it was impossible to go through, as it is full of dangerous patches. There was nothing for it but to turn round and make our way back to Dalrymple Island, seven or eight miles away to the right. It was dark when we reached the island, and anchoring proved a ticklish business. The reef shelves from above low-water level to eighteen fathoms in the space of a few yards, and the only way is to drop the anchor on the edge of the reef and swing off into deep water, a difficult feat in the dark, but safely accomplished. We sailed at 3 A.M., and by daylight sighted our old friend Dungeness, and an hour or two later passed through the reef by the large passage between Dungeness and Warrior Island, where once had lived the famous tribe of warriors who attacked a British gunboat in their canoes. Soon after, the engine broke down and we had to rely on our sails until we were near Douan. We anchored at Saibai at 3.15 P.M., and immediately went on shore. We were met by the people with the news of several marriages, so there seemed to be no time to be lost. We went straight to the church and held service, at which I gave an address on the proposed changes, and afterwards held a meeting for the men. As elsewhere, I explained that the deacons would have to become wardens, which did not seem to disturb them. One of them made a very nice little speech of welcome--short, emphatic, and to the point. After the meeting came the weddings, three young couples, simply dressed, and without best men or bridesmaids. I was just congratulating myself that I had got through my labours when a fourth couple, an elderly policeman and a widow, turned up and pleaded not to be overlooked. The bridegroom said he did not know his own age, and when asked for that of the bride, declared that it was the same as his own. A short walk and tea brought us on to eight o'clock, when the deacons arrived, and I talked to them for an hour, when we parted very good friends. After a short visit to the wedding festivities, we got on board before 10 P.M., after a very busy afternoon.

We left Saibai early on the morning of April 23, and had a splendid run of forty miles to Maubiag with all sail set. We passed over several large shoals, and went through the Maubiag 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 on each side of the ship. We landed about 2 P.M. and made our way to the village, escorted by a large number of men. The new concrete church is a really handsome building, about seventy feet long, and very lofty. The roof, which is to be of red tiles, is not yet erected (though all the materials are to hand), as the natives thought they were not equal to the work of erecting it by themselves.

We had the usual services, including four baptisms and a most interesting meeting with the men, getting back on board soon after 6 P.M. After tea I had a talk with the two deacons, and explained to them that they were to be churchwardens in the future. We left Maubiag at 2 A.M. and had a violent head-wind and rough sea, but by the help of our engine we managed to make steady if slow way against it, and arrived at Moa about 8.30 A.M. We were very glad to get in under the shelter of the reef after the bucketing outside. We went ashore, and found Miss Quinan very well, and getting on happily with the people. We were unable to stay more than an hour on shore, to our regret; but other work had to be done, and we were off again about 11 A.M. The people came down to the water's edge, and waved to us until we were far away. I felt sad to be parting with my Moa friends for good. We retraced our course round the north-eastern part of the island, and now with a fair wind, and about 1 P.M. arrived at Adam, a picturesque little village, with a new concrete church. On landing we found that most of the men were away, and arranged for the people to come over to Badu for the Sunday services; then the anchor was raised, and a short run across the Strait brought us to Badu and Mr. Walker's hospitable station at Dogai. It was an immense refreshment to get a bath and sit in a civilized house again after ten or twelve days of the crowded cabin of the Goodwill.

Next day, Sunday, April 25, we had a quiet celebration at Dogai at 7 A.M., and Morning Prayer in the village church a mile away at 10 A.M. The church was crowded, more than half the congregation being men. The singing was excellent. After service I had a very satisfactory meeting with the men in the Mission house. This was the last island, and in every one I had met the people, and in every case they had professed themselves ready to welcome the Church and its work. As one of the Saibai men expressed it: "We are like children who have lost their father and mother. We do not know what to do or where to look. You will be our father and show us the way to go and how to live. We thank you." One man came to me to inquire anxiously whether I would continue him in his office, which he had held continuously for over forty years. He was the official church awakener, and had an ancient black rod with a silver top, with which he went round and prodded any member of the congregation who fell asleep under the sometimes very long-winded exhortations of the native deacons. "Sometimes," the people complained, "decona preach so long he break our back!" and because of the official prodder they could not even find escape in sleep. I continued the old worthy in his office, understanding* that he had become somewhat old and no longer terrible. There is a flourishing temperance society among the men, with sixty members. In the afternoon about forty adults, together with a number of children, assembled at Dogai for a Bible class, which is usually conducted by Mrs. Zahel. This was taken by Mr. Nash, and the attention of the men was admirable. After the class I walked up the hill behind the station, and had a most magnificent view over the islands in every direction. The only view I know to compare with it is that from Cape Misenum, which protected the old Roman naval station near Baiae, and served as a look-out post. The Badu view is, however, both more beautiful and more extensive. There was a crowded congregation again at night, and Mr. Jones preached. We left Badu next morning about 10 A.M., after many farewells, and arrived back at Thursday Island at 4 P.M., after a most deeply interesting time.

We owed a great debt of gratitude to the Rev. F. Walker, not only for lending us the Goodwill and for his constant care for our comfort on board, but for the invaluable assistance he gave us in helping to reconcile the natives to the changes in ecclesiastical matters, and by giving us the benefit of his great experience of the Strait and of the native mind. The Mission has been since strengthened by the arrival of three clergy, one of whom is now stationed at Moa, one at Darnley, and the other at Maubiag. The work has prospered rapidly and is most promising.

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