Project Canterbury

Florence Buchanan
The Little Deaconess of the South Seas

By Emlyn Jones

New York: The Macmillan Co., 1921.
London: The Central Board of Missions, 1921.

Chapter III. Thursday Island

AMONG the islands of the Torres Strait there are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday Islands. "Friday" used to be the leper island; "Thursday" is the Pearl Island--the others do not matter.

The week's voyage from Brisbane to Thursday Island is, in calm weather, one of the most delightful cruises the world can offer. On a tranquil night, the green islets of the coral reef stand silhouetted against the deep blue of the heavens, where burn myriads of great stars; the feathery-fronded palms scarcely stir under the caress of the warm sea breeze, and the movement of the ship itself is hardly perceptible as it glides through the truly "Pacific" Ocean inside the great Barrier Reef. The culminating scene of beauty is the passage through the Albany Pass: to the west lies the Quetta Pass, now seldom used; here, on a still moonlit night in February, 1890, the British-India mail steamer, the "Quetta," struck an uncharted rock, and immediately sank.

Miss Buchanan made this voyage to Thursday Island in 1895. The island itself is the least lovely of the beautiful group lying in the Torres Strait, Fortunately for the natives who inhabited them, none of the larger and more beautifully wooded islands offered the same facilities for shipping as did Thursday Island, a sandy strip two miles square, rising in the middle to a rocky ridge, but boasting a glorious harbour; here in the wet season numbers of pearling luggers at anchor may be seen with sails outspread looking like a flock of mammoth [17/18] birds drying their wet wings in the hot sun. On the sea-front may be seen faces of every shade, ranging from white, through brown to black. Here mingle men from many quarters of the earth: Europeans, Islanders, natives from New Guinea, Chinamen, and Japanese. During the three months' wet monsoon when the pearling crews come ashore, the population of the island numbers about 1500, at other times about half this number. When Miss Buchanan came to the island, the pearlers with their families mostly lived out on the schooners, personally directing all the operations at sea. They now live ashore, or "Down South," the Japanese not only doing the perilous diving, but also bartering the pearls and shell, while South Sea "Boys" serve as crews for the luggers. Thursday Island is the port of the township consisting of the whole group of islands. The Commonwealth flag floats from the Residency, and at the same end of the island are the courthouse, gaol, and cottage hospital. On the hill stands the barracks, overlooking the main street with its two banks, several hotels, post office, Customs House, and "School of Arts". The latter in small Australian townships serves all the purposes required of a town-hall and reading-room combined, not even excluding such a use as the housing of a big snake caught on the island, for whose diet small boys were invited to bring large frogs for which they would receive one penny per head. Most of the houses and some more hotels are in the main street, the hotels alone boasting an "upstairs"; the houses being wooden bungalows on cement piles, the latter a precaution against the devastation of white ants. The only stone building on the island is the Quetta Memorial Cathedral; next to it stands the Roman Catholic Church, the only other place of worship on the island, unless we include a tiny tin Buddhist temple and an equally small Chinese Joss house. It is significant that throughout the crowded Japanese quarter no shrine of any sort is found.

[19] Such was the mixed community which for many years served as the field of Miss Buchanan's influence. The only kind of lodgings obtainable in Thursday Island is a room at an hotel, which consists of a public-house downstairs, and a double row of rooms, opening out on verandahs, upstairs. At one such "hotel" Miss Buchanan lived, the only woman boarder, amongst a crowd of men, mostly young workers in offices, or with the pearling fleet. Here one small room housed her and her belongings, and it would have been difficult to spread them over more space, because like David Livingstone's in Africa, they consisted of the precious lantern (with its thousand slides), a box of spare clothes, one of books and medicines, and a camp bed, the chief difference being that Livingstone's bed consisted of a canvas stretcher, while hers was a folding cane chair couch, for she slept best with her head and shoulders raised to almost a sitting posture. Writing at this time to a friend, she said: "I am boarding very comfortably in this quiet hotel, and oh! how I love the heat, and when I sit up all night with a splitting headache it is less trying here where the nights are warm". "Quiet" must have been a comparative term in those early days at an island hotel, where the only fun for young men was what they made for themselves. One of the pearlers who lodged there said he thought she enjoyed the fun as much as the young sparks themselves, "every one of whom loved and respected her. Captain 'J.,' who lived opposite at the 'Grand,' would sometimes come over after closing hours and rout out his friends; in the morning I would apologise to Miss Buchanan for the noise, but she always said she had not gone to sleep; I afterwards discovered that she was often kept awake by severe headaches." When a serious fall from grace threatened, she would perhaps make an opportunity to chide the young scapegrace, so far removed from the protecting influence of mother and sisters, but--

[20] She never found fault with you, never implied
Your wrong by her right, and yet men at her side grew nobler, girls purer,
None knelt at her feet, confessed lovers in thrall,
They knelt more to God than they used, that was all.

"I never saw her idle," said another, "and when house-maids were scarce she would not see Mrs. D. overworked but went with her from room to room, dusting and making beds." Returning from her first visit south she wrote back to a friend: "I had such a happy time on board, I felt quite sorry to land; but such fun! news had floated here that I was on board, and at the 'Met' the flag was flying, and boarders' sheets and bath towels from the balcony. Mrs. D. hugged me saying she would never give me up to anyone while she is on the island; and my dear S.S. Boys'! they arranged to give me a welcome tea at the S.S. Home. I feel quite pained at all this love and welcome, for I don't deserve one bit of it."

Although Miss Buchanan lived at the hotel her activities centred round the Quetta Church, which with the coming of the first Bishop (Gilbert White) of Carpentaria in 1900 became the Diocesan Cathedral under the name of the All Soul's Quetta Memorial Cathedral, a worthy outpost of the Church in Australia. Perhaps no church in the continent has such an interesting collection of relics and memorials. We cannot refrain from mentioning among them the brass riding lamp from the "Quetta," which, after lying for sixteen years on the ocean bed, was brought up by a diver, cleaned from its incrustations, lighted and hung in the sanctuary of the Quetta Cathedral. Some of the memorials hear the names of those who were Miss Buchanan's friends and fellow-workers; such were John Douglas and Hugh Milman, former governors of the island, and James Chalmers, pioneer missionary for the L.M.S. to New Guinea, whose name is engraven on the white marble memorial font.

It is a beautiful old custom, the saying of daily matins [20/21] and evensong in our churches and cathedrals; and for nearly twenty years whenever the Deaconess was at Thursday Island she was to be found in her accustomed corner of the choir stalls before breakfast every morning, and work would be so arranged that the late afternoon found her returning to praise God. But public prayer did not take the place of private devotions, and a friend more than once rushing unannounced through the open door of her room found her on her knees; in her hand her "Rosary," a book containing for each day a long list of names of people both nigh and afar off. She once laughingly said that she must, like General Gordon, hang a handkerchief at her door, as he did outside his tent to notify to his officers that he was saying his prayers. The Quetta Memorial Church for over a quarter of a century has counted among its congregation not only many nationalities, but members of many branches of the Christian Church; this object lesson in Christian unity has been the result doubtless, of the large-hearted interpretation of the place of "mother church" in a mixed community, witnessed to by the devoted service to all comers by the Deaconess as well as by the Bishop and the five successive vicars with whom she worked.

The second vicar, Mr. Seymour, writes: "Her spirit was indomitable, in about as frail a body as any soul could dwell; and at the distance of all these years I can see her coming up the esplanade against a strong 'south-easter' and obliged every now and then to sit by the wayside to recover her breath. Neither heat, nor the teeming rains of the wet season nor the squally storms of the north-west, could keep her from her beloved work, chiefly among the South Sea 'Boys,' the Japanese and the Chinese; all castes and shades were to the Deaconess 'One in Him'."

However, her spirit was yet to be proved by far harder tests; with the coming of the new Bishop in 1900 and a [21/22] new vicar, her sphere of usefulness was rapidly increasing, but at this juncture the sword of suffering fell more heavily that ever before, and Miss Buchanan was struck down with an incurable disease of the foot, which would have kept most people on their couch for the rest of their lives. During the last twelve years of the Deaconess's life her work called her to Moa Island and at different times to Singapore and Port Darwin, in addition to her trip to England for an operation on the foot; and during all this time she was only able to walk by wearing long steel splints strapped on from waist to ankle and fastened to a heavy surgical boot. All this was in addition to a pair of crutches, yet day by day, in spite of continuous pain, she would be seen starting out again gaily under the scorching rays of an early afternoon tropical sun. To-day the tap, tap of the Deaconess's crutches on the stone floor is no more heard at even-tide in the Cathedral, and one more memorial has been added, a beautiful stained-glass window, wherein is traced the gracious form of a woman with saintly face, who is setting forth on a mission of mercy; in one hand she bears a book, in the other a basket of beautiful fruit and underneath the window are the words "Perfect through suffering,"--borne, we might add, not only with fortitude, but with gay words and a smiling face.

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