EARLIER MISSIONARY EFFORTS IN DARWIN
FATHER ANGELO CONFALONIERI 1846
As Croker Island lies close to the Coburg Peninsula, my visit gave me an opportunity to see something of the district where Father Angelo Confalonieri, first priest to come to the Northern Territory, laboured in the face of heartbreaking difficulties. On my return trip I persuaded the pilot to circle low over the ruins of Victoria on Port Essington and the surrounding Coburg Peninsula. Father Angelo's journey to this remote outpost was a very adventurous affair, in fact he was fortunate to arrive at all. His destination was the settlement of Victoria, on Port Essington, and the year was 1846. Don Angelo had set foot in Australia for the first time that January when the Elizabeth, a vessel from London, berthed in Perth. He was a member of a party of missionaries led by Dr. Brady, the first Bishop of Perth. Other priests in the group were Spanish Benedictines, Rodesindo Salvado and Joseph Serra.
Soon after landing Dr. Brady held a council to discuss ways of converting the aborigines and the decision was to follow them into the bush. Three companies were formed: The Mission of the North (Port Essington), the Mission of the South (King George's Sound), and the Central Mission. The Southern Mission left Perth on February 6th, 1846, and went on foot to Albany, relying on the kindness of the settlers for food. Supplies were precarious and the missionaries' health began to fail. Finally the work was abandoned and the members transferred to Mauritius. Rodesindo Salvado and the other Spanish priest, Joseph Serra, joined the Central Mission and later established New Norcia.
The Mission to the North, which embarked at Fremantle for Sydney on March 1, 1846, comprised Don Angelo Cohfalonieri and two Irish catechists, James Fagan and Nicholas Hogan. They arrived at Sydney penniless, the only provision for funds to take them on to Port Essington being "one or two cases of books to be sold in Sydney." Against Bishop Brady's expectations there were no buyers, so he was "constrained to give to Father Confalonieri one of his bills for £100 which, however, could not be cashed till the Venerable Father McEncroe of Sydney endorsed it. Until his death, Father McEncroe remained £100 the poorer for his charity."
Port Essington was very much in the news at this time in Sydney, as Ludwig Leichhardt had but recently returned (December, 1845), from his epic cross-country trek of three thousand miles from Moreton Bay to Port Essington.
From Sydney Father Confalonieri and his companions sailed for Port Essington on April 8th. But disaster awaited them, in the Torres Strait or, more precisely, in Endeavour Strait. Of the wreck Father Confalonieri wrote: "I had just been speaking with my dear companions, James Fagan and Nicholas Hogan, when we struck on a reef about Torres Straits. In a few moments all hands were drowned, or
Copy of a map drawn by Father Confalonieri indicating tribal areas and other features. The name Angelo Confalonieri can be discerned in the lower part of the oval surrounding the map title.
perhaps killed by the falling of masts and other timber. Messrs. Fagan and Hogan were good swimmers, yet they and all on board perished except the captain and myself who could not swim but who, through the goodness of God, escaped.
"At daybreak I found the captain (Mackenzie), clinging to some part of the wreck. I think it was the mast, from the number of ropes hanging to it, which I providentially laid hold of. The captain helped me as much as he could, for I was both wounded and exhausted. We managed to get to some rocks and next day we were picked up by a barque, the Enchantress (Captain Yul), and brought to Port Essington, where the commandant (Captain McArthur) and people showed us every care in their power," He arrived almost naked and the commandant gave him everything he needed. His letters record the warmth of his gratitude.
Father Confalonieri had little to do in Victoria, the capital of the settlement at Port Essington. He lived alone and established himself near the entrance of the harbour at a place called Black Rock, on the opposite side from Victoria and 14 miles away, nearer the harbour entrance. The aborigines helped him build his house and his ministrations were mainly confined to the natives, whom he taught the prayers of the Church.
By the end of 1846 he had explored most of the Coburg Peninsula, recorded and met seven tribes and prepared maps of the country, copies of which are in the possession of the Royal Geographical Society today. He prepared a small vocabulary of tribal dialects used on the peninsula.
In the particular dialect of the Port Essington tribe, besides a manuscript prayer book with the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and the Hail Mary, he wrote a short Catechism of Christian Doctrine, including the Ten Commandments. He also translated part of the New Testament.
In June, 1848, he did not appear at the garrison at all for a few days. As this was quite unusual, one of the soldiers visited his house and found the missionary very ill with fever. He was brought to the settlement and cared for, but did not improve and died soon afterwards. Captain McArthur wrote to Archbishop Polding: "We buried him with all honours. The entire settlement attended his funeral."
Father Confalonieri was Tyrolese. He did his theological studies at the Propaganda College in Rome. His maps, papers and translations were sent to Archbishop Polding in Sydney who, in turn, forwarded them to the Propaganda College to be placed in the archives.
T. H. Huxley's "Diary of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Rattlesnake" tells of the ship's arrival at Port Essington on November 5th, 1848. He writes; "Several miles nearer the mouth of the harbour (below the red cliff) than Victoria and on the opposite bank of the estuary, we passed in coming up a little low solitary house that we rightly judged to be the residence of Don Angelo, the Catholic Missionary.
"When we arrived, we learned the poor man had died a short time before our arrival, of fever, under which he had laboured for a week before anyone was acquainted with the circumstances . . . Don Angela lived wholly by himself. He got the natives to build his house for him and he lived wholly in their manner - rather priding himself upon so doing, though there can be little doubt that he thereby hastened his end."
An amusing incident happened soon after Don Angelo's death. A large crate addressed to him arrived by ship. It was marked, in bold letters: "Posa Piano." The music-starved garrison had visions of a piano being presented to the missionary for use in his services. In view of his death they assumed the instrument would be put at their disposal. But much to their disappointment the contents turned out to be vestments and altar furniture. The inscription "Posa Piano" was merely the Italian equivalent of our "Handle with Care."
It is of interest to recall that in Rome on August 15th, 1848 - the year of Father Angelo's death - Joseph Serra was consecrated Bishop of Victoria. Before he could set out from Perth to take possession of his diocese, his appointment was changed. He was named coadjutor to Bishop Brady of Perth. To take Bishop Serra's place as Bishop of Victoria, Rodesindo Salvado was consecrated in Naples on August 15th, 1849. However, the settlement was abandoned during this year and Bishop Salvado, like his predecessor, was never to visit the Northern Diocese. Instead he remained in West Australia, and his life's work as Abbot of New Norcia is well known. Years after Port Essington was abandoned, when the town of Palmerston had been established on Port Darwin in 1869, the diocese was re-named Victoria-Palmerston. Subsequently Bishop Salvado, O.S.B., resigned from the See and Father Strele, S.J., was appointed Administrator Apostolic on August 1st, 1888. Not until Bishop Gsell’s consecration in 1938 was the name of the See changed to the Diocese of Darwin.
Quite recently Bishop O'Loughlin and I fulfilled a long-held ambition by visiting Port Essington aboard the mission lugger, Margaret Mary. The historic site of the old settlement is about 150 miles north-east of Darwin - 20 hours sailing time for Margaret Mary. It is seldom visited these days, except by occasional fishermen or wandering natives. Several years ago Darwin master pearler, Nick Paspaley, was planning to start a culture pearl enterprise there, but nothing has come of it yet. Now the peninsula belongs again to the bush, which is steadily overgrowing the stone ruins, the broken pots and other utensils, and the graves, which are all that remain of the garrison days.
We leave the Darwin wharf at 10 p.m. on a Monday, and head north-east along the mangrove-fringed coast, where once the Macassars in their fleet of praus drifted down with the prevailing winds every year to trade with the natives for trepang. The sea slug, also known as beche-de-mer, was highly prized in the Orient as a table delicacy. Generally they got on well with the natives, who appreciated the trade goods they brought and the novelty of seeing new faces and hearing tales of faraway lands. At various points dotted along the Arnhem Land coast they built temporary camps where they lived ashore, sometimes for many weeks, while they dried their trepang catch ready for the long voyage home.
According to historical records these great trading ventures continued until late last century when, bedevilled by the white man's red tape and customs duties, the Macassars sailed away for the last time, never to return. Even today they are not forgotten. Their deeds live in the legends and corroborees of the Arnhem Land tribes and native carvings on some of the missions include a form of model boat, which is strongly reminiscent of the Macassar praus. They left other legacies in the groves of tamarind trees scattered along the northern coast, and in the strong admixture of Malay blood among some of the coastal tribes.
We pass Cape Don lighthouse, which is manned by hand. Three families live on this promontory, each in their own stone house surrounded by gardens and greenery. A priest from Darwin occasionally visits this lonely spot for Mass, travelling in the lugger that delivers supplies. In places as lonely as this, with so few residents, people are apt to grate on one another's nerves. This is combated at Cape Don by a firm rule: No "popping in." They visit only by invitation, and each of the men has his hobby. One is building a boat; with another it is model planes; the third kills, stuffs and mounts turtles and crocodiles. Thus Cape Don is a happy and busy little community. We hear the Yakkais of the natives as we slip past.
At 6 p.m. the evening after leaving Darwin we anchor in Port Essington harbour. In the hold are four small craft and outboard engines which our party will use as runabouts. These - an aluminium flat-bottomed craft, a fibre-glass craft, a flat-bottomed wooden dinghy, and a clinker-built dinghy - give us ready access to the most out-of-the-way nooks and crannies of the harbour.
The northern coast of Australia has not many good natural harbours. So the excellence of the one at Port Essington can come as a surprise. It was the main reason for its choice originally as the site for a settlement. From the mouth it penetrates 20 miles into the Coburg Peninsula. About five miles wide, it is shaped roughly like an hourglass, divided midway into an outer and an inner harbour; the latter being the more sheltered anchorage. Tidal variation is only about half that in Darwin, where it can be as much as 28 feet.
Our visit is nicely timed. We were told in Darwin to take axes, knives and hatchets to cut a path through the undergrowth and vines. But it is the end of a long, dry season and bushfires have passed through, so we can pick out the old town site clearly, without searching. Each ruin stands out from some distance away. As with all old and abandoned settlements, there is something pathetic and still very human about the ruins of Victoria . . . Here are the remains of the old boat landing; over there one can trace the solid-rock foundations and partial walls of the old hand-made brick houses. Almost hidden, and overgrown with creepers and tropical vegetation, is the old brick kiln, still in an excellent state of preservation. The settlement church is reasonably preserved also. Not far on we come to the little cemetery. One pathetic tombstone is raised to the memory of a young soldier's wife and infant son, who died many years ago in this lovely spot, so very far from home. Here, too, is the grave of Don Angelo Confalonieri. At that time and later we have discussed the possibility of bringing his remains back to Darwin to rest in the crypt at the cathedral. This may yet be done. Meanwhile the loneliness and ruined beauty of Port Essington are not an unfit resting-place for the first resident priest in North Australia.
During the few days we lay at anchor in the harbour, we went by dinghy and outboard motor to Black Rock, 14 miles down the harbour on the opposite side to Victoria. While exploring the surroundings of Father Angelo's lonely home, we picked up occasional pieces of china and bits of iron utensils, the sole evidence of the missionary's three years occupation.
The history of Port Essington is a long one, and full of frustration . . Lieutenant King, son of Governor King of N.S.W., discovered the harbour in 1818 and described it as equal to, if not actually superior to any he had seen - high praise from one who had sailed out of Sydney not long before. In 1824 Commander Bremer, in H.M.S. Alligator, was sent with 106 men to found a settlement. He spent three days exploring but could find no suitable permanent water, so he sailed off to look elsewhere. On Trafalgar Day, 1824, he selected as the site Garden Point, or Fort Dundas, where our Melville Island mission stands today. However, it was not a happy choice as the natives were very hostile. In 1827 another settlement. Fort Wellington, was established on the mainland at Raffles Bay, about 15 miles north-east of Port Essington. In February, 1829, Fort Dundas was abandoned and all personnel transferred to Raffles Bay. In August, 1829, this too was closed.
For nine years the entire northern coast was deserted, with not one resident white man for thousands of miles. In 1838 well-founded rumours reached the Admiralty, that France was sending two corvettes to establish a settlement in these parts. Immediately and in great haste, Commander Bremer was sent out again in the H.M.S. Alligator, accompanied by Lieutenant Owen Stanley in Britomart. With them was a detachment of marines under Captain Mc Arthur, who had orders to establish a settlement. A civilian named Earl, who was a trader with local knowledge of the East Indies, accompanied the military pioneers, They called at Sydney, where the vessels Orontes and Essington joined them. Lured by the magnificent harbour, Bremer again tried Essington first. He spent five days in a detailed exploration of shore and harbour before deciding on a site above Adam Cliff. There they laid the foundations of a new town, named Victoria, which they hoped would lead to development of trade with the East Indies, where the Dutch then had a monopoly. The experiment lasted for 11 years, from 1838 to 1849, until finally it failed, as have so many other imaginative enterprises in North Australia, both before and since.
Misfortune struck at once. Orontes had unloaded and was setting out for India. While standing out at the mouth of the harbour she struck an uncharted reef - now known as Orontes Reef - ran ashore near Vashion Head, the west point of the harbour, and foundered there. Stores were brought back to the settlement and the wreck gradually' disintegrated until today nothing is left.
Crocodiles were a menace. One night a marine asleep in a hammock slung between two trees was awakened by a strong tug at the blanket. He was amazed to see a big crocodile on the ground below his hammock, with the blankets in its jaws. Of course no one believed him, and in the morning he was ridiculed. But later, when they found the missing blanket down at water's edge, they wondered. In April, 1839, the natives brought news that two strange vessels were anchored at Raffles Bay, 15 miles to the north-east, where all that remained of the British settlement of ten years before were the graves of those who died there. A pinnace set off at once from Victoria. At the site of abandoned Fort Wellington, they saw the French flag flying and three or four tents pitched on shore. Out in the bay were two French vessels - none other than the corvettes that had left France months before. So the British Secret Service was correct. The French officers got a shock when they were invited to up-anchor and come around the corner to the new British settlement of Victoria. They stayed there for three days and it is to the French artist with their expedition that we owe contemporary pictures of the little town.
Next excitement was the arrival of the survey ship, Beagle, commanded by Captain Wickham. It was on this voyage that the mouth of the Adelaide River was discovered. Beagle travelled up the river for 80 miles and saw land which Captain Wickham judged was ideal for growing rice. It is in this area (Humpty Doo), that private and Government farmers are struggling to develop rice growing today. The Beagle's stay in Port Essington coincided with the first performance of the legitimate theatre in North Australia. Female parts were taken by marines, who smoked their pipes at interval. The backdrop was painted by Lieutenant Owen Stanley. After 18 days relaxation at Port Essington, Beagle resumed her survey work westward to discover Port Darwin and name it after Charles Darwin, who had travelled on Beagle some years before.
The year 1843 saw a great, scheme to throw Port Essington open for white and coloured settlers. Cheap land was advertised in Singapore and China but there were no takers. Victoria stagnated. Thomas Huxley during his visit in 1848, wrote of it: "It deserves all the abuse that has ever been heaped on it. It is fit for neither man nor beast; day and night there is the same fearful, damp, depressing heat, producing an unconquerable languor and rendering the unhappy resident a prey to ennui and cold brandy and water."
On November 30th, 1849, Victoria was evacuated, leaving behind the tombstones and ruined buildings which today remain the only sign of white settlement on Coburg Peninsula. Trade was the idea behind the ill-fated settlement, and on paper it wasn't a bad one. The planners hoped the Macassar fleets of trepang fishermen would spread news of the settlement abroad. Their aim was to make Victoria an emporium of trade to promote an exchange of goods with the Indies. It was close enough for them reasonably to expect Chinese merchants to travel the extra distance. But it was not to be.
Every now and then, over the years, buffalo hunters have set up temporary camps on the peninsula. Natives and, in more recent times, white tourists, visit there from time to time. Apart from these transients, Port Essington is deserted. It is a paradise of wild life and in this may lie the seeds of some economic future for the area. Oysters found in the harbour are enormous, many of them more than six inches long. Fish of all types abound, as do crabs, dugongs and turtle. We certainly relished all these to the lull during our stay. The Margaret Mary's crew of Bathurst Island natives ably supplemented our efforts at hunting and fishing. We carried back with us in the ice box, bottles crammed full with the king-size succulent oysters.
The peninsula itself is a game sanctuary in which buffaloes, deer. Timor ponies and Banteng cattle - all imported from the Indies in the days of the garrison occupation - thrive in a wild state alongside wallabies, kangaroos and others of the country's natural fauna. The Northern Territory's Animal Industry Branch has caught a small herd of the Banteng cattle and brought them to Darwin, where it is conducting tests to see whether they can be mated with other species to produce a new drought-resistant strain for Top End cattle stations.
Best economic prospects of all may lie with the buffaloes, which have been the main grazing animals on the sub-coastal plains and northern rivers areas between Darwin and Arnhem Land since the 1880's. During that time marketing of buffalo hides was the only profitable primary production in the region. White and half-caste hunters galloped among the herds shooting from the saddle at ranges of only a few feet. They aimed for a spine-shot, which paralysed the buffalo, but left it alive - often for many hours - until native skinners arrived to remove its hide. In any case the industry collapsed in 1956, owing to low prices and the poor reputation the Territory product had gained through inefficient curing of hides by "newchum" shooters.
Since then the herds have increased in size and become much tamer. Several stations in the plains country now sell the meat commercially in Australia and overseas, and export live beasts to Hong Kong.
First shipments of buffaloes were made from Timor to the settlement on Melville Island in 1824-25 and they were transferred to Port Essington in 1838. When the settlement was abandoned, the liberated buffaloes spread into the northern rivers area which is now their home. If present plans for establishment of a buffalo industry in the Top End succeed, it will give economic value to an area which is now deserted; and vindicate the early faith of the first Europeans to settle in North Australia.
Cruising down the harbour on our return journey, we verified many of the landmarks of interest - coves and bays, heads and points - as indicated on the mariner's chart we had with us. The chart was drawn up in 1839 after the voyage of H.M.S. Alligator.
Each morning during our stay Bishop O'Loughlin and I had offered Mass at a portable altar rigged on the deck of the Mission lugger, as it lay at safe anchor in the inner harbour. We deemed this indeed a privilege, as we were in the area where the first missionary priest in the Northern Territory laboured more than a century ago.
JESUIT PIONEERS 1879
In 1831 the Northern Territory was a primitive but now-awakening giant of 523,000 square miles. The country, ranging from northern savannahs to the arid desert lands of Central Australia, was wild, desolate and forbidding. A few thousand whites and Chinese maintained an uneasy truce with the 30,000 aborigines - a truce punctuated often by murder and massacre on both sides.
The South Australian Government, having built the Overland Telegraph Line to link Adelaide with Palmerston (as Darwin was then known), was pouring men and money into development of its huge and difficult offspring. Hand in hand with this great enterprise went the seamier side of frontier Life . . . violence, drunkenness, rapine and frequent killings. The effect of this on the aborigines - tribal traditionalists who had been isolated from outside racial contact for so long - was profound. Following the tragic pattern of the southern states, many of these once-great hunters had already become fringe-dwellers around the white settlements, begging for food, liquor and opium.
The Northern Territory had been without a resident priest since the death of Father Confalonieri at Port Essington, decades before. ... In 1878 Father Duncan McNab, who had worked for some time among the aborigines in Queensland, appealed to Rome, requesting that something be done for the natives in the Northern Territory. Pope Leo XIII commissioned the General of the Society of Jesus, Father Beckx, for the important assignment. In 1881 the General, in turn, entrusted the task to the Austrian province of the Order, which already had a foundation at Sevenhill in South Australia.
The Jesuits in Australia were well received from the start, and were never called upon to experience the eviction or discrimination that was part of the history of the Provinces from which they came to this Southland. The first two Austrian Jesuits set foot in Adelaide in 1848, the first two Irish in Melbourne in 1865, and three more Austrians along with one of the first native-born Australians to become Jesuit landed in Darwin in 1882.
The Jesuits were the first Religious Order of priests to enter and establish Houses in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory. They were only the second such Order to arrive in Sydney. From 1848 to the present, over five hundred men have worked as Jesuit priests, brothers or scholastics in Australia, New Zealand, and on their Mission in India. Three groups of Jesuits worked here as separate ‘Missions’ – the Austrians in South Australia, and later on the Aboriginal Mission in the North, and the Irish in the eastern Colonies – until 1901, when all three groups were merged to form the Australian Mission.
Despite the obvious differences between Austrians and Irishmen, there was much in common between the two groups who began the work of the Jesuits in Australia. Both groups sent outstanding men to Australia in the early years, and the first Superiors of each group put their stamp on the work of the Society of Jesus for the next several decades. They both shared the nineteenth century understanding of what it was to be a Jesuit, which included a strong sense of the doctrinal and moral supremacy of the Catholic Church, strict orthodoxy, strong obedience, respect for learning and teaching, and a commitment to preach the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, a series of meditations that directs the retreatants to listen to the workings of God within the individual, and to look for Him in the creation, the hearts and minds, and the market-place of those around them. They found in Australia a set of circumstances completely different to their own countries. With the quality of the men, the vision of the leadership, and the opportunity to build something from the beginning, both the Austrians and the Irish Jesuits quickly embarked upon a series of creative undertakings that have helped serve the Church well ever since. In Australia both groups found the Catholics to be a minority of the population, unlike at home, and rather despised for their Romanism by the leadership and educated circles of the Colonies. It was a Church in Australia where the Catholic people were counted among the poorest group, and the least educated, and associated with the convict origins of the country. “Why should a Roman priest come here?”, asked the Governor of South Australia in 1843, “we have no convicts”.
Within twenty years of arriving, the Jesuits had been inundated with requests from Bishops to found schools, open seminaries, establish an Aboriginal Mission, open up parish districts, undertake a University College, edit magazines, establish libraries, run Retreat Houses, act as theological advisers, give Retreats and Parish Missions, and defend the Church in public against any attack. In 1848, the Year of Revolutions in Europe, the Jesuits were expelled from a number of countries, as they were being identified as the key factor in the alliance between throne and altar, which the liberals of the day saw to be an obstacle to political and civil rights. Reports were coming back to Germany of the success of the immigrant groups which had settled in the new colony of South Australia, and when one such group asked for chaplains, the Austrian Provincial asked for two volunteers. Most of the expelled Jesuits were going to the United States, or Canada, or South America, but the call to go to Adelaide was one to an almost unknown destination, as the colony had only been established twelve years earlier. Ordained only a few weeks, Fathers Kranewitter and Klinkowstroem set forth on what must have been a real journey of faith and trust. They needed those virtues. Leaving the Alps and verdant countryside of Innsbruck, they arrived in high summer in Adelaide, a struggling township where dust storms blew down wide and open unmade roads. The Mission was a complete bungle. Dissension had fragmented their immigrant group, and it dispersed upon arrival. Not speaking English, they could not find the Bishop’s house until eight o’clock in the evening, where they arrived unannounced; the letter of introduction from the Archbishop of Munich not yet arrived! Fr Klinkowstroem was forced by ill health to return to Europe four months later. Eight days after landingin Adelaide, Fr Aloysius Kranewitter travelled north with the man who had sponsored the immigrant group.
They stopped where they could lease a property, about eighty miles north of Adelaide, and there when Brothers George Sadler and John Schreiner joined him in April 1849, they built their first House, and the Austrian Mission in South Australia commenced. Over the next fifty years, the Austrian Fathers and Brothers virtually created an Abbey Diocese from the little settlement which they named Sevenhill, not being reluctant to see their ventureas a second little Rome, a centre from which to evangelise all else! The European population of the new colony, founded only twelve years earlier, was steadily advancing to the north, and the Jesuits accompanied them. Some of them undertook extraordinary horseback journeys, going almost three hundred miles north, visiting shepherds, squatters, and mining camps, seeking out Catholics wherever they were, and returning after a thousand-mile circuit journey of a month, and this they did several times a year.
Their reputation as skilled bushmen, able to find their way and water over land without tracks, was strong for generations. At Sevenhill they planted vines, making it the oldest Cellars in the Clare Valley, and opened a College. It functioned as the first Catholic boys’ school in the colony, attracting students from other colonies, and it served also as a Seminary for the training of Diocesan priests, and as a Novitiate for the Austrian and the Irish Jesuits, and a Scholasticate for the training of their young men.
In 1852, the Bishop had assigned the entire north of the Colony to the care of the Jesuits, and the growth in European settlement saw the beginning of many new towns in this area. From Sevenhill the priests would set off to provide Mass at various centres, and in time a little church would be built there. Later, a Residence for two Fathers and a Brother would be built, and thus throughout that area they eventually built seven Residences in major towns, and some thirty churches, as well as supplying a further twenty-five Mass centres. One of the diocesan priests they trained was Julian Tennyson Woods, later to found the Sisters of Saint Joseph with Blessed Mary MacKillop. Another was Christopher Reynolds, later to be the Bishop and then first Archbishop of Adelaide. From Sevenhill, and their House at Norwood in Adelaide, they set off to give numerous Retreats in parish Missions, and they conducted the priests’ Retreats, year after year. On one visit in 1875, the Bishop blessed or opened no less than seven of their new churches just in one fortnight. Like the colony itself, the Mission was constantly plagued with debt, and would not have been viable without the work of the Brothers, who together had such an array of skills and trades that Sevenhill was able to operate successfully as a Mission, and support the Jesuit communities working from other centres. Unlike the Irish, the Austrians shunned controversy, and were involved in no public disputations. When the extraordinary event of the excommunication of Australia’s first Saint, Blessed Mary MacKillop took place in 1871, the Jesuits at Norwood realised that the Bishop’s act was invalid, and gave her shelter. Mary MacKillop’s brother Donald had been a student a Sevenhill, and had entered the Jesuits, and was later to become Superior of the Northern Territory Mission.
After the 1880’s the Austrians sent out only one or two extra men to South Australia, but made a significant contribution of manpower to the new Aboriginal Mission that was beginning along the Daly River. Little by little, the Austrians transferred their works over to the diocese as local priests some of whom they themselves had trained, became available. By 1898 they had handed over all but two Residences and two churches. In 1901 the Austrian Mission was merged with that of the Irish Jesuits in the east, and that chapter of Jesuit history in Australia came to an end. Thirty-three Fathers and twenty-nine Brothers had worked as members of the Austro-Hungarian Mission in South Australia and in the Northern Territory. Of those numbers, ten were Australians. When the merger came, twenty-eight declined the rare opportunity offered of returning to Austria and stayed to live out their days in this country. By 1890, the Irish Province had almost thirty percent of its personnel in the Australian Mission.
Shortly after the opening of the Sydney works in 1879, the Austrian Jesuits sent a group of four men from Sevenhill to establish a Mission amongst the Aboriginal people around Darwin, and along the Daly River. Nineteen Jesuits worked there over the next twenty years, eleven Brothers and eight priests. They attempted to implement a missiology based on that of the Paraguay Reductions where the Jesuits in South America established self-governing colonies of native people.
They seemed more open than any other contemporary missionaries to the culture of the aboriginal people, allowing some of the ceremonies, attempting to work with the one tribe in its own territory, and were painstaking in their study of the native language. It took them four years and twenty-six editions to translate, correctly they thought, the Lord’s Prayer! It was Donald MacKillop who gave the vision to this enterprise, and his letters to the city newspapers castigated the Europeans for their treatment of the aboriginal people, in language that is still audacious. They worked to the point of breaking the health of a number of them, and MacKillop himself was forced to leave the Mission in 1898. Their model called for the establishment of villages of aboriginal people, working on agricultural plots, and hindsight teaches us that it was simply the wrong model. Plagued by disasters, the ruination of their crops, and great floods, the Mission was declared a failure and closed in 1899 after a second flood had destroyed all their work.
On September 24, 1882, four missionaries sailed into Darwin Harbour in The Indies from Adelaide and landed at Palmerston. Father Strele, S.J., in charge, was accompanied by two Fathers and one Brother. The Resident and other civil authorities promised them every assistance.
Wanting to be removed from the often-malign influence the town exerted on their native charges, the missionaries settled on a Government grant at Rapid Creek, about seven miles from Palmerston. Their block of 640 acres with a coastal fringe was well supplied with water from the creek, which flowed diagonally throughout. Today the beach, which formed the coastal boundary of the mission, is a popular picnic spot; and continually-expanding housing development threatens to blot out forever the last physical traces of the missionaries' work - ruins, and trees they planted - which are still visible close to McMillan's Road, before it crosses
Progress at the mission, in those early days, was steady, but slow. ... In a letter, Father Strele himself told of the trials of the first few months: "As one cannot use the plough here for tilling the soil, owing to the thick growth of roots, we have to work it by hand. We were assisted somewhat for about five weeks by our blacks at this task, but after that their patience gave out and they went back to Palmerston, where they live by begging and sin. And for this the whites are to blame. And so we worked on and prayed alone till January, 1883, when 30 blacks returned. Of these, 20 are capable of work, the rest are children, or blind or sick. As we must provide all requirements for these blacks, our expenses, with everything so dear, are considerable.
“The blacks still live in their tents but are greatly desirous of being housed like the whites and so at the end of the rainy season, towards April, we shall put up small houses for them. And so we shall build up a little village and more easily entice the rest of their tribesmen to this mode of life."
Fortunately Father Strele was a great letter writer. His correspondence is invaluable in piecing together the story of those early and difficult days, when the Faith was so precariously established in a new and violent land. At first his hopes were high for success of the Rapid Creek mission. He writes: "We have great expectations of success. Already we have been able after sufficient instruction to baptise the first black woman, in February, 1883, and I have hopes that no black will die in the neighbourhood of Palmerston without Holy Baptism. They already know the principal truths of our Holy Faith, they wish for further instruction and are consoled to the depths of their hearts to know that they have in heaven the same mother as the whites. Besides the blacks we have to care for the few Catholics in Palmerston; we hope that in the future these will bring us much more consolation than at present . . ."
On August 24, 1884, about two years after the opening of the mission, Father Strele christened 14 of the school children. Before this the only natives to receive the sacrament were those in danger of death. Father Strele was impressed by the mental capacity of the natives and reported progress in his efforts to end polygamy and other objectionable tribal practices. They were encouraged to keep up their fishing and hunting, and given hooks and occasionally guns to help them. The native women, and a few of the men, did some gardening, and for a while the missionaries were full of hope. But proximity to Palmerston and other difficulties, of which lack of money was not the least, undid much of the good work.
Writing from Rapid Creek in 1885, Father McKillop, S.J., in his report to the Government, tells of the failure of that settlement: "It is hard to struggle against the evil influence of the white man's presence. Teaching, as we must, the restraints of Christianity, the fight is an uphill one against lust, drink and opium. I see little hope of success for our work at Rapid Creek, unless some little pressure is put on the natives by the civil authorities and I mean, particularly, measures to secure the presence of the children at the mission for regular periods. If this could be done the loafing, which now disgraces the streets of Palmerston would, I believe, in great measure be curtailed."
So after three years, it was thought desirable to establish a station further inland, more removed from contact with the Europeans and Chinese. Dr. Cockburn, Minister for the Northern Territory in the South Australian Parliament, placed 100,000 acres at the missionaries' disposal on the south-west side of the Daly River. In 1886 the first site, for what was named the Holy Rosary Station, was selected at Old Uniya, which is only about half a mile down the river and on the opposite bank to the position occupied by St. Francis Xavier Mission today. Three years later a second settlement, the Sacred Heart Station, was opened on the same grant of land, but 20 miles away from the river to the south at Hermit Hill on the banks of the Serpentine Lagoon. The native name for this locality is "Kotnorkye." It was hoped by penetrating more deeply into the interior to make closer contact with the natives.
Much developmental work was done on both these stations, but the soil at neither place was suitable for extensive cultivation. A site 12 miles down the river, on the opposite side, where the soil was more fertile, held out better hopes for a mission headquarters.
In 1891, when the number of missionaries had increased to five priests and seven brothers, a grant of land was obtained on the north bank of the river close to the spot known as the Copper Landing. To this point ships came up the river to load copper from the Mount Haywood mine about seven miles away. This station called New Uniya was placed under the patronage of Saint Joseph. As it went ahead by leaps and bounds, the earlier two stations were closed down.
Conversion of the primitive natives presented tremendous difficulties. Their nomadic way of life alone was a considerable barrier. The Austrian missioners were anxious to imitate, in a small way, the famous Paraguay Reductions of the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries in South America. But it soon became apparent that the only real hope lay with the children. Writing from the Sacred Heart Station, Father Marschner describes the adults as corrupt, indifferent to religion, and adhering obstinately to their inherited customs and pagan rites. He tells of one of the latter, the Tschaboi: "The ceremonial is carried out by two married men, usually those who are considered to be the chief upholders of tradition, and it lasts for two months. During the day time the men who perform the Tschaboi retire into the bush to find food for themselves. The ceremonial is carried out in the night time, and is bound up with all kinds of excesses such as are found only among heathens. All the dancing, acting and melodies at the Tschaboi have the stamp of deep mournfulness - you might well think that it was a funeral rite.
"At the end of two months of orgies, human bones are buried in the ground and a hut built over them; inside the tent the conductors of the Tschaboi ceremonial open a vein and let some of the blood trickle down on the bones. After that, according to what the blacks tell us, the Tschaboi has power to bring about the death of a man belonging to an enemy tribe."
The letters of these Jesuit priests tell us much about the native corroborees, full of clever mimicry and pantomime, introducing constantly any new thing that has struck the imagination of the tribe. Corroborees held at the initiation of the young people were the occasion, they write, for "dreadful orgies." Once initiated at one of these corroborees, the young natives became quite impervious to religious instruction.
Father Conrath, writing in 1892, seven years before the Daly mission closed, says: "The blacks have hardly any good habits, no sense of the supernatural or liking for it. They are tenacious of ancestral customs, but they can yield when they see that it pays. They have little anxiety about the future. A black man apparently well on in years said to me one day after instruction on the necessity of Baptism: "Very good. Now I am saved. For a long time I was not sure of my salvation. When I am near death you will baptise me."
"I once asked a woman, who had often heard the Fifth Commandment, whether it was right for a mother to kill her child. 'Of course it is,' she replied. 'It is a good deed.'
"'How many have you killed already?'
"’Two,' she answered with greatest simplicity. 'And A's wife?' ‘Three.' 'And B's?' 'Two.' 'And C's?' 'None.' From this it will be seen how deeply rooted is the evil of child murder with our blacks, and how slow they are in understanding our teaching."
Nevertheless Father Conrath saw hope for the future, although he remained convinced that "a permanent residence and some degree of civilisation" were indispensable for Christianity to take permanent root among them. The practice of ritual cannibalism gradually died out. He tells of a woman who prevented others from killing a child by telling them: "God will be angry." A few families took up residence near the mission, occupying themselves with farming, building and other tasks.
Europeans throughout the Territory regarded the Daly River natives with suspicion. . . . Only two years before the mission opened it had been the scene of a massacre. Five men - Houschildt, Roberts, Noltenius, Landers and Schollert - were working a copper mine with a band of Woolwonga tribesmen, whom they had brought from Pine Creek. They were seldom far from their rifles, and the Woolwongas kept spears handy in case of attack by the local tribes. . . . But the trouble, when it came, was from a very different direction.
One September morning in 1884 Schollert was cooking the dinner; Roberts, Landers and Noltenius were deepening their open cut; Houschildt had gone to Pine Creek for stores. Noltenius was holding the drill and Landers, a Nordic giant, was striking.
Suddenly Landers threw the hammer aside as his huge body lunged forward, a spear through his chest. Roberts was felled by a rock, and as Noltenius raced for the hut a barbed spear pierced his back. The black attackers were not the Daly River myalls they had feared, but their own Woolwonga boys.
Noltenius and Landers, despite their wounds, reached the hut, where Schollert lay dead, a stone-headed spear through his ribs. A little later Roberts, his scalp split open with a rock, also made the shelter. They stayed inside all afternoon, tending their wounds and trying with a butcher's knife to extract the spear heads; while every now and then spears rattled on the iron roof above them. In the late twilight they set out for the nearest outpost of civilisation - a cattle camp 40 miles away.
Landers dropped out first, so they left him propped against a tree, with a waterbag and a loaded revolver. Nine miles further on, Noltenius gave up and settled down beside a palm-fringed billabong with a gun in his hand. ... It is called Noltenius Billabong to this day.
Roberts got to the camp and returned with help. Noltenius died as they were lifting his head to give him a sip of brandy. Landers was already dead, his body further mutilated with spears. Houschildt never returned from Pine Creek. His Woolwongas killed him in his sleep beside the campfire. . . . Roberts was the only survivor, and if he knew what reasons lay behind the massacre, he never revealed them.
The whites were not slow to retaliate. The Woolwonga tribe was almost wiped out and many of the Mallak Mallaks, who live along the Daly River, also were slaughtered in revenge for a crime in which they had no part.
The missionaries, too, had their alarums and excursions. In August, 1890, Father Marschner writes of how they armed two brothers to defend them on hearing that the Alarein tribe had decided to kill them all. In the same letter he says: "We have cannibals near us. If an adult falls seriously ill they will kill him, roast his flesh and greedily swallow it, leaving nothing but the bones. Not far from here they have an oven exclusively set apart for the roasting of human flesh."
On a recent visit to the Daly River, I looked over the sites of the original Holy Rosary and Sacred Heart stations. Old Uniya is situated on a property now owned by Mr. Joe Parry. Here we found ruins of stone dwellings, though much of the stone, Joe Parry told us, was removed to construct the causeway over the river at the spot known as "The Crossing." When we arrived at Hermit Hill, besides ruins of buildings and stockyards, we saw evidence of an extensive canal system of irrigation, once used for cultivation to provide food for missionaries and natives alike. It is indeed difficult to imagine how the missionaries managed to exist before they were able to get their gardens established, because compared with modern standards the Government grant was very meagre. We read in the Government record that the usual annual subsidy was £50 and 20 blankets!
Father Strele, the founder of the mission, went on a begging trip of some months to the United States and through his fatherland, Austria, to try and augment mission funds. This, however, provided only passing relief.
Early in 1957, when visiting St. Aloysius', Sevenhill, I prayed at the tomb of Father Strele in a vault beneath the church. He had come to Sevenhill in 1867, was novice master in 1868 and Superior in 1880, before sailing for Darwin on September 3, 1882. As Bishop Salvado, O.S.B., of New Norcia, was still the Bishop of the Diocese of Victoria-Palmerston, it was from him that Father Strele had to request faculties before setting out. When Bishop Salvado resigned from this See, Father Strele was appointed Administrator Apostolic on August 1, 1888. He returned to Sevenhill. in 1892 and died there in 1897.
To come back to our story of the St. Joseph's mission, at New Uniya. . . . During the first few years after 1891, the annual reports furnished by the mission tell of steady development. In view of the post-war experiments in rice growing in the Northern Territory it is interesting to read that the mission's rice crops grew with increasing abundance. Tobacco also was grown successfully and produced an excellent leaf. In 1897, for example, more than half a ton was manufactured - more than enough to meet all the local needs. By 1898 the goat herd had increased to 2,000 with an average of ten killers per week. Pigs, cattle and horses also increased. Produce grown successfully included maize, yams, African corn, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits, papaws, bananas, pineapples, coconuts and mangoes. Water was brought up from the river for irrigation during the dry season by a steam pump, which functioned efficiently. Gang and circular saws were in operation and gave good service.
By 1897 about 500 natives had been contacted. About 50 children were on the school roll, though the average attendance was usually about half that number. Twelve families had settled on blocks around the mission, and about 80 were constantly at the station, while many others came and went. The numbers of baptisms were steadily increasing, as is evident from the records in the registers, preserved among the diocesan archives in Darwin. Translations of various prayers and hymns were made from English and Latin into the tribal languages. A small catechism and parts of the New Testament were printed in the native tongue. The missionaries were able to print these books themselves, as they had their own printing press on the station.
During these years all went well. The mission thrived and showed heartening signs of becoming a permanent establishment. But the Daly is a dangerous river. At that time neither the missionaries nor anyone else in the Territory fully understood its perils.
In one of his reports Father Conrath writes: ''We are on an island, as is usual during the height of the wet season, and nearly all the surrounding country is under water." In 1898 and again in 1899 the size of this island was reduced almost to zero as the encircling waters steadily rose. The entry in the mission diary for March 18th, 1899, reads: On March 19th: "The river water is approaching the house." On March 20th: "A mound was built round the house to keep off the water." And then we read, quite positively, on March 21st: "The river water has risen to about one foot above the banks."
At one stage in that month the missionaries were forced to evacuate their living quarters altogether, and seek shelter in the goat pens, on the highest point of the settlement. The waters, of course, soon subsided and the missionaries wasted no time in making good the damage.
It was towards the end of the year that the authorities in the south reached the decision that the work would have to be interrupted and that the missionaries would be required to labour elsewhere. The records show that the missionaries on the spot were loth to leave, as they set about planning the folding-up operations following the instruction they had received. Thus was to end a grim but exciting chapter in the history of missionary work among the natives of the Northern Territory.
Among the legacies they left were a foundation of Christianity among the aborigines, an increased knowledge of the river itself, which proved invaluable to later settlers; and also a rather quaint legend. Father Donald McKillop for some time had a pet monkey at the mission. After the priests had gone the natives described it to the whites, neglecting to add, or make it clear, that it had been captive and alone. By the time these tales, told and re-told, reached Darwin, they had peopled the jungle with monkeys. The distinguished naturalist Charles Barrett, years later, wrote of meeting Darwin people, who would get angry if you cast doubt on their monkey yarns, though "there are no wild monkeys in Australia. That is as certain as sunrise tomorrow morning."
For a few years the Jesuits kept up their establishment at Darwin (Palmerston), visiting Catholics scattered through the Territory. But at the beginning of September, 1902, that too was closed and the last three missionaries - Fathers O'Brien and Fleury and Brother Melzer - reluctantly sailed away, leaving their great unfinished task to be taken up and capped with success in later years, by another generation of missionaries.
Before they left, an address, beautifully illuminated and decorated in water colour, was presented to Father O'Brien
by the residents of the Northern Territory. It reads: "We, the undersigned, residents of the Northern Territory, on the eve of your departure from your sphere of labour among us, desire to convey to you our thorough appreciation of your unselfish and untiring efforts in all good works during your 20 years residence in the Northern Territory. Your amiable qualities have endeared you to all, of whatever class or creed, with whom you have been brought into contact.
"We admire your devoted labours in the interests of your Mother Church and assure you, it is with unfeigned regret we realise that we are about to lose your cheery and sympathetic presence from our midst, and feel that your departure from the district will create a void in the community, which it will be difficult indeed to fill. We also bear in mind and appreciate your zealous efforts for 16 years in connection with the Roman Catholic Missions established at Rapid Creek, and the Daly River, for the purpose of Christianising, civilising and generally improving the condition of the aboriginal natives.
"We understand that your principles prevent your accepting the substantial recognition of your valued services which we desired to make and, therefore, beg that you will accept a breviary and travelling bag as a slight token of the high esteem in which you are held. Wishing you a pleasant voyage and a long continued life of usefulness."
The address is signed, "For and on behalf of the Residents of the Territory," by W. Dashwood, Geo. McKeddie, V. V. Brown, Charles E. Herbert, W. J. Stretton, A. R. N. Jolly, Robert Pickford, N. Ranahan, Thos. Harwood, Jack Little, Edwin Dunstan, C. J. Kirkland, Thomas Cain, J. J. Lawrie and J. J. Symes.
Down on the Daly River Mr. W. Byrne, owner of the adjoining Tipperary cattle station, bought most of the mission stock (200 cattle, 50 horses and 2,000 goats), and much of the equipment and buildings. A tin mine company bought certain buildings and had begun to dismantle them even before the missionaries left. By the end of 1902 there was not a single Catholic priest left in the Territory.
With a priest from Sydney I recently visited New Uniya on the "Lower Daly." Practically the only evidence of St. Joseph's mission now are six massive mango trees that have been able to withstand the alternate attacks of floods and bush fires. We saw also the remains of extensive levee banks erected to hold in check the onward relentless flow of the flood waters. Elderly natives told us they could remember the days when there were many coconut palms in the area, but no trace of these remains. On my first visit to this spot with the late General J. J. Murray during the war (about 1943), I remember picking up a part belonging to the old mission printing press, on which marks of identification were clearly visible.
During the war years I met several times an old native, named Wragon, at nearby stations. He spoke of the mission days and could recite the Mass responses in Latin well. He was also the proud possessor of a set of Rosary beads, which he used to good effect materially, as well as spiritually. When "broke," as he often was, Wagon would offer his beads as security for a loan. The homestead folk, knowing the value Wagon attached to his beads, were usually willing to help him out on these occasions.
But today even among the old natives, there is none left who can actually remember the days of the mission, though they have heard plenty second-hand from their parents and grandparents.
The last native who had personal memories of the mission days died in 1953. I met him shortly before his death. . . . One afternoon when I called at Humpty Doo homestead, the manager of the cattle station, then in operation there, told me of a very old, deaf native named Charlie, who had come to the homestead a short time previously from one of the remote out-stations. He was sure I would be interested to see Charlie, for he treasured as his most precious and sacred possession a set of old and much-used Rosary beads. Charlie was originally from the Mallak-Mallak tribe on the Daly River, where he lived during the old mission days. Charlie left the Daly many years before, and it is fairly certain, because of the remoteness of his subsequent haunts, that he had no further contact with any priest or mission representative of any kind during the intervening years.
In the blacks' camp I found Charlie sitting outside his wurley. I took my Rosary beads from my pocket. Immediately Charlie dived into the folds of his loincloth and produced his treasured set of beads. As I successively touched the different beads Charlie promptly recited the appropriate prayers - the Creed, the "Our Father" and the "Hail Marys." We finished the Rosary, though his extreme deafness made things a little complicated at times.
Then Charlie asked me: "You know Father McKillop?" I nodded. "Yes, I know Father McKillop."
"He taught me," said Charlie, as he counted on his fingers - one, two, three, four, five, six - showing what Father McKillop had taught him.
Then he said: "You know Father Fleury?" (another of the Jesuit missionaries, and a Frenchman). I nodded and Charlie went on: "He taught me too." Again using his fingers, he counted: "Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept."
Charlie had a large, inoperable cancer of the jaw. I was able to prepare him for death, which claimed him within a few weeks of our chance meeting. . . . There was no doubt about the accuracy of Charlie's memory in reciting his prayers, and there is no doubt in my mind that they did indeed mean a great deal to Charlie. This chance incident offers convincing evidence of the enduring character of the work done by the Jesuit pioneers.
FRANK FLYNN MSC