F. X. GSELL
As early as 1848, the Papacy divided Australia into provinces and dioceses, and the Northern Territory became the Diocese of Victoria, called after a small town or settlement well to the east of Darwin. Although two bishops were appointed in succession, the Most Reverend Joseph Serra and the Most Reverend Rosendo Salvado, both Benedictines, they were prevented from taking possession of the diocese. However, the tenacity of the Church is only equalled by its patience and, in good time, Bishop Brady, of Perth, sent Father Angelo Confalonieri, a graduate of the Propaganda College in Rome, with two Irish "lieutenants". Unhappily, the boat they were travelling in was shipwrecked in Torres Strait and both Irishmen were drowned. Only Father Angelo reached Victoria.
With a zeal worthy of the fathers of the early Church, Father Angelo laboured in possibly the most difficult mission field in the world: in fact, with no care for himself, he wore himself out and died at his post. He was buried with military honours and, indeed, so greatly was he admired and loved, that the garrison went into mourning. Let us hope that history will keep for ever green the memory of this first apostle of the Northern Territory.
Mission progress is slow and uneven in virgin country, and so it was not until 1881 that a Christening Certificate is found signed by Father Andre Navarre, future Vicar Apostolic and Archbishop of Papua. The ship upon which Father Andre happened to be travelling called at Port Darwin on the right day to permit him to pour the holy water on the forehead of the newborn baby of a certain Mr Pickford.
When things are not going well and difficulties seem insuperable in the Catholic Church mission field, the Jesuits are named Apostolic Administrator of this vast area which, beginning with the title of the Diocese of Victoria and Palmerston, was eventually to enjoy the simpler and shorter title of the Diocese of Darwin. The work of the Jesuits covers twenty years, actually up to 1904.
They began by establishing a missionary station for the natives at Rapid Creek, seven miles from Darwin; but this proximity to Darwin with its European and Asiatic population was the underlying cause of an initial failure. Bitter experience has proved to those engaged in mission work amongst native peoples that if they want their missionary labours to bear fruit, they must work as far as possible from the centres of white population. There are good white people in such centres, but the influence of the less worthy can be corrupting.
Eventually, the disciples of St Ignatius Loyola thrust deep into the south, planting their flag one hundred miles away on the banks of the Daly River. There a church was built surrounded by houses, a school and workshops. The land was ploughed, fences were built and horses and cattle introduced : so that, gradually, the natives saw the advantages of farming and the civilizing influence good husbandry brings.
Alas, the Daly River itself, always temperamental, like all rivers in a land where long periods of perfectly dry weather are followed by equally long periods of rain, swelled angrily in a succession of unusually high floods and washed away this good land wrested from the bush. These blows might have been met; but when the establishment of a copper mine in the neighbourhood of the Mission brought the Whites pouring in like a cloud of locusts, the Army of the Lord packed its baggage and withdrew, the kind of strategic retreat that has never dishonoured anybody.
And so, during four years, the Northern Territory awaited a new offensive; and while, during those four years, there was no resident priest, the registry of christenings remains to witness that Christian seed had been sown. More than a hundred names are inscribed on it, and anyone who has lived amongst natives will know just what that means. The mortal remains of both Father Streele and Father O'Brien, the first Jesuit to arrive and the last to remain, rest at Seven Hills, S.A.
The campaign reopened in 1906. Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, led the bishops in Australia in asking the Holy See for reinforcements. This appeal was duly passed on to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart already preaching the Gospel in neighbouring New Guinea and New Britain. Although the hazards were great and the work promised nothing but hard and perhaps disappointing labour, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart met the wishes of the Church. Father Treand (of Hermance, near Lausanne), then Provincial in Sydney, offered me this new task; and since at that time I knew of no difference between a Papuan and an Australian aboriginal, I offered no objection and started off.
Port Darwin had a bad reputation in the south at that time. I was told that the country was either sun-scorched or soaking like a sponge, that it was arid and barren, that its black inhabitants were savages and that the whites were tainted. I was mad, they said, to attempt so hopeless an enterprise, adding, as a final piece of encouragement, that I'd soon be back utterly discomfited.
And I must confess that as I left Sydney my mind was heavy with apprehension. But there it was: all had been settled and the only thing to do was to take some comfort from the thought that despite the warnings and forebodings of my friends, the best way to judge a country is to go to it oneself. And, after all, was I not a missionary and was not northern Australia a mission field with souls needing help? Had not our Lord urged His servants to go everywhere and to preach the Gospel to all creatures? In the north He would be with me, with His grace and overwhelming power.
The truth, as I found later, was that the picture had been painted with black paint. As in other parts of the world, I found there was a mixture of good and bad, a mixture of things neither good nor bad with those which were neither bad nor good.
On the day of the Feast of the Assumption, 15th August, 1906, I landed at Port Darwin. There were three Catholics to greet me on the wharf, Mr Tom Caine, Mr Robert Pickford and Mr Francesco Chavez. My parish church was a tiny chapel dedicated to our Lady Star of the Sea which could hold forty people. My parishioners led me to a comfortable little bungalow, built by the Jesuits; and this was to be my home for five years. Because, for the time being, I was to be the only missionary in residence, Mrs Helen Ryan was kind enough to prepare my meals, refusing to accept any kind of remuneration for this service. Mr Francesco Chavez, later to be killed during the Japanese air attack on Port Darwin in 1942, came every morning to serve at Mass and to keep house for me. This provisional arrangement lasted for two years.
I hurry over this part of my story because, as a missionary, my first care was for the natives and one might not call Darwin a native centre in any sense of that term, although there were, indeed, half-castes living with a dwindling population of Chinese—dwindling since the White Australia policy had forbidden fresh immigration o£ Asiatics. And throughout this northern country there were numbers of whites and half-castes, some five thousand in all, scattered over an area greater than France. There were upward of a thousand Catholics living to the east of Alice Springs, some stock-breeders and some miners, the latter employed at the Arltunga gold-mine then working at full capacity. I must add to these a hundred or so from Manila, employed by pearl-fishing interests.
To begin with, my headquarters at Darwin had to be organized, with due arrangements made for the saying of Mass and necessary attention to the sacraments, teaching, inculcating a knowledge of the Catechism, and house-to-house visiting. As a shepherd I saw I must begin by trying to count my flock; but this was not easy in a highly unstable population where mixed marriages had had disastrous results and where other marriages less irregular, perhaps, had suffered through the prolonged absence of a priest.
Nevertheless within five years the Darwin centre had been organized and I could look back on many adventures, particularly during my attempts to explore my vast domain so far as my means would permit. There was the journey along the railway track to Brock's Creek, to Burrundie and to Pine Creek. When, later, the last-named grew in importance, it was decided to build a church there. Father Cros, Missionary of the Sacred Heart, was given a collection of girders from a disused mine by a Mr Byrne; the generosity of Australians is proverbial; and with these he bulk a church showing considerable ingenuity and foresight: because, aware of the fickleness of gold seams, he bolted the edifice together without using a single nail. Thus, when Pine Creek fell on bad times, the church had only to be unbolted piece by piece and put together again a little farther off, at Tennant Creek.
And thus I wandered about in this vast land, always seeking my sheep, sheep whom I might not gather into a compact fold but who could be taught to see they were still under the care of a shepherd.
And then I recall that happy day when two comrades came from Sydney to join me, Father John O'Connell and Brother Lambert, the latter wearing the blue cord at his waist: and thus the environment of a presbytery, so dear to the heart of a true priest, was created.
The Christian education of the Catholic children obliged to attend the State school, a score or so, demanded our thought and became my main preoccupation. Until nuns could arrive, Father John and I acted as schoolmasters and thus laid the foundation of a convent and school, both mainstays and effective props of all missionary work.
But a foundation is only a beginning. Suitable buildings were needed and we had neither builders nor materials. Fortunately, the foresight of the Jesuits had provided the actual ground.
Without hesitation, we ordered the necessary materials from Sydney, the other end of the continent; and after that we began pestering Mgr Navarre until there came running to us the "Construction Brother", a solid Dutchman, Brother Philippe. As if by magic, a convent and a school rose from the ground and they remain, in my mind, the best ornaments of which Darwin may boast.
The school opened with more than a hundred children registered as scholars,
The parish of Darwin was on its feet. It had taken me five years but now I could turn my attention to a new objective, the conversion of the aborigines.
The Task Ahead
the Lord speaks in the plainest terms. Choosing and calling unto Him certain men—the Apostles—He gives them a definite task. "Go ye and teach all nations," He commands: "I send you as lambs amongst wolves."
The issue then remains perfectly simple. The work before the one to whom He speaks is to carry the divine message to those who have not seen, or felt, its light. And if he does not hear the call, he can always go back to his parish pump.
And amongst whom must he who obeys the divine order work? Amongst the primitive peoples mentioned in geography books after such books have given a careful outline of a country's agricultural possibilities in the way, perhaps, of sugar-cane production. They may be the native porters or the guides an intelligent explorer will engage by the dozen to help him to proceed faster. It is the souls of these people that every missionary with a true vocation burns to awaken. The soul is there: it sleeps.
The people I tried to teach, for as long as I was able, were white-faced and black-faced. The former were Australians who, as we all know, have built for themselves a proud young nation which, as history is always showing, counts with, and deals with, any power in the world on an equal footing. The latter were the aborigines.
A strange contrast! It has often been said that the aborigines of Australia come lowest in the human scale, so near to the animals, indeed, that some travelers and so-called scholars are willing to question their capacity for a spiritual life. But those of us who have lived amongst these people know that while it is true that they are endowed with life, as a tortoise or a dog is, they are also living beings to be numbered with those whom our Lord will judge "when He comes to judge the quick and the dead". They, these Australian aborigines, possess a conscience; they are capable of mental, even intellectual and spiritual, processes, and, given the opportunity, they can reach as high a standard as the best.
What they have lacked is certainly not intelligence. They have had no one to take them by the hand. Cast, centuries ago, upon an almost uninhabited continent, with no dealings or even transitory contacts with the civilized world; Australia was unknown before the sixteenth century; they fought hard to survive. Nowhere did Nature offer enough of those fruits which in happier lands only wait to be gathered, whose seeds might be sown with a certainty of a harvest. The land they were cast on could not inspire in them the idea of sowing with certain hope. And thus they wandered here and there, seeking out a meagre living, doomed to nomadism, in a vicious circle like a lost traveler who wanders for hours around the point of his departure. The hours of the lost traveler are millenniums for the aborigines, and their circle encloses thousands of square miles; but the endless tramping and denial of progress is the same.
Thus it had become natural for the Australian aborigines to reap, to gather, what the land offered with no thought of sowing. Indeed, it is difficult for them to believe that anything can come from a seed. According to their ideas, men proceed, as do animals and plants, from spirits: different spirits producing different foods; and thus the need to wander searching for this spirit-produced nutriment is a vital necessity. If the need becomes desperate, they address a corroboree, or prayer, to the particular spirit concerned with the food they seek, and sooner or later it is found. Forced to be always on the move in pursuit of game, the aboriginal carries with him as little as possible: the man his weapons, the woman her yam-stick and her bark-woven basket. Furniture and clothes? What on earth for? And a house; but who would look after a house? And so they eat when they find a bite of food, and they sleep where they happen to be. If the sun strikes down too fiercely or the wind is too harsh, they make for a dense thicket where they break or bend a few branches to make a rough shelter. If, by a lucky chance, they find an area where food and water abound, they will tear wide strips of bark from trees, the barks of some Australian trees lending themselves to such uses, and a rude hut more like a tunnel than anything else is quickly improvised. Here they will spend peaceful hours devoted to digesting food and smoking.
It is true that a nomadic life is not always incompatible with" at least an embryonic civilization. We know that in Asia, in Africa and in parts of the Americas, whole tribes move to and from the hills with their flocks, as did the patriarchs of the Old Testament, establishing relatively stable encampments while pastures lasted; but circumstances have always forced the Australian aborigines to behave differently: they must move in small parties, isolated family groups, through country where large numbers dependent on the land's offering would starve to death.
The migrations of each tribe are limited to well-defined areas, but any movement beyond the boundaries of these areas could easily be a casus belli. There is actual space and to spare in the vast "reserves"; but much of the immensity is exhausted in a scorched, stony landscape, seemingly tortured to the bone, so that gazing upon this land one can imagine some prehistoric catastrophe. In the more northern regions, where the land is richer and rains heavy and regular, the minimum living space per man would seem to be about one square mile. But in the centre (Arunda) twelve square miles would hardly be enough to support one man, so very great are the differences in soils and climates.
The game hunted by the aborigines is diverse, plentiful at some times and places, scarce at other times and places. Apart from kangaroos with their fantastic leaps or flights, because they seem to plane through the air propelled by their powerful hind legs, there are bandicoots, rat-like or rabbit-like creatures which live in burrows; emus, a close relation of the ostrich but rather smaller; cassowary, a flightless bird about the size of a turkey which lives in dense scrub; and there is a variety of waterfowl, including ducks and geese on the billabongs or lagoons which are found most often in Arnhem Land and in the north. While the men hunt, the women and children are tireless in their search for anything edible they can lay their hands on—yams, seeds, lily roots, lizards, snakes, wild honey and birds' eggs.
The aborigines are very fond of goose eggs, and a goose egg hunt is an exciting occasion enjoyed by men only, the women and children remaining at home in the camp. The frailest canoes, in a sense improvisations made from a single strip of bark from the Eucalyptus tetrodonta, are used as the men manoeuvre these light craft with great skill and dexterity along the narrow channels between trees that emerge, from the marsh and through the fronds of aquatic plants. The canoes follow in line close upon one another and the conversation is limited to various exclamations: "Bulna! Bulna! Ngarra yauyun!" Gently! gently!
Now and again there is war. Pretexts are seldom lacking: it may be a matter of a stolen wife, or worse—a violation of a frontier, or an infringement of tribal law. An explosion of great joy and excitement follows the declaration of war as the war corroboree is arranged with the ritual dance which is performed to the sound of the didjeridoo, a long hollow pipe into which the piper blows. But neither joy nor excitement may affect the laws of battle, each tribe affected carefully obeying a code and using the arms peculiar to itself. A messenger carrying a "message stick" roughly carved with simple symbols designed chiefly to vouch for the messenger, announces the opening of hostilities and indicates the date and place of the encounter. The women are concerned with collecting provisions for the combatants.
The encounter, despite its wild and exciting heralding, is usually limited to a few lusty blows. Unlike civilized battlefields, the scene of an aboriginal encounter is not littered with many dead bodies; indeed, in twenty years I saw only one dead body. Nevertheless, wounds abound; and there are many cuts and bruises, even broken or nearly broken bones; but even the last-named knit quickly and the wounds are not long in healing. The state of belligerence continues until the losses on both sides are equal. An equal number of corpses (if any), or an equal number of men put out of action, is the signal for peace.
However, it must be admitted that this very real sense of the strict rules of warfare goes hand in hand with a kind of cowardice which permits treachery and cunning in days of formal peace. Premeditated killings are not uncommon, and the aboriginal kills shamelessly for reasons of revenge or through rivalries over the most trivial of causes. The aborigines think nothing of stealing into an enemy camp to take an adversary by surprise, stabbing him with a spear while he sleeps.
Aboriginal society subdivides itself into clans and totems, the clan being local, and the totem being universal in the sense that it can be common to several tribes. The material and national aspect of the tribe can be seen in the clan; its spiritual and religious aspect is in the totem. It must be borne in mind that all members of the tribe can belong at once to a clan as well as to a totem in the same way that in our own society individuals of a nation may be of different races and different religions.
The origin of a clan goes back to an old patriarchal group, each member of such a clan bearing a name shared by all its members. For example, there exists on Melville Island a clan called Mandiboo, and without much reference to what is known of the history of the original ancestor, each member of the clan is automatically a Mandiboola. The district inhabited by these Mandiboolas has a distinct name as opposed to other districts.
Numerous varieties of totems exist in each tribe. It is difficult to define with precision what is their significance; it would seem to be hidden in the secrets of initiation concerning which each tribe proffers its own explanation. Nevertheless, on one point there is unanimous agreement: the totem is a group governed by a particular spirit symbolized perhaps by an animal, perhaps by a plant. For example, the members of a kangaroo totem are called Kangaroos; the members of the snake totem are called Snakes, and so it goes. The kangaroo spirit controls those belonging to the kangaroo totem, establishing an intimate relation between members of their group and the animal in question.
According to native belief, the spirit of a dead person of the kangaroo totem will live in a kangaroo and, in consequence, members of this totem will not kill a kangaroo because of the danger of killing a relation; nor will they eat kangaroo flesh because of the risk of eating, possibly, their brothers. A man of the kangaroo totem will not marry a woman of the same totem for fear of marrying his sister.
This brings us to the subject of initiation, a word which may - permit us to indulge in a little amusement at the expense of some American and European dabblers in the occult who overwork the word, or so I have thought when reading their accounts. It has seemed to me that our natives have an advantage over these gentlemen in knowing precisely what they mean by initiation, at least in its practical and ceremonial form.
All authority derives from the fundamental laws and customs established by the great ancestor, and these are transmitted orally. They are unchanging, like the Ten Commandments. Nothing is modified; nothing is either suppressed or embellished, the result being that since all are equal before the law without discussion, a formidable theocracy is in practice a democracy. No one can introduce a new law; no one dare suspend an old one; all that is permitted is interpretation, a power common to all adults. Thus there are no chiefs or kings amongst the aborigines as we have learnt to consider such amongst native tribes. Each aboriginal man can affirm, "I am the Chief; I am the King", accepting without embarrassment the title sometimes given to him in ignorance by white men.
Although all have the status of kings, none are born members of what might be called the Supreme Council. Membership of this is reserved for those who have braved and successfully passed through the rites of initiation, rites which may extend throughout years. Step by step, the candidate for this supreme honour approaches its threshold and it is unlikely that he will be invested with office before the evening of his life. The Supreme Council is, in fact, the Senate and, as will be guessed, all power and prestige is enshrined in the aged while the young men are undergoing their training.
A young boy who has been coddled and thoroughly spoilt by his parents (young aborigines are outrageously spoilt) will disappear one fine day. He has been seized by a delegation of elders who will take him by force to some mysterious forest or mountain retreat. What will happen there? In principle, no witness is ever tolerated, with the result that only by great patience and tenacious perseverance have one or two ethnologists been able to assemble scrap by scrap a certain amount of information. It is certain that adolescents, as a test of courage and endurance, must submit to the most frightful tortures in the way of teeth and nail extraction to musical accompaniment in the way of a fine display of bull-roarers, of didjeridoos and the beating of the sacred drum or balnoo noo. We have mentioned the word "corroboree" in connection with war; but there are varieties of corroboree, including those celebrated in the initiation ceremonies. In some of these the performers attempt to imitate the appearance of the totem and to display its motions.
At intervals between the corroborees, the neophytes endure intensive cramming, which puts a great strain on their memories as, during hour after hour on end, long poems are drummed into their young heads—a jumble of semi-epic, semi-religious symbols steeped in a kind of magic innateness.
This stereotyped accumulation will never be forgotten by the neophytes: it will remain with them until death, and not one of them would be capable of breathing new life into this dead letter. Automatism has killed invention.
The initiation ceremonies occupy several months of each year during upwards of seven years and, as the sessions progress, the novice is promoted successively to higher grades until, finally, he receives consecration as an adult and a full member of the tribe. Nevertheless, before he may raise his voice in the Council, he has still to prove himself by some outstanding feat, a feat which could be the execution of a guilty man condemned to death by the elders. All this witchcraft and casting of spells takes place, of course, under the seal of secrecy, and an aboriginal would die before revealing its smallest or least important detail.
From the moment of his consecration as an adult, the native is dedicated body and soul to his tribe and he may never abandon his tribe. To us, the servants of the Church, herein lies a stumbling block: we can tame the aborigine, but how can we convert him? He is no longer free. This inward, or spiritual, binding is denoted, or registered perhaps, by a more apparent binding, the tattoo marks on his body, markings which show to which tribe he belongs. Thus he may be easily recognized as a member of that tribe,
The Maoris of New Zealand and other Pacific Islanders, to say nothing of sailors and soldiers of our own race, practise, or have practised, the art of tattooing by the injection of coloured substances which outline a design on their bodies and even on their faces; the aborigines employ a somewhat different method, a method, incidentally, which is used in parts of Africa and Melanesia.
The aborigines begin by submitting to long cuts being made on their bodies, the part chosen following the rule of particular tribes. Into these long wounds are stuffed ash and clay. When the wound has healed over, the line has the appearance of a pad of soft rope. Each tribe displays its own particular patterns with the same pride shown by a regiment in its flag. Circumcision and other mutilations must be undergone by the young of some tribes as well.
The aboriginal is a spiritualist. He has no doubts about the existence of spirits around him; and he is convinced of the survival of the soul after death. According to his firm belief, when the soul leaves the body at death, it exists for a time in the other world, but it must return to occupy a body for a new existence. If, during life on earth, the person, of which the soul is an essential part, has behaved well in the sense that he has been faithful to the customs of the tribe, the soul once more lives in a human body; but if that person has not behaved well in that sense, the soul must suffer the downfall to a new existence in an animal. This faith in successive reincarnations of the same person (and it is definitely a person that these simple-minded folk are concerned with), this faith in successive returns, is often linked, not illogically, with a place sacred to some old ancestor who might have covered himself with glory there. Should, for instance, a woman be seized with the pangs of labour in one of these places, then, if a son is born, he will be without any possible doubt the ancestor in question. If the child should be a daughter, there is no dilemma: the ancestor has decided to change his sex, and all is for the best.
As for the disposal of mortal remains, there are almost as many customs as there are clans. Always there is the death corroboree, the wailing of wives and daughters filling the air as the dead man is buried with great pomp. Sometimes his body is exposed on a platform of interlaced tree branches. I have heard it said that some natives eat a morsel of a late parent or relative in order thus to assimilate his virtues; yet it must not be thought that this indicates anything approaching cannibalism because even the bare idea of cannibalism is abhorrent, to these people.
In actual fact, the social system of the aborigines is communism, not the diluted form practised as a political system in parts of the world today, but an integral, absolute communism. Thus, if anyone with any faith in communism as a practical system of government wants to see demonstrated what communism really leads to, he could not do better than to live for some time among my aborigines to study their lives and habits. I am certain he would return cured of his illusions.
As the aborigines say, they are all "on the same level", which may be translated: equal; there are neither high nor low, rich nor poor, neither master nor servant, no bosses and no employees, no bourgeois or proletarian, noblemen or slave, neither powerful nor weak. All are hunters; all are warriors; all are kings. None cultivate the land: therefore none is productive. All live on the same spoils of the chase, day after day, week after week—year after year. All are ready to defend their own area as all are ready to invade their neighbours' territory. Private property is unknown amongst them because everything belongs to everybody without exception unless it be, to a certain extent, their wives and their weapons. The children belong to the tribe, the game to the successful hunter.
However, it must be noted that in this republic all power is concentrated in the hands of the elders. They form the "party" in European communist parlance, and all outside the party— the women, the children and the non-initiated—do not count. They have no say in any matter whatsoever, and their masters, "the party", may dispose of them freely, even of their lives.
The aborigines are proud, independent and indomitable. Although it is true that they do group together under the command of a chief on the occasion of war, for a burial, or for an initiation, as a general rule they will not submit to restrictions, and they tend to act on their own account following the laws of their tribe. Inevitably, as in all societies, outstanding personalities make themselves felt amongst their number, but this pre-eminence will confer only a limited influence and purely a moral one. And because competition raises its head here as elsewhere, this pre-eminence and moral influence do not last for long. Behaving like the children they are, yet convinced of their adult status, some aborigines will puff themselves up like the frog in the fable; they will agitate; they will bustle about as they throw up a lot of dust; but one day, sooner or later, such a superior one will be found with an anonymous spear through his body. Why? For the simple reason that nobody is allowed to speak any louder than the others. The head emerging above the crowd is cut off. To go either more quickly or more slowly than others is a sign of rebellion which merits severe punishment. All take off from the same line in the initiation rites and all survive at the finishing post at the same moment, maintaining the same pace, with the same wind and the same stride.
Well-meaning philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists try to indoctrinate us with the slogan—"Leave the natives alone: natural evolution will produce progress." Experience, however, leads us to conclusions entirely opposed to this, particularly if there is implicit in the slogan the idea that in his natural state the aboriginal finds peace and contentment denied to more civilized peoples. Man is never satisfied with what he possesses: he always wants more, even if he does not want everything. This mentality is common to children as to adults, to aborigines as to white men. The aboriginal, while guarding his own wives with anxiety and care, being willing to defend them with all his strength, will, at the same time, take any chance which will permit him to steal the wives of his neighbours. He, like a wild animal in many ways, must ever be alert to danger, real or imaginary. He may possess; but he is envious of the possessions of others. Fear follows the aboriginal as fear follows other men; but in the case of the former there are fixed tribal laws whose breaking will expose him to sanctions and reprisals. One terror pursues him. Is he, or are his friends, going to infringe some tribal law? This cruel anxiety which appears often to obsess him leaves him neither peace nor rest; he is condemned to an existence of suspicion during which he must ever be alert: and thus his happiness is spoiled. Certainly, our blacks are often to be seen relaxed, apparently enjoying themselves as they laugh happily; but while the laugh exposes fine white teeth, it does not tranquillize the heart.
The word progress when applied to the aboriginal in his natural state is only a fetish. Absolute communism, let it be repeated, removes even the remotest glimmer of progress because, in its essence, it forbids any forward movement.
Let us suppose that a native decides to build himself a house and to sow a field. All right: he does both; but both will be on common land and will become, ipso facto, collective property. Is he going to be mad enough to work for the benefit of the others? Of course he is not: and so he does nothing.
This explains in many ways the permanent character of aboriginal poverty. They would seem to be heirs of a myth with an origin yet to be discovered. Its discovery may be left to ethnographers; but in practice no life is found in it: it is a simple formalism based on terror. There is no monument, no trace of any kind, that can be found to show that these people have progressed in the slightest degree since they settled in Australia. Vestiges of mural paintings have been discovered in the caves of Chasm Island, for example; but these are very old—and extraordinarily suggestive they are, moreover—and since their painting, there is nothing. There is nothing but an automatic repetition of black, yellow or ochre streaks and figures within the magic circle on the bodies of participants and neophytes made during ceremonial rites,
Indeed, there would seem to be only one hope for these people. Us! Contacts with civilization! With the help and intelligent persuasion of the white man (alas, not always so intelligent), the aboriginal can unloosen the vice that grips him and the yoke that has held men in slavery tor thousands of years, the yoke that atrophies him even before he is born.
It is fortunate that the two races have met, even if the story of their meeting is not a happy one. The black man claimed the right to unlimited space, but the white man needed his strip of land to cultivate and upon which to feed his flocks. Pooh! What does wild game care for fences, and what does a mere fence mean to an aboriginal hunter?
There was, indeed, plenty of room in theory, but both wanted the same land and the most fertile with, obviously, the best and most regular rainfall. The planter wanted his land, and had he not paid good money for it? But what meaning could the payment for land have to an individual when that land belonged to the whole tribe? To pay one member of a tribe for land while ignoring others with equal rights according to aboriginal law was-to create misunderstanding to say the least of it. But it was worse than that in effect. To permit these overgrown children to sell their patrimony was precisely the same as starving them systematically. Does not a white man in his own country protect minors by laws which forbid them to dispose of their possessions? In Australia, there was no law to save these unemancipated children from themselves, and they were left with nothing but sand and stones. Thus, whatever the price paid, the seller was always the loser, for, deprived of his hunting grounds, he faced only famine and death. Of course the buyer could have guaranteed the seller's nourishment until the end of his days, but what man amongst white men could accept such a responsibility?
Those without knowledge of native laws and customs might suggest that the selling tribe could always withdraw deeper into the continent to live on the lands of neighbours. In actual fact, such a move would see these neighbours taking up arms promptly to resist invasion. If more had been known ethnologically early enough, many errors might have been avoided and many evils evaded.
There are countless stories about the traps and ambushes laid by the natives to destroy the invading white men, as there are descriptions of cruelties and savage attacks which make one's hair stand on end; but we should take many of these with a pinch of salt: adding a little water to our wine, as we say in France. There is no doubt that horrible crimes were committed, but they were really few. The two races soon understood that they needed each other, that friendly relations between them would be to the advantage of both. There are stories of great heroism shown by blacks to save the lives of white men, as there are stories of whites saving the lives of black men. And how many lives were thus spared?
Occasionally, cruelty was merely the result of well-meant kindness, as, for instance, when a white man gave natives well-sharpened tools whose instant effect was not understood by these big children. Often cool investigations of motives have shown clearly that attacks by aborigines have been the direct result of misdeeds on the part of white men, perhaps the killing of a black by a white, often enough the abuse of a woman, sometimes dishonest dealing in business. According to native ancestral law, such misdeeds demand vengeance which, if the guilty one is out of reach, must justly be wreaked on the first white man he can lay his hands on. It must be added that the white man was not slow in paying back the black man in his own coin—paying to one black man or another: he did not look too closely. False dealing and injustice will wound children; both hurt the aboriginal much more than physical punishment. In this respect the white man is more often to blame than his black brother.
With time and experience, policy regarding the treatment of the natives evolved somewhat. In the south, the aborigines solved the problem with tragic simplicity by becoming practically extinct, allowing a civilized economy to take over. In the centre, the vitality of the tribes diminished increasingly as the more virile young men dispersed to find remunerative work on stations and in mines. The north has fared better, for here the life force of the aborigines appears to remain intact. Thus something is saved, even though the error of trying to govern different peoples by the same law is still committed today.
The situation must be accepted as it is: the settlers are here to stay, and the native race must be preserved, two factors which must be reconciled. To reconcile them, successive Governments have created Native Reserves—vast tracts of land upon which no white man has the right to settle. The idea that the two races can thus live happily together within their respective frontiers is good theoretically; but in practice difficulties are raised, the most thorny being that segregation into reserves demands from a native an exodus from his tribal lands which he instinctively feels bound to resist with all his might. We have seen what an atavistic attachment he has for his own little area of country. To him, such an uprooting is less a matter of sentiment than of life or death. Indeed, the problem of displaced persons, the bete noir of European Governments, is no less cruel in our latitudes.
The wisest policy, it seems to me, would be to serve the interests of the natives first: they are the least numerous and the least favoured; and just as a good mother at the head of the table gives the smallest and weakest the first helping, so might the natives be treated. And might not such a policy bring in excellent dividends in increased production in a vast land crying out to be more thickly populated, particularly in areas where a dark skin, the "livery of the sun", acts as a protection?
And so, I would say, guarantee the natives their possessions and, rather than abandon them to their own devices, to an anachronistic social system which denies all progress, let them be joined, little by little, in carefully supervised stages, by white men who, settling on their own land, or near them, quietly and gently, will thus avoid the shock of mass invasion as they raise herds and plant fields. The natives could become shepherds for these carefully chosen white men until they had learnt to raise their own herds. Harmony in a period of transition might thus be preserved.
But always it must be remembered that in Australia, still with its vast Never-Never Land, one must always know how to give time its head.
Now, how does the missionary fit into this scheme? The aim of the missionary is obedience to a divine command: he must bring the heathen to the true faith. Even if this command were ignored today, which it could not be by a follower of Christ, no one, I think, would dare to deny that the true faith is the generating force of civilization. Thus it is in vain that some people say, "Why not leave these people in peace? Why disturb their old customs if they make them happy?"
But we do not forget that these fine talkers, few of whom have given the subject any deep thought, themselves enjoy the benefits of Christian civilization: and they enjoy this security because, in day of old, missionaries brought these benefits to their forefathers. The heathens are men as we are me and as such, they have the same right that we have to the benefits of Christianity,
"Go ye and teach all nations . . ."
In Australia, particularly in those northern areas where the aborigines still maintain a foothold, the Christian has a double duty: of charity, in communicating his faith to his less fortunate brothers; of justice, in making what restitution can be made. The natives have largely lost their religious heritage with its beliefs and customs, and this heritage must be replaced. They have lost their lands. The two compensations, moral and material, march together. Obviously the transformation of a nomadic native hunter into a husbandman and a producer without destroying, or at least upsetting, his tradition is a Utopian idea, as impossible as the making of a Christian from a nomadic pagan before converting him from his erring ways.
However, whatever may be said to the contrary, it is not impossible to reform the aboriginal attitude towards life so that he can become a planter and, indeed, a good Christian. Yes, the process must be long and inevitably obstructed by difficulties; but how many centuries did it take white men to emerge from barbarity r The main thing is to face up to the task and to stick to it, trusting in God.
In Search of a Beginning
A beginning, then, had to be made. How and where? My experience in Papua could be of little help, otherwise than indirectly: because conditions were entirely different. I was the Apostolic Administrator; I knew that from the start; but as yet I had no idea how I could catch my administres, roaming at will in the wilds.
It was good fortune that the Jesuit Fathers had been here before me; they had established mission stations in places they considered attractive to their migratory birds, and waited for them to perch. This lesson was not lost on me. It is a vital principle which must be appreciated by those who would found a mission on a rock that they should never attempt to run after nomadic peoples. This is simply because one never knows where they are. It is better to establish a settlement and to arm oneself with patience. Sooner or later they will find their way to one's door.
Working on this vital principle, I had to decide whether to make my base on the mainland or to establish a bridgehead on one of the numerous islands which lie off the north coast. Once more, if indirectly this time, the Jesuits were my guides. I recalled that they had tried the mainland, only to suffer a setback through flooding and the proximity of white men. I decided to choose an island. But which one?
To the north of Darwin and separated from that town by Clarence Strait, lie Melville Island and Bathurst Island, the former with an area of 2158 square miles, the latter with 800 square miles. Each could boast a population of a thousand inhabitants. Both attracted me, although I gave my first preference to Melville, the bigger.
Alas, I soon heard that buffalo hunters made raids on Melville; and this did not sound promising.
Buffaloes on Melville Island? How on earth could buffaloes get there? The explanation is simple. In 1824, a British garrison had occupied the north-westerly point of the island. To assist in the transportation of food and other supplies, buffaloes had been imported from the island of Timor, 500 miles to the westward. Incidentally, this settlement on Melville Island had taken the name of Fort Dundas; but Fort Dundas is today nothing but ruins. In 1829, the difficult climate combined with quarrels with the natives to force the British to withdraw. We are now, it must be remembered, in a country where towns, like sand dunes at the will of the wind, rise and are leveled in the shortest time: in but a night, it would seem. In short, the soldiers left and the buffaloes stayed to multiply in the surrounding marshes. The hides of these lucky beasts were so thick that native spears hardly dinted them and thus they escaped annihilation. Yet why, it may be asked, are there no buffaloes on Bathurst? Evidently, the Apsley Strait which runs between the two islands has proved an impassable barrier. There is a story that a number of old veteran buffaloes showed much enterprise by leading some other males into the sound, and that they swam across to Bathurst; but, so the story goes, not a-single female had the courage to risk the crossing.
After investigation, I gathered that a permit to shoot buffalo on Melville Island had been issued to a white man at the beginning of the century. I felt more than a little anxious, but realizing that such a permit might not last forever, I hoped that sooner or later the chap would take himself off. With official approval, I wrote to him to tell him of my plans. Legally, he could not oppose them; but this did not allow him to hide from me his personal opinion. After attempting to show me how very unsuitable Melville Island was for a mission, he admitted that his own business would prosper much better without one. He had made the position perfectly clear. Knowing what I was up against, I withdrew.
Bathurst, to the west of Melville and separated from the latter by what is called inaccurately a fjord (it is open at both ends) is thirty-five miles long and an average of three miles in width, spreading itself into the spray of the Timor Sea, a land mass with an indented coastline which forms something the shape of an ivy leaf. The island's population, of about 1000, as I have already said, was sufficient to make the establishment of a mission worthwhile. The natives on both islands belonged to the same tribe, with the same language and the same customs, and intermarriage between the two islands was common. Few white men had up till then set foot on Bathurst, something which especially pleased me.
I had a little difficulty in getting the Government to proclaim Bathurst a native reserve, thus to ensure the protection of my work and to establish its legality. The reserves belong exclusively to the natives, and only missionaries have the right to reside in them, provided only that missionary activity is concerned solely and exclusively with the natives.
What obstacles arose in my path! Missionaries have many friends, of course; but they are not without detractors who go about talking a lot of nonsense about missionary fanaticism even while admitting the missionary's good will—more good will than sense: that they are wasting their time and money to little good purpose, if not to achieve a dead loss. The children brought up under mission influence, these people say, are no better and may be worse than other native children: so often they are lazy, liars, thieves and a lot more besides. I cannot meet this nonsense by showing that our converts are angels. Baptism does not change natures, natures are sinful. We have known this for a very long time, and we had not to go to Australia to learn it; but I can, nevertheless, guarantee that, in the majority, our young Christians accept and absorb our teaching, and that they learn to behave decently and, in fact, they do the Church honour. This, of course, wins them the mocking comment of the lowest type of white men when the boys refuse to black the white men's shoes and the girls deny them the entertainment they seek. These young people are ready to face up to such skirmishes and to win, knowing they are sustained.
To return to the important business of getting Bathurst proclaimed a native reserve, I must admit that my request seemed to be gathering dust in some pigeon-hole while, even as I waited, Bathurst became the prey of speculators. Indeed, seventeen or eighteen thousand acres had already been sold while other lots had been put up for auction with the certainty of finding buyers. My anxiety became so great, as I chafed at the bit while I waited, that, feeling myself to be blackballed by junior officials, I went over their heads to Mr Denny, then Minister for the Northern Territory, a man in whom I had great confidence. I was wise in doing so because, backed up by Mgr O'Reilly, my Archbishop in Adelaide, I was able to arrange the suspension of the sales of the land, and the Minister let me know that he awaited my visit finally to settle the question. That was in 1910.
In 1911 the Federal Government took over the Northern. Territory and Dr Gilruth, its first Administrator, a solid fellow and a man of decision, showed an effective interest in our efforts. At this time, a parliamentary commission visited the country and I seized the chance to lay my plans before the personalities that formed it. To my joy, the Federal Minister fully approved my scheme and at once gave orders for an effort to be made to recover the land already sold, thus making it possible for the whole area of Bathurst Island to be the future reserve. As it turned out, this attempt met with few difficulties because, happily for us, those who had bought the land were found to be incapable of fulfilling the financial obligations its sale required, and they were only too glad to accept cancellation.
The people of Darwin were not pleased. My plans for departure offended them. Besides, they assured me, I should not find any aborigines on Bathurst. They quoted the account of a prospector who had crossed the country without meeting even one and, from this they jumped to the conclusion that the island was uninhabited. They little knew that a thousand eyes had watched this prospector's every movement, spying on him as, in native fashion, they leapt from tree to tree or crawled through the tall grass. Others, Darwin people, admitting the existence of a handful of miserable blacks wandering here and there, assured me that these were of the wildest type of savage, that, indeed, some of them had recently attacked travelers. Would not this shocking banditry cause me to reconsider my decision? Was it not reckless to risk falling into the clutches of these cutthroats and despoilers of women?
I faced up to these worthy townsmen with the imperturbable serenity of the man who sees his duty clearly. As for the risks, real or imaginary, I would take them along in my baggage, between my breviary and my crucifix.
About this time, April 1911, I heard that a man called Lee was about to set sail for Melville Island; and because this could hardly have given me a better opportunity to explore at least the shores of the scene of my projected operations, I arranged to accompany Mr. Lee. After an uneventful crossing, we landed on Melville Island, actually at the camp of the buffalo hunters I have mentioned, and from here, across a stretch of about 1500 yards of sea, I could enjoy my first view of Bathurst. I saw a pretty beach framed in foliage, apparently charming and seductive; and the next day I landed there. As it turned out, the distant promise was well fulfilled: my beach was more than pretty; indeed, it was splendid. There were no mangrove thickets to give that dank sombre effect mangroves always give and thus to destroy a coastline's beauty; and the background was filled in by the finest trees in the world. I was not put off by the apparent fact that there was no fresh water near the shore, because I suspected that a little exploring farther inland would show that water was not scarce.
I was right. There was indeed a swamp fed by a useful spring.
Although I was favourably impressed, I thought it prudent, nevertheless, to do some exploring in case there should be other parts of the island with even greater advantages. But although I set off up the valley and examined other creeks and inlets, I found nothing to compare with my first choice. Definitely not! There were no vain regrets: the first site was by far and away the best and not the least of its advantages was the easy access it offered to boats, which could enter and leave with no treacherous reefs, rocks or shallows to upset them.
Thus, Ngouyou became the cradle of the Mission and, later, the station of Bathurst. When, as time went on, I had more opportunities to explore the island, I could only congratulate myself that I had kept to my first choice.
And Ngouyou was neutral territory, No-Man's-Land. But let me explain. I was well aware of the subtleties of aboriginal laws concerning tribal frontiers; and I knew that these had to be considered if I were to enjoy the free hand I felt I must have if I were to succeed. A station built on land held by a particular tribe, in their midst, would instantly become its possession—all our buildings and effects could be annexed as their own property so that we could be forbidden to catechize their neighbours and, most probably, they would defend us against visits from neighbours at the point of the spear. Heaven only knows the squabbles which could follow.
But by a happy chance there was nothing of this kind to fear at Ngouyou. In principle, the land belonged to the Mandiboolas of Melville; but either through negligence or inability to defend it, they had forfeited their rights, or they had allowed their rights to lapse; and the site had become a no-man's-land over which people came and went as they pleased. Bordered on the west by the lands of several tribes of the interior, and washed on its eastern side by the Apsley Strait, it had a good geographical position, especially on the eastern side where Apsley Strait is used freely by aboriginal canoes.
Thus no one could lay claim to my settlement, and all could visit it.
We ordered a prefabricated house from Darwin. Yes, that does indeed seem strange when the site of the mission was surrounded by trees and thus with a surfeit of timber on the spot; but we were suspicious of local timber until we could know it better, fearing that one kind might season into a spongy condition while another kind might prove attractive food to white ants. We had to be prepared to resist rain and heavy storms; we had, if necessary, to be able to resist a hail of spears or blows from clubs; and then we were in a great-hurry.
The work really started in Darwin where each piece of timber, reinforced with iron and properly fitted, was carefully numbered and a strong iron roof assembled.
We needed a boat: because, without a boat we, poor islanders, would soon be reduced to idleness, to stand about with our arms folded. And, of course, our prefabricated house and our tools would not come to us under their own steam. Finally, my duties demanded that I maintain a regular liaison with Darwin.
Much too poor to buy a vessel, we hired one from the firm of Jolly and Co. at a pound a week. A boat of our own would have been better; but later we could see about that.
Now a boat must have a crew and a crew has got to be paid; and, of course, there should be a captain. There were no white men available and, even if there had been, I should not have been able to pay them. However, I got my crew: four men from Manila, good sailors used to pearl-fishing in this area so that they knew every safe anchorage, every useful bay and, perhaps better still, every dangerous reef. And they had offered their services for love of God, in addition to food, clothing, tobacco and .a little pocket money. They had not to make the offer more than once.
And so with our little ship laden with the prefabricated building, tools and supplies on board, we weighed anchor on 1st June; and soon our craft bound for Ngouyou, fifty miles to the north-north-east, was leaping over the waves before a stiff south-easterly breeze.
We landed towards evening. There was not a soul on the beach. It was not that we had expected a grand reception; but, without doubt, the natives must have detected our approach and it was natural for us to wonder why they had not been following their usual custom of running up and down the shore as we drew near, eager to identify the visitors and thus to calculate the amount of tobacco ration to be got out of them.
This curious silence puzzled us. The explanation came later: the natives had indeed seen our boat approaching, but these fine fellows, having something on their conscience, decided that our boat was laden with military police, and vanished into the forest.
It took me some time to piece together the full story, but it should be sufficiently interesting to pardon a digression as I try to tell it. Incidentally, the buffalo hunters on Melville Island had told me something about this curious incident during my first exploratory voyage to the island.
It seems that the buffalo hunter leader had engaged a number of Taroolas on the mainland near Cape Don to shoot buffaloes, and these gentlemen had become first-class shots with 303 rifles. Unfortunately they did not confine their attention to buffaloes. Indeed, they took to threatening with instant death those local natives who did not hand over their women. If an aboriginal refused, he was shot down. Intensifying this work, perhaps seeking variation, three Taroolas from Melville organized a raid on Bathurst. There are no buffaloes on Bathurst, as we know, but there were plenty of young women. Our bandits, full of arrogance and harsh threats, began commandeering this appetizing loot.
"What use," asked the Bathurst people before this threat, "are spears against fire-sticks?" And so they promptly agreed, saying: "Yes, we shall give you our women: we promise to give you our women, but they have gone to the forest and it will take us a little time to get them back. So be patient; sleep here tonight and tomorrow we shall hand them over to you."
The women-abductors, confident in their arms, accepted these smooth words and went to sleep. But when darkness fell, their potential victims turned themselves into executioners and, falling upon the gunmen's camp, adroitly confiscated the dreaded arms and ammunition and gave the intruders such a hiding with clubs that they escaped more dead than alive.
It was into the midst of this tribal feud that I landed; and it was not at all surprising that the beach was deserted. The sight of one policeman's cap in those days would disperse a whole tribe.
I assume that at this time the Taroolas were having their wounds and bruises treated at the Darwin hospital; but the dispute was not at an end: because the Bathurst islanders had now three rifles and seventy-five cartridges: and what would the police think of this state of affairs?
To resume the story: although the three bandits had been forced to retreat, a counter-attack was expected from Melville. After a few quiet days, a dozen Taroolas, taking advantage of the absence of their boss, duly appeared in a canoe with the object of making another and, they hoped, more successful raid on Bathurst. They were received by a well-directed crackle of fire and commanded to return whence they came. They did so, grumbling; but from the safety of Melville they began a desultory bombardment of Bathurst. The fire was not returned, thank Heaven, not wounding anyone. The Taroolas were further abashed when a boat appeared crossing the bay at full speed, unexpectedly bringing to the scene of the conflict the officer detailed to supervise the natives. He, taking in the position at a glance, and without carrying his inquiries any further, forbade the Taroolas to carry arms in the absence of their chief and confiscated their rifles. It was a short time after this that the firm of Vestey Brothers bought ill-famed Melville and the buffalo hunter and his band of Taroola brigands were ordered to leave.
Because it is customary in ending a tale to confide somewhat in a reader, to say whether or not all the characters in his story lived happily ever after, I can reassure him about the unfortunate Melville women who had been earlier captured by these Taroolas. They were given the choice of going back to their own people or of following their abductors to the mainland. Those with children took the latter course: and this explains why there are still to be found women from Melville in the Coburg Peninsular, which is Taroola territory. The others rejoined their own people and husbands. To arrive to start a mission on Bathurst Island at so very difficult a time was perplexing and I had to ask myself whether or not I should return to Darwin and there to await less tumultuous days. But no, really: the prospect of such a retreat was too unpleasant to be considered. I preferred to force the hand of Providence by letting Providence know that I intended to land the next morning. Providence would have to protect us.
And so we duly landed the next day and I began by choosing the most suitable position for the house. A position shaded by great trees appeared to be attractive, but for thousands of years, without doubt, this position had been enjoyed by a tangled mass of lianas and parasitic plants and creepers which, in turn, for the same number of years, had been in the undisputed possession of billions of mosquitoes, harvesters (tiny insects with unbearably sharp stings) and green ants.
Travellers in northern Australia will agree that, all things being equal, one should show nothing but abject obedience to the invariable command of the green ant—"Get out!"—when a camp has been inadvertently chosen near a green ant colony. I should imagine a doughty hunter who might deal successfully with lions, tigers, crocodiles and even elephants being quite willing to accept defeat and to retreat before the approach of even two or three small green ants which, he would know, would soon be followed by an army corps. These ants are, perhaps, a quarter of an inch long, but they are without fear as they advance to sting all intruders. The sting is not a violently painful sting, but enough, en masse, to make a pause near the stingers quite intolerable. In my case, the green ants had to be faced and defeated by the destruction of their shelter.
Thus it was that each blow from our tools, as we hacked away the undergrowth, produced showers of green ants which, without hesitation, stung : this constant irritation was varied by the attention of mosquitoes and the harvesters.
Eventually, two natives arrived to help us. They, belonging to a tribe in the north, were somewhat incomplete physically: since one, Tokoopa, was a hunchback and the other, Boolak, had only one eye. But what workers they were when stimulated by the lure of food and tobacco!
Once our piece of jungle had assumed something of the appearance of a promenade, we began the task of assembling the prefabricated house. To begin with, we continued to sleep on board; but not one moment of daylight was wasted.
It took us seven days, as in Genesis, to give our Lord a roof and, on 8th June, 1911, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, I celebrated Mass on Bathurst Island. Was this not a wonderful coincidence?
Our shanty was divided into two parts. One of the rooms served as a temporary chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament kept me company; the other served as office, storeroom and bedroom.
When our boat had been unloaded and all our possessions stored away, I was ready to begin my normal life as a missionary. While the crew continued to return to the boat each evening, I now remained ashore.
My feelings were curious during those first nights—alone and in the midst of a people reputed to be so savage. There was indeed a key to my door, and the door was solidly built; but a solid door carefully locked means very little when imagination takes charge. The brushing of an insect's wing against a wall puts one on the alert as one's nervous system multiplies the mildest and most innocent sounds and, I must confess without false shame, that I was at first well satisfied at dawn to find myself alive. But one gets used to anything; a habit is soon formed, and it was not long before I slept the sleep of the just, without a care.
For quite a time, my only native visitors were Boolak and Tokoopa, the hunchback and the one-eyed man. But soon, here and there, a chimney-sweep's face would appear in the jungle, only to fade away shyly, and as quickly as it had appeared. I was being watched and, most probably, discussed in the hidden depths of the forest. After all, this white man did not look very alarming: no doubt there would be profit made in working for him. Finally, at the end of a month, I was at the head of a good team of men only: neither woman nor child had shown so much as the tip of a nose. This worried me: because until the women felt free to come and go as freely as the men, I knew that full confidence was lacking.
Never mind! The women and children would come in time.
My workers showed no objection to hard work, and it was clear that they appreciated the station food and tobacco. As our relations developed from friendliness almost to the point of familiarity, I began to feel quite at home. There was much work to do as every day some improvement was put in hand and other jobs completed. First we built a kitchen and then, at a little distance, the store. A school followed, and then a church. Building, building, building! Perhaps it is true that one must start from clear bare land before one can realize fully all the idealism that the brain of man can put into that one word—building. We sawed up timber rather at random, without knowing its quality or lasting strength; but we had no doubt about the uses of a broad stringy bark supplied from one variety of tree because this made an excellent roof, a good substitute for sheet iron and a much cooler covering than iron. Our aborigines excelled in the preparation of this bark which, from time immemorial, had served them as the chief raw material for their shelters. Soon a fine village—the natives' joy and pride—adorned Ngouyou.
I mentioned earlier a spring which I had discovered in a swamp at some distance behind the station. We found that while, at a pinch, its water could be used for making tea, its position in the swamp with all the swamp's decaying vegetation made it useless for drinking. The neighbouring creeks were tidal and their waters consequently brackish and tainted with salt; and since their sources were too far distant, our only solution of the problem of finding good fresh water was to dig a well.
There is nothing significant in digging a well, is there? No, perhaps not: but wait, you'll see.
Hardly had we started to scratch the soil before the natives assailed me with questions.
"Why are you digging this hole?"
"I am digging this hole because I want to find water."
"But who told you there was water underneath here?"
"Nobody. I simply know it."
This was a little bold in a well-digger digging a hole anywhere except through a bridge crossing a running stream. I had risked my reputation by the expression of my certainty. If I did not find water, I would lose face. Here a man is judged by his deeds. The shakiness of my reputation at this point was made clear to me by the expression of stupefaction which lit the faces of the natives. What kind of a magician was I?
Meanwhile the hole was getting deeper and deeper; but, suddenly, the gradual descent into the earth stopped when my well-diggers began a discussion as they worked, a discussion which grew in excitement until they finally threw down their tools.
"Hullo, there—what's the matter?"
"We won't go any deeper," they shouted. "Look at that rainbow!" They pointed to a rainbow half spread across the sky. "If we open a way for him, he will come up out of the ground and kill the lot of us!"
As I learnt later, the rainbow is an important spirit in native theogony, a spirit that comes up from the earth at one of its ends to travel across the sky until it can descend to enter the earth at its other end. A deep hole can interrupt the rainbow's journey and the hole-digger can be punished forthwith.
Since nothing I could say would persuade the men to pick up their tools, we were obliged to tackle the job ourselves without help from them. They remained seated, grumbling and sulky, as they watched us work.
"He'll find it——! No, he won't! This queer white man! Look out—if the rainbow gets angry!"
By great good fortune we came upon water at fifteen feet— beautiful fresh water, and the rainbow remained wisely where he was.
This victory, for such it was at a first attempt at well-boring, was a severe blow dealt at the deep-seated convictions of these dark gentlemen; and the result was that they believed we could dig wells when and where we pleased, so steeply did our prestige rise. As the instinct of imitation is innate in man, especially in primitive men, our example was followed when our natives needed fresh water. This, I would say, is the secret of true colonization.
Perhaps we had better say nothing more on this point in case we have all the worthy anthropologists at our heels, especially those who urge us to leave our brothers alone, in effect to permit them to go on degenerating, sunk in their squalor.
To the natives we offered one surprise after another.
Watching us cutting down trees, clearing the land of stumps and turning over wide areas, even acres of soil, they said, "But, Father, why all this work ? You do not want to build here, so what are you doing?"
"Potatoes and fruit will grow here," I explained.
"But," they objected, "they already grow in the forest; there is no need to dig out trees for that."
I went even further and surrounded our garden with a strong fence.
"That," I explained, "is to stop kangaroos, dingoes and our own dogs from eating up our plants. You'll see that we shall have many more potatoes and much-better ones."
They did not believe a word I said. They even went so far, if they were short of fuel, as to take our fence stakes to light their fires. Watching us sowing, they grumbled: "What a pity to lose all this food, these potatoes, yams, and ground-nuts. In the earth they will go bad and be of no use to anybody.” “If," they said finally, "you really want something to eat, sing a song to the spirits, dance a dance, and you'll get all the food you want."
The time of our seed-sowing, apparently, was one of the rare occasions when a song to the spirits was unnecessary: merely an evening leap over our fence to the garden when all our seeds were devoured without more ado—to spare us this frightful waste.
It is sometimes said that the aboriginal is a thief and, on the face of it, the nocturnal consuming of our seed would appear to be larceny. But he is not a thief: he is a practising communist. Everything belongs to all and to each individual, anyone having the right to make use of whatever comes his way. The aboriginal has no objection to one helping oneself from one's own garden; and he will permit one to hunt on his lands. If he is a thief, then so are you, in his eyes.
We were eager to see a garden producing; but, of course, we knew that success was impossible if our tilled land was disturbed before it could offer a harvest. It seemed the last straw to us when they made it plain that, since our vegetable garden had been planted within their territory, it was their property and that, in consequence, anything that grew in it was as much theirs as ours.
Such was their simple logic and, into this, with oceans of patience and tact, we had to try to introduce ours without ever giving up hope. In the long run, the black man will come to realize that the white man is wiser and cleverer than himself, and he will eventually fall in with the latter's ideas.
To maintain health in the tropics, a white man needs a better variety of food than a vegetable garden can offer. Darwin sent us supplies of flour, rice, sugar, tea and other foods; but for perishable food we were dependent upon what the country could offer in the way of kangaroo flesh, birds and fish as well as turtle and crocodile eggs, the last-named being eatable with some discretion: since one cannot be entirely sure what their shells cover, all depending upon the length between their laying and their discovery by the hunters. We found what might be called the native market highly irregular: one day offering large quantities of food and the next nothing whatever. Temporary famine raged occasionally. To regularize this situation we began taking steps to import cows and goats and to establish a model poultry farm.
The sea teemed with fish; but tropical fish are wily and tend to ignore attractive baits no matter how carefully arranged at the end of conventional lines. Perhaps patience, the virtue of all good fishermen, might have been rewarded had we used lines and nets with more determination; but patience, even in a fisherman, is hard to practise in the face of hordes of mosquitoes and harvesters. The natives used spears more or less successfully; but the best results were enjoyed by using baskets left anchored as lobster pots are left, and by other forms of fish trap.
There was no question regarding the adequate fertility of the local soil, and Bathurst could have met all the alimentary needs of the mission station if immense worms, caterpillars, grasshoppers and locusts had not eaten bare shoots; if parrots, crows, flying-foxes and other flying creatures had not pounced on what fruit approached ripening, and if wild dogs had not grown fat on our hens, pigs, goats, and calves. Enemy Number One was the native dog, not the wild dingo common on the mainland, but his descendant, half domesticated and possibly carrying a portion of European dog blood and, in consequence, being given added intelligence. These quite terrible quadrupeds are plentiful, the natives being enormously attached to them because of their great use in hunting. Each native owns five or six. Because the aboriginal never thinks of feeding his dogs, they are very voracious. They made merry amongst our defenceless livestock whenever they and their masters were near the mission station.
Because of their undoubted value to their owners, we were reluctant to kill these dogs; but in defence of our livestock we were, nevertheless, occasionally forced to shoot them. One day I was forced to shoot one who was attacking a goat already wounded. His owner rushed up in fury, demanding the price of his hound.
"But," I protested, "the dog was killing my goat."
"That'll do!" he yelled. "Look, your goat is alive—so pay up!"
I gave him tobacco to get rid of him; and I may say that this was not the only occasion when my inexperience cost me dear.
The attitude of my superiors in Sydney towards the foundation of a mission on Bathurst Island had been one of prudence, a watchful waiting, shall we say: a period during which I was "under observation ". At the end of two months, when the station had assumed shape with what appeared to be the assurance of a prosperous future, they decided that the results of our work appeared to be sufficiently conclusive to warrant their sending the reinforcements I needed in the way of priests, Brothers and Sisters. Also, I had soon the pleasure of regaining the services of Brother Lambert, that German with his fine presence who, it may be recalled, had been my general factotum and an excellent cook at Darwin. .
The first person to join me was Father Regis Courbon, M.S.C.
Born at Saint-Just-Malmont (Haute-Loire), Father Regis was a good specimen of old French stock whose fine face was in harmony with an equally fine and energetic character. The promise he at once gave of being a valuable assistant was amply kept. Incidentally, he had been one of my pupils in Sydney, but at that time I had not dreamt that I was training a future comrade. Thus I had known him for many years and, in consequence, I was no stranger to his lively personality and his-outstanding spiritual and affectionate qualities. Since he had taught in a school before working as a parish priest in Australia, his English was perfect. As a matter of fact, he was one of those lucky people who have the gift of tongues: something of immense importance in our mission work because, as in Papua, there were almost as many dialects here as there were tribes of aborigines, nearly five hundred I have been told, and each dialect more difficult and complex than any other. Thus all the talent for language Father Regis had was sorely needed if we, the first people who wanted to learn these dialects, could hope to succeed.
They have, these dialects, so beautiful a sonority and so wide a voice of variation in their intonation that the same collection of syllables can offer a wide range of meanings. Thus the word Tjuruna in the Aranda dialect has at least a dozen meanings, ranging from the pole which bears the sacred emblems through the mass of legends relating to it.
But, like others who associate with these native peoples, we had to make ourselves understood quickly: and so to begin with we were obliged to use pidgin English, a highly simplified form of English which makes use of much slang, respectable and otherwise, to form a common language and thus to permit white, yellow and black races throughout the Northern Territory to understand one another: in a word, a lingua franca, like that used on the fringes of the ancient Roman Empire.
Our aborigines had some notions of pidgin English, picked up from the buffalo hunters and odd traders: and in this way we were able to communicate with our parishioners although, little by little, we tried to introduce language worthy of that name. Nor was this too difficult: because these people have a keen ear for sounds and they are quick to learn. However, we thought it our duty to study their own native dialects, Father Regis being more successful than anyone else: indeed, he was one of the first white men to grasp the more complex secrets of the native forms of expression.
The aborigines, naturally curious, had shown great interest in Father Regis before his arrival. "Was he tall, or was he short? Where was he born? Who was his mother?" Also the name "Courbon" appealed to them enormously because one of their elders, a fellow with twenty-five wives and thirty-five children, was called Kerepon, both names harmonizing so closely in sound that the natives decided that the expected arrival must be a tribal relation. And indeed the good Father's reception was a triumph, since, apart from the fact that his charm was not a bit affected by his ignorance of the language, his hosts saw that he was tall and could grow a splendid beard. Old Kerepon was so impressed that as a sign of welcome he offered the good Father one of his wives: and although the tact and charm of Father Regis did something to soften a refusal of this gift, the old man was deeply disappointed.
The popularity of Father Regis amongst the natives, something won effortlessly, was extraordinary; and he was never seen without being surrounded by a joyous band. This highly erudite theologian of brilliant intellect had a most inventive turn of mind, especially where hunting, fishing, gardening and other homely pursuits were concerned. Because the young on Bathurst Island differ little from the young everywhere else, whether black or white, the good Father's delightful way of finding new, better and more amusing ways of doing things won the adoration of our children. I have to admit that there was one thing which did not march nearly fast enough for him: and that was the conversion of the natives. I dare not try to imagine what he would have thought had he foreseen that even after thirty years of work we still could not claim one single adult convert,
As it happened, three years of superhuman effort exerted with an all-consuming zeal seriously undermined the health of Father Regis Courbon, and it was found necessary to recall him to Sydney where he was still convalescing when war broke out in 1914. He was mobilized as an interpreter between the British and French armies in Palestine, work which he performed, I know, with his characteristic devotion; but his health never improved enough to permit him to resume missionary work. We met at Issoudun as late as 1947 and, I regret to say, he died shortly afterwards. I console myself with the certainty that our Bathurst Mission remains dear to him in heaven.
the people of Bathurst and Melville islands are fundamentally of the same ethnical group as the natives of the mainland, although there are differences of language and considerable variation in ornaments, weapons and tattoo marks. Also the marriage laws differ. Physically, these island people are rather short and thick-set with crinkly hair, like the Papuans, while the continental people tend to be taller, slimmer and their hair is straight.
Geography is responsible for these differences. The Malayan natives from the clusters of islands large and small to the westward have, from time immemorial, travelled in their canoes from the west to the eastward, returning home with the southeast monsoon. These Malayan sailors in their frail canoes paused for rest and refreshment at the islands on their route, trading with the aborigines by exchanging what they had to offer chiefly for tortoise-shell. In the main, relations were friendly; and since the aborigines had no objection to trading their women, the purity of the island race was inevitably affected. Traces of these Malay travellers survive today in certain words in the language as well as in the type of canoe the islanders use. The island canoes follow the Malayan form in being made from a hollowed-out tree.
The aborigines are strikingly observant, a natural enough development when survival depends on attentive faculties—the necessity for keenness of eyesight and hearing when both must be extremely sharp and selective in the pursuit of game. To see clearly without being seen; to listen and to be silent; to interpret the least obvious of signs; to guess what lies behind the least expressive expression on a man's face—all these highly developed faculties are perfectly natural to them. White men are greatly mistaken in imagining that they may speak without care or discrimination in the presence of "these blackamoors, these scatter-brained over-grown children". The truth is, I can assure them, that these same "scatter-brained over-grown children" will not have missed one of their little absurdities, hardly one of their most fleeting expressions; and during the following evening as they sit around their fires, such will be discussed and gloated over with exquisite attention to detail.
Thus, if a missionary is to guide these people, leading them gently and persuasively towards the Communion of Saints, he cannot be too careful about his personal behaviour, and he should never underestimate their quick intelligence.
The aborigines had had contacts with Christian civilization before we came to Bathurst: with the buffalo hunters, with traders and the other wandering white men who had chanced to come amongst them; but I am certain that it would be better for them to remain faithful to their ancestral faith than to ex-change it for that Christianity. Sincere paganism is better than false Christianity.
We quickly appreciated the fact that we could not teach the natives until we had a common language at our disposal. Christian doctrine must be set out clearly and definitely in simple terms and, so far as these people were concerned, it was clearly necessary that such terms should be those which one might use in teaching big children in whom first impressions tend to remain fixed. If these impressions are wrong impressions, or even if they are confused, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate them at a later date. Thus, before we could offer the Way, the Truth and the Life, we had first to remove the bad impressions left by those least unworthy of a Christian heritage who had associated with the natives before we came: always trying to show ourselves in our own lives, in the purity of our minds and our conduct, to be worthy of our Model when "He began to act and to preach". In our case, priority was given to action.
Our lives were lived in full view of these people; and it is unnecessary to say how fully they exercised their supervisory talents as they observed us. We were so very different from the white men they had hitherto met. Apart from our normal work of missionaries, the work of strangers who had come with no desire either to trade or to confiscate, the austerity of our lives and the isolation we had accepted excited their curiosity. We were unaware of being watched, but we knew that even the least important of our actions was known to the whole tribe. This is not a pleasant way to live; we all like some privacy; but we accepted the fact of living amongst them at the mission station as an excellent way of preaching by example.
It is, in fact, the key to the whole situation, although it may not seem very important. "So," thinks the nomadic native, "it is possible to live otherwise than by galloping eternally behind the dingoes or even the kangaroos."
The aboriginal is not only a keen observer; he is also a clever mimic. He mimes birds and beasts in his songs and dances; everything that has more or less struck his fancy by its strangeness or novelty will awaken in him a desire to attempt the same. Sooner or later, whether it be good or bad, he will attempt to reproduce what he has seen done by others; and because his memory is astonishingly good, he is not unsuccessful. Endless repetition does not bore him; a good story often told remains a good story; and his legends and laments, his ballads and anecdotes, lose nothing in being endlessly repeated around his camp-fire far into the night.
The mission could not really be a residence and a home until we could have the help of Sisters, bringing, as they always do, so much devoted care. They are the real teachers: the mission was an orphan without them.
White people living in settled and secure communities must find it difficult to imagine the poor conditions under which native women live in uncivilized countries: their degradation both morally and physically. The men, their husbands, consider them as inferior beings, little more than beasts of burden who, according to a man's whim, may be cajoled, thrashed, killed or even taken to market to be traded infamously. Clearly the status of our aboriginal women had to be raised before they could respond to Christian teaching. The example of capable and devoted Sisters would be of enormous value to our work, especially amongst the women.
There had been nuns in Darwin for several years, Daughters of our Lady of the Sacred Heart. The Mother Superior, at once accepting our invitation to visit us, unhesitatingly faced the thousand and one discomforts as well as the tedium of a sea journey to us on little more than a raft to make this initial tour of inspection. The Mother Superior, Mother Mary Liguori, who had lived for a long time in Papua, brought with her a plucky Irishwoman who was ready for anything.
Mother Mary Liguori inspected the station in great detail, specifying with great precision what buildings would be required if Sisters were to join us. Sister Dominica from Ireland began at once to collect the urchins around her in masterly fashion and, in a confident tone of voice, to give them a foretaste of the instruction they might receive. This visit was fruitful in effect: it was decided to send us some Sisters. We, therefore, withdrew to a bark hut, leaving for the Sisters our bungalow which, with the addition of a spacious veranda, would make a suitable convent.
The arrival of my colleague had created a sensation; but the news that Sisters would soon come to settle in Bathurst created an excitement which was quite indescribable. The aborigines had indeed been told that white women existed; but up to then they had had no proof, and a white woman remained to them something fabulous. Nor could they understand, at first, what these white women were for. To their primitive minds, a woman served a man, and that was the beginning and the end of it. Consequently, their minds could only accept the thought that the expected Sisters were the wives of the missionaries. When they discovered, which they were, of course, not long in doing, that these ladies, like the gentlemen, lived celibate lives and occupied separate dwellings, their astonishment knew no bounds. As it turned out, they treated the Sisters with natural courtesy and respect, and no one raised so much as a finger, or uttered so much as an unseemly whisper, against them. The example of the Sisters had a profound effect. It is true that the natives had admitted our superiority when compared with themselves; but the Sisters were placed in a different category: they were of another world, angels sent to look after them; and they were given complete confidence. Yes, indeed: our Sisters became the pillars of the station.
As I write these lines, I easily recall that day when in full sail their boat majestically entered the harbour, the climax of days and days spent watching the horizon for the first signs of their approach. There was no noisy demonstration, I recall: none of the usual shouts and yells; an attentive silence, seemingly pregnant with fear and hope, welcomed our new arrivals whose small figures could be seen from the packed beach as their boat approached. The ice, however, was soon broken.
And thus we grew. Indeed, we grew so rapidly that the narrow boundaries of the shore tended to stifle us. Slightly inland, there was a wide wooded plateau and this, we felt, would make an excellent site for town-planning projects. Here we would build a church, a school, a convent and other necessary outbuildings. With the Sisters in charge of the house and responsible for the cooking, the cleaning and other household chores, we could give up our time to architecture.
Architecture may seem rather a pompous term to apply to our simple building; but I refuse to abandon the word and its artistic implication because experience has taught me that strength and solidity do not outrage beauty. Our practical buildings held good against the wind and the rain and their unpolished wood gave them quite a stylish air. When all was completed and the buildings consecrated with great solemnity, the moving started on the strong shoulders of our parishioners.
We had taken this work in our stride, as a missionary must: because all things must be possible to him, as he must strive to be a master of every trade. What he does not know, he must, and does, learn: when practice is added to his heart and good will everything marches very well. Our parishioners were good fellows and excellent labourers even if they were not yet very familiar with what seemed to them the queer tools placed in their hands by the white men: these queer tools which caused so many cuts, bruises and blisters. It was not, of course, revenge which allowed them to treat tools with so little respect, maltreating them shockingly, abandoning them to risk of fire, of rust and of theft by passing thieves. Sharpening remained for long a mystery to them. "Why bother," they asked themselves, "to take care of an axe? Are there not plenty more in the store?" The fact that axes cost money was the very least of their worries.
The girls adapted themselves very easily to household duties and to work on the farm and in the farmyard; but milking puzzled them. They themselves had known no other milk than their mother's and the sight of us sipping our goat's milk amused them very much. They thought us babies when they did not see in this something rather degrading as a new form of drunkenness. "Father," one of them objected, "you drink too much milk. Look, your beard is going quite white."
This attitude of mind towards milk-drinking lasted until the goat-girls began to feel that what might be good enough for the Sisters might be good enough for them. From this thought they went on to helping themselves to half of the milk, making up the loss in normal quantity by the addition of water, a habit not unknown in the outside world when nobody is looking. When a watchful eye from the kitchen had detected this trick and had taken obvious steps to prevent it, the goat-girls said, "Why, these Sisters are even cleverer than the witch-doctors."
Oh, those witch-doctors! What trouble they gave me! However, they are far from exercising on Bathurst the power they claim on the mainland and in New Guinea. The bone-pointing ritual with its accompanying incantations capable of terrifying a victim to the point of wasting his life away is not practised by our islanders. They are unaware of the therapy whereby kidney fat is taken from a living person, knocked senseless for the purpose, who more often than not dies in consequence: this horrible remedy, whose object is the restoration to health of some sick man, is not used on Bathurst.
In our islands, as on the mainland, the spirits hold pride of place. From birth to death, the spirits preside over the lives of the aborigines. Yet curiously, while everybody talks a great deal about the spirits, no one can say exactly what they are. Is it that the tribal laws insist on complete secrecy? In considering that question, it must be understood that native dialects do not lend themselves to metaphysical discussions. There are no words for any subjects taken in a general sense no more than for the expression of supernatural ideas. Everything is material and concrete for the aboriginal. Even their belief in spirits is so loosely expressed that one wonders how precise is their actual thinking about them. They seem to think of spirits as entities which can show themselves and hide themselves at will, who can hear at any distance and leap with lightning-like speed from one given point to another on land, on sea and in the air. These spirits vary in rank as in form. There is the Great Spirit at the beginning of all things; then there are spirits of less importance concerned with natural phenomena and, finally, those spirits who are in, or who are, human souls. They do not hold as certain that the Great Spirit created the lesser spirits, but, they believe, there is no doubt that he created all human souls in one operation, an operation he has not repeated: he has not created any new souls, souls which, apparently, have the quality of spirits because, after inhabiting a human body, they can withdraw to the happy land of dreams for a time. When they have finished dreaming, they return to this earth in human form, alternatively occupying a man or woman. This amounts to a belief in the transmigration of souls. I once met a very serious old chap who claimed that he recalled his former lives.
This worship of spirits is based on fear in the sense that the aborigines believe the spirits to be jealous beings, very exacting masters, who will punish severely if they are not served.
I was never aware of any form of sacrifice; but it does not follow that there is none. There were sacred meetings, dances and prayers; but these appeared to be merely acts of submission or requests for material benefits. The Great Spirit, they claim, is the supreme legislator of the tribe, the director of changeless customs and usage, who must be obeyed to the letter. The lesser spirits, on the same level as the totem, have the right to be honoured with special ceremonies. These lesser spirits preside at initiations, guarding the tribe's secrets and concerning themselves with the production of a special food of which they are the guardians.
The ritual surrounding death has importance. It begins with deafening cries and lamentations and goes on with the flowing of blood and of tears until the funeral when, after a day or two, the body is placed in a narrow tomb which is covered with bark and stones as a precaution against wild dogs. Because the soul of the dead person is believed to prowl around the tomb until the end of the mourning period, which lasts six months, no one dares to approach its immediate area, since the dead person would seem to have become malignant and might attack a trespasser. The name of the dead person dies with him and will no longer be used, because it has become taboo.
The actual funeral is a terrifying spectacle. Each mourner behaves like a maniac, howling, beating his breast and inflicting horrible wounds on himself with his spear, his knife and hatchet. Men tear out their beards and fling the hairs on the tomb in sign of deep mourning and, often enough, the whole performance ends in a fight as one totem attacks another. Since members of the same totem are not necessarily members of the same tribe, the result is that friends attack friends and brothers strike brothers.
But however we proceed, our attitude must always try to be one of friendly co-operation and, fortunately, there are many opportunities for this. Many jobs which have to be done can easily be undertaken by native labour; but the work marches well when it can be offered to them as a kind of game at which all may play who wish. God loves gracious gifts, and so do our natives; and if your gifts to them are spontaneous and they see that, you become one who has put them under an obligation, a benefactor, but never a master. This cannot be emphasized too much. If they realize you are helping them, the cause is won; but it is fatal ever to attempt to play "the boss because authority is constitutionally repugnant to them and they will always refuse to recognize it. Order and discipline are necessary in a mission as in any enterprise; and this is not less so because the foundation of a mission rests on love, love for those it tries to serve; but all depends upon the way discipline is enforced. It can be enforced only with persuasion and discretion.
And above all one must be just. As I have already said, these poor creatures have an innate sense of fair play and they expect one to keep one's word. Thus they have the utmost contempt for liars and cheats and, it must be admitted, their loyalty to a deserving neighbour is, as a rule, above reproach. Thus one must never promise anything which cannot be guaranteed, as one's word must always be honoured. By following these simple rules difficulties can be avoided.
When the aboriginal sees the missionary not only giving material help but also plainly giving of himself without reserve, he is astonished. It is true that mutual help is not unknown to him, but it is seldom really disinterested. Its object is the good of the clan which, because of it, will prosper in power—better self-defence which, in effect, means better ways to attack. The missionary can expect no reward for his devotion. The aboriginal, realizing this, will, it is to be feared, think his kindness nothing more than stupidity.
I was fortunate enough to find an entry to their lives through the door of the medical service as I followed the precept of our Lord : "Heal the sick." Also it opened a way to their souls.
As a matter of fact the race, as a whole, is healthy, being free of the ills that afflict us. Apart from colds, their maladies seem largely confined to skin affections. Despite what may be said by native charlatans whose outcries mask what is only trickery, their remedies hardly exist in practical form. At any rate, they soon saw that our remedies were much better than theirs; and so they came running to us directly they suffered the slightest hurt. This gave us a chance to practise our much advocated patience and charity; because these anarchists were not concerned with surgery or dispensary hours of opening and shutting: any hour of the day or night was the right one to get treatment. We might never attempt to put them off until the next day because, we knew, they would never return.
Because they could not easily dissociate medical treatment from magic—and, of course, magic is not concerned with time if it is really good magic—they expected our medicine to cure on the instant. They would be perfectly content with "just one dose". In the case of a burn, for example, it was enormously difficult to get them to return for a fresh dressing. On an occasion like this a little temptation has to be offered in the promise of tobacco. Frequent and necessary treatment permits them to decide that they are doing you a great favour by submitting to it and that, in consequence, a tip is indicated.
Our first-aid kit was nothing very much; indeed it could only be called rudimentary; but its service was inestimable. How could it have been otherwise?
It replaced to a large extent strange treatment: blood-letting for instance, their greatest standby in medical treatment. In a serious case of neuralgia or even rheumatism, the witch-doctor bleeds the patient by making numerous cuts near the affected part with a pointed shell, a sharpened stone, an old razor-blade or, more recently, with a broken bottle. This they believed to be a sovereign remedy and, of course, it could have what advantages there are in counter-irritants. For wounds, a little human milk diluted with urine is prescribed. For fainting? The best thing to do with fainting is to press your two thumbs with all your strength under the patient's ears and he will soon come round shouting. Snake bites can be met by an extravagant use of ligatures and cuts along the whole length of the limb affected without any attention being paid to the actual snake punctures. Have you got toothache? All right: we'll soon cure that—by applying a red-hot coal which kills the nerve without more ado. Finally, to cure a suppurating ear, call upon the good offices of a maggot.
And thus ten years passed in spade-work, because that is all I may call this period. True, babies had been baptized, the first blossoms, the guardian angels of the tribe. Several old men, too, had asked for baptism in articulo mortis. We had, indeed, one hundred names on our register.
"Poor Father," some would say, "you are wasting your life, your time and your money." But in my heart of hearts I was not dissatisfied with this second best. Because, even amongst the adults, so heavily entrenched in their traditional beliefs, we knew we had had some influence. Fear and suspicion had been replaced by confidence and friendship in the belief that, after all, these white men were not worthless. If it was not yet conversion, it was already an exchange of civilities.
I did not forget that preaching could, in effect, assume varied forms: that standing talking from a pulpit was not the only way when one was faced with a stone wall tightly cemented with ancient laws and customs which were incompatible with Christian practice. I had to discover a weak spot in the wall, and this was not easy. I had, on the face of it, as little chance of weaning one or more individuals from this deep-rooted ancient cult as I had of converting the whole tribe, so fettered were all by traditions. For instance, in my whole career as a missionary on Bathurst Island, I never met a native who, while openly respecting Christianity and even aspiring to it, had the courage to dismiss his wives. "Who will feed me?" demanded an old man one day when I was explaining to him this sine qua non. And I could see his point of view was quite logical. Decrepit and weak, he would have starved without his young and flourishing wives to look after his material needs.
And so far as proselytizing amongst the women was concerned, how can you hope to convert creatures who are deprived of all freedom? They are, in fact, born married; and always belong to a man: but I shall explain this more fully later. If they ran away from their man, they would run to certain death. Young boys are not more approachable. Even though a boy has not reached the age of initiation and, in consequence, is not recognized as a member of the tribe, he already belongs to the tribe and not to his parents. He is watched by the leaders and woe betide him if he tries to escape when he reaches the age of puberty. I knew of several cases where young men took the risk by remaining in the employ of white men; but long afterwards, when one would have imagined that their existence was forgotten, the spy service of the tribal elders laid hold upon them. Those who succeeded in living through the unimaginable tortures were fortunate.
Mass conversion was impossible; individual conversion, impossible; the conversion of the women, impossible; the conversion of the children, impossible . . . What then? Was I to fold my hands until the Last Judgment?
The answer being a decided negative, because inaction is not in my nature, I decided to set about the business in another way. The breach in the native defences, if breach there was, had to be found amongst the adolescents; and it had to be found in the teeth of the bogey of initiation.
The men who came to the mission, perhaps merely out of curiosity, became more and more familiar with our ways and, finding us friendly, they began bringing their wives and children. At first, at the end of these visits, the entire household marched off together; but gradually a habit was formed of allowing the children to remain with us. These little ones were enormously interested in everything as this unsuspected world opened before their eyes—buildings that were built to last more than a few days, the gardens that produced fruit at our command, and the strange mysteries that might be hidden in the church and school. It wasn't half bad at Ngouyou. It was better than in the forest. Now, as these children thought, if only one could live here; but, of course, the elders would have to give permission, and they would never agree: it was too unusual and unheard of. Perhaps the missionary could do something. Why should he not? He is good and he is powerful . . . "Father, help us: the elders frighten us so that we must obey them. Speak to them!"
I took the opportunity. If I failed, I should only have wasted my eloquence and, in view of the friendly feeling so quickly developing, I had my chance.
I temporized a little, watching the expression of the elders, awaiting the right moment. One day they seemed to be in good temper and I approached them.
"Do you not think," I asked, "that the ways of the missionaries are worth as much as yours, even more?"
"But yes—certainly: it is a pity that we cannot adopt the ways of the missionaries."
"For you, yes, it is difficult; but what about the boys? There are amongst them some who want to be Christians, but this they cannot be because they are faced, by you, with the necessity of initiation. They cannot be pagans and Christians at the same time. Will you not let them be free to choose?"
I was asking them to swallow an immense morsel; but I had caught them at short notice and I could not expect a quick reply. There would have to be much talking, which you might call a Council of State.
And indeed there was much talking, in every corner; and the discussions were long drawn out, because they did not wish it to appear that they would accept out of hand. There were debates and discussions; objections were raised, and even propaganda directed towards those who wanted to join us.
"You," the old men urged on the young people, "will be outcasts; evil spirits will lay hold of you; perhaps you will be struck down—who knows?—and perhaps you will be killed——"
But the children held out. The spirits, after all, no longer frightened them; and as for the loss of their civic rights, they felt they would be more than compensated by their membership of the Christian community.
They won. This success was a major one, believe me. A revolution if ever there was one! My proselytes were given further religious instruction and they were baptized in the church at Bathurst Island.
Oh, it is true that as yet this was only a small group; but a start was made and an impetus was given so that the group rapidly grew in number and in fervour as our children' were allowed to complete their instruction under our protection. We offered no objection to their accompanying their parents for holidays—walk-abouts—in the forest. Nobody, it must be admitted, ever tried to entice them away from their Faith; indeed, the elders assured them that they had definitely excluded themselves and that, even if they begged for re-integration, this would be refused. I will not go so far as to say that my boys were angels—what boy is?—but not one of them renounced the Faith.
Emboldened by this success with the boys, I turned my attention to the girls. If I could succeed with them, I should be laying the foundation of the Christian family: which, of course, has vital importance.
But everything was very different with the girls: because for countless ages tribal tradition has placed them in a very different position from the boys.
The traditional matrimonial system deprived females a priori of the right to have any say in their future. Each young man had allotted to him by the tribe what amounted to a mother-in-law, not a wife in the first place, as one might have imagined. This arrangement resulted in all the female offspring of the mother-in-law being the young man's wives from the moment of their birth, an arrangement which resulted in the young man perhaps being over thirty before he could marry. It took me a long time to appreciate this topsy-turvy regulation and thus to understand the oddities which struck me when I first arrived, how, for instance, it came about that little girls who had hardly reached puberty (ten or twelve years old) belonged to a husband who was so much older. Of course, if a mother-in-law had no daughters, or while what daughters she did have were unmarriageable, the young man remained a bachelor although not necessarily for the rest of his life; because native law permitted him to have several mothers-in-law and thus, in time, he could accumulate a respectable harem. It naturally followed that the older a man got the more wives he might have: indeed, he might have as many as twenty-five. I know one who still lives with his twelve young wives like a pasha.
Thus, to become a widower amongst our aborigines was impossible; because short of a violent epidemic, a massacre, or theft on the grand scale, it would be impossible to remove all a man's wives. And, of course, he can always hope that his mothers-in-law will replace any losses. If he dies, his wives pass automatically to his nearest relation: his brother, perhaps his cousin, or even his uncle. In addition, a man's mothers-in-law pass to these, his heirs. Not the slightest detachment is shown in these processes even by old men: they carefully count the daughters of their mothers-in-law and claim their rights. At the same time, the woman always knows on the one hand that she is the chattel of a particular man, her husband, and that, on the other hand, her daughters are born married to her son-in-law.
I noticed in the islands that there were marriages between half-brothers and half-sisters. This could never happen on the mainland where the totem is handed down through the father while, on the islands, it passes through the distaff side. In consequence of the totem being the only nullifying impediment, consanguinity does not worry them in the slightest because it derives from mothers belonging to different totems.
It was always to me a sad sight to see these poor little mites of from eight to ten years becoming the playthings of old greybeards whose other, older wives, too often made them drudges while he, himself, thought nothing of making them the object of shameful trading. While there was constant supervision and spying, there was not the slightest respect for innocence or for any appeal these children might make. The slightest prank was followed by a beating, a punishment fully approved of in the eyes of the tribe.
Nevertheless, little by little, these girls, so jealously guarded, managed to establish friendly relations with the Sisters. When, eventually, they were allowed to make short stays at the Mission, something that pleased them very much, hope grew in my heart; but when all seemed to be going well with a particular girl, some old chap would emerge from the forest to claim her as his prey. With tears in her eyes, she would leave us.
Of course, she would come back; but each time she, and others in their turn, were taken away, their fate was like a cruel stab from a dagger.
Must this go on for ever? I asked myself. The present was surely overcast and the future hidden in mist. Well, it was up to God to act. His time had come.
little Martina belonged to the Maolas tribe and she came from the north of the island. An intelligent, lively little girl and quite clever at small tasks, she was not, perhaps, distinguished from other little ones about the mission. No one could suspect, not the good Sisters, not I—not anyone—that Martina, a name we had given her because her own was not easy to pronounce—that Martina was, indeed, a little guide sent by the good God to show us a way through the gloom ahead whereby we might now march well, well guided by this little one, Martina, a heroine of events which allowed me to change the lives of herself and many of her sisters.
There came to me a hairy anonymous man who said, "I have come to fetch my wife."
"And who is your wife?" I asked.
"That one," he said; and he pointed to Martina.
Nothing could be done, I knew. No one might challenge the law of the tribe. No one had ever thought of doing so. Martina, not yet baptized, must go with this hairy, anonymous man and be lost in the sad company of the tribal women, slaves, owned body and soul by the men of the tribes. One might not try to persuade, to beg a reprieve for this bright little one whom we loved. Our love might reach to where the forest began and then be lost in its gloom; the light we had tried to direct towards little Martina would be darkened for ever; and we must try still to direct that light on other little ones and with the same ending—the slaves of other hairy, and sometimes aged, anonymous men of the tribes.
But now a most extraordinary thing happened. Martina said, "No, I will not go with that man."
I am astonished, and to myself I say, "But the little one may not resist the tribal law. It is terrible, but she must go with this man and I, can I help her? Can I fight this man with my hands? Can I resist a strong custom of these people? I cannot. Yes, Martina must go."
But now Martina comes near me and as her little fingers clutch my cassock she cries, "Oh, help me, Father. Do not let me go. I do not want to go with this old man who is ugly. Please, I want to stay at the Mission, and then I will be a Christian. Please, Father, let me stay!"
There is nothing I can do, nothing. I had always found it very hard to part with these little ones when men came to claim them. Now it is harder; it is harder because of Martina's courage. Also, she appeals to me for help, but what can I do for the poor child?
"Martina," I say, "you must know that if I try to keep you here, this man can make very much trouble for you and, yes, for the Mission. And so you must go; you must go, because the law says that you must go. Yet pray, Martina, because God can save you. Only God can help you."
And so the little one accepts her fate and, trying to stifle her sobs, she goes with that man to begin a life which, I know, has less joy than that of the lowest beasts of the forest. The incident passes; there is yet no sign of the palest glimmer of light on the lot of Martina and all of her sisters.
But in five days' time Martina is back. The man has taken her to his district, more than forty miles from the Station; but she has not marched willingly, nor on arrival amongst his own people and, doubtless, other wives, does she show that submission a woman must show. She has resisted her man and he has driven a spear into her leg to drive a right spirit into her small body; and then, when it was dark, she has escaped and, despite the gash in her leg, she has come swiftly back to the Mission.
It is easy for that man, her husband, to know the direction of her flight; but to him and his tribal family this small revolt is a big revolution : a woman has left her man, her master, and so the relatives gather together and, working themselves up with shouts and yells as they put on their war paint and get ready their spears and knob-kerries, they march to the Station to recapture the rebel whether dead or alive.
In the meantime at the Station, Martina, well aware of the enormity of her flight, is m a state of terror. I can see her wary eyes watching the forest, ready to detect the slightest movement of the leaves; and her ears are pricked to catch the faintest sound.
It is evening, and they come—an ugly mob of muttering, gesticulating tribesmen—and they are at the Mission gates. Martina is in my arms; she believes, poor little one, that I can save her. But it is not possible.
I am deeply distressed and call on God to help; yet I smile and welcome these men in whose hands is the fate of Martina. With me, yes, she is safe for, perhaps, only minutes. I must gain time because I know that once she is in the hands of these men a life begins for Martina that is the life of a lost one. Yet I smile disarmingly because these men must think I am unaware of what they want. I show sympathy and commiseration; and it is true they are tired and hungry.
"You," I said, "have come a very long way: and so you are very tired. And, also, you are very hungry. But come, you are welcome and there is flour and tobacco for you. You must eat your fill and smoke pipes; and then it will be dark and you shall sleep and find rest: because you have come a very long way."
I hear myself, and I am a hypocrite: because I am as one gladly welcoming honoured guests and yet, in my heart, I am saying, "You will take away the little one who has called to me for help," But I must gain time.
I say gaily, "The morning will come and then I will talk with you, and in the morning you will tell me why you have come."
They are tired and hungry, these men; and they eat their fill, and they smoke, and then they sleep.
But I do not sleep. There is a crisis. If I can find some way of winning Martina's freedom, then, perhaps, there will be freedom for other little ones. And now, and this is strange, I believe I will not fail; and I will not see failure. I will save Martina, and so I will save other little ones who come to me.
But I must look at this problem and consider it carefully from every point of view. I pray; I pray that God, now, will guide me so that I may find a way. There comes to me an idea. I will buy Martina from these men. But this is not the custom. For payment—tobacco, flour, calico—they will lend Martina to any unscrupulous brute who may desire her; but they will lend her only; they will not sell her. There is no question, ever, of giving up a woman who is useful as exchange for tobacco, flour, tins of meat and pots of sweet treacle.
Yet I must try. It can cost me nothing to try, and I must not fail.
Now I proceed with great cunning. On a long table in front of the Mission House, I carefully set out much which can attract these men who are now sleeping while I make arrangements. On the table I place a good blanket, a sack of my best flour, a good sharp knife, a hatchet of good-quality steel, a mirror, a handsome teapot, some gaily coloured beads, a pipe and some good tobacco, some yards of brightly patterned calico, some tins of meat and pots of treacle. It is all worth perhaps two pounds sterling at this time. It is a stall at a bazaar; or, better, it is a gaily furnished table at a street market; and it is I who will be the merchant. The price I must have for my merchandise is to me a high one; tribal custom, often so inexorable, makes the price these sleeping men must pay when they awaken a high one; but my table carries for them untold riches. As a good merchant I must not seem eager to sell my wares. I, the clever merchant, will sell, yes, if I must sell; but my customers must please themselves and if they do not buy, the goods are mine still. They must please themselves. No line must be seen on the hook that holds the bait; no fisherman is waiting to draw home a catch. I am nonchalant, I, the street trader, with my table laden with good things. And still I pray; and I may not sleep.
My guests are early risers and I, hidden behind a fence, yet seeing all, watch them approach. I am anxious, I must watch their faces as they come near. It is interesting. At once they see my stall and they crowd near it chattering like monkeys, gazing at my merchandise longingly. They are now street urchins with their noses pressed up against a shop window full of pastries, sweets and all that a hungry child loves. And now their eyes are gleaming. They are trembling with desire. The bait is working.
I will not hurry, and yet I am eager to sell my wares. I wait a little while and then, drawing myself up to my full height, I advance with majesty. I am a great man, and I must look like a great man. With condescension, I greet them as I say, "Ah, good morning, my friends. And how are you all this morning? You have slept well?"
My grandeur is ignored. To them, I am not there: because they cannot drag their eager eyes from my table laden with what seems untold riches to them. This is very good, I think; but my rich collection is not only to be looked at: they must buy, but they must not know my price yet, my price that is Martina's life and, I think, Martina's soul. And always I pray because I know that while these men will sell without hesitation the little one's soul, their powerful tribal laws will not easily part with her body.
"Ah," I now say lightly, "I see these little things of mine please you. You would, perhaps, like to have them to take away with you?"
"Very much," they say as they now look up and see me. "Very much," they repeat, gazing at me with uncertainty in their eyes, suspecting that, perhaps, I am playing some kind of trick on them. "But, we are poor people, very poor people, with nothing to offer so that we may buy."
I laugh in a friendly way. "Indeed," I say, "I know you are poor people, that you have nothing to give in return for—look at this fine bag of flour, this knife, this hatchet, this calico——" And item by item I show my wares, trying to gain time: because the crisis is approaching and I must come to the point and know the worst, or the best.
Finally, I say carelessly as I hide my deep anxiety, "It is all very easy for you : you may have everything—everything : the calico, the flour, the tobacco; and look at this nice pipe, and here is a teapot and there is sweet treacle in pots. All is yours to take away with you but, in return, you must let me have the girl you have come for."
The men are struck dumb with astonishment, and a deep and significant silence follows as they gaze at each other with open mouths. Then for a few moments they gaze at my, now, unsmiling face : so that they know I am deeply serious. Again, their eyes return to my table. Clearly, they are tortured by overwhelming desire to possess such riches; but my price, as I well know, is one they fear to pay.
With a perfect appearance of an assurance I am far from feeling, I say carelessly, "Of course, you must please yourselves; but that is the price, and I shall not bargain with you. You must make up your minds one way or the other."
They begin a discussion in low, urgent tones, each man turning eagerly to his neighbour. They are on the horns of a dilemma, I know. The sale outright o£ the girl is in direct opposition to their tribal customs which have the force of law; and they can be severely punished by their tribal elders if they make this bargain. Above all, and this counts for most, they may win the enmity of spirits who can play them unfriendly tricks. On the other hand, would they, they ask themselves, be wise to let such a windfall slip by?
The discussion in low, inconclusive whispers seems to me interminable, but at last their leader turns to me and says that since I raise so serious a question, nothing can be decided until they have gone into council. I understand that formal proceedings will begin at once; and so I leave them to themselves while I watch and pray.
As I watch from a distance, I see that the problem is indeed a knotty one. They are wrangling as they gesticulate, evidently twisting and turning over the matter and considering it from every possible angle in an effort to solve the problem of how to have a piece of cake and to eat it too—to gain those tempting goods so seductively spread out on my table and yet to salve their consciences in this defiance of tribal customs. Will they, I wonder anxiously, eventually find a way of solving their difficulty, some way whereby they may sell the girl to me in exchange for my goods and still be able to placate their living elders, old, powerful men as frightening as the ever-present spirits who also take a malignant interest in law-breakers.
Although the council seems to sit interminably, at last it ends and now there comes to me that hairy anonymous old man who claimed Martina as his wife, quite justly according to native law. His face seems slit from ear to ear in a grin as he approaches.
"Everything is good," he declares happily. "We sell the girl, but there is a condition: you must keep her for yourself always; she must not be passed on to any other man."
This condition, a fig-leaf to cover their shame before the higher ghostly powers, seems not a hard one to me although I do not accept it, something their eagerness to possess the goods allows them to ignore, for I merely say, "I am glad you decide to sell. Take everything, and I'll take the girl."
And so, chattering happily in a wild state of excitement and joy, these men go off with their rich prizes while the price I am given in exchange, little Martina, withdraws with the good Sisters and, for my part, the sight of her happy, smiling face is worth a hundred times the amount of trouble and money my first appearance in the market-place cost me.
Martina remained at the Mission and became, in due course, a good and devoted Christian—a gentle, sweet and charitable soul. When, at last, she reached marriageable age she was perfectly at liberty to accept, or to refuse, any of the young pupils of her own age at the Mission School. This was something no young native woman in that part of the country had ever been able to do before. She chose an excellent young man from amongst our pupils, pretty well her own age. If the courtship differed somewhat in form and finesse from what might be an inherited art amongst European young couples, it was no less effective. With my permission and my blessing, their marriage was solemnized as impressively as we could possibly make it.
Martina thoroughly understood the meaning of Christian marriage, freely accepting monogamy and convinced of the permanency of the marriage tie. Her marriage, a happy one, was blessed with five children, three boys and two girls. Incidentally, we heard nothing more from the hairy anonymous gentleman who had first claimed her and who had, unconsciously, started a train of events which, in effect, were of great benefit to our work.
We could not forget, even if we had wanted to forget while working amongst these native peoples, that both Martina and her husband were Australian aborigines, born to a nomadic life, at home in the forest through which they might wander at their own sweet will, a forest which spoke sometimes harshly, sometimes gently, to a consciousness inherited from countless generations of nomads like themselves. There might be days of some want; but these would be followed by days of plenty when game was not scarce or hard to hunt and it would all count up to an average of adequacy. It was, in effect, their life.
And so Martina, her husband and her little children, followed this way in perfect contentment for most of the year, returning to what they called their Father's house to spend a few months with us.
They had been married for some years when, one day, they returned, but, I noticed, without their daughter Elizabeth, a child of six. They usually approach the Mission Station in a state of great excitement and joy; but now, and it soon became clear from their downcast appearance, something was seriously wrong. Elizabeth had been forcibly taken from them by a man of their tribal family.
"It is the tribal custom," Martina explained midst her tears, "that all baby girls are given a son-in-law who will be the husband of all her daughters. When I was a little girl, I was given a son-in-law; and this son-in-law, now a young man, came to us in the forest; and, although I protested, telling him that we were now Christians to whom tribal law did not apply, it was useless. The young man was strong and he had many friends to help him. We could not stop them from taking Elizabeth away."
As can be well imagined, I was horrified when I heard this story and I decided at once that, come what may, Elizabeth would be saved. She had been baptized, and she belonged to Christ. She should not remain in the hands of pagans. Without any hesitation, I told Martina and her husband to return to the forest and at all costs to bring little Elizabeth back to the Mission.
I understood that she had been taken to a place more than fifty miles distant and I was, therefore, prepared to wait some time. However, I was not prepared to wait the two years I had to wait during which, imagining all kinds of disasters, I had almost given up hope of ever seeing not only Elizabeth but her parents. They had been asked to fly in the face of an old native custom and the penalties, I knew, could be severe.
But happily, one fine day, my gallant protegee returned, followed by her small daughter Elizabeth. It had not been easy to recapture Elizabeth; it had demanded much determination and persistence before an opportunity could be found to carry her off.
So much to the good, but only so much. I was well aware that the tribal family, thus robbed of what it considered an undoubted right, would react swiftly, and that I might now await a sequel, following a tribal uproar, in which the whole tribe in war paint and armed to the teeth would bear down on the Mission. They would be met by a point-blank refusal to give up the child; but what would then happen?
God alone knew. I did not. But following my invariable custom in moments of supreme difficulty, I turned to Him for light and guidance.
As it turned out, nothing whatever happened. But yes, the enraged tribe, even while I prayed, were bearing down on the Mission determined to win back little Elizabeth; but on the eve of the day of decision, Martina's son-in-law—it is difficult to give him another name—a young and vigorous man, died suddenly. Elizabeth was saved.
Was this chance or Providential intervention? A missionary has strange experiences of this kind too often to permit him to regard them as anything less than something larger than life. God sustains His servants and, knowing this, they are strengthened in well-doing. It is true: the hand of God is tangible; its firm grasp can be felt.
One lives and learns; and this alarming incident taught me, and I was dismayed, that the unborn daughters of all the girl children I had purchased as I had purchased Martina from the hairy anonymous gentleman were not included in the sales contract. Their husbands had undoubtedly surrendered all, but their very difficult sons-in-law retained a strong tribal right to their female little ones when such should appear. But I am not one who is caught twice in the same trap. From then on, whenever I engaged in this novel form of black slave traffic, I saw to it that, for an appropriate consideration, the son-in-law as well as the husband surrendered all rights.
We may now bid farewell to Martina. She remained faithful to the end and was always a credit to the Mission and to her Church; but was I right in regretting that God did not spare her even more suffering? Perhaps I was wrong. Christ offered her a share of His cross. One after the other, she lost her three little sons to whom she was deeply devoted and, towards the end of her days, she was smitten with a form of leprosy. She was, of course, taken into the lepers' hospital run by the Sisters she loved so much; but despite all the care and tenderness they were glad to show her, her condition did not improve and, finally, she gave up her soul to God. Not long before she died, she asked for me; but, alas, I was then away on a journey and I was not able to see her. We placed a cross at the head of her grave on Channel Island and there she now awaits a glorious resurrection. And thus passed Martina, the little guide sent by the good God to lighten our way through the gloom. And because of Martina's courage, our work greatly prospered.
She was followed by many other little ones. From the time of her rescue in 1921 up to the year 1938, one hundred and fifty little girls followed the same bizarre process. They all retained their native status, but in the unwritten records of the tribe, they were all entered as my wives. A Man of God with one hundred and fifty wives is indeed something of a rarity; but I am, it is true, taking some liberty with the word "wife".
Amongst the aborigines of Australia a "wife" in the sense we attach to the word does not exist. To use it is, perhaps, to create some confusion. The man is the absolute master of his aboriginal family in a very real sense, much more so, as I understand it, than amongst peoples who practised, or practise, polygamy nearer home. He is the owner of the women in his family, in no sense a husband in a European sense. The women are his chattels, his slaves, and merely part of his movable possessions, items of property amongst other items. He has the power of life and death over his women, and he may treat them precisely as he likes. In buying these little ones, I became their owner, according to tribal law, with the same rights which had been enjoyed by their vendors. It was admitted without hesitation by the aborigines that no one had the right to take them from me.
Amongst the aborigines, a woman is born "married", and from the moment of her birth she belongs, as a chattel, to her mother's son-in-law who has been appointed as such by the tribe. It was from these sons-in-law that I bought the little girls, not from their fathers.
As I have explained, my strange and paradoxical measure was adopted on the spur of the moment, if one can so describe something which had the effect of giving a great fillip to our work. It seemed to me that I was commanded by grim necessity when little Martina rebelled and called to me, in her helplessness, for aid. Obeying the Divine command, "Suffer the little children to come unto Me", in so isolated and remote a corner of Australia should, on the face of it, hardly have mattered to, or even concerned, people in the outside world; but missionaries, obeying a wider Divine command, are open to thoughtless attack by those who know little of missionary work.
The story of the Catholic missionary buying "wives" by the score spread throughout the country and even farther afield. I was called upon to give an explanation to the authorities.
Happily, the Commissioner for the Northern Territory was that Dr Gilruth I have already mentioned; and I knew I could count upon his sympathy and understanding because he shared with me the desire to do everything possible to improve the miserable conditions under which the aborigines lived, with considerable emphasis on the lot of the native women. I told him my story, in essentials very much as I have told it here, and he agreed that I had hit upon a way, not less excellent through its simplicity, of laying a good foundation which could mean a gradual improvement in the lot of native women.
"Carry on, Father," he said. "You're on the right track and you can count on my backing."
Thus, when the alarming telegram arrived from Canberra with the ominous request, or command, "Please explain purchase of women", the Commissioner himself was able to do all the necessary explaining and without difficulty he obtained the nihil obstat of the Government.
To buy children is not like buying coconuts. I had to be tactful and to show much care in making my strange bargains. A child will live much longer than a coconut, and she will grow: and there is responsibility for her training and, indeed, for her health and wellbeing. And then the actual business of concluding the bargain required circumspection. Too direct or forceful measures were not possible with these people; and I had to avoid any kind of pressure or over-persuading. Eagerness shown by me might see a husband, for so we must call him, change his mind and decide not to part with a child. It was nearly always, with some rare exceptions, that I first waited for a native to approach me; and to some proposals I showed a deaf ear. My cautious and reserved attitude had the effect of never permitting the aborigines to regret their transactions with me and, it is fair to say, they never tried to recover the little girls they sold to me.
Never? Well, hardly ever. There was the native called Sam who came to me one day to sell me his little wife whose name was Helen. All went well and the bargain was concluded happily. Sam made no attempt to renounce the contract while Helen was a child; but when she became a young woman he went to her and said that since he had sold her to the good Father, he would not, of course, attempt to take her away for himself. He went on to say, however, that his brother had determined to have her and that, willy-nilly, his brother would take her.
Greatly distressed and in tears, Helen came to me to tell her story. I reassured her,
"Helen, my child," I said, "you belong to no one, not even to me. You are a free woman, and that man has no power over you whatever. There is nothing whatever to worry about. If this brother tries to molest you, you must come to me. I will help you."
In due course, she came to me—to say that she had decided to marry Sam's brother after all. He had threatened to kill her if she did not marry him and, what distressed Helen most, he said he would kill everyone else in the Mission. Perhaps it was that Helen was impressed by this fierce determination; perhaps she knew Sam's brother; I do not know; but it turned out that Sam's brother proved to be a good fellow and Helen never had any cause to regret her decision which, at the time, was a sacrifice on behalf of the Mission and the abandoning of other apparently more promising matrimonial prospects.
When the men of the tribe understood just what was involved in the sale of their girl children to me, when they saw how these girls were treated with never an attempt to wean them from what was good and wholesome in their native way of life, and when they saw that at a marriageable age they were perfectly free to marry young men of the tribe, all doubts and lingering fears were abandoned and I began to receive so many offers of "wives" that I became embarrassed and I was forced to limit my business.
Upon one occasion, a young man came to me to sell a small girl who was not more than four years old. There were limits to the numbers I might take, and I was compelled to refuse.
To soften this refusal, I said, "She is, perhaps, all you have. Later you may regret having parted with her."
"I shan't, Father," he said firmly. "I now go to work in Darwin and I cannot take her with me. While I am away, someone will steal her. So," he begged, "will you please buy her?"
I agreed, and the bargain was concluded. Years passed and the exiled returned from Darwin, still a bachelor, while his former little wife had grown up into a very pretty and well-educated young lady: something he observed with great appreciation because he promptly offered me no less a sum than fifteen pounds, quite a fortune to an aboriginal, to buy her back.
"Listen, my friend," I said, "it is true that I buy women, but I do not sell women. This girl is free. If she wants you, it is good; if she does not want you, then for you it is, perhaps, bad: but there is nothing I can do even if I wanted to."
To give this man his due, he accepted philosophically what must have seemed to him a strange situation and went away without-more ado.
We had, obviously, to establish a school for my so-called wives. This presented no difficulty; but when they began approaching marriageable age, their future had to be considered and opportunities given to them to get to know the native boys attending the Mission boys' school, kept separate because we had never considered as practical any form of co-education. Without knowing the boys, our girls would not be able to make a free and intelligent choice when considering marriage. Of course, that sounds perfectly reasonable but, in fact, to our people this was a fantastic and most extraordinary innovation. In the bush there are no engagements, there is no courtship. When the time comes there is merely an automatic transfer from the mothers of girls to their "sons-in-law".
The change we instituted was revolutionary to our young charges and, at first, they hardly knew what to do about it nor how to behave themselves. No one had ever seen a native boy talking to a native girl and, it is true, our young people were much too shy to get beyond making sheep's eyes at each other to express what they felt. However, shyness and timidity gradually wore off, and sometimes there would be some older, matronly females willing to act as go-betweens (with the most honourable intentions of course) and to act as post-offices.
It would be absurd for me to claim that true Christian love played a big part in these outpourings. In missionary work it is always well to bear in mind that a first native Christian generation remains inevitably, perhaps naturally, saturated with the sensuality it inherits from countless ancestors. The delicate blossom of conjugal love as we know it can develop only very slowly and gradually. Undoubtedly, sheer physical attraction played an important role in these idylls. We could only accept this fact, or probability, making it a strict principle never to interfere unless faith or morals seemed to be in obvious danger. On our side, we saw to it that the usual canonical impediments were respected, but we agreed with our charges that totem law should be upheld. We saw no reason to object to the latter, tolerating it in the knowledge that ancient laws would gradually fall into disuse and be, in time, forgotten.
As a matter of fact, my position was immensely strong. I was, of course, the spiritual leader and the teacher of them all; but, in addition, in native eyes, I was the tribal owner of the girls. Consequently, it was my duty to place the seal of spiritual and official approval on the plightings of troth as they took place. As this revolution in native conduct was creating an important precedent, I was most anxious to lend every occasion the utmost solemnity in order to impress upon the popular imagination its supreme importance. It might be interesting to know precisely what happened in the preliminary skirmishings to the first marriage solemnized amongst these my children :
One day there was a timid knock at my door and, in reply to my invitation to come in, there entered one of my boys. I welcomed him politely without -permitting him to see that I was well aware of his embarrassment which hardly permitted him to speak.
"And what can I do for you, my son?" I asked gently.
The lad was, at first, speechless, so much so indeed that I busied myself with some papers on my table to permit him time to pull himself together.
Suddenly, he whispered : "Father, I want to get married."
"Good!" I exclaimed in a way that I hoped would seem to indicate that his wish was not a bit out of the ordinary.-"Good, and why not? But who is it you want to marry, my son?"
He told me.
"And does she want to marry you?" I asked.
"But yes, Father! Of course she does."
"And you love her? And because you love her, you want to marry her?"
"Oh yes, Father! I love her dearly. My heart is on fire."
"That sounds all right," I said; "but you must tell her to come to see me. In the meantime, I'll think the matter over.
A few days later it was the girl's turn to enter the presence. If the boy had been somewhat frightened and embarrassed, the girl was plainly terrified and trembling like a leaf. Had she come to face a sentence of death, she could hardly have shown more fear. However, with considerable difficulty, I was able to feel perfectly assured that her feelings for the boy were equal to his devotion to her.
I now arranged a meeting between the boy and girl in the company of their relatives and friends: because I was most anxious to emphasize the solemnity of this first betrothal in the presence of witnesses.
Although I knew that, since both were fresh from school, they knew the text of the Catechism and the sense underlying its teaching, I thought it wise, nevertheless, to set a precedent for all the Christian marriages which would follow theirs by bringing them face to face with the responsibilities of the married state. This public examination was designed to bring out the fundamental differences between marriage in native law and the marriage which they now proposed to contract according to Christian doctrine.
It will, of course, be understood that in questioning these my children the form of speech I used was much simpler than what I now use in reporting what I said; but the sense of my words is precisely the same. And this, of course, applies to their responses.
"The Catholic Church teaches you, my children, that a man may have only one wife and that a man and his wife represent one flesh. Do you believe that, and do you accept it for yourselves?"
"Yes, Father, we do. We know the law; we believe in it, and we accept it for ourselves."
"Now, as you know, out there in the bush a man is the absolute master in a family and the woman is his slave, his property. But in Christian marriage the man and his wife are equal in human dignity and they join together as partners in bringing up their family. The father, the man, is the head of the family; the woman, the mother, is his devoted and loving helpmeet. Therefore, my son, when you are married, you must not treat the other half of your marriage as a slave. She has the same human rights that you have. And you, my daughter, you will not regard your husband as some kind of ogre, but rather as your protector and your companion, as someone you must help when he needs help, and to whom you must always be devoted. Are you both willing to make this kind of marriage?"
"Yes, Father, we are willing."
"Good! Then there is just one last point: what were the words of God to the first man and to the first woman in the Garden of Eden?"
"God said to them that they should cleave together and be of one flesh, and also He told them that what God had put together, no man might put asunder."
"Very good: and so He did. Now you must understand that in consequence of those words, once you are married, you are married for ever. In tribal law, as you know, when a man's wife becomes old and feeble, he is allowed to throw her away like a worn-out garment. The Christian Church says that is a very bad thing; and so the Christian man will never abandon his wife and she will, on her part, always remain loyal to him. Now you are both fully in agreement that you will live together in marriage in this Christian fashion?"
"Yes, Father. And we also know very well that the Christian family is something quite different from the pagan family."
"Splendid. And now, my son, before you are allowed to marry this woman you must make me a promise. How many emprenua have your"
(Emprenua is the native word to describe the mother of those children who will belong to the "son-in-law". An emprenua is, in effect, a potential mother-in-law.)
"I have two emprenua, Father."
"Young Christian," I said finally, "before marrying this Christian woman, my daughter, you must first promise here before witnesses that you will sell to the Mission any daughters your emprenua may have. Do you solemnly agree to do that?"
"I do solemnly agree, Father."
It may be wondered why I did not simply ask this boy to renounce his rights over the emprenua's progeny; but this would not have met the case, because in tribal law a son-in-law not only owns such progeny, but he is also under certain obligations. I did not think it wise to make any attempt to interfere with this very old institution since such interference, apart from leading to endless trouble, could make for much confusion. In the case of this first marriage, the rights of the Church were well safeguarded.
This last-named undertaking having been solemnly given, all difficulties were now at an end, and I could solemnly declare the two young people officially betrothed.
This first marriage was a milestone in the history of the Mission.
And never was such a marriage! The church was crammed to bursting point. Those who know the special capacity native peoples have for compression will know what this meant. Without doubt, natural curiosity played a big part; but whatever the motive, or attraction, the whole community had succeeded in jamming itself into the church; and the bride and bridegroom marched along the aisle attended by their witnesses, the object of fond, and perhaps compassionate, attention from their friends and relatives. I cannot say that the bride was blushing in the traditional way of brides as she advanced to the altar because, owing to the nature of her complexion, it would have been impossible to detect it.
The solemn Catholic marriage ceremony unrolled in all its splendour and not a customary rite was omitted. Questions and responses were articulated clearly in voices whose clear tones could be heard and understood throughout the church. The plain gold ring was blessed and the bridegroom placed it on the bride's finger with so much awkwardness, incidentally, that for a few moments my hair threatened to stand on end.
Instead of the usual sermon, I gave a short explanatory address in order to emphasize the deep significance of the ceremony.
After High Mass had been celebrated with great fervour and rejoicing, the happy couple trooped off to the sacristy to complete an inspiring and happy occasion by signing their names in the marriage register. Thus was completed the celebration so far as the Church was concerned; the wedding breakfast and its more mundane joys followed.
We had arranged long tables in the shade of a magnificent poinciana tree blazing in a glory of scarlet blossom. Without doubt, the wedding guests would have felt more comfortable squatting on the ground in their usual fashion; but this was, indeed, an occasion; and they accepted politely the school benches we had arranged for their use. Enamel mugs and plates were arranged along the tables adorned with great dishes of food along their centres—piles of waffles dripping with sweet syrup, fresh beef and tinned beef, large quantities of sugared almonds and many bottles of coloured water sweetened with sugar. The good Sisters had arranged bowls of flowers on the tables; and while many of the guests probably wondered what use they were, since they could not be eaten, their presence was accepted without question. Equally ornamental and useless to our guests were the knives and forks on the festive boards. Does anyone suppose that eating is less important to native peoples at a marriage celebration than it is in what we like to call the civilized world? And should we deny them human dignity at their feasts because they squat around a common bowl into which each guest plunges his bare fingers?
There was no question about it: that marriage feast was a grand success. It became the subject of discussion for many a long day. and along the banks of the Bathurst River, up its winding creeks and deep into the very heart of the bush, went the exciting news that there was no real Christian marriage without a wedding feast.
I shouldered all my obligations. I was establishing the first of my girls in the conjugal estate and, in consequence, I considered it not the least of my duties to provide her with a trousseau. And then, of course, it seemed a right and proper thing that the new-founded family should have a house-warming in the hut the young husband had built. And for this, the doors of the Mission stores were flung wide open. Only I knew the cost; but it was well worth it. Indeed, I considered myself repaid a hundredfold by this successful establishment of the first Christian hearth and home amongst the natives.
Just before the last war, a militant communist from Sydney wrote a pamphlet "upholding the rights of the native people", which, of course, as an object is very right and proper; but in this same pamphlet I was bitterly reproached for having committed the abominable crime of buying native girls. We can hope that the communist gentleman was unaware of the facts. One fact unknown to him was that when a Japanese pearling fleet was anchored in our waters, the "oppressed colonial people", living in their natural state of communistic grace, hired out all available young women to the Japanese sailors. I repeat, all—all except the one hundred and fifty I had so deeply disturbed communistic sensibilities by purchasing.
Even had he known of this incident, it is unlikely that the pamphlet's author would have mentioned it. The point of his attack would have been seriously blunted.
Shortly afterwards, a communist paper in Prague took up the story, horrifying its gullible readers with a story of a high Catholic prelate in Australia making a very good thing out of buying, and selling, young native girls. The story was, of course, accompanied by the usual scarifying comments. From Prague, the "news" found its way to Holland; but here my brethren in Christ championed my cause so effectively that the campaign of calumny came to an end.
the history of the mission can be divided into two parts: the period of preparation before the first Christian marriage, and the period of development that followed it. After years of searching vainly, after years of labour, sweat and toil, of days of waiting and days of starting and re-starting, the corner-stone of our work was at last set up and in place. The road forward seemed to be clearly traced before us.
The successful solution of the problem of saving the girls from their normal degraded fate by buying them brought another problem: the Mission's population increased and there had to be control. The first question was that of language. The native language was very difficult to learn. We were the first foreigners to speak it, or rather to smatter it: because we could only use a few words. If the aboriginal language was to be the official language of the Mission, it would have to be mastered: something which presented enormous difficulties because the aborigines refuse fiercely to initiate the white men into their mother tongue. In fact, we never learnt more than the most commonly used words, filling in gaps with pidgin English. This was good enough with the adults; but something much more precise was needed to teach the children effectively.
The Government having insisted that the Mission should teach English, we proceeded to teach English; and because these aboriginal children are highly intelligent and blessed with a prodigious memory, they were very soon prattling away like sons of Albion. And the teachers, in turn, were now able to learn from their pupils much of the aboriginal language, a knowledge which we felt indispensable if we were really to understand the soul of this people. Thus the teachers were taught.
The smallest children were taught by the Sisters who established an infants' school, while the Father took charge of the older ones; and with so much success that it was not long before the more advanced could help with the correspondence. Although ten years have passed since they left their desks, some of them still write to me in quite respectable English.
Religious instruction was accepted and understood with equal success. With the help of a Catechism in pictures we explained to them the Church's doctrine and they soon had this off pat, to their finger-tips, indeed. And what is more, they put the doctrine into practice, soon being as ready to repent as to err. Truly they knew how to admit their faults. I recall the child who, having helped himself to some fruit without permission, took his punishment stoically and then, turning courteously to the Father, said, "Thank you, Father." I recall another who swore freely at me before taking to his heels, after a reprimand; but who returned half an hour later with a very big stick. As I looked at him with some apprehension he said, "Beat me with it, Father, I was naughty." And he offered me the cudgel.
And the Faith became active and exuberant. My young apostles nailed their colours to the mast and in order to be convincing, without minding a bit what might be said, they prayed aloud. In the camps, along the pathways bordered with eucalyptus-trees, while the heathen sang, danced and recited their tribal stories, they continued busily catechizing the old people. And these were the first, and by far the most faithful, translators of the Gospels into the native tongue. Like a bush-fire, the knowledge of Christianity spread throughout the country, reaching and influencing even those who did not practise it. It must be admitted that our apostles were never molested; indeed, their influence was strong enough to prevent certain of the horrors I have earlier described. Not a child in the district died without Baptism and these fervent young Christians could not imagine a higher award than the privilege of placing their signature on the parish register after duly making their report to me, their pastor.
The effect created by the gardens we had planted with the sweat of our brow always remained a source of wonder to our aborigines. To them our gardens seemed windows opening to an earthly paradise. They had imagined that to produce one's food oneself was not merely difficult: it was impossible. They themselves never attempted anything of the kind. We had, therefore, to try to implant what was a revolutionary idea in the minds of our children, an idea which could command the necessity of establishing permanent settlements, or villages, near which they could plant their gardens and find subsistence on the spot instead of wandering about in search of pastures. In a word, they had to be taught to be planters and, incidentally, this was in harmony with the desire of the Government, who wanted to see an attempt made to raise the natives to this level.
The coast became dotted about with huts; and if these varied in perfection there was no doubt about their picturesque appearance—more picturesque than our home but, it is to be feared, much less hygienic. And because one cannot become houseproud overnight, a shortage of fuel might see flooring and walls coming down to keep the fire going. If by chance a tidal wave carried away a village, this was by no means a disaster; because a fallen house could be quickly rebuilt and put together again. These people had been through much worse than that and, after all, a night out in the open meant nothing whatever to them.
The development of an agricultural policy had not made hunting unnecessary; the skill of our people in hunting kangaroos, bandicoots, possums, geese, duck and pigeon was of immense benefit to us. For the natives, the list could be lengthened to include snakes, lizards, bats and other beasts and reptiles which fell before their spears and clubs.
In Which I Sum Up
I had, as I have written, solemnized one marriage; and this had been followed by others; but the less spiritual side of the Christian life could not be neglected and so, in addition to Christian teaching, I had instilled into my flock good principles of farming. Thus I could look forward to a double result: Christian families and regular work. I felt that the Mission was well and truly founded. It was, as laid down in the Scriptures, built on a rock. I must emphasize the fact that by its very nature the nomadic family group is the antithesis of the Christian family; and so our teaching made us appear revolutionaries undermining old traditions as we endeavoured to rebuild on new foundations. In the place of totalitarianism on a small scale with the aboriginal man all-powerful, a feudal lord in his way on his lands, we offered our black men Christian brotherhood, a brotherhood which establishes and blesses the equality of men and women, both enjoying the same rights and the same obligations.
To achieve this was not easy. Children are the common possession of their parents, whose duty it is to bring them up with that love and care which points to their common duty. Clearly, to implant in the minds of our converts what was to them so far removed from anything they had hitherto known but yet was so of great importance, it was necessary to give them a robust spiritual and a good material grounding.
I think we achieved our objective, despite all the difficulties; and please remember that we had started with very little. What we could not create ourselves, we had to import; and to begin with, we could not count on any help from the natives. We lived on the generosity of a few white Catholics, on what help we could win from our children and on a meagre Government subsidy. It had been for us a matter of life or death that the Mission should make full use of what resources the country could offer both agriculturally and by the organizing of some industry related to the natural possibilities of the area. Eventually, I saw that our progress would be accelerated if we could own a boat.
Pearl-diving failing as a means of raising money for the Mission, something else had to be attempted at all costs; and so I turned my thoughts to another enterprise. The Darwin market for cypress timber was good because cypress had the reputation of being resistant to the attacks of white ants. The cypress grew in great numbers on Bathurst Island, and the idea of embarking on the wood-cutting industry appealed to the natives, who could thus enjoy their natural life in the forests and yet have the advantages o£ semi-civilization in the way of adequate supplies of flour and tobacco. We began by sending roughly dressed billets of timber to Darwin in lots of twenty or thirty : and the business went well.
It was not difficult to cut down the trees or to pay the woodcutters; but the business of indemnifying the owners always presented problems which never solved themselves without some worry. We had an endless series of legal disputes. The only irrefutable claim to ownership was proof that such and such an old man had been buried in a close vicinity, this fact firmly establishing the claim of his tribe.
We were never content to do well if there was any chance of doing better; and when we saw that a much better price would be given for timber dressed into planks we said, "Well then, let us have a saw-mill!"
Our training in the seminary having neglected the art of the saw-miller, this idea was bold, even rash; but we were never deterred by anything so unimportant as lack of training. All we considered was that planks brought a better price than roughly dressed logs and that, in consequence, it would be better to send planks to the Darwin market. A saw-mill would make planks. Therefore I went to Sydney—a mere walk of several thousands of miles—to buy an egine and a saw-milling plant. Of course, I knew that the efficient running of a saw-mill demanded experience; but I was quite confident on that score: any help I needed would most certainly come. It did, too. A Swede, Jack Johnson, an excellent mechanic, accepted with enthusiasm the proposition we laid before him. He was a fine fellow, this tall Scandinavian, who soon taught his eager pupils, Father Henschke and myself, as much as he knew, or at least as much as we could absorb at the time. Emotion ran high at the school when I lost the tip of my second finger. My little girls grieved over my misfortune and, forming a procession with a cross at its head to the strains of the Libera echoing sadly under the trees, they proceeded to inter my finger-tip and, with startling initiative, to plant a cross at the head of the Lilliputian grave. Brother Smith lost two fingers without, that I know of, a double funeral; but these casualties were a mere trifle compared with the twenty-five years' excellent service given by our sawmill.
The natives took a great interest in the mill and they were fairly successful in learning how to work the engine and the circular saw. Curiously enough, the simple job of filing and sharpening the saw always presented an insuperable difficulty to them. Another odd detail: they have a noisy admiration for a straight line without ever being capable of drawing one. Thus, when a perfectly straight plank emerged from the saw bench, it never failed to be greeted with the ancestral exclamation—"Shah!" followed by their English equivalent in this use of the word—"Number one!"
It was at the saw-mill that our aborigines gained their first lessons in arithmetic. The abstract number does not exist in their minds. One, two, three mean nothing to them; one man, two men, three men instantly conveys a clear mental picture. Being forced not only to count and to measure the planks but also to calculate their hours of work, they learnt simple arithmetic more quickly at the mill than they ever did at school.
And so, in spite of the hard times forced on us through the war, we lived: God gave us all we needed; He had never promised superfluities.
On Bathurst was enacted again the story of olden times when the converted barbarians sheltered in the shadow of the castle keep and around the abbeys. The Christian village of Bathurst was a garden blossoming gaily around its church, its monastery and its schools. It was not that I wanted to keep our converts tied to the Mission Station: on the contrary; because, we knew, sooner or later they would have to return to their tribe where, we hoped, they would form the nucleus of a Christian community. We felt that before they did go back they should have a period of probation in our factory, a factory designed to make firm defenders of the faith. Little by little, many marriages similar to that first one were celebrated; and today there are no less than forty couples established on the shores of Ngouyou. I may not claim that our village of Bathurst is a model village; but I firmly believe it is on the way to becoming one. Progress, though perhaps imperceptible from one year to another, is regular.
In 1936 we celebrated the Silver Jubilee of the Mission, a celebration spent joyfully because we had before our eyes tangible proof of our progress. It was on this occasion that the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Isaac Isaacs, sent word to me that His Majesty King George VI had been kind enough to bestow on me the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.). This, I knew, was really a tribute, through me, to all the staff of the Mission - Fathers, Brothers and Sisters: because all had given loyal and devoted service to their God and to their King. And when, fourteen years later, I was given the Cross of the Legion d'Honneur, I could say the same thing; although, on this latter occasion, my heart was perhaps touched more deeply since the reward came from my dear country of France, giving recognition, once again, to a few of her obscure children working in the furthest limits of civilization.
At this moment I cannot help but recall that time, a little while before the last war, when our lives at the Mission were darkened. In spite of the vigilance of coastal patrols, a Japanese pearling fleet landed their sailors on both Melville and Bathurst islands. Not a single little girl was "sold" to the Mission at this time; the Japanese offered more than we could offer; and the only children to escape prostitution were those in our care. However, we inherited twenty-five half-castes.
I would like to recall one of my friends, Pierre de Hair. Born in Holland, Pierre de Hair had emigrated to Australia, where he worked as a plumber and contractor until the day came when he decided to devote the rest of his life to our Mission. He was then seventy, A man-of-all-work and full of vigour, there was nothing Pierre attempted that was not carried through to success. I think his chief love was our saw-mill. It was thanks to Pierre that we were able to build a church which is the most beautiful in the Territory, a spacious presbytery, schools and a model hospital. And we cannot omit from this list a second edition of our Saint Francis, the pride of the Mission. After fourteen years of intense activity, Pierre is still going strong and, I know, he will carry on until his last breath. He is of the kind that die in harness. May God reward Pierre, my dear companion.
The demographic chart of northern Australia appears more or less like this: a stationary white population; a declining black race, and a fantastic increase in half-castes. It is not difficult to imagine a majority composed of the last-named in future. It is unnecessary to say that the mothers of the half-castes are all natives. The fathers come from all quarters of the globe. Inevitably, the result is a curiously composite race of people with varied impulses. It is remarkable that these half-caste children, the offspring of white men, are inferior to the children of coloured men.
The pure native children are intelligent in the main and, if taken in hand at a fairly young age, they can become useful citizens of their country. But how easily the little half-caste beings can sink into a condition of moral squalor or, at the least, into passivity if they are not cared for with much vigilance. The adventurous spirit and moral laxity of their white fathers does not mix well with the instability of the black.
Our Missions have fought for these half-caste children for a long time, something worthy of praise in view of the indifference and inertia shown towards the problem they present by white men and by the Government. Of course, work of this kind is expensive, demanding as it does carefully chosen personnel not only with a vocation but also with a determination to give their lives to their calling with moral, intellectual and spiritual devotion.
It must be remembered, too, that children consume without producing : something which does not affect the Government's duty or the duty of the white men, responsible for their birth, to support them and those willing to look after and educate them. In addition to this obligation which common justice demands, there is the necessity to take them in hand before they can develop vicious habits. The schools for these little half-castes should in every sense be centres of education, never reformatories.
The Directorate of Native Affairs has, at last, shown interest in these outcasts of fortune. The first idea had been to establish a large institution in Darwin; but this idea was abandoned when it was seen that to subsidize the various Missions would be more logical and cheaper and, of course, the half-castes would be brought up in their respective religions.
When this plan was adopted our share of the delicate work was undertaken by Father Connors. After a number of experiments, Father Connors finally decided to take a piece of land on Melville Island, actually on the Apsley Strait, to the north of Bathurst. The Government supplied the material for two buildings and the work was undertaken by the Mission. Thirty boys and about the same number of girls were admitted and, after a rather difficult start, Garden Point is today making regular progress.
The great question is, what is to be done with our pupils when their education is finished? Well—"Sufficient unto the day ..." Let us make a beginning, and God will provide. I have always had my own ideas on this difficult subject of the half-castes. As I have suggested before, the great thing is to take these children when they are young, when their minds are receptive. I have always been very emphatic on this point. I must admit that our attempts to look after half-castes on Bathurst had not proved permanently successful when, as happened, they left school to become the servants or employees of white men, only to be carried away by the examples set by their masters, an unhappy process helped by heredity.
But, I may be asked, is it not cruel to tear these children away from the affectionate environment of their homes? The question is naive. What homes and what natural affection have these little ones? Yes, if they had families, and if they were surrounded by that love and affection family life offers to the young even amongst primitive peoples, it might be cruel. But these creatures roam miserably around the camps and their behaviour is often worse than that of native children. It is an act of mercy to remove them as soon as possible from surroundings so insecure. After that, I think, they must be kept at school until they marry, when they can establish a home: because a home forms the strongest safeguard against the dangers which lie in wait for unprotected youth. When a young couple have a home in a decent house with their children around them, the husband earning a fair wage, a good start has been made and there is every chance that the family in that home will remain Christian.
I always feel we should try to keep, if we can, a certain number of families in the same village, to give them a community of interest without forcing, them to live a communal life. The voluntary communal life would, I feel, give them some protection from the dangers and excesses of an independence they are not really ready for. I have always dreamt of a co-operative society where these half-caste people might share work and profits, where they might elect their own municipal officials who would hold their positions at the will of electors and consequently might be changed if their work in maintaining order and administering justice fell short of what might be desirable. There would be neither rich nor poor; all would share both good and bad fortune.
Am I dreaming of Utopia? Well, that remains to be seen; and, of course, my plan is open to revision after trial and error. Whether a dream of Utopia or not, I had the satisfaction of seeing the beginning of my little City of Co-operation a short time before my work came to a close. A number of couples had built their houses, putting up fences and planting gardens. They worked for the Station—stock breeding, carpentering, treating hides—gaming a certain degree or affluence. There was a school, a hospital and a maternity home to complete this budding city—a tiny world, it is true, but a well-organized one.
I know that the people of both sexes gave their bishop a rousing welcome; and their school groups filled me with delight. The boys' quarters seemed a hive of different activities —some in the workshops, others busy with machines, or with water hydrants: all being directed towards stable occupations according to their respective ability.