July 1, 1871 is the day that God came to the Torres Strait, that is as delivered by the Missionaries. It’s a date that has since been celebrated every year by Torres Strait Islanders as “The Coming of the Light.”
Now raised a strict atheist, where the ‘G’ word was a dirty one, I squirm a little when I hear of the work of missionaries ‘saving the savages’. That said, it is largely accepted in the region that by converting to Christianity, and the syncretism of their previous belief systems, allowed for a peace to endure, end inter-island raiding, head-hunting and unified the region, that is, to bring them out of the ‘darkness’ of heathenism.
I guess learning of the original sin, guilt and the shame of their nudity are a small price to pay for peace, especially considering it would have had to been paid in human heads, the best form of currency prior to the Missionary’s arrival.
Now I am not out to bash the Bible Bashers. The London Missionary Society (LMS), that arrived on this auspicious date, in their boat aptly named the “Surprise”, did have some heady if not misguided ideals, such as abolishing slavery for one. They also made an effort to assimilate into the culture and learn the lingo.
It should also be noted that the LMS are also a different mob to those Missionaries involved in that abomination that assisted in the Stolen Generation. They were the missionaries in the Northern Territory who were members of the Lutheran Church from Germany.
The LMS was a non-denominational missionary society formed in 1795 by evangelical Anglicans who sent missionaries all over the world, notably to India, China, Australia, Madagascar and Africa. The LMS missionaries had a huge influence on the spread of their largely non-denominational approach to Christianity throughout the world. However there have been some claims of a Papua New Guinean Stolen Generation, instigated by the some members of the LMS.
In 2012 PNG’s oldest newspaper journalist Biga Lebasi asked the Queen, the then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the premier of Queensland to apologise to him and other descendants of the 100’s of South Pacific islanders black-birded in the 1880’s to help establish Australia’s sugar industry in colonial Queensland.
The LMS had been busying themselves throughout the early 1800’s in the Southwest Pacific trying to convert Islanders to Christianity. By the time they arrived at Erub (Darnley Island) in the Torres Strait they had some thirty years experience ‘spreading the the word.’ They played a significant role in encounters between the West and peoples of the Pacific islands.
However, it wasn’t all beer and skittles for the LMS. Their vessels were raided by French Privateers, the government condoned pirates, they suffered funding issues and not all the ‘savages’ were as welcoming as they had hoped.
John Williams (depicted above), had been working in the Pacific for more than 20 years when he visited the island of Erromanga (later part of Vanuatu) in 1839. The islanders had recently been cruelly treated by traders looking for sandalwood. They killed Williams and his companion James Harris. This 1841 painting shows other LMS missionaries escaping by boat in the background.
LMS missionary James Chalmers and his missionary colleague Oliver Tomkins, met a similar grizzly fate at Risk Point on Goaribari Island, on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1901. Lured ashore, the villagers were rejoicing their arrival, not to share the good book, but to be the ceremonial dinner. Their newly constructed dubu, a communal house for fighting men could not be used without consecration by a human sacrifice. It must have been an awful moment of realization for Chalmers and Tomkins when the knives came out and the smiles fell away.
One would expect then that LMS Reverend Samuel MacFarlane must have been on edge when they anchored at Erub, accompanied by converts from the Loyalty Islands. When they landed at Kemus Beach, a bare-chested and fearsome warrior, Dabad, who at first approached them aggressively, finally allowed them on the island and broke tribal convention. Praise the lord…
A research paper by David Salisbury at the 7th International Small Islands Conference in 2011 looked into what this celebration means to Torres Strait Islanders. He interviewed Father Elemo Tapim a Torres Strait Islander Anglican Priest from Townsville about the significance of the celebration.
“For us the celebration of the Coming of the Light is just like celebrating Christmas Day. On Christmas Day God came to us in the form of a baby and on July 1 God came to the Torres Strait in the form of a book,” Father Tapim said.
Father Tapim described the importance of the celebration as representing the beginning of new era or the beginning of a new life.
However I share the views expressed by Paul Newbury:
“Islanders identify strongly with the missionary metaphor of the darkness of ‘heathenism’ and the light of ‘salvation’. Islanders refer to the time before 1871 as ‘Darkness Time’. It is a sad fact throughout Melanesia that a devalued past is the legacy of missionary endeavour.
The late Ephraim Bani is a well-known Torres Strait Islander academic and commentator on Torres Strait Islander culture. He attempted to combat missionary influence on his people’s culture by initiating the Torres Strait Cultural Festival. He dedicated his writing to his elders who taught him: ‘the ancient ways of survival, spirituality and affiliation with nature’.”
The Torres Strait Cultural Festival is held every two years on Thursday Island and attracts around 4,000 people, the week includes entertainment, cultural activities, sporting events and Islander art exhibition as well as novelty competitions such as coconut husking contest.
Ephraim Bani was also instrumental in establishing the Gab Titui Cultural Centre, a name The name, Gab Titui, represents both Eastern and Western language dialects of the Torres Strait. ‘Gab’, interpreted as journey in the eastern island group language and ‘Titui’ from the western islands group language meaning stars. The combined name, Gab Titui, is translated as ‘Journey of the Stars’.
When I look outside each night up here in the Strait and look at those stars, I know that’s all the God I need…