Excerpts from Christopher Eipper

‘Observations made on a journey to the natives at Toorbal, August 2nd 1841 by the Rev. Christopher Eipper, of the Moreton Bay German Mission -  Journal of the Reverend Christopher Eipper, Missionary to the Aborigines at Moreton Bay 1841’


In August 1841 the Turrbal people took the initiative in getting Eipper and Wagner to visit an initiation ceremony. The two missionaries, ‘were under the guidance of three natives, Wunkermany and the two brothers, Wogann’, accompanied by a group of women. They were led along ‘roads’ and ‘paths’, shown where to camp, where to bury provisions, and advised how much of their food to share at different encounters. The Turrbal men were clearly in charge of this expedition.  The meeting a few hours north of Toorbul was used by the various groups gathered, from Humpy Bong, Toorbul, Bunya and Yarun Island (Bribie), to undertake diplomatic talks about the possibility of establishing a settlement in their respective countries.


Eipper’s journal gives some insight into the close relationships they were forming. Each of them was claimed as a brother by men from different areas, and there was much teasing going on, from both sides, although the pious brethren may not have fully appreciated the extent of Aboriginal humour.


For example, when they were at Toorbul, Wagner’s Aboriginal brother Anbaybury suggested it was time for the tables to be turned:


He said one day to Mr W. that when he (A) was at Zion’s Hill, he did everything for Mr. W, fetch wood and water, bark, prepare clay, chop wood, work the ground with the hoe etc. Now, as Mr W. had come to his abode, he ought to do the same for him (A).


Mr. W. told him it was quite right that he had done so, for he had paid him well; but he ought to consider that he (Mr W.) was a missionary and Anbaybury a black fellow. Now, as he had come to him to Toorbal to visit him, it was a shame that he, as his brother, had never come to fetch wood or water for him, nor had he built a hut to live in it. When he heard this, he changed his tone, and said, he would have done all for Mr. W. if he had come to the place where his tribe had their camp.


On another occasion, when Eipper and Wagner were undertaking separate hunting excursions into Bunya territory the day after the ceremony, and Eipper’s party ended up with very little food, Eipper was asked to check in his clever book whether Wagner was faring any better:


all at once they desired Mr. E. to look into his book, and to find out if Mr. W. with the other party had killed a kangaroo; and when Mr E. knowing what they meant, told them hat he had no book with him, one of them untied Mr W’s bundle and taking out his New Testament, opened it, saying, ‘Mr. Wagner large kangaroo’, after which he shut and replaced it.


Eipper explains this anecdote with a ‘superstition’ that had formed amongst them ‘that out of a book we could know what had happened at a distance, or who had stolen any article.’  One day at Zion Hill an axe had been stolen, and one brother mentioned it to a second one who was immersed in reading a book. The second brother already knew who had stolen the axe, and stated the name of thief. Thereafter Wunkermany asked them to check their book to see who had stolen his pipe.


Wunkermany was willing to give the missionaries the benefit of doubt. He sometimes knelt down with them in prayer, and placed himself in charge of the diplomatic mission to Toorbul.


The day before the ceremony the missionaries were asked to visit Bribie Island to see if they could settle there. They stayed on the island overnight, in the ‘largest huts we ever have seen, twenty feet in length’, which they found to be warm and comfortable, a sturdy shelter from the howling wind.


The natives of Toorbal had all along expressed a desire that we should cultivate ground at their own places of abode, and especially Naimany, the Lord of Yarun, wished us to do so in his island, but we found the soil very sandy, so that we could [not] think of acceding to his wishes. …..When the Toorbal and Bonyer natives heard that we had not found the soil of Yarun eligible for cultivation, they seemed to rejoice in it, and invited us to inspect their own ground tomorrow.


[A mission at Bribie Island was attempted by Tom Petrie in 1877. When Hausmann and  Hartenstein did attempt to establish an outstation at Burpengary three years later, they were attacked.]


After crossing back to the mainland the next morning by canoe, to rejoin the camp ready for the ceremony, the missionaries had a dig at the young men in their excursion party:


being young men they were very particular to dress themselves carefully before they made their appearance again in the camp, significantly replying to our enquiry, why they did so, ‘the ladies will see us.’


There was much excitement in the preparations, and a fight broke out among the women, occasioned by jealousy. The missionaries felt compelled to separate the warring parties twice, and in the heat of debate an old women threw a spear at Eipper. 


The women painted themselves with clay for the ceremony, which started on Tuesday 10 August, at a bora ground in Deception Bay, opposite Yarun Island. Eipper described the dancing as ‘a measured movement of arms and limbs to the right and left’ but he did find on this occasion that the nakedness of the young girls and women ‘appeared more offending than ever before’. The missionaries did not see the initiation ceremony itself, but were shown the bora ground a few days before:


its distance from the camp is about one mile and half; no woman or child is permitted to come near. …This place is called Bool, and has the figure of a large basin twenty one feet in diameter, surrounded by an earthen wall about two feet high; the whole place is cleared of the grass, which is pulled up by the roots; it has also an outlet to the southward, by a ditch about three feet wide and half a mile long. There the kippers are led to their huts, which during the time of their trial are separate from the rest.


On Thursday, after the ceremonies were concluded, it was suggested that the missionaries be taken further into the Bunya Mountains, but Eipper had sore feet, was keen to return to Zion Hill, having already stayed longer than anticipated. It was agreed that Eipper would be taken back to Zion Hill via Toorbul by Wunkermany and Jemmy Millboang, whilst Wagner would be taken to the mountains. Wagner was led across a creek into the Bunya territory, to which his brother Anbaybury belonged, and found the soil to be very hospitable.


At this the natives evinced great joy, saying, if we would bring hoes and axes with us their women should work, and they should hunt for us, and when the crops were ripe, they would not sleep but watch them. But it was necessary to have fire arms, lest strange natives should rob them.


Eipper was quite aware that there was some contention among groups to host a settlement:


They quite exhausted themselves in making promises of good behaviour and industry; but their joy was not quite pure, for we had before observed the whole of them moved by jealousy which tribe should have the benefit of cultivation amongst them; every tribe striving to lower the other in our opinion.


After this positive diagnosis, the men changed their minds about going further into the mountains, ‘because they had not their wives with them’. The women apparently stayed behind at Turrbal. Eipper had observed that it was the women who contributed to the staple diet, gathering oysters from bark canoes, digging for roots, and pounding bungwall (dangum).


Single men, who would of course think it beneath their dignity to go in search of roots, we observed, were regularly supplied every day with a bundle of roots by one or other of the women.


For this reason, he felt it was much better to be attached to a particular family than be ‘at the mercy of many’.


My brother Dunkley’s wife was ever ready to pound dangum for me when I told her I was hungry, though she would have to borrow it.


The return journey was apparently conducted without women, and both parties went hungry along the way. Eipper’s because they could not reach the place where they had buried provisions until Friday, and Wagner’s because he appeared to be in a great hurry to make tracks. They met up again on the return journey on Friday, but Wagner, being hungry, and possibly in a bad mood, could not bother to slow down for Eipper, who had sore feet and Wunkermany who had injured his heel with a thorn. Wagner pushed on ahead with his brother Anbaybury and two others, ‘and reached Zion’s Hill a good while before me, having travelled this one day upwards of fifty miles.’


On the way from Zion Hill to Toorbul, a week before the ceremony, there was a total eclipse of the moon, and the missionaries witnessed Aboriginal rites which quite amused them, particularly because the key terms of the explanation were somewhat lost in translation, so that the place to which ‘souls’ depart after death became ‘England’, and the ancestral spirits that needed to be appeased on entering dangerous territory became the ‘devil’:


our attention was arrested by a very loud calling of our black friends. It was soon evident that no mortal foe disturbed them, for then they would have armed themselves, or called for our assistance. On enquiring about the cause, we were first told to be silent, for Wunkermany was speaking to the Devil; but when we persisted in asking, they replied, that the Devil was talking hold of the moon with his two arms, to eat it up, and would not let it go. They then began to call the name of every one of their tribe three times, fearful lest they should forget any one; which they did for two reasons first, in order to frighten the Devil by naming all their mighty men and boys, and then to secure themselves against his power over them in death; for it is the devil who would swallow up every soul, which rises into the air after its separation from the body; and nothing but their great lamentations for the dead, accompanied with cutting their bodies and beating their heads with sharp instruments, will move him at last to let the departed soul fly off to England. Their manner of treating with the Devil was, however, in this instance by no means reverential. From single expressions, which we could catch, it appeared that they scolded him, calling him every bad name their language afforded, and frequently cursed him, so that it is a wonder he is moved at all, by their thus speaking to him to let them off, and not rather provoked to destroy them. Deplorable as the condition of these wretched men is rendered by such superstitions, we could not keep our gravity when beholding and hearing them thus engaged to contend with Satan, as they were doing for nearly the two hours which this total eclipse of the moon lasted. Everywhere we were told this ceremony was performed by the natives on this occurrence.


The missionaries had their own rites, such as fasting on the Sabbath (Sunday), and sitting rigid or kneeling uncomfortably during ceremonies that could last for hours. But they could not decipher the belief-based rituals they were witnessing:


So great had been their fear and anxiety, that they would neither move nor eat anything while it lasted; but when it was over, they laughed themselves at the Devil. It was, however, in vain to endeavour to convince them of their error by a rational explanation of the phenomenon; this was, they said, what the white man believed, but it was not for the black man.


The missionaries used this occasion for a show of strength:


We had our evening worship during this eclipse, and told them to be silent while we spoke to God, which was much better than to scold the Devil, who had no power over those who belong to the Lord Jesus Christ; nor were such afraid that he would eat up the moon.


On the following day they continued towards the Pine River, where they had breakfast with some local Aborigines, and in the afternoon came within sight of Moreton Bay, where a path diverged to Humpy Bong (Umpie Boang, or Old Settlement), but an absence of smoke indicated that the people from there must have already left for Turrbal ‘which is the native name for Ninga Ninga’. They crossed the Kaboltur, or Deception River, chin high in water that evening and


When we had reached dry land, we encamped for the night; the natives joked again about the Devil’s eating the moon last night.


May the day soon dawn when they will be visited by the dayspring from on high by the tender mercy of god; and when praise will wait for him, not only in Zion, but also in the wilderness, and from the mouths of the redeemed natives at Morton Bay.