Garden Point, Melville Island 1940-1962

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter

Set up as as part of the policy against the mixing of Asian and Aboriginal people, the nucleus of Garden Point were mixed-descent Tiwi children, but eventually children from other parts of the Northern Territory were also transferred there.


Gsell's lobbying


The establishment of Garden Point mission arose from the influence of Fr. Gsell. The administrative arm was extended over Melville Island in order to prevent contact between Tiwi people and Asian lugger crews. The Tiwi had a long history of contact with Macassan trepang fishers, and the islands were also visited by pearling crews. In March 1896 a pearling camp was attacked1, and several instances of attacks on Macassan trepang boats are also recorded. Macassan contact that continued while European buffalo hunter, R. J. Cooper stayed on the island (ca. 1894-1916). Their visits were prohibited in 1906 and Cooper was appointed honorary protector of Aborigines (1905-1916).


Fr. Gsell at Bathurst Island Mission commented negatively on Asian-Tiwi contact, which increased again in the 1930s as Japanese-owned pearling luggers began arriving in the Arafura Sea in large numbers. In 1929 administrators canvassed a range of options, including quarantine restrictions on the Japanese. Pat Ritchie, stock worker at the Bathurst Island mission, was appointed as local protector of Aborigines in 1930. By 1933 hundreds of Tiwi had flocked to the lugger camps and the Bathurst mission was drained of residents and in danger of collapsing. Gsell feared the whole island was turning into a 'prostitution camp' and reported that little girls were no longer brought to the mission. 2


The trigger for action on Melville Island was in 1934 when Gsell ‘purchased’ rights over twelve Japanese/Aboriginal children who were still too young to come to the mission and were living with their mothers off the mission. A patrol boat was charged with supervising the Japanese luggers and many Tiwi from a semi-permanent village, that had emerged on the southern coast of Melville Island around a pearling camp, were removed to Darwin. After this government intervention, Garden Point further north became the new major contact point on Melville Island.3 Subsequently the administration turned Luxmore Head at Garden Point into a police-supervised ration depot in 1939.4 This made it less attractive as a trading site and had the effect of swelling the numbers at the Bathurst Island mission to an unsustainable 350.


A separate orphanage for mixed children


Gsell's proposal to establish a separate orphanage for mixed descent children found approval with the government. In 1940 the government ration depot was moved across the water to Snake Bay on Melville Island while Garden Point became an outrigger of the Bathurst Island mission.5 It had funding from the Propaganda Fide and government grants.


The first MSC missionary at Garden Point was Fr. Bill Connors who arrived, apparently by himself (no Tiwi men are mentioned) in April 1940 and began building. He had previously been stationed in Port Moresby and at Queensland's Palm Island and was the 'muscular Chrstianity type', an athletic man who 'always got what he wanted'. When he could not get enough funding from the MSC he applied to the government for extra assistance. He 'was an embarrassment to his Superiors at times, but it never really worried him'. He was joined in January 1941 by Br. Ted Bennett (1941-1945) and by the time the Sisters arrived the mission had a convent, a school, and Our Lady of Victories church, and there was 'enough food for everyone'. Br. Rex Pye visited in Aril 1941 and was 'surprised to see how advanced the Garden Point was in a few months. The gardens are a credit: sweet potatoes, peanuts, rice, beans in profusion. Avenues of bananas, coconuts, mangos. A big triangle of fish net in front of the mission took my eye also.'6 However the gardens at Garden Point were only useful during the wet season.7 The first OLSH Sisters arrived in June 1941, but as it turned out, they only stayed for a few months. A severe cyclone struck the Tiwi Islands in 1941 and World War II interrupted the mission activity.


Church Shed at Garden Point  Garden Point girls
Our Lady of Victories church, Garden Point

Source: MSC Archives, Kensington

Girls and young women at Garden Point

Source: MSC Archives, Kensington

Garden Point Police Station
Luxmore Head Police Station

Source: MSC Archives, Kensington



Wartime disruption


In February 1942 the whole Northern Territory came under military control. Several RAAF iron huts were erected at Garden Point and all mission luggers were commandeered for military service (see Missionaries of the Sacred Heart). The mission Sisters and girls were evacuated to Carrington (South Australia) and many Tiwi went bush to avoid being relocated and evacuated. Fr. Connors also left in 1943, but Br. Ted Bennett continued to look after the boys as the mission, ranging from age 5 to age 16. He noticed the hostile Japanese fleet heading for Darwin on 19 February 1942 but a Northern Territory Patrol Officer prevented him from broadcasting an alarm to Darwin, because only coded messages were permitted.8 Br. Bennett was able to assist seventeen US marines who had escaped from the Japanese assault on Bataan in the Philippines. They arrived on the Quail and later left this ketch to the mission.9 Tiwi men also rendered assistance to the allied military. One Japanese Zero crash-landed at Melville Island and Matthius Ulungura captured the pilot, the first enemy captured on Australian soil. Luis Munkara and his two nephews later captured five Japanese airmen in Apsley Strait.10 Br. Bennett held the fort at Garden Point, presumably surrounded by RAAF personnel, until Fr. Bill Flynn joined him in 1944.


'The future of these children'


After World War II Garden Point became a collection station for removed mixed-descent children from more distant parts of the Northern Territory. 'It broke up a lot of families'.11 In September 1945 the mission had 94 children, mostly children of mixed descent, and Fr. John Doyle, reporting on the state of the mission, saw a big problem gathering on the horizon: 'the problem of the future of these children'. The children ranged from age 1 to age 18 and those above school age helped with the day-to-day work on the mission, but the mission was an entirely 'experimental undertaking' and there really was no feasible policy for when the students ceased to be children. It was hoped that the mission alumni would 'settle on the island' - but to what benefit would they then turn their education? Doyle categorically stated that these children 'are not natives nor can be considered in the same category'. He observed that the Methodist Church had 'started on similar lines on another island' (presumably referring to Croker Island, 1940) but they were actually opposed to keeping mixed descendants on missions and preferred that 'the half caste should be scattered amongst the white race throughout Australia and be gradually absorbed by the whites'.12 This federal policy was diametrically opposed to the MSC's vision to shelter and protect.13 The Catholic Church gradually withdrew from the project and the government resumed control of the Garden Point reserve. The mission lease expired in May 1962.


Garden Point without the MSC


As it turned out, the Tiwi did not abandon their island, nor did they 'scatter amongst the whites'. By 1973 Snake Bay had become the larger settlement at Melville Island with 240 residents overseen by twenty staff. Four white teachers and one Aboriginal taught 72 children and only 12 people still lived in 'camp'. Its 44 houses had an average occupancy of six residents. The store had become an outlet for cottage crafts, selling $2,000 worth of artefacts during the year.14


Garden Point, with 205 residents, had ten European staff but only one Sister in the hospital, and two government teachers, with two Aboriginal assistants, taught ninety children to 6th grade standard. Forty people still lived in the 'old camp' huts and 160 people were crowded in the twenty newer houses with an average occupancy of eight. Resources at Garden Point were stretched because some Tiwi had recently moved there from Snake Bay and Nguiu, the former Bathurst Island mission. About 25 % of residents were in receipt of federal pensions, endowments and allowances. Employment opportunities consisted of a market garden, carpentry and mechanical workshops, a store and a Social Club run by the Progress Association, which was also exploring tourism as an income earning option.15 In other words, there was hardly any paid work for indigenous people, and the community was set for a future of welfare dependency.



1 'The Melville Island blacks have attacked the camp of Mr James, a pearler. The raid was made at night, and spears were thrown into the camp, one of them passing through the hand of a blackboy employed by Mr. James. Another spear went through the leg of Mr. James's pyjamas. The blacks were beaten off.' 'Murderous Blacks - Two Chinese Killed', The Advertiser, 21 March 1896:5. Retrieved March 8, 2014, from

2 W. M. Henschke for F.X. Gsell, Annual Report for Bathurst Island Mission, 1933; Gsell, Annual Report Bathurst Island Mission December 1933-December 1934; Annual report for Bathurst Island, December 1935; in Bathurst Island Mission Reports 1910-1915 2A 431-1951k-1294 NAA.

3 A. E. Woodward, Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, AGPS 1973:77.

4 C.L.A. Abbott, NT administrator to Dept. Interior Canberra, 2 February 1939, in Bathurst Island Mission Reports 1910-1915 2A 431-1951k-1294 NAA.

5 A. E. Woodward, Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, AGPS 1973:77.

6 Anthony Caruana MSC 'Reflections on hundred years of MSC mission work in the Northern Territory 1904-2004' (unpublished MS) MSC Archives Kensington, 2004:51ff.

7Fr. John Doyle, 11 September 1945, in Anthony Caruana MSC 'Reflections on hundred years of MSC mission work in the Northern Territory 1904-2004' (unpublished MS) MSC Archives Kensington, 2004:94.

8 Anthony Caruana MSC 'Reflections on hundred years of MSC mission work in the Northern Territory 1904-2004' (unpublished MS) MSC Archives Kensington, 2004:52-54.

9 Anthony Caruana MSC 'Reflections on hundred years of MSC mission work in the Northern Territory 1904-2004' (unpublished MS) MSC Archives Kensington, 2004:53.

10 Tiwi Art accessed February 2014. Flynn (1947:77ff) writes that Opato Cawee, Matthias, captured the first Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil on Melville Island Kruroo camp.

11 Sister Barbara Tippolay, former resident of Garden Point mission, 'My Island Church: The extraordinary 100-year old story of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Tiwi Islanders' Compass, ABC, 13 April 2014.

12 Fr. John Doyle, 11 September 1945, in Anthony Caruana MSC 'Reflections on hundred years of MSC mission work in the Northern Territory 1904-2004' (unpublished MS) MSC Archives Kensington, 2004:94.

13 23 June 1938 to Gsell, Bishop of Darwin, in Bathurst Island Mission Reports 1910-1915 2A 431-1951k-1294 NAA.

14 A. E. Woodward, Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, AGPS 1973:58.

15 A. E. Woodward, Aboriginal Land Rights Commission, AGPS 1973:57.