Port Keats Mission 1935-

Also known as: 
Wadeye

 

 

Establishment

 

The Coniston massacre in 1928, followed by the Caledon Bay killings in 1932 caused much public agitation over race relations in the far north. The Church Mission Society (CMS) lodged an application to open a mission at Rose River, which the Northern Territory administration thought was trespassing on Methodist territory. At the same time the Catholics proposed to establish a mission at Tennant Creek and to revitalize the abandoned Daly River mission. The Chief Medical Officer and Chief Protector Dr. Cook and the Administrator of the Northern Territory J.A. Carrodus felt that the CMS did not have the wherewithal to run missions, whereas Gsell had a good record at Bathurst Island, and both felt that ‘the success of any mission depends entirely upon the calibre of the missionary in charge’.1

 

Gsell’s missionary principles were that the mission purchased the marriage rights of all the girls taken into the mission, that the girls were strictly controlled and required to remain in the dormitory until they married, and that the mission entered into a barter economy rather than cash payments for work. The contact history at Port Keats was very similar to that at the Tiwi Islands - relative isolation from the land-rush of settlers, but wife-lending interaction with the lugger crews had led to abuses of women, and to strife with Japanese who had misunderstood the underlying expectations.

 

The first missionary party arrived at Port Keats on 20 June 1935, including Fr. R. Doherty MSC, Pat Ritchie as lay assistant, and a Mr. Stanner. W.E.H. Stanner later became Reader in Anthropology at the National University and an influential commentator on the northern missions. Fr. Doherty (age 37) (also spelled Dogherty and Dockerty) had several years of experience in the north, and was to be mission superior. Pat Ritchie was a farmer from Dubbo who had spent four years volunteering at Bathurst Island and published an account of his experiences in 1934.2 He had been appointed as Protector of Aborigines at Bathurst Island, but the appointment was cancelled because Fr. Gsell objected to any Catholic missionaries taking on police duties.3

 

Ritchie narrated the tense moment of arrival at Port Keats in a Sydney Morning Herald article later that year. They arrived with some Bathurst Island men on the St. Francis mission lugger in ‘one of the few remaining strongholds of uncivilized blacks’, and while unloading the stores a ‘mob of sixty’ men approached. Ritchie sat down to polish his rifle and began to speak to an old man who spoke some English, having served several years at Fanny Bay goal for the murder of Bradshaw. Ritchie, evidently unnerved by the meeting and displaying his gun, said it was the best polishing his rifle ever got.4

 

Fr. Gsell contributed an incident from the early mission phase at Port Keats to justify his mission policy. He described how an old man with 'four or five wives', trying to claim an unwilling 12-year old girl, beat and punished her. Eventually she was subjected to ritual punishment whereby the man threw ten spears guided by a woomera from a 27-meter distance. She successfully dodged all of them and enraged, he attempted to grab a shovel-headed spear, but when the group prevented him from further violence he yelled out (‘in his own language’) ‘Alright, I divorce you!’5 The incident has striking parallels with one narrated by Ritchie in the press, except in Ritchie’s story the man tried to grab a knife, and it was Ritchie, not the woman’s family, who stopped him. In his book Gsell narrates this incident as a description of the formal procedure of divorce at Port Keats.6 Ritchie's descriptions tend towards the adventurous and exotic, and include, for example, a photo of a giant turtle with her hatchlings (evidently misé en scene).

 

In October 1935 reinforcements arrived in stockman and gardener Br. F. Quinn (35) from Sydney and a lay helper Mr. Johnson (October 1935 - April 1936), and in November that year carpenter Br. Denis McCarthy (48), who had spent 15 years at Bathurst Island, arrived and Pat Ritchie left. 7

 

By the time of the first official visit in April 1936 by G.W. Anson, there was ‘very little practical progress’ and serious defects in the sanitation arrangements. The composting toilets were on a hill sloping towards the well, the drinking water was saline, garbage and night-soil were disposed at the beach to be washed away by the tide. 8 The Sisters were expected to arrive next year, so a school had not been started. The Chief Medical Officer Dr. Cecil Cook recommended that the subsidy of £150 be held over until progress could be demonstrated, but after a three-page letter by Gsell, the Acting Chief Protector of Aborigines, W. B. Kirkland installed the subsidy ‘subject to review’.9

 

Receiving a subsidy required the submission of annual reports, and after 1938 Gsell’s successor continued Gsell’s practice of lapidary reports that offered minimum broadside. In 1945 they were reminded that they were required to submit financial statements and vital statistics.

 

The Sisters did arrive and opened a school, and the church was completed in 1948. During the war the mission work lay dormant. Johnny Juler, an elder at Wadeye with chest cicatrices and pierced nose for an ironwood splint, recalled how an Allied pilot crash-landed and died at the Port Keats coast. The pilot’s leg was severed and he was badly burned, and there was nothing they could do for him:

 

When the war come … people had to hide in the bushes somewhere around here. Lots of airforce and gun. After that, me and my brother working with the airforce, working through every area. Captain said plane might come along put a war with us and we shootem back. Then we bin work boat now, that nother plane which it came along from Wyndham, come along plane, somewhere around there [points towards the coast], maybe four mile out from here to where they burnt that plane. One man, he burned, died, Inglis [English], one bloke died. We run from there, me and my brothers, one slow coming behind us [chuckles about the slow one], we seenim that bloke, looking at that one fire [we kept running towards the fire].10

 

Criticism

 

By 1950 the government subsidy had increased to £1,000 (including salaries of £250 each for a trained nurse and a trained teacher) and a general feeling emerged that the Gsell policy on purchasing girls to acquire their marriage rights was out of step with current policy and ‘should be reviewed’.11

 

The focus of the mission was still fixed on controlling the girls, and Fr. Doherty was still paying out all males for the marriage rights of the convent girls, the payment in tobacco given to boys as young as six years of age. The District Superintendent G. Sweeney wrote a damaging critique in 1952 arguing that after thirteen years the mission was ‘still in a state of being established.’ He pointed out that there had been no attempt to continue the language work conducted by Fr. Flynn, and indicative perhaps of the state of the mission, it had a movie projector but no films to screen. The 58 girls were practically captured in the dormitory until marriage, and while they were learning home-craft and hygiene there was no scope to use these skills once they left the dormitory, because the camp area and ‘native huts’ had no hygiene provisions whatsoever. The mission income was from child endowment, government subsidy and a subsidy for the maintenance of the aerodrome. There was no income whatever from self-help activity, although the girls and women were making mats and basket ware, had exhibited items in the Darwin show, and obtained a prize for needlework. The ‘co-operative’ model, which relied on the currency of tobacco and treacle as reward, provided no incentive to produce anything and offered no avenue of earning cash. No provision for vocational training was made for the boys and young men, who could be profitably trained in stock-work, using the grazing potential of the area. The unmarried men were bound to the mission because it controlled all marriageable girls, so they had no option but to remain there and obey its rules. The mission was ‘unprogressive’ and ‘not economically minded’, and the staff were aging.12

 

The Secretary of the Department of Territories, C.R. Lambert, extended the compliment to the whole Native Affairs Branch.13 He felt that the NAB was not guided by policy, did not evaluate what superintendents were doing, and that there was a general ‘floundering along with little appreciation of what requires [sic] to be done and how to do it and a general uncertainty as to what is wanted’, both on the part of supervisors of government reserves and missions and in the Branch.

 

My general feeling after reading the report is one of distinct uncertainty as to whether the Native Affairs Branch is fully seized of the aims of policy and its obligations as the instrument for the furtherness [sic] of those aims, whether it really has a proper conception of how a station should be constituted and run, or of the relation between a station and a Native Reserve and whether it … is capable of promoting, directing and supervising plans for the achievement of the aims.14

 

Lambert felt that the government and mission stations were merely undertaking ‘care and welfare’ functions ‘with little constructive or progressive activity directed to the advancement of the natives to usefulness in the community’. The NAB reports lacked constructive comment and analysis, and showed no evidence of any instructions given to supervisors. Lambert anticipated in the near future ‘settlement of the whole plan of action in Native Affairs Administration and determination of the missions future and requirements in terms of that plan’.15

 

Marriage rules

 

W.E.H. Stanner was advising the Department of Territories on the misunderstandings harboured by the priests about marriage rules at Port Keats.16 He said he had explained the system to the Port Keats missionaries, but it required ‘a great deal of concentrated attention’ to comprehend it. He distinguished between ‘preferred marriage’ between second cousins (Purima) and ‘permitted marriage’, which could be with a first cousin (Pugali) if they were sufficiently distant in genealogy or space. He pointed out that the missionaries assumed that a totemic order regulated marriages, and that they ignored the patrilineal moiety system, which required marriage outside one’s own moiety. At any rate, Stanner felt that

 

‘interference with the marriage system is not demanded of the Church by its rules of faith and morals. It is in the theological sense a needless interference made on the basis of the priests’ private judgments. In my opinion they are poor judgments, both of aboriginal needs and of the consequences for the Church’s own work.’17

 

C.R. Lambert of the Department of Territories summed up:

 

‘The native systems can be made fully consistent with monogamy. All that is required is to obtain the men’s consent to exercise only one of several rights to marry. Monogamy was not uncommon even in the old days. … The immediate purposes of mission policy can thus be attained without any need to interfere with the traditional systems.’18

 

Progress

 

The mission almost doubled its livestock during 1936 (from 3 pigs to 5, from 6 goats to 12, from 12 fowls to 20)19 and by 1952 had 80 goats, 23 horses and 465 cattle. That year 34 cattle and 8 goats were butchered for consumption (almost one animal per week) and the goats and 200 cows supplied milk. There was also a fish-trap and six acres of fenced garden supplied a wide range of fruit and vegetables.20

 

The missionaries treated yaws (with N.A.B. – neutralizing antibody injections) and ringworm (with turpentine and tincture of iodine), and in 1936 Anson estimated that 26% of the population were hookworm infested. There was no malaria, leprosy, and only one case of adult VD ('gonococcal infection').21

 

The mission reported consistently more births than deaths and an increasing population. It grew from 30 children in 1936 to 138 children in 1951 with altogether 342 children in the mission area.22 In 1936 Anson reported that ‘all who were questioned stated that they preferred mission life and influence to their natural nomadic existence’, but by 1952 Sweeney felt ‘that Father Dockerty [sic] has not got the confidence of the native community in his present dormitory policy.’ Nevertheless, the mission contained 216 adults who were free to come and go.

 

Staff associated with Port Keats

 

Fr. R. Doherty MSC, June 1935 (still there in 1952)

Pat Ritchie, lay assistant, June 1935 – November 1935

Br. F. Quinn, stockman and gardener, October 1935 – (still there in 1952)

Mr. Johnson, lay assistant, October 1935 - April 1936

Br. D. McCarthy, carpenter, November 1935 - (still there in 1952)

Fr. Frank Flynn MSC (language work)

Sr. David, kitchen and handicraft

Sr. Benedicta, in charge of hospital

Sr. Helen, trained teacher

Sr. Jacinta, also teaching in 1952

Fr. M. Bailey MSC 1952-

 

 

1 NT Admin. to Dept. Interior (Carrodus) 28 May 1934, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

2 The book, North of the Never Never was written in collaboration with Henry B. Raine, and published by Angus and Robertson in Sydney, 1934, and by the Catholic press Burns, Oates and Washbourne in London in 1935. It was also translated into French.

3 Gsell, 15 April 1931, and L.H.A. Giles Deputy Government Resident Darwin to Dept. Home Affairs, 4 February 1931 in Bathurst Island Mission Reports 1910-1915 2A 431-1951k-1294 NAA.

4 16 December 1935 SMH ‘Uncivilised Blacks. Port Keats Mission. Fierce Moil Tribes’, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98.

5 1 October 1935 Weddell NT Admin to Dept. Interior, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

6 F. X. Gsell, The Bishop with 150 wives – fifty years as a missionary,

Angus and Robertson, 1956:152.

7 Anson report 1936 on Port Keats, 21 April 1936 in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

8 27 April 1936 Cecil Cook CMO to Administrator NT in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

9 27 April 1936 Cecil Cook CMO to Administrator NT and Gsell to Carrodus, 22 June 1936 in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

10 Regina Ganter, interview with Johnny Juler, Wadeye, July 1994.

11 M. M. Culnane, Department of External Territories, Notes on Review Report – Port Keats re. Annual Report for 1950, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

12 G. Sweeney, District Superintendent, Review Report Port Keats Mission, 1952-1953, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

13 5 February 1952 Lambert to NT Administrator, Review Report Port Keats Mission, 1952-1953, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

14 5 February 1952 Lambert to NT Administrator, Review Report Port Keats Mission, 1952-1953, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

15 5 February 1952 Lambert to NT Administrator, Review Report Port Keats Mission, 1952-1953, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

16 5 February 1952 C.R. Lambert, Secretary, Dept. of Territories to NT Administrator, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

17 W.E.H. Stanner, ANU to D.F. McCarthy, Dept. Territories, 9 February 1955, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

18 5 February 1952 C.R. Lambert, Secretary, Dept. of Territories to NT, Administrator, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

19 Anson report 1936 on Port Keats, 21 April 1936 and 1936 Annual Report, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

20 G. Sweeney, District Superintendent, Review Report Port Keats Mission, 1952-1953, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

21 Anson report 1936 on Port Keats, 21 April 1936 in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.

22 1936 Annual Report and Sweeney Review Report Port Keats Mission, 1952-1953 and Review Report, Port Keats Mission to December 1951, in Port Keats Catholic Mission, Northern Territory 1934 55A452, 1955/98 NAA.