Aurukun (1904-1913)

Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter
Also known as: 
Archer River Mission

Aurukun on the Archer River was a mission marked by trouble during its first ten years under the German Moravian pastor Richter who strongly relied on ‘native assistants’ to mediate contact with indigenous communities that remained aloof. It was the third of four stations on the west coast of Cape York in the Presbyterian/Moravian string of missions consisting of Mapoon (1891), Weipa (1898) and Mornington Island (1914).

Richter at Aurukun

German Moravian Rev. Arthur Richter and his wife Elisabeth served a period with Hey at Mapoon before setting up the new mission, 70 miles south of Weipa. It was to be an outrigger mission under the general direction of Hey. Like Mapoon, its purpose was to regulate recruitment for the pearl-shell and beche-de-mer fisheries. In his first annual report (see below) Richter observed that the young men had much contact with the outside world through their lugger work, and as a result, many were infected with syphilis. During the ten years that the Richters remained at Aurukun, the death rate was consistently higher than the birth rate, and infant mortality was high.


The ‘string of missions’ at Cape York was to curb the exploitation of Aboriginal workers in the marine industry. From about 1908 sandalwooding became popular at Cape York and sandalwooders were regularly encroaching on the mission reserves.   At Weipa and Aurukun the missionaries turned this into a source of income for the mission by sending out work gangs and selling the timber. For 1911 Richter reported a good income from this enterprise. Eventually the mission acquired a saw-bench and earned an income from selling firewood at Thursday Island.


No baptisms were performed during Richter’s period. Like most missionaries, Richter subscribed to the view that while all humans had descended from a single pair, indigenous people had somehow regressed from a higher state of civilisation. His observations of indigenous society are coloured by this view.


The aloofness was mutual. Indigenous communities remained distant from the mission, although parents were willing to place children in the dormitory for a period in return for rations. Richter’s report (below) also suggests that word got around that one could get a free feed and a good rest at the mission if one reported in with a non-specific illness.


Occasionally missionary reports provide glimpses that attempts to train and educate went both ways in the interaction between missionaries and indigenous people. In 1910 Richter reported that a large group of about a hundred people had arrived three weeks too early for Christmas. They stayed for a week and withdrew in disappointment. A week before Christmas Richter sent a courier telling them to come back soon, and they asked for a proper message-stick invitation. Richter complied by sending a piece of cardboard with the mission address, and an old envelope, and instructed the courier to show them seven fingers for seven more nights. Eventually 270 Christmas guests gathered for the annual festivities that involved the hand-out of flour, blankets and trinkets. 


Both Richter at Aurukun and Brown at Weipa strongly relied on ‘native assistants’,   but mention of these people in the reports is scant, and confined to reporting trouble. Richter’s first assistant was called Jimmy (apparently not Jimmy Deinditschy mentioned by Hey) but he succumbed to dengue fever during the first year. Tom Solomon became Richter’s next assistant and captained the mission boat, and during Richter’s absence in 1905 Tom Solomon ran the mission assisted by the South Sea Islander James. James died there after three months.


Dormitory trouble

More trouble was to beset the mission. As in Mapoon, the dormitory was the nucleus of mission activity at Aurukun. It received children allocated by police and protectors as well as some who were brought by their fathers from neighbouring groups.


In 1907 Richter planned to take all the mission children to Mapoon for the opening of a new church. This was after there had been a stand-off between Rev. Hey and the new Protector Howard, who had demanded that mission girls be sent to Thursday Island once they had completed their training. Rumour at Aurukun now had it that they were going to be given away to the Protector to be married to Islanders, and the girls ‘dug a hole with their hands under the wall of the girls house’ and all disappeared. ‘For several months all children, boys and girls, avoided us’, reported Richter in 1907. As a solution he suggested, ‘We will build a more secure girls’ house like the older stations’.[1] The number of girls dropped from 36 in 1906 to 13 in 1907, and it took until 1910 to recover the numbers.


Subsequent reports suggest that there may have been a more pressing reason for the girls to escape than ill-informed rumour. Gradually a debacle unfolded over the assistant Peter Bee, who abused young women and girls at the mission, as young as ten years old.  On 7 February 1908 the tribal people put an end to his misdemeanours and killed him.  This caused a virtual war between the mission people and the tribal people. The vigilante killers were captured and chained but ‘got away’. They were recaptured, and while in custody, two Mapoon people, one of whom was Jimmy, shot them.  


The wild ones wanted to kill all the station people and burn down the buildings. Many of the people escaped into the bush but some brave ones, Cowling again among them, stayed on the station, offered Jimmie and Annie Bee their help in case of need and guarded the buildings.[2]  


In March the police arrived and arrested Jimmy. He had killed persons in custody, but acting in the service of the mission, his punishment was a nine-months banishment to Yarrabah mission near Cairns.


The following year Richter reported that many people still hadn’t come back to the mission because of the Peter Bee affair. The old men had lost all respect for Christendom, and the missionary and his native evangelists were struggling to recover some moral lesson from the affair.[3]


From Moravian to Presbyterian mission

In 1913 the Richters went on furlough in Germany and were unable to return to Australia because of the outbreak of World War I. They were replaced at first by Owen, and then Mr and Mrs Holmes. The period of German missionaries at Aurukun ends in 1913.


The reserve was enlarged in 1922 to include the Kendall River area further south. People from the Kendall had been occasionally coming to Aurukun for years, particularly for Christmas, and because it was a government blanket distribution post. In 1924 the Millers transferred from Weipa to Aurukun to assist in the handover of the mission superintendence from Holmes to the son of a fellow missionary in Vila, New Hebrides, Rev. J. W. MacKenzie.[4]


Rev. Richter’s Annual Report for Aurukun for 1905




Dear Brother La Trobe,

Another year has passed, our first full year on the new station, and I joyously go about writing this report, since this year past stands fully under the truth of the Word. In dire straits did not the Lord spread His wings above you, and was never far away with His blessing, although we have often been downcast and almost discouraged in view of the success of our work, because


I. the spiritual work among the natives

is still entirely a seed of hope. These people understand nothing of the Lord’s truth because everything metaphysical appears too abstract for this people among whom religion appears to have died down entirely. Yes, they cannot even memorize what is told them, rarely will they even remember stories from their own lives that have been recounted during pine Service, it appears as if they resisted with ears closed. Moreover, everything they see on pictures appears new to them. They have to learn to look at pictures. Oh, how much preparatory work is often associated with discouragement and disappointment, how much patience and endurance seems required to bring them to the level on which even a poor heathen negro or [Red] Indian naturally operates. It almost appears as if here, too, the knowledge and fear of the devil has disappeared. They only ever speak of their fear of the spirits of the dead, which they sometimes call ‘devils’. The singing lessons appear to be the only success. The people are learning, though slowly, a number of spiritual songs, which they sometimes sing while working or in the bush. Without knowing their real meaning, they often praise their creator without meaning to. The singing, which at first sounds pleasing, soon deteriorates according to their custom and ends up as a broad howl. One measure of progress might be that the violent arguments in the camp have become rarer, or that for some of them now the power of the [final] hour (die Macht der Stunde) reveals itself more than before. Now we want to wait patiently until His hour comes, because we know that many prayers are raised to heaven especially for our station, both at home and here in Australia, which the Lord does not need to answer.

II. the school and work with the children

At the moment the school is still preoccupied with learning the alphabet. This is understandable in view of the small talent, or rather the lack of energy among our people. Moreover, the constant nomadism means that several children only came to school a few times during the year. We are not able to conduct the school every day, this would exceed our energy and time. Our task is, after all, only to gather the children and to more or less get the school going until the teacher takes up her office. But we want to do some good groundwork because this is the most important part of the mission work. I am enclosing a filled-in form sent to me by Brother Hay [sic] before Christmas. My wife also took along 19 young women to the school, although it seems a labour in vain (because the women are very dull), but it gives her an opportunity, which she desires, to make a more personal contact with them and to bring them more closely under Christian influence. I have given up instructing the young men for the time being, for various reasons, but hope to start again once our church has been completed. The young men, who have a great advantage over the others because their boat life has much increased their horizon, have welcomed the school with enthusiasm. But after a few weeks, when they realised that it involved much effort, they tired of it and showed even less determination than the children. The Australian is an arch enemy of everything that involves effort. He cannot conquer himself, he is a slave of his passions and feelings. The instructions commence, as in Mapoon, with a bible story, illustrated by some pretty and colourful images, which are sent to us by friends in the south. We find it necessary to tell them a bible story four to six times, or even more often, until they can even recall single moments from them. Since the new year my wife started a sewing class which is making good progress.

An unexpected joy was that in the last year we were able to accept three girls into the girls’ house and now another one. We hope to receive more girls soon. My wife holds Sunday school with these children. We also intend to take in boys. This leads me to the

III. practical work

This presently still is the main work and will continue to play a large role as long as the mission continues. At the moment this still revolves around the construction and extension of the station, so for example the mission house was still unfinished at the beginning of the year, and much time was spent on making doors, windows, verandah, and furnishings like tables and book shelves etc. The side wing was made ready as kitchen, store room and bakery. I would have also been urgently necessary to build hard walls for the store room which is only constructed of bark, in order to reduce the temptation to break in. That would have remedied a long overdue requirement. The white ants had already started their destructive work, and because the store room is directly below the living quarters this could become dangerous. But the building of various houses became necessary. The small school house was prepared as the girls’ house, because there was no time to construct a separate one, and because the provisional school house no longer answered the purpose, so we have started a larger more spacious building for the school and pine Service. The natives themselves built a girls’ kitchen, which although lacking in all beauty and accuracy, answers its purpose for the time being. But a nice boys’ house was built, although only made from bark, yet sturdy, spacious and usefully furnished. A chicken pen was also necessary, the poor animals had to camp in trees until then. An area for the horses has also been fenced. But most of the time was consumed by a1,350 foot long fence around the whole mission area consisting of tightly spaced tree logs dug into the ground. The garden yielded nothing but a single pumpkin, some water melons and some rosellas, and only enough beans to gather seeds for this year. It may have been because the soil was only lightly dug over. But mostly it was because of the peculiar raining season. At first, before and after Christmas we had terrible downpours which simply smashed many plants, and then the rain stopped two months earlier than usual and a heat wave seared everything. This year we have spent more effort on the garden, but we could not give it as much attention as it needs because so much other work robbed us of the time.

IV Medical work

We are the only Europeans in an area as big as Silesia, and the natives know no other doctor except the missionaries. They are not at all suspicious about us and our medicine, after all their medical knowledge is confined to the smearing of clay and mud on the painful parts. But here we also encounter difficulties, partly because of our unfamiliarity with the language, partly because of the idiosyncracies of the people, who are sometimes very vague about their pain or illness, often intentionally so, so that one can barely find out their illness. To compound the matter, illnesses often manifest differently among the natives than among us. For example in the case of fever there is often no temperature but an accelerated pulse. Usually they develop a good appetite and sound sleep during illness. This year we had a lot of malaria and dengue. My wife and I were also gripped by the former, which stayed with us for half a year. One day, on 1 September, we both had to lie down and rest, and on the next day Dr Roth came to visit the station. This was not a fortunate coincidence, thank God both of us were spared from dengue again this year, but my acting assistant Jimmy was claimed by this sickness in the bloom of his life. Most of our medical work is in the treatment of wounds, and we already reported about the difficulty associated with this last year. Thank God spear wounds were rare last year, but there was no shortage of all kinds of injuries and ulcers, the treatment of which was mostly successful. The most objectionable work is the tending of syphilis sufferers who are usually already beyond treatment. Often they are in an indescribable condition. We on our part try to be careful not to become infected ourselves and we have no shortage of disinfectants of all kinds. The odour of these afflicted is almost unbearable, so I hope to build a cottage at the far end of the court next year where these patients can be tended.

V. Various

Our official visitors last year were firstly Brother Hay [sic] who then took us along to Weipa for the consecration of the church. In August he came again accompanied by Rev. P. Robertson from Ipswich, Queensland. This gentleman is the Vice-Convenor of the Foreign Heathen Mission Committee and seems to be the one who has most practical understanding of our mission work. It is well known that the Presbyterians show us much love and not only have a great interest in us but also support us with serious prayer and donations, but those who have only ever lived in the civilised world lack the practical understanding for our work. It is therefore especially good to be able to receive a practical man like Mr. Robertson here. He gave the name of Aurukun to the station, which was later confirmed by Dr Roth during his visit. On Mr. Robertson’s suggestion, we are to receive a lay missionary instead of the assistant, whose wife will take on the office of mission teacher. Police Inspector Garraway from the Coen station also intended to visit us, but unfortunately he suddenly noticed that he had ended up on the southern bank of our river, although he had been keeping on the northern side of the Archer River. His discovery revealed that we are not on the ArcherRiver but on the MarlunaRiver. We were very disappointed that this benevolent gentleman was unable to cross the river with his horses, and had to turn back without achieving his purpose, and that we now loose the name of the ArcherRiver mission. The attached sketch is copied from the Inspector.

As mentioned earlier we had a short raining season last year. This caused an unexpected water shortage this year. By August all ponds and creeks had dried out. Our big dam was the only water reservoir for 15 miles around. By late November the water in the dam also began to be so dirty and smelly that we ourselves emitted an unpleasant odour each time we washed ourselves. Luckily around this time we had a few rain showers, which supplied us at least with drinking water. But how sparingly we had to use it I cannot tell you. For a while the blacks and horses lived on the dirty water until only mud was left. The natives dug holes in the dam to get a bit more water, but without success, because before any water can gather in this clay soil it is already absorbed by the sun. They had to tide themselves over with great effort. Nobody could think of washing anything. A few showers over Christmas filled the small holes and left a bit of water on the bottom of the dam which was completely evaporated by three weeks of heat and dry. On the morning of the 26 January we had to ask ourselves, what will our people and horses drink today? A last energetic effort was made. The assistant Tom took men, women, and all the tools, to quickly dig a deep hole in the dam. They went 5 or 6 foot deep,  and still had not struck any water, when a heavy rain-shower came and the emergency passed for the moment, answering many prayers. This year we have had little rain and a lot of heat, and we hope that our creator will give us a lot more rain, otherwise we will be in a worse situation within a few months.  

The Christmas celebrations proceeded similar to last year. On 23 December the bell called young and old for games at 2.30. The men came armed with a good number of spears. A tin on top of a pole was the target at which they aimed, and everyone who hit it got a prize. Others tried to get whatever object from the top of a climbing pole. Women and children had races, bag jumping, and other games. At 5.00 it was over. Everyone got some flour and all were happy. On 24 December we had the gift giving. The bell rang again in the afternoon, this time for pine Service. After singing ‘Silent Night’, the favourite song of our blacks, I showed them several beautiful Christmas pictures, and then the Christmas tree, loaded with toys, biscuits, sweets, necklaces, tobacco and other things, was denuded. I followed up with the presents for the children and permanent workers. After prayers and singing ‘What good news the angel bring’, the people returned to the camp. We were happy that a number of wild natives participated in the celebration, it gave us an opportunity to show them, with whom we often have to be strict, that we have come to spread peace. Incidentally we were able to enjoy more calm and security lately. Pray that the loyal saviour will help us and that we will succeed in conquering them with love, and that the beautiful Christmas sun will soon shine in the hearts of many.

With best greetings to you and all Brothers of the mission committee

I remain your inferior

Arthur Richter








[1] Richter, Annual Report for Aurukun for 1907, to La Trobe, in German handwriting, Mf171 AITATSIS.

[2] Richter, Annual Report for Aurukun for 1909, Mf171 AITATSIS.

[3] Richter, Annual Report for Aurukun for 1909, Mf171 AITATSIS.

[4] Kirke, G.K. and C. Radcliffe, ‘Presbyterian Church of Queensland, Missions to the Aboriginals – Past and Present’, Brisbane, Black and Flack Printers, 1924, p. 6.

[5] Transcribed and translated from German handwriting by Christa Loos and Regina Ganter, Mf171 AITATSIS.