Weipa (1898-1919)

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Also known as: 
Albatross Bay
Prepared by: 
Regina Ganter

Weipa became the first branch mission of Mapoon in a string of roughly equidistant missions along the West coast of Cape York under the direction of British Moravian Rev. Edwin Brown until 1919. Its purpose was to prevent recruiting for the trepang and pearling industry in the area.

 

Outrigger station

The British Moravian Rev. Edwin Brown, who had been educated at Herrnhut, and his German wife Frieda spent two years under Rev. Hey’s tutelage at Mapoon. They commenced the station at Weipa in 1898, on the Embley River about 95 miles south of Mapoon, near Duyfken Point. Weipa was a meeting ground for several groups of indigenous people, or in the words of the missionaries, a fighting ground. A group of young men from Mapoon, including the leading Christian Jimmy assisted in the commencement of this station.

 

The government resident Douglas at Thursday Island prohibited recruiting in the area which had led to much violence on both sides, and the result of this early intervention was that the incidence of venereal disease was much lower than elsewhere.

 

Indigenous invitation

Hey chose the site for Weipa in April 1896 in consultation with John Douglas. On an excursion to Albatross Bay Hey a group camped on the Pine Creek nearby requested that Hey come and see them

 

I sent my young men ashore where we had seen a camp fire the previous night. They said there was a big tribe and they wanted to see me, they had heard about the big house (mission) and that the missionaries were their friends, but they had never seen one. I received a warm welcome and spoke to them through an interpreter. I received the impression that here was an open field for mission work here before these children of nature are affected by bad civilisation.[1]

 

Soon after Brown’s arrival at Mapoon in 1896 a big group of people from Pine Creek gathered five miles from Mapoon on the understanding that they were now to receive their own missionary.[2] Some of their children were already in the Mapoon dormitory, but they had to wait another two years before the mission was established on their country. Meanwhile they visited every Christmas. Some of their young men had also married into the Mapoon mission. (Hey variously referred to these people as the Coen River people, or people camped on Pine Creek, Mission Creek, and Pennefather Creek or Pennefather River, a name he substituted for Coen River).

 

First Hey conducted a fundraising campaign for the new mission during eight months’ furlough, with the result that the Presbyterian Women’s Mission Union of Victoria agreed to pay for a teacher at Weipa, the Queensland Women’s Society paid for an assistant, and Ormond College, a branch of Melbourne University, agreed to carry the upkeep of a mission boat. These were cumbersome arrangements, but preferable to dependence on government whims: ‘I don’t think we should beg everything we can get from the government because it might make us too dependent which could have dire consequences.’[3]

 

The mission house at Weipa
WeipaMissionshaus
Source: Box 365, Lutheran Archives Australia

In August 1898 Brown and a party of young men from Mapoon, including the native assistant Jimmy who was from the Coen/Pennefather River, were busy building the new station at Weipa. During a visit by the Home Secretary, the Hon. J.F. G. Foxton and his wife, the mission was named, and a mango tree planted by Mrs. Foxton. Its name was officially adopted in October 1899, although Dr Roth had pointed out that it should be spelt We-ipa, not Weipa.[4]

 

A steady indigenous population did not really form on the mission, but its school filled up quickly. By 1909 the average daily attendance was 50, of which 24 girls were boarders in the dormitory. The Albatross Bay people kept their distance from the mission, took advantage of whatever it might offer, and settled their disputes according to their own traditions. In 1909 Brown reported four murders, considerable fighting and unrest. Although the death rate was consistently higher than the birth rate, Brown felt that health was generally good ‘we are very free from the many ailments which trouble more civilized peoples’.[5]

 

Assistants

It took ten years before the mission received a white assistant, Mr and Mrs Hall from New Zealand. In his report for the year 1909 Brown commented on

 

an event which marks an epoch in the history of our station, viz, the passing of the Kanaka assistant by the advent of a duly recognised white assistant, who can be an assistant indeed, and not a mere overseer requiring himself constant supervision.[6]

 

This was little praise for the people who constituted the daily interface between white missionaries and indigenous people. It may have been a response to the debacle over Peter Bee at Aurukun in the year before. It is remarkable that in the year when Mapoon was in the midst of a public scandal over the punishment of a girl, and a worse scandal appears to have been covered up at Aurukun, the Weipa mission was reinforced. In that year also the government agreed to finance Mrs. Brown as the school-teacher.

 

Rations

The government also paid an allowance for rations. In 1913 this worked out to 3 pence a head per day, or less than a penny a meal[7]   - just the same rate as at Bloomfield almost twenty years earlier criticized by Archibald Meston in 1896 as highly inadequate. As independent sources of income and sustenance the mission had its own cattle herd and sandalwood cutter. The cattle herd was to supply the mission with meat, but indigenous people were supposed to work for their hand-outs and not to help themselves. To put a stop to cattle killing on the mission reserve Brown had two ‘ringleaders’ deported to the south ‘as a warning to others’ in 1910.

 

Sandalwooding

Sandalwooding enjoyed a revival on the Cape in this period and there were frequent incursions into the mission reserve and public pressure to throw open the reserves for timber-getting. The best defence against this pressure was for the mission to engage in sandalwooding. In 1910 Brown hired a South Sea Islander to supervise this work, but was unhappy with him, and eventually took turns with Hall in supervising the work. This gave him opportunity to meet local indigenous people whom he otherwise never saw on the mission. To compete with commercial employers who were paying for labour in cash, Brown introduced a home-made currency which could be traded in for clothing and household goods at the mission store. Sandalwooding quickly became popular among the local indigenous people, and in 1911 many more women started to leave their children at the mission to go sandalwooding, so bible and sewing classes for the women were suspended, and there were no evening classes and band practice because everyone was out cutting wood. Brown wanted to set up a saw-mill at the mission, but the application was refused. The following year sandalwood prices dropped and the work was abandoned in favour of trepang fishing, supervised by Dick Kemp, but not very successfully.

 

Married couples outstation

In 1912 Brown formed the first outstation at Weipa with three young married couples, following the Mapoon model. These couples cultivated their own gardens. Plans were fomenting for a mission at Mornington Island, and in 1913 the Halls left Weipa to start a mission there. The indigenous population in the Albatross Bay area was steadily declining, and the number of school children dropped from an average attendance of 50 to 36 in 1915.

 

 

Rev. Brown at Weipa
Source: Picture Australia

The Browns stayed for twenty years before moving to the United States in 1919. This ended the Moravian involvement at Weipa. They were replaced by Mr and Mrs Miller. In 1924, when a Presbyterian delegation visited the three missions to report on their handover to the Queensland Presbyterian church, the Millers had just had their second child, and shared the mission work with Mr. and Mrs. Mayer.

 

 


 

[1] 3 April 1896 Hey to Römig, Mf 186, AIATSIS.

[2] 6 August 1896 Hey to Römig, Mf 186, AIATSIS.

[3] 28 March 1898 Hey to La Trobe, Mf 186, AIATSIS.

[4] 28 October 1899 Hey to La Trobe, Mf 186, AIATSIS.

[5] Brown, Annual Report for Weipa for 1912, to the Moravian Mission Board, Mf 171, AIATSIS.

[6] Brown, Annual Report for Weipa for 1909, to the Moravian Mission Board, Mf 171, AIATSIS.

[7] Brown, Annual Report for Weipa for 1913, to the Moravian Mission Board, Mf 171, AIATSIS.

An elevated view of the Methodist Mission Station at Weipa, Cape York, North Queensland. Edwin Brown of the Methodist Mission Station at Weipa.

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