Scottish Presbyterians and the regulation of labour in far-north Queensland

The phrase ‘Christianity, commerce, and civilisation’ is a useful encapsulation of the dynamic system that Christians believed was at the base of the expansion of their faith abroad in the nineteenth century. Evangelisation and the preaching of Christian belief throughout the British Empire, in combination with the encouragement of liberal commerce, were believed to be the basis for the spread of genuine Christian civilisation. As civilisation developed in the colonial world, so said missionaries, the expectation was that these societies would prosper, become self-financing, self-governing, and later self-propagating – that is to say, indigenous converts would continue undertaking missionary work in ‘uncivilised’ parts of the world.

Arguably, no one was more influential in the articulation and popularisation of this approach to missionary work than David Livingston, the famous Scottish explorer, was. Livingston envisaged missions as having more purposes than strictly evangelisation: they should encompass a variety of human activities, divided across the three categories of commerce, Christianity, and civilisation. He argued to his colleagues in the London Missionary Society that Christian missions should be autonomous, and should provide for a whole range of social, political, economic, and spiritual needs. Referring directly to the African slave trade, Livingston contended that human suffering could be alleviated by introducing legitimate, humane, and liberal commerce, which was to be protected by good governments under the direction of Christian principles.

While there are many examples of Scottish benefactors contributing to the establishment and maintenance of Presbyterian and other Christian churches and missions in Australia, there are also cases where the dictum, ‘Christianity, commerce, and civilisation’, was more noticeably enacted by colonial missionaries. Indeed, even Archibald Meston – in his capacity as Protector – believed that the first duty of government-operated reserves was that they must be financially self-supporting organisations. This was the case with the north Queensland Presbyterian missions.

In 1886, the Presbyterian Federal Assembly committed to establishing a mission in the north of Queensland, and Presbyterian community committees were set up in Victoria to collect funds for the mission. In 1885, the Protector of Aborigines in Victoria, Moravian missionary Friedrich August Hagenauer, toured Queensland and observed the necessity of establishing missions in the far north, where the immigration of South Pacific Islanders had raised humanitarian concerns. Hagenauer believed missions could train Aboriginal people as a substitute labour force for plantations. John Douglas, a prominent Queensland official, was supportive of a mission; he had been concerned with abuses of Aboriginal labour by recruiters in the fishing industry and saw missions along the coast of Cape York as away to regulate and monitor this industry. German Moravians and Scottish Presbyterians in Victoria had already worked together to create two missions in Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s. With the support of John Douglas, along with the backing of prominent Presbyterians in Victoria, a site for the Mapoon mission was established in 1890 and the mission itself was founded in 1891.

By 1896, the Mapoon mission catered for around three-hundred Indigenous people, and reported an average daily attendance of 150 people; around 60 pupils attended the mission school. Notably, Archibald Meston, the Queensland Protector of Aborigines, proved to be of particular annoyance to the missionaries in Queensland. In a letter to his friend Benjamin La Trobe, the head Moravian missionary at Mapoon, Nikolaus Hey, reflected on Meston’s character and questioned the veracity of his ethnographic field reports:

During his whole time at Mapoon he visited neither the church nor the school, and bothered neither with the missionaries nor with the Aborigines but tried to collect as many traditional weapons as possible which he said bring in a lot of money. He still hasn’t honoured his promises to our blacks to send gifts in return. As he himself said he has killed many a blackfellow in his time, but his report portrays something else. It suggests that he is the right man in the right place. …. Mr Meston is a great speaker and knows how to handle a pen … I have his report here … I am sorry to say that it contains much that does not accord with the truth, and that he has been asked by many quarters to show proof for certain of his statements which has not been able to do.

The church and its missionaries sought to expand the Mapoon mission towards the end of the 1890s. Avoiding government funding and thus further encounters with the likes of Meston, the Presbyterian Women’s Mission Union of Victoria, the Queensland Women’s Society, and Ormond College (a Presbyterian residential and theological college affiliated with the University of Melbourne) provided financial support for a branch mission to be established at nearby Weipa in 1898. Another mission, similarly operated by Moravians and backed by Presbyterians, was opened near Weipa at Aurukun in 1904.

In 1891, the Australian Town and Country Journal reproduced reports from the Presbyterian Church stating the reasons for the selection of the specific site of the Mapoon mission. It noted that among other geographical advantages, the area around the mission would “afford good fishing for the blacks, and as the land is very suitable for the cultivation of all topical [sic] trees and fruits, the station may be made also self-sustaining, and, it is expected, will consist of about 100,000 acres.” Two months after the site’s selection, John Douglas wrote to the convenor of the Presbyterian Federal Assembly’s Aborigines Mission in Queensland. He had recently visited the site of the new mission, where work was beginning on constructing buildings and preparing the surrounding land for cultivation:

I had brought down with me a few sweet potato cuttings and bananas. These were planted as soon as possible. The soil is very suitable for sweet potatoes, a fine open sandy loam with sufficient moisture. Mr. Hey, I think, will prove to be a great agriculturalist, and therein lies the hope of the mission.

Aside from economic self-sufficiency and the cultivation of produce for both profit and the provision of food for local Indigenous peoples, he group of Moravian/Presbyterian missions established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries effectively regulated the Indigenous workforce in far north Queensland by training and recruiting Indigenous labourers. The missions also became involved with the affairs of Pacific Islander labourers. In 1896, the Queensland Presbyterian minister Rev. P. Robertson informed the Presbyterian Federal Assembly of the work being done by missionaries in the far north of Queensland. He said, “The keepers of opium dens and grog shops were in the habit of getting hold of the wages earned by the kanakas, and the foreign mission committee had succeeded in getting 160 kanakas to sign the pledge, and so get out of the power of the unscrupulous white population.” Robertson continued:

No fewer than 82 kanakas had received the sacrament, and 26 had been baptised. It was a common thing for unscrupulous white traders to hold from 80 to 100 of the kanakas money, giving them in return a simply acknowledgement in pencil for the receipt. One of these receipts was taken down to Brisbane, and the police were now endeavouring to put a stop to the practice, which resulted in extortions being committed on the kanakas.

Under the guidance of the Nikolaus Hey, Mapoon and its branch missions administered recruitment to the fisheries and ensured that the maximum employment period was six months, the minimum age for recruitment was set at fourteen, and that women could not be signed on. The wages earned had to be handed to the mission:

Having put his wages into the common fund, each boy, as a matter of right, can also draw from the store anything he wants in reason – e.g. fishhooks, lines, turtle-rope, knives, tools, nails, buckets, further supply of clothing and tobacco, and, when he marries, the galvanized iron to roof his house. At Christmas time the store supplies every visitor (including, of course, those from Albatross Bay), with a suit of clothes. Each boy thus learns that he is labouring not only for himself, but for the common good.

In the oversight of employment conditions, and its control of wages and goods, the missions effectively constructed a microcosm of commerce, which was protected by a governing body ‘guided by Christian principles’. Indeed, such was the nature of the mission’s control over conditions that one observer called Nikolaus Hey’s style of governance a “limited monarchy”. Hey believed, however, that, while the introduction of rudimentary Western commerce was integral to the ‘common good’, Christianity had to remain central to the mission’s purpose. Writing of the north Queensland mission – the group of missions at Mapoon, Weipa, and Aurukun – Hey said:

On all our stations the church is in the centre, and the preaching of the Gospel is never side-tracked or made of secondary importance. Everywhere each day begins with a religious service, in fact, religion permeates the whole. Two services are conducted every Sunday, as well as Sunday school and mid-week prayer meetings.

Unsurprisingly, the mission also followed Livingston’s ideal of the self-propagating Christian enterprise. According to this missionary strategy, a self-sustaining and prosperous mission was the basis for the spread of genuine Christian civilisation. There were at least three early converts at Mapoon who went on to become assistants and one left to establish another mission at Embley River in 1898. Of one Torres Strait Islander convert, Hey wrote:

…the native assistant Mamoos [sic] has again proved himself in the past year and is a great help to us in every respect. At times I give him special instruction in order to deepen his understanding of the Holy Scriptures. He has also made a start on developing very simple sermons. Lately it has been his task to translate hymns into the native language and to practise them with the young men.

The Presbyterian Church at their north Queensland missions at Mapoon, Weipa, and Aurukun therefore pursued ‘Christianity, commerce, and civilisation’ among Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, much as missions and missionaries emanated from Scotland throughout the British Empire, the imperial spread of Christian commerce and civilisation also came from within the colonies, and I will write on one example of this in a future post.


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