TGA: Mitchell River Mission

6 04 2010

Picture of / about 'Mitchell River' Queensland - View of Mitchell River Mission, 1919

This picture is of the Mitchell River Mission in 1919.  It is not from the Dossier.  There are, however, a cluster of images in the Dossier from this Mission because Jonathan Meiburg spent some of his fellowship time here

what the body allows

and indeed this is a place of loss

a flash in the heart

The Mission itself was active in Kowanyama Queensland land of many waters, North of where I visited, for a very short time, in 1996 and what I remember were the crocadiles, the baby cassowaries and the lovely scrubfowl.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I didn’t sense the human history.  It is imprinted but I was somewhat ignorant and I was a tourist travelling to a conference. But you feel these things, you know.

The Mitchell River Mission itself was active from 1904-1962  well past the time of the Second Great Awakening but, as Australian missions started late, certainly during the heyday of mission work in Queensland.

everyone to experience the wholeness of life God offers in Jesus Christ, and to this end support our Partners as they participate in God’s mission.

So they say on their website

god made me

Should I say now that the mere idea of missionary work bothers me.  I cannot view it with eyes unclouded by doubts and even antagonism.

I learned a lie/that power breeds/regeneration

It always appears to me to be an issue of power and of erasing of difference.  A coming into the fold because of power or of fearing of hellfire or even of a sort of pity.

burning wall/that approaches


And of course, over all my impression of missionary work, in the recent history of the church is the shadow of abuse (a cleanly term).  I know a person who works with the indigenous survivors of institutionalized abuse in Canada’s Anglican schools–these are adults that carry the little broken children they were locked inside themselves.

I suppose we all do, but then this abuse changes the nature of the break.

And, ultimately, the Anglican missionaries enabled and embodied the colonial waltz of the British Empire.

the empire/that sleeps

Images of the Dossier from the mission archives;

Wedding–1950’s clothing– a man in slacks, no shirt, paint spear(?) crossing before the front of the camera. Another image of the wedding(?) With a baby and bottle and child/young woman looking into the camera, dogs and people in pants or skirts and shirts, and a cluster, in the upper left corner, of men in dungarees and naked painted chests, headgear. Three aboriginal men, in western clothing, in front of the Australian flag, one holding what appears to be rigging.


Peter Bindigo 6.11.1904, John Grady 6.11.1904, Warrie 8. 4.1906


Tommy 13. 8.1911(Little Tommy), Willie 13. 8.1911 (Daphne)


John Grady              Rhoda Grady
Bowendonolly Hannah

C    Married according to native custom (both)
A    40 yrs ?                        36 yrs ?
F    Terracolly                      Benginjee
M    Banang                          Bongelgorrambo
Married 1. 1.1913

A child gutting a marsupial(?)–this is perhaps one of the most beautiful photographs in the Dossier.  Two older (white bearded) aboriginal men, just their heads and a bit of their torsos and nothing else in the photograph.


1.1931  Camp man Lightfoot                                  A nomadic native
7. 5.1931  Maurice                                    c23y                  Accident while mustering
19. 7.1931  Percy                                      c25y                  Lingering death. Bush burial
11.11.1931  Jane                                         2d                  Dau of Amos & Annie [This is a baby]
29. 4.1932  Bob Dunbar                                 c50y                  Died suddenly
3. 7.1932  Jack Daphne, old man                                 Senile decay


30. 6.1933  Erlish             c13y      Unwell for some time [and this is a child]
31. 3.1944  Leah Lorraine              Measles & dysentry, Dora’s baby [a baby]

[on and on, when cause of death is listed, measles, dysentery, whooping cough, illness, unwell

old man, died suddenly, lingering death, accident, decay]

and the last to die

12. 9.1962  Bernard Brumby               Drowning

The Queensland aboriginal is docile, law-abiding, and even quick to learn

In the Dossier there are also small photographs, some with labels, arranged as in a photo album:  “Norman & sign High Voltage Keep Out” “Aborginese [sic] Natives–He said many were friendly”

Who is the Norman in these photos?  He is the only person named, all others are the “natives.”  What I know about Norman is that he apparently “hated Guard Duty.”  But why was he doing guard duty in the mission?

total institution…of locks and guards

And who has written these labels on these small slightly blurry photographs?  Who is the I behind the hand?


you [who] are in Australia unlawfully

you should immediately tell an immigration officer

The missions of Australia (mission becoming a sort of slang term for state institution) grew out of the desire, of course, to proselytize but also out of a certain sense of a need to “protect.”  And they were late to happen, perhaps, in part, because Samuel Marsden, though deeply interested in setting up missionary work in New Zealand held to popular thought of his time, in which Australian Aborigines were believed to represent the lowest form of social life in the great Chain of Being

The missions of Australia, from the 19th century and through the 20th century, were institutions, or total institutions, with an inside and an outside.

Single boys have their own house and may not

Single boys may

No dance or play

No dancing

Natives who purchase food from the store are expect to

Natives must wash

Girls must perform all necessary work

Girls are not permitted

Attendance at morning prayers in church is compulsory

these girls receive food

no clothing

no tobacco

if she does not accept

No adults are allowed inside the school fence

Males are expected to keep the building

Females are to keep mats

Cow boys

Same as sanitary men

God will not hold them up in these slippery places any longer, but will let them go; and then, at that very instant, they shall fall into destruction; as he that stands on such slippery declining ground, on the edge of a pit, he cannot stand alone, when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost.

I cannot feel myself as a missionary, I cannot pull up reserves of empathy for that state.

Now will you not see that my God is a better God than yours

Or at least, not the state of the missionary that believes in his work.  The missionary who is full of doubt is another matter.

but he felt a deep reluctance to saying it

I have lost Him.  I lost Him.

The voices of the missionaries remain, in their letters and notes and the records of the overarching agencies for whom they acted.  Their voices, their impact or what they are impress upon the images in the Dossier.  None of these images is free from the gaze of the empire.

they are gone/ they are gone from life

But the voices of those within this, the aboriginal people taken into the fold,

compulsion, duress, undue influence

the children just when they are brought in, before they realized themselves members of a Stolen Generation

Everything’s gone, the loss of your



all these things

Their voices are lost.  The sound vanishes and what they were inside of themselves, in the moment, at that time, is gone.  Because of what you become when you are inside of something, and placed within it by the culture that creates the documentation.

not to talk that language, that it’s devil’s language.

So, perhaps it is easier for me to be in the place of the doubting missionary, because that is how the history is written and how our eyes are tuned.  And of course because the line of my ancestry travels straight back to Great Britain (and Germany, though that’s another story).

wiped out all our language that we knew.

but the missionary’s voice is not the one I want– I desperately want those lost voices.

The only time I was happy is when my father or mother would come into the mission and see me

we can see…hold their hands

they were lovely moments

From the Apology Given by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008:

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.


Quotes are from Erving Goffman, Angela Middleton, Jonathan Edwards, Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Archbishop of Brisbane, Lyn Austin, Elsie Roughsey and the testimony of an Aboriginal woman forcibly removed from her parents a from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s “National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.”




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