The arrival of a Christian mission on the island of Dobu in Papua New Guinea was met with ambivalence, but it resulted in a mixing of cultures and the development of new traditions.
During the late 18th and early19th centuries, Papua New Guinea became contentious as Britain, Germany and France competed to access its resources. The dense tropical landscape meant that most explorers and traders met with detrimental and, at times, fatal experiences.
Attempting to tame this ‘savage province’ and protect its indigenous populations from draconian actions by settlers, in 1880 the British administrator, Sir William MacGregor, issued an invitation to Australasian church leaders to go into areas as yet unoccupied by European settlers. Answering the call to pacify, modernise and Christianise on behalf of the Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Mission, from 1891 to 1908 Reverend William Bromilow established and led the D’Entrecastueaux Islands circuit, a Methodist ‘sphere of influence’ that covered a series of islands near the Papuan mainland.
Bromilow landed on the three-mile-long island of Dobu on 19 June 1891, accompanied by his wife Lily, his daughter Ruve, three other churchmen, a mission carpenter, G.H. Bardsley, and what the Australasian press described as 30 ‘happy and noble looking’ Fijian, Samoan and Tongan missionary teachers. Bromilow’s missionaries, positioned in the centre of the kula network, a ceremonial trade system in the Massim archipelago, were ideally placed.
Although MacGregor, the administrator, considered the local population to be ‘very friendly towards Government’, once their imperial escort, the Merry-England, departed, Bromilow felt the apprehension of being ‘alone with thousands of savages’. He felt that only Christianity could offer the Dobuans ‘faith and social responsibility’. Writing to the Australasian press from Dobu in 1891, Bromilow detailed the reception of his first service, performed ‘ashore with great demonstrations of friendliness’ and delivered to ‘an attentive congregation of over 200’.
While pleased to enter a village consisting of well-constructed houses ‘with saddle-shaped roofs and built on piles’, Bromilow expressed concern at seeing the central burial ground where susu, family members of the village, were laid to rest. This site was tangible proof of the local belief in the god Kekewagei, which Bromilow documented as being the reason ‘death came into the world’.
Bromilow also wrote that the Dobuans had a pre-existing and clearly defined understanding of a Creator and believed in a God who dwelt in the Milky Way named Eaboaine, who was:
The creator in particular of fingers, toes, nose, mouth, eyes and ears of human beings; and he looks down upon the people as they fight or feast or make their canoes. They will call upon him at special times, but are not at all afraid of him. He is said to have noticed a man walking alone on the earth, so he made a woman out of the ground and threw her down to him. To give her breath he poured blood over her head. It is he who brings children to birth, and if a child is born deformed, it is in many instances called Eaboaine, by way of blaming him for his defective work.
In the absence of a church or any other site for Christian worship in the village, Bromilow and his missionaries went into the fields to spread their gospel. He later wrote that as they preached ‘in the open air … our hymns caught on and the islanders, with the musical capacity found throughout the South Seas, sang them as they went about their work’.
Having been well received by most Dobuans, a troubling issue for Bromilow became the local balau (sorcerers) and welabana (witches), who embarked on ‘a campaign of dreadful threats’ towards both his missionaries and potential converts. The balau and welabana were heavily involved with every aspect of Dobuan daily life through tabu (incarnations of hatred), which could be bought and sold and which brought ‘infliction of pain, sickness and death’ to their targets. They came into direct conflict with Bromilow when a belief spread that the recent death of a child was the result of welabana placing a curse as punishment for the child’s parents, who were inclining towards Christianity.
Bromilow’s missionaries believed that unification with the indigenous peoples of Papua would come only from the tribes’ ‘Christianisation and civilisation’. Having seen skulls publicly displayed and ‘used as decorations to the fronts of native huts in all their villages’, Reverend Fellows, a member of Bromilow’s mission, felt the Dobuans had ‘been too long left by the Church to their darkness, and cruelty and cannibalism’. The local chief, Gaganumole, was said to have instigated cannibalism to stem the famine from which Dobuans were suffering. Christianity can take some credit for overcoming the famine, as the missionaries supplied food in return for church attendance.
As Bromilow’s missionaries came to know the people of Dobu, issues of ‘savagery’ became less important. The mission carpenter, Bardsley, initially questioned what he termed their ‘savagery, heathenism, cannibalism and other [moral] ugliness’. Within a month of landing, however, and having regularly received their assistance, he held that he was in the company of ‘exceedly [sic] smart men’. He saw Dobuan women as so ‘kind and loving to their children’ that he ‘really forgot … I was not at a tea-meeting of Wesleyans’. Gradually his nights were taken up with the company of curious male youths asking for ‘[t]aparora gedarina’, a small religious reading, which prompted Bardsley to read from ‘the Blessed Truth of
the Crucifixion and offered a short prayer for these my young friends’.
Despite such progress, the Bromilows were repeatedly unable to persuade male leaders from the village to assist with the mission. They had failed to recognise that Dobu was a matrilineal society: its women had significant social influence and independence due to their control of everyday and ceremonial foods; welabana inherited unlimited supernatural knowledge; and all women had land rights. Gaganumole sought to create a crucial matrilineal connection between the Methodists and Dobuans by adopting the highest status Methodist woman, Lily Bromilow, into his family. Pleased, yet failing to realise the significance of this action, Lily wrote that, ‘the work of consecrated English sisters would ultimately yield a rich harvest’, with the education of Douban women in sewing, cleaning, cooking and childcare.
Consequently, in 1882, the Australian Methodist Sisters Tinney and Walker were transported to Dobu. Tinney often recounted to missionary supporters back home in Ballarat stories of her frequent and successful conversions. The inaugural Wesleyan Church feast in New Guinea was the first cross-cultural event claimed to be a missionary success:
[A] service was first held at the church. The names of those who had helped were read out and the names of the villages to which they belonged … [T]he people asked Mr Bromilow permission to come and dance
on the Mission premises in the evening, and accordingly came … Gagunamore … is very anxious for Mr Bromilow to tell the Government folks, and all the other white people that they came here and danced, as by that act they recognise us as Dobuans.
Sister Walker went to Dobu following the recent deaths of both her parents and her fiancé. She reflected in her private journal on her personal relationships with the people of Dobu. She found the women to be efficient at conveying their disdain for Bromilow’s missionaries: ‘During the first service five women stalked past with baskets on their heads we called them to come and join in the service yet they went on.’ Walker also reveals that Bromilow’s frequent journeys to other villages and along the kula circuit had a tangible effect on service attendance numbers and native performances of tapwaroro – ‘bending of the knee’, or ‘the acceptance of Christianity’:
Many of them only come to Church to please Mr Bromilow … so of course when they know he is away they don’t come. They have only a very faint idea of what taparoro is yet they are like many of their civilised brothers and sisters they think it consists in coming regularly to Church and bowing down in the orthodox style at prayer time.
Like Bardsley, Walker’s perspective shifted as she lived on Dobu and eventually she befriended a ‘fine sharp woman’, Wariamanu. Interestingly, Wariamanu offered to escort and protect Walker from werebana while visiting neighbouring villages, where ‘we went hand-in-hand like lovers in country lanes’, seeking more attendees for the missionary schools. Despite this close relationship and the offer of protection, Walker was unsuccessful at converting Wariamanu and her family to Christianity. Walker was adopted by Wariamanu’s mother, who expressed ‘maternal anxiety as to my future’ and the desire that Walker should marry.
As Dobuan youths traditionally had the sexual freedom to determine their ideal marriage partner, Walker risked the ire of her adoptive mother by protesting that her future was within the mission.
Dobu had become an exceptional Christian site, with the construction of a church, nursery, orphanage, boathouses, teachers’ houses, students’ quarters and sisters’ homes. In an interview with the Methodist, Bromilow presented his missionaries as heroic ‘apostles of peace’, experiencing only peril in this exotic region and having to defend against the ‘spears, slings or clubs of the savage’ as it was ‘the custom of the people … to kill every foreigner’. Lily, too, asserted that the natives could only be pacified by achieving ‘Christianisation and civilisation’. One model experience came when an elderly Dobuan woman, who was thought to have died, revived and spoke:
of a vision she had had of entering a strange land where she had seen One Who appeared the essence of goodness and all purity, and besides Whom she felt absolutely sinful. He had told her that if she wished to come near Him she must go back to the Church and listen to the story of the work of Jesus Christ who died in the Cross to save her.
It was not until Bromilow’s mission officially ended and his memoirs were published in 1929 that the Dobuans’ ‘objection to the evangelical doctrines’ was publicly recounted:
Are we not at the command of the white Government and at your bidding, giving up cannibalism and head-hunting and battles, and yet you say we are not good enough.
Despite this, the Dobuans had worked with Bromilow to create a successful, hybrid religious culture. Tapwaroro led to Bromilow and a local man, Lemeki Muiowei, writing a Dobuan translation of the Methodist Bible. In 1922 Dobu became the site for Methodist Conventions, attended by ‘rows of white clad [native] teachers, each … representing a small community for whose welfare he was working’.
The foundation of Christianity laid by Bromilow was formalised on 28 June 1929, when the foundation stone of his memorial lotu (church) was laid by ‘the skilful hands of a dozen of our Papuan lads’.
The continuing tradition of kuanua varvalaruai (historical re-enactment) shows just how intertwined the traditional Douban beliefs and Christianity became: every year, on 19 June – now Bromilow Day – the Dobuans’ first interactions with the missionary are publicly re-enacted. The following day a sagali is held, a traditional Papuan mortuary feast in which food is ceremonially distributed to ‘commemorate the dead missionaries from Bromilow onwards’. The Bromilow Day centenary speech in 1991 was used by the former prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Rabbie Namaliu, to highlight the integral role missionaries played in Papuan society and in which he said that Christianity enables Papuans ‘to develop our country, helping us to live amicably and peacefully within our own community’.
While Bromilow pioneered Christianity on Dobu, its indigenous population created a complex Melanesian-Christian culture, which persists to this day.
Deb Lee-Talbot is a student at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.