Torres Strait Islands: Coming of the Light festival

By Josephine Sargent 21 July 2015
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A tiny island community on the eastern fringe of the Torres Strait gathers to celebrate the arrival of missionaries 140 years ago

HEY GIRLS! SLOW DOWN!” Auntie Norah called, her voice carried by the trade winds whipping her bright dress against her dark legs, as we walked to the old church on a bright Sunday morning. “Why the rush? There’s no hurry – island time!”

Photographer Cathy Finch and I, used to the deadlines and schedules of our city lives, hadn’t realised the cracking pace we’d set along the road. We were on Erub, or Darnley Island, in the easternmost group of the Torres Strait Islands. We’d come to celebrate the arrival of missionaries here in 1871 and we’d been promised three days of feasting, dancing, fellowship and celebration.

As we neared the limewashed church – dark veins of water-stains creeping down its flaky white paint – the sound of singing, accompanied by guitars and drums, wafted through the open windows. I didn’t understand the words – they were in Torres Strait Creol – yet I could feel the pulse of the shared faith, strong and sure.

Once inside, I sat with Norah under the whirring fans. Above us, brightly painted beams supported the roof and fans whirled above the congregation, who were scattered across the hard, bright blue pews, floral ensembles rubbing up against one another.

There were hymns and sermons typical of any Christian gathering, but little of the formality, and members of the congregation were soon invited to share their thoughts. Norah’s husband, Uncle Bulli, looking smart in a flat cap, scarf, button-down shirt and slacks, took his place at the lectern, his huge hands gripping its sides. The crowd fell silent, and Bulli spoke more words than I’d heard from him in the past few days I’d spent living in his home.

“All my early life I travel around,” he said slowly, his husky voice filling the church. “I still come home, to Darnley. Then go away again, year after year. But the first of July was always in my mind. It was a special day for us.”

He paused, and his eyes searched out Norah’s gaze. Bulli went on to explain how on one of his return visits to the Torres Strait for the Coming of the Light festival, 50 years ago, he met Norah. Twelve weeks later they were married. “Praise God when the light arrived on Darnley Island!” he exclaimed, before stepping down and rejoining his singing friends and family.

Then it was Norah’s turn. She laughed as she made her way down the aisle, her scruffy little dog trotting after her. “Shoo! Go home!” she cried unconvincingly, waving an arm at the pooch. “We must love our brother and sister before we can love Him,” Norah said. “That love is big in my heart. I love everybody. I never look back again. I look ahead.”

Then – in a hymn apt for her life by the sea, and for her bear of a man who was in the Navy and then worked as a pearl diver – she led everyone in singing I Throw My Anchor On A Solid Rock. Cries of “Hallelujah!” and “Praise the Lord!” rang loud above the music. People were unashamed in their outpouring, and the absolute conviction and strength of their faith, gathered together and sharing it as one.

Thursday Island festival of light

AFTER A LOUD, EARLY morning flight on a light aircraft to Erub two days earlier, we’d arrived at Auntie Norah’s Guesthouse. In the dim interior, a handmade sign asked visitors to remove their shoes. On another wall is a photograph of a windswept Cathy Freeman perched above the ocean, her scrawled handwriting thanking Auntie Norah and Uncle Bulli for a fantastic stay.

As I took off my shoes, Norah emerged. Her downy hair floated around her dark face, and her white teeth flashed in a smile, as she shuffled toward us in her nightie. “Ah!” she let out a high-pitched giggle. “Come in! Come in!” She grabbed photographer Cathy’s hand and led us into the next room.

Cereal, toast, jam, milk, and coffee mugs jostled shoulder to shoulder on a table where three men sat, among them Norah’s husband Bulli. “Sit! Sit!” said Norah, as she ushered us towards the table.

“This is your home now. Coffee?” We nodded gratefully and sank into two vacant chairs, eager for caffeine. In an hour, we were due on Kemus Beach for the first ceremony of the Coming of the Light, at the very place where a party from the London Missionary Society (LMS) landed on 1 July 1871.

Once ashore, they came face to face with a fearsome, bare-chested, grass-skirt-clad warrior named Dabad (see box, opposite). Dabad was one of the chiefs of the four tribes of Erub, who was charged with protecting the island from warring neighbours. The missionaries, led by Samuel MacFarlane and Archibald Wright Murray, brought with them converted Loyalty Islanders, who’d sailed 2800km across the Pacific from New Caledonia.

These days, 4km-long Erub, a tiny and remote patch of Queensland, 180km north-east of mainland Australia – is home to a population of 320, although many more Erub expats now live on the mainland or on larger Horn and Thursday islands.

At Kemus, I met Ida Wano, resplendent in her augem wali, a traditional ‘Mother Hubbard’ dress awash with tropical flowers. Dabad was her great-grandfather and Ida had returned home to celebrate. Her brother, Father Kabay Pilot, was presiding over this beach service.

I wandered through the colourful throng as hands beat long drums, pulled family members into an embrace or carried plates piled high with damper, watermelon and sandwiches. Standing on the same shore where Dabad would have faced the strange white men in canoes was Father Pilot, his priestly white robes blinding in the tropical sun. He shook my hand as he descended the steps – their railings decorated with palm fronds – from an altar shaped like a ship.

“Since I’ve been born, I’ve participated in the Coming of the Light festival,” Father Pilot told me. “When I left here I went to mainland Australia, but I still remembered this day as a great day for me and the Torres Strait – the day when Christianity began…This day is for all of us as Torres Strait Islanders. Doesn’t matter what [sect] you are, as long as you are a Torres Strait Islander you remember the day that missionaries brought the good news.”

As people settled in plastic chairs and the drums fell silent, Father Pilot retold the story of Dabad and offered thanks. The service flowed like water between rocks, ebbing from hymns sung in Creole and other island languages, to sermons delivered by lay people and pastors. It culminated in the congregation filing up the stairs, beating drums and with voices rising, before gathering behind the altar, to face the sea from which missionaries had first arrived, changing the course of life here forever.

Before the missionaries came, the people of Erub had practised head-hunting and traded skulls with Papua New Guineans in return for long canoes. The shrubby island vegetation prevented Erub people from making their own canoes, but watercraft were vital to their seafaring way of life. Head-hunting was a violent and bloody exercise and Ida said that the reason the Coming of the Light was such a happy festival was because it was a celebration of peace. The missionaries preached that killing was a sin, and the island people had laid down their weapons.

Opinion here is divided on the difficult matter of whether the arrival of missionaries was a good or a bad thing for the islanders’ culture, depending on who you ask.

“We’ve lost some of the culture because of the [missionaries],” Ida said. But she was adamant that the people are better off with some of those things gone. “We’ve lost the part of some of the ceremonies that are inhumane because they involved eating flesh or taking out hearts for bravery from the people they killed.”

Ida also believes that the missionaries brought much that’s worth celebrating. For the most part, the new religious ideas were quickly adopted and practiced alongside the peaceful traditions and subsistence way of life. “Christianity was all about God and God is love and we aren’t supposed to kill,” said Ida.

Making a living in the Torres Straight

“THIS IS A SPECIAL DAY for us, July 1,” Norah confided to us like a schoolgirl, as Cathy and I gathered again for coffee in her kitchen after the beach service. “It marks the day that we met, 50 years ago,” she said, beginning her version of the tale we’d hear Bulli tell the congregation a few days later from the pulpit of the church.

A youthful Norah was a health-care worker on Thursday Island at the time, and Bulli had taken leave from the Navy to return for the festival. He participated in a re-enactment of the missionaries’ arrival, which Norah had watched with friends.

“He was all dressed up, and had had a drink, and he asked me to go to dinner with him,” she said, with a cackle. “I said, ‘No – you’re all dirty! You go home and have a wash first!’”

Within months they were married and living on Bulli’s home island. Now they make a living from renting out rooms to guests, mostly Queensland government health or infrastructure workers, and by leasing a building at the front of the home, which is used as a general store.

Norah and Bulli offer refuge to anyone in need. There were four people in during our stay there: Alan, a Melbourne man escaping the rat race of urban life; Mot, Norah’s adopted elderly brother, who says nothing and is always busy cleaning, washing and fixing; and two teenage boys who slip in and out of the house, silent and quick. Norah tells me they are her grandchildren, Joshia, 16, and Marlon, 13, home for the holidays from boarding school on Thursday Island, about 200km away.

On a warm Saturday night, the locals again assembled, this time by a different beach in the heart of ‘town’– an Islander Board of Industry and Service (IBIS) general store, the Dido pub and an imposing new health centre, standing tall among the run-down Queenslanders.

The island school is perched on a hill, next to the art centre and community radio tower. Dancing was pegged to start at 5pm, but, in typical island style, it started instead when everyone had showed up. This, it seemed, was everyone’s favourite part of the festival: a display of cultural heritage and pride that has little to do with the missionaries, but was a retelling of ancient legends and rituals – stories of seasons, hunting and the harvest.

Eventually the drummers, wearing grass skirts, filed out from behind a corrugated-iron shed and took their positions, either cross-legged in the dirt or perched on plastic chairs. As they began beating, the dancers emerged, their feet stamping in time. Dressed in daris (traditional headdresses) and grass skirts, the bare-chested young men told the stories of their island. “Ah, look!” cried Norah, waving a hanky towards the dancers. It was then I recognised Joshia, transformed from a boardshorts-wearing teen into a proud warrior, leading the pack of dancers with an impressive display of skill. The movements were fast and relentless, and the dancers’ skin soon glistened with sweat as they ducked and swayed, kicking up dust in the afternoon sunlight.

They swelled in number, but now their tall, white daris were gone, replaced by red bandanas, purple tie-died singlets, grass skirts and palm fronds taped to their legs. Faster and faster they moved. In staccato rhythm, the men danced as one, quickly jumping and crouching. One by one, women moved among the dancers, sprinkling talcum powder or fragrance on their writhing backs, as a sign of appreciation.

Norah explained to me that the dance told a story about warriors, and hunting for dugong and turtle. The sea is central to the narrative, and the dance speaks of the connection to the ocean and its bounty. Bulli himself spent years as a pearl diver, risking his life in archaic gear to extract pearls and find lobsters far below the waves. You have to be quick, Norah said – the lobsters squeal in protest as soon as they’re snatched, and the distress call beckons hungry sharks that will happily take a bite out of a diver.

Traditional food on Thursday Island

“HERE, TRY ONE,” Norah said after the dance performance, handing me a warm, oily hunk of damper, taken from a pile in front of a woman at a deep fryer. I crunched through the crisp outer layer and soft, bready innards filled my mouth. Before us, long tables buckled under the weight of home-cooked food. There was sop sop – made of sweet potato, pumpkin and coconut milk – salads, mounds of damper, fish, vegetables and prized turtle.

The turtle was caught the day before, and left upturned in its shell (“To keep the meat fresh,” explained Norah), until its slaughter, at 1am. The meat was then removed, cut up and returned to the shell, before being covered with aluminium foil and slow-cooked over coals.

Now, the flesh was pulled apart and looked similar to roasted beef, dark and stringy. Eating turtle and dugong meat is a rare treat, reserved for traditional feasts like this one, when the meat’s prepared in the old way. Dugongs are especially scarce in this region, but turtles are plentiful, breeding on Mer Island (Murray Islands), 50km to the south-east.

Under the coloured lights strung over the table, people made their way down the spread of food, chatting as they piled their plates high. I waited my turn – elders first. Then, I was before the mountain of roast turtle. I took a small spoonful and hesitantly popped it in my mouth, trying to push images of curious eyes and graceful flippers out of my mind. It was coarse, like steak – but tasted sweeter, like smoked chicken.

We woke on Sunday morning to more wind battering Bulli’s handmade house, and with sadness realised that we’d be leaving this tropical hamlet after the morning church service. The Erub community had opened their hearts and homes to us, allowing us into their celebrations as if we were part of the community.

Later, as we loaded our bags into the car, Norah asked us when we’d be back. “I don’t know,” I replied honestly, giving her a hug. “Next year?” she asked.

“I hope so,” I said with a laugh. “Yes, come back next year,” she said. “The renovations will be finished then… WAIT!” She disappeared into the house and emerged moments later, strings of shells dangling through her fingers. She looped them over our necks. “Here are some necklaces for you girls. You wear them and when people ask, you say they are from Erub.”

This article originally appeared in #106 of Autralian Geographic


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