A review of Gumbuli of Ngukurr, Murray Seiffert

Like many Christians, I am sure, my education in Aboriginal Christianity began with reading One Blood, by John Harris, a magnificent history, thorough and reasonable.

Until then, I was tempted to believe the secular mythology that missionaries corrupted Aboriginals, stole their culture and their land, and enforced the government’s assimilation policy, including removing children from parents. While there are some difficult parts to the story, missionaries seemed to do far more good than bad.

A new history of the Roper River Mission, now known as Ngukurr, and its most famous leader the Reverend Canon Michael Gumbuli AM, is a welcome corrective to false stories. It is a celebration of the introduction of Christianity to Groote Eylandt and its surrounds in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, and the role Europeans played in protecting Aboriginals from much of the harmful impacts of white settlement.

Gumbuli was born on Bickerton Island, near Groote Eylandt, in 1935. By that time there were already missions established on Groote Eylandt and the nearest towns of Rose River (Numbulwar) and Roper River. At first the missions were focused on caring for the mixed-caste children, resulting from often violent encounters with Chinese and European settlers attracted by gold mining and farming in the area.

The coast was also regularly visited by Indonesian fishermen from Macassar, and the Aboriginals had already had contact with European explorers, including Matthew Flinders in 1803. Hence there was significant contact with external groups before the arrival of the missionaries. Once Australia had been discovered, change to culture and lifestyle was inevitable.

Significantly, the founding CMS missionaries included three Europeans and three Aboriginals. The motivation for the mission from Bishop Newton was to get the children of mixed descent, especially the girls, away from the ‘meddling whites’ of the Roper River district, and those passing through.

The presence of Aboriginal missionaries was a key to the success of the endeavour, since they could vouch for the educational and health care benefits of moving to the mission. Leprosy, in particular, was a scourge amongst the Aboriginal people. There were also issues of smallpox, respiratory diseases, malaria and hearing problems from untreated inner ear infections. Child and maternal health problems were also treated at the missions.

The missions had a good relationship with the surrounding Aboriginal communities, and there was interdependence in the area of food. This recognition of the significance of hunting skills to everyone’s survival meant that there was a commitment to assisting school children to maintain native skills with regular opportunities to ‘go bush’.

Gumbuli came to the missions as a young boy, going to school. Around that time there was much fighting amongst the Aboriginals, usually over women. The Aboriginal culture supported an arrangement of polygamy and promise agreements, with pre-pubescent girls promised to older men, to care for them in their old age. This left a lack of females available for the younger men. The arrival of the missions, in particular, their habit of schooling females, reduced some of these pressures in Aboriginal society.

A painting in St Matthews church at Roper River celebrates the coming of a time of greater peace, with the arrival of the missionaries.

To author Murray Seiffert’s credit, he quotes a range of views in this book, and utilises historical documents, as well as drawing on comprehensive and detailed interviews with eyewitnesses. Seiffert himself has had significant contact with the missions, especially during his time as Academic Dean of Nungalinya College, Darwin.

His main focus is the story of Gumbuli, but he spends much time on the contextual issues including the intersection between Christianity and ceremonial rites, the response of the missions to the government’s assimilation program, and the encouragement by the missions of Aboriginal self-determination and land rights.

Gumbuli emerges as an important leader of his people. His contact with the missions is a catalyst for, not just a deep faith, but also discovery of gifts, mentoring, and opportunities to lead. As a young man he travelled by canoe from the mission at Groote Eylandt, to Roper River. There he encountered adult Aboriginals who had been Christians for all or most of their lives.

He made his own decision to follow Christ at an Easter Sunday invitation as a teenager. He then worked at the mission in various mechanical and labourer roles. He met and matched with Dixie, a local woman, and they developed a strong relationship of mutual support and encouragement.

One significant development at this time was the licensing of elders, Barnabas Roberts and his son Silas, as lay preachers, leading church services.

The development of Aboriginal leadership through the missions was considerable, especially in the 1960s, with Silas and Gerry Blitner becoming leaders of the Northern Land Council. A key aspect of this leadership development was the excellent education at the missions, and also the refusal to blindly submit to government policy. For example, in the 1950s CMS insisted that the policy of assimilation (the attempt to force Aboriginals to leave their own culture and take on European culture) must be voluntary rather than forced.

Gumbuli emerged as the most important church leader in Arnhem Land and was the first Aboriginal to be ordained, in 1973. He regularly represented the Aboriginal perspective at synod, and gatherings of Bishops. Amongst his own people he was revered, and often requested to intervene in disputes. He led the fight to restrict alcohol on the missions after they had been taken into government control, and energised the community during difficult times of unemployment, housing shortages and petrol sniffing. It was during this time that Roper River was renamed Ngukurr.

He is gifted at preaching and healing, and was also instrumental in the translation and production of the Kriol Bible, an indication of his commitment to the Word. At the launching of the Holi Baibul in May 2007, the first copy of the complete Bible was presented to Gumbuli.

Gumbuli is now an old man, but still respected for his wisdom in the community. While not uncritical of the missionaries, he does appreciate them, and is recorded as having said:

‘Who brought this Word?’ holding up his Bible. ‘Who brought clothes? Who brought medicines? Who teaches? Not ordinary man, not Government worker. Missionary brought these first. Missionary told us of the love of God. Praise God for the Missionary! Praise God, He changed my life!’

Seiffert has compiled a very thorough biography, and a balanced historical account of the missions. Perhaps there could have been a more skilful weaving of the two stories, with more flow, and less repetition. However, it remains very readable, and it is essential that these stories are documented and remembered.

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