Missionaries were the white people who intervened most into traditional Aboriginal culture and society. The first missionaries in the Northern Territory were members of the Lutheran Church in Germany who went to central Australia and established several settlements between the 1860s and 1880s. The Hermannsburg Missionary Society in 1877 founded a mission on the Finke River, about 130 miles west of Alice Springs, which survived until 1982. Australian churches only became seriously active in the Territory in the early twentieth century when the major denominations decided to establish their presence in the far north, around the coasts of Arnhem Land and the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Despite the tropical climate and tropical diseases that took the lives of a number of them and their children, the second wave of missionaries found the Northern Territory a powerful magnet. By 1928, there were seven missions in the Territory. As Table 10.1 shows, that year they accommodated 419 children, substantially more than the two government institutions. Most of these children were of full descent. At this time, there was neither government policy nor missionary intention to remove children to missions without their parents. Almost all those who came in to the missions did so with their parents, or at least their mothers. As in the north of Western Australia, missions were most attractive to mothers who lacked protectors and providers, who had transgressed tribal law by not accepting the husbands to whom they had been betrothed at birth, who were refugees from tribal warfare, or who decided to join a mission community simply in order to have a regular food supply and schooling for their children.
In the Northern Territory, one of the first tasks of a mission was to construct buildings for both the education and accommodation of children. Within a year of the establishment by the Church Missionary Association of the Roper River Mission in 1908, it had constructed a children’s dormitory that also served as a church and a school. Their parents lived close by in cottages and tents. One of the more sympathetic mission historians, Murray Seiffert, portrayed this institution in the following terms: ‘In many ways the mission might be described as a poverty-stricken copy of an English boarding school, staffed by a few missionaries and parents.’ A separate dormitory for boys was constructed later. Not all children went into the dormitories. For those Aboriginal adults who came to be permanent inhabitants and workers for the mission, the staff built small houses for them and their children. Others with less commitment were either housed or camped within a few hundred metres. All up, the total population comprised from five to seven missionaries and about 200 Aboriginal adults and children.
One of the main reasons for the establishment of the Roper River dormitories was the missionaries’ concern about young girls being promised in marriage to very old men who already had three or four wives. Their concern was largely over the very young age at which girls experienced sexual intercourse and pregnancy. They were also disturbed that the girls had no freedom of choice in their husbands, and that these tribal customs inhibited the creation of the kind of Christian community the missionaries sought. In February 1915 the Anglican Bishop of Carpentaria, Gilbert White, addressed the Church Missionary Association on his recent visit to Roper River where he put both these arguments:
[N]early all the Mission girls are promised from birth to old men as wives, which forms a great difficulty in the way of their marriage to those whom they want to marry, the boys brought up on the Station. To allow them to marry those old camp ruffians is to lose them altogether and to lose all chance of building up a married Christian community. To allow them to marry our boys means probably that they will be speared by the old men, who in any case will regard it as a breach of trust on the part of the Mission, and will refuse to send more children. We have the same trouble at the Mitchell [River Mission].
To prevent this, White suggested that the Church Missionary Association should try to ‘purchase’ the girls from their betrothed husbands. Among Anglicans, the notion probably smacked too much of slavery and White failed to raise enough funds. However, on the Bathurst Island Mission established by Roman Catholics in 1910, they had more success. As part of an effort to break down the polygamy of the local Tiwi culture, the head of the mission, Father Francis Xavier Gsell, ‘bought’ 150 potential wives. By educating these girls in Christianity and then encouraging them to marry young men of their own age, he spread his religion.