Torres Strait Islander Community
The Coming of the Light
'I am the Light of the World'
Thank God for the first missionaries, who on July the first 1871,
at Darnley Island, brought the light of Christ to the Torres Strait.
So reads the inscription outside the Anglican Church on Thursday Island. The following year, London Missionary Society pastors arrived at Mer; by 1900, virtually all Murray Islanders professed to be Christians, following Anglican ways.
Torres Strait Islanders come together on 1 July to celebrate ‘The Coming of the Light’. More Islanders live in Queensland than on the islands themselves these days, but the day is marked wherever they live. While most Islanders are Anglican, led by Islander clergy, the day is marked by all, of whatever Christian tradition.
On Saturday evening 1 July 1871, the ship carrying the Rev’d Samuel MacFarlane of the London Missionary Society, together with South Sea Islander evangelists and teachers, anchored at Erub (Darnley Island). Dabad, a local clan elder, defied his tribal law and openly welcomed the party. A tradition existed in the Islands that when white men arrived on a large canoe carrying a sacred object (MacFarlane was holding a Bible), they were to be listened to. Asked by researcher David Salisbury about the day’s significance, Father Elimo Tapin of St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Townsville responded:
"For us the celebration of the Coming of the Light is just like celebrating Christmas day. On Christmas day God came to us in the form of a baby and on July 1, God came to the Torres Strait in the form of a book."
Church services and a re-enactment of the landing are central to the day’s activities. Hymn singing, feasting and Ailan dans (‘Island dance’ – but contrasted with pre-1871 war dances) strengthen community and family ties.
Torres Strait Islanders’ acceptance of Christianity brought changes that profoundly affected every aspect of their lives. It ended inter-island conflict, bringing the Islanders into a wider culture together. Christian ideas were somewhat compatible with Islanders’ traditional beliefs, and Anglican leaders allowed tribal cultural elements to continue in worship. Further, Islanders had been grossly exploited in the maritime industry: missionaries provided some protection and assistance in negotiations.
Today Torres Strait Islanders live all over Australia, especially in Queensland, and TSI Anglicans have their own bishop. The Mabo case, handed down on 3 June 1992, led to the recognition of Native Title rights for all indigenous Australians. That date now marks the end of the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation, which opens on 27 May (Census Day 1967).
Sources include the websites of the Anglican Board of Mission — Australia, the Torres Strait Regional Authority, and the Queensland Museum.
Coming of the Light
Images from the re-enactment
July 1 at Holy Trinity 2018
Images: David Agnew