13[Durack, Mary, 1969, The Rock and the Sand, Constable, London, Chapter 10]

CHAPTER TEN

1895-1899

In their final decision the Trappist superiors were no doubt swayed by the impetuous return to France, in September 1899, of Fathers Bernard Le Louarn and Ermenfroy Nachin, both ex-secular priests who had come to Australia for the prime purpose of implanting there the seed of contemplative life. The picture of distintegration they painted must have been grim indeed, for their testimony struck at the vulnerable point of responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the exiled religious. The Abbot-General later stated his conviction that he had withdrawn the community just in time. ‘All indicates that the Australian climate has profoundly affected most of our religious’ he wrote. ‘In general fathers and brothers were not able to render any long service. Intellectual and physical unbalance were accentuated....[1]

This judgment may have been somewhat extreme but there can be little doubt that the community was suffering sadly for want of a strong superior and that ill-health had magnified their differences and undermined their mutual forbearance.

Abbot Sebastian, pressed with the problems and financial needs of a growing number of outside communities, was now anxious to suppress the Australian foundation as quickly and quietly as possible. He had still, however, to choose an executive capable of determined and incisive action and this was difficult. It did not seem that Fathers Anselm, Alphonse or Jean Marie, although all in favour of continuing the mission, would prove forthright enough to withstand the protests of the local prelates who had defeated previous efforts to withdraw. This left only Father Nicholas Emo who had carried out his solitary role as parish priest in Broome with uncomplaining fortitude, and who, having had little to do with the mission itself, seemed less likely to be emotionally involved.

Father Nicholas came of an influential Spanish family of the province of Castellon and had studied medicine for some time in Paris before his ordination to the priesthood, At the age of forty-five, after twelve years as a missionary in Patagonia, he had returned to France, eager, because of what he wrote of as ‘the secret attraction I felt for this unfortunate race,’[2] to devote the remainder of his life to the cause of the Australian Aborigines; It was with this intention that he had entered Sept Fons as a novice in 1894, though the Trappists seem rather to have considered him an answer to Bishop Gibney’s request for a Spanish-speaking monk to minister to the many Filipinos who had flocked to the pearling fields.

Soon after his arrival at the mission he was asked to take charge of the parish in Broome, then a lugger journey of about a hundred miles from Beagle Bay and, from two to seven days’ travelling, according to wind and weather. This port had been proclaimed in 1883 but its site had been used as a lugger base for at least ten years before. It had by this time taken over from Cossack as the principal supply centre for the 150 vessels and 1,500 men then employed, in the pearling industry and was also the main port of contact for shipping between Australia and Singapore.

The town at the time of Father Nicholas’s arrival was lively and cosmopolitan, but not yet the flourishing, white-painted trading centre of its hey-day. Of its fifty permanent white residents, only six were women, though the wives of a few master pearlers, living with their husbands on ‘mother’ schooners, came into the port from time to time. Most of the population, then reckoned at 500, was Japanese, Chinese and Filipino but representatives of most countries in the world visited on onme pretext or another. Pearl buyers of various nationalities came to purchase gems for big businesses or for the private collections of crowned heads and other wealthy patrons, while traders from Singapore used the port as a stepping-stone to the Australian market.

The more rigid immigration laws were not then in force and many Japanese who had come in originally as divers had remained to form co-operative pearling groups. These, behind an official front of eating houses, stores and laundries, and with the help of renegade whites paid to act as ‘dummies’, were contriving to gain a firm hold on the industry and had staked their residential claim on a sandhill that sloped up from the business centre of the town. A track known as ‘Sheba Lane’, that ran between their flimsy establishments, was already redolent of Oriental mystery and intrigue. Some of the Japanese women who had come on the pretext of working in the various little businesses actually did so, but most remained hidden from the public gaze behind tinkling bead curtains, their thin, high-pitched singing and the soft plucking of their geisha lutes sometimes faintly heard against the harsher noises of the port.

Below the Japanese quarter spread the Chinese shops and gambling houses raised on concrete stumps. There were also two shanty hotels and a general store. Straggling along the sandy mangrove beach and the muddy banks of Dampier Creek were the iron shacks of the lugger crews, the shellpacking sheds and the lean-to workshops of Japanese shipbuilders, while the homes of the few resident master pearlers and the substantial headquarters of the Eastern Extension Cable Station were set apart from the Asiatic hoi-polloi above the curving beach of the bay.

There were everywhere signs of the port being expected to develop along the lines of a neat town plan. Chain gangs of Aboriginal prisoners were busy clearing the smoky coastal scrub, covering the carefully parallel thoroughfares with white shellgrit that dazzled in the sun and glowed like phosphorus under the moon. Pearlers returning with indentured crews from the Far East, the Celebes, the Indies or the Philippines, had brought blossoming shrubs and trees to give shade and colour to the gardens and road verges. Already the scent of oleanders floated on the warm air, and poincianas glowed like fire against a background of turquoise sea and emerald mangrove scrub.

Father Nicholas, a short, thick-set, black-bearded little man, devout, emotional and at some pains to keep his naturally extrovert nature within the bounds of Trappist convention, hid his disappointment at being thrust into much the sort of mixed community that he had left behind in Patagonia. The savages to whom he had yearned were not the poor bedraggled natives camped on the outskirts of the port in humpies thrown together of brushwood and slabs of rusty iron from the rubbish dumps, living mainly by prostitution and cadging from the pearling crews. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of the type of tribesmen he had visualized - and who by a stretch of the imagination might be considered Aboriginal counterparts of the Californian Red Indians converted by Spanish Franciscans in the eighteenth century. These were among the native prisoners brought in, on sheep and cattle spearing charges, from the remoter Kimberleys - tall, erect and proud, their torsos slashed with raised parallel cicatures, walking with an air of aristocratic disdain between their red-faced warders. Father Nicholas was by no means the first to believe that if Christianity could only be brought to such as these, within their own environment, they would came to reject the darkness of their savage ways and be fortified against the evils of civilization. In an initial approach to win their confidence he visited them at the prison, bringing tobacco, sweets and some New Testament illustrations through which he hoped, in his simplicity, to introduce them to the basic ideals of Christianity. A few forthrightly rejected his gifts. Others took them with polite detachment but communication was impossible as their English was more limited than his own, and the local tongues, spoken through an interpreter, were equally unintelligible to them.

The white and coloured people of the town at least paid him the compliment of their curiosity, but it was clear that most of them found something out of place, faintly suspicious, about the appearance of a solitary monk - a Trappist above all - complete with habit; cowl and cross, in the rowdy, go-getting little port. His elaborate Spanish courtesy and curious English soon became a byword, to be imitated with varying success by the town wags.

Only the Filipinos accepted him without question and welcomed him as their Father Confessor and friend. These were a people apart in the polyglot community: culturally neither Asiatic nor European, they were reputed by the pearlers to be less industrious than the Chinese and Japanese but more so than the Malays and Islanders. They made warm friends and bitter foes, played sweet music and fought with knives. Rodriguez, Corpus, de la Cruz, Puertollano, Santimera, Musoleon, Raymunda - their names and their features were to be perpetuated in generations of part-Aboriginal people along the pearling coast.

Too hot-blooded for the celibacy kept by many of the exiled Chinese and Japanese but staunch in their Spanish-type Catholicism and by tradition good family men, they were ill at ease in the passing relationships and casual begetting of children by native women. They had, therefore, inclined to establish themselves in little family groups in and around Broome and close to the scattered lay-up bases of the pearling fleets. Most of the men worked on the luggers during the shelling season, leaving their women and children to tend their little plots and herds and to sell goat’s meat, milk, poultry, eggs and vegetables to the pearling crews. The arrival of a Spanish-speaking priest was a profound relief to them, for although few of them really knew his language they were able, with the assistance of two or three of their better-educated countrymen, who were actually of some Spanish blood, to confess their difficulties and set about getting their irregular relationships straightened out.

They helped the priest put up a little timber church on the beach behind Streeter’s general store and to build a shack for himself on the sandhill above the town. This was at least some place of refuge for the solitary monk who by rising at two in the morning could abstract himself, sometimes finding consolation in the ebb and flow of the restless tide and the symbols it suggested to his devout imagination. At neaps the sea lay far out in a silver band and the rippled mud of the bay shone under the moon like a staircase to heaven while big king tides came flowing into the town like a cleansing grace, spilling out around the little shacks and shops, covering the scattered Binghi camps and lapping about the Mohammedan mosque on the edge of the marsh. What matter if they also brought with them an infestation of sandflies and mosquitoes and an army of scavaging hermit crabs to nibble at the monk’s sandalled feet and raid his meagre stores?

Before long Father Nicholas had established a small school for the native children and a hostel for half-caste girls and had enlisted the help of the pious Filipino, Caprio Anabia and his remarkable wife. A half-caste Aboriginal, this young woman had escaped the usual fate of her kind by being taken to Perth as a child and brought up in a good family. Her marriage to Caprio had been arranged by her guardians before she returned to Broome, where she had shown an unusually strong sense of responsibility for her mother’s people. She had gone into the native camps ministering to the sick and trying; in their own language, to teach them Christian principles and the basic rules of hygiene.

Now, in her many-sided role of hostel matron, nurse and schoolteacher, she did her best for the little waifs brought in by Father Nicholas from the outlying camps. The priest spent much of his time bargaining with the native mothers for the part-Aboriginal babies that they frequently killed and according to his and the other missionaries’ testimony, often ate as well. Some he succeeded in placing with the respectable families in the town. Others were cared for at a hostel with older half-caste girls who attended the little school for both full-blood and part Aboriginal children and where the girls were taught to read and write, trained to look after a house and to take some pride in their appearance. The spruce little group that was every Sunday shepherded through the town to the church, soon became the talk and envy of the pearling crews. The girls themselves, born in the corrupt outskirt camps, were often enough an easy prey and proved extremely ingenious in outwitting their devoted guardians.

Even some of the Europeans of the town enjoyed the joke of the service rendered the community by ‘Madam’ Anabia and her priestly protector. The story grew; the money made from their enterprise and the relationship between them was ‘established’ beyond a shadow of doubt, and practical jokers recommended newcomers to the hostel where they were assured of being able to hire girls for a small fee. One South Sea Islander, having been sent about his business, took umbrage, set alight to the mission school and hostel and burned them to the ground. The culprit stood his trial and was deported and sympathetic people helped the mission to a new start, but not long afterwards, a group of coloured boys, incited by tales of the priest’s claiming all the local girls for himself, burned down his church.

Father Nicholas struck a carved stone cross in the sandhill near his new school and, with the support of loyal Filipinos, put up beside it a second and considerably larger church and a small presbytery. Despite setbacks, the sincerity of his work had by this time made an impression on the majority of Broome residents and when a government official named Marsden reported unfavourably on the Mission to the Aborigines Protection Board, mainly because of gossip concerning its half-caste matron, they rose staunchly to his defence. Twenty-seven prominent residents (few of them Catholic) added their signatures to that of H. W. Brownrigg, J.P., in a letter testifying that the priest’s establishment had ‘greatly improved the condition of the natives, morally and intellectually’.[3]

Corporal Thomas of Broome added to this that he had ‘always found the mission scrupulously clean’ although ‘the house is not a mansion and would no doubt be better if larger’. Of the matron he reported in glowing terms as ‘a good housekeeper, cook, laundress etc.,’ who had looked after his own home when his wife was ill. ‘Mr. Marsden,’ he concluded, ‘never reported the matter to me. , . . He had ample time and opportunity while here to have ascertained the falseness of the rumours which he scarcely himself believe.’[4]

Father Nicholas, in answer to a heartbroken letter to Bishop Gibney, received a comforting reply from his lordship’s vicar-general: ‘Do not, on any account let it worry or annoy you. It is no wonder that things are said. Are there not some who would like to see the school put an end to altogether? . . .[5]

Marsden’s report, however, had blighted the priest’s hopes of financial help from the board for the erection of better premises. Some years later, asked by Commissioner Dr. Roth why he had abandoned his school and hostel, he replied that ‘the very fact of his [Marsden] having made such a slanderous statement did a great deal of harm, with the final result that, disgusted and disheartened, I gave up this particular school and distributed the elder girls into service amongst the European ladies in Broome’.[6]

He continued to teach and support the boys and younger children and forged ahead with a plan to house married native couples on allotments made over in their own names. These blocks he had purchased for £20 each from public subscriptions and what he referred to as ‘a private source’[7], possibly the sale of native artifacts and geological specimens to Australian museums. Besides this he had secured, for a rental of £3 a year, some ten acres on a headland within the town boundary which served as a clean, quiet camp for sick and aged natives whom he visited each day, bringing rations and medicines. He kept a record of sorts of the people who were blind and ‘deff’, the prostitutes and the ‘coquettes’[8] (he apparently made some distinction between the two) whom he was treating for syphilis and other diseases. As early as 1897 he wrote of a ‘man and woman with the leprosy’ and another old woman ‘her left arm being with the leprosy’.[9] It is now thought likely that he misread the symptoms and that these natives were suffering from yaws, for by all known rules had leprosy been spreading unchecked from this time it would have become alarmingly obvious long before the thirties. In any case, as no one wanted to believe him, he isolated his ‘lepers’ as well as he could and when they died buried them himself in an isolated spot and set fire to their camps.

But his greatest hope during this time remained the establishment of a mission among natives not yet contaminated by the diseases and vices of civilization. He knew that Abbot Ambrose had considered the possibility of moving the Trappist mission to somewhere near the Prince Regent RUver, but for himself Father Nicholas was in favour of maintaining Beagle Bay as well as opening a more remote establishment. That he should at some time be allowed to undertake pioneering mission work was his dearest wish and one in which he had been encouraged by Father (soon to become Bishop) Kelly when the latter was on a visit to the north. Of this Father Kelly had written to Bishop Gibney:

... I look upon Kimberley as the pick of Western Australia and this part between King Sound and Cambridge Gulf as the pick of Kimberley. Already several speak of expeditions to explore it. They may not do this for some time as they fear the natives, but in the meantime it would be well for the Trappists to seize the opportunity which may never offer again.[10]

Bishop Gibney was at that time finding Beagle Bay difficult enough to keep afloat without considering a second or alternative proposition but Father Nicholas suspected nothing of the Trappists’ inclination to close the Australian foundation. He took a trip up the coast with his friend Filomeno (Pat) Rodriguez, a Spanish pearler from Manila, and found what he considered a good site far a mission near the mouth of the Drysdale River. Full of enthusiasm for the proposition, he was planning a letter to the motherhouse when he received a communication from the Abbot-General informing him that he had been put in full charge of the Australian mission - for the purpose of terminating it! Father Alphonse, then acting superior, had been advised that he must return to France with all but two or three lay brothers but, as opposition was expected if the local prelates came to hear of the decision, he was given no reason for the order. Father Nicholas was instructed to say nothing, until after the main body of religious had left, except that the mission would be held as a ‘grange’ until things improved.[11]