19[Durack, Mary, 1969, The Rock and the Sand, Constable, London, Chapter 11]
Father Nicholas carried out the wishes of his superiors with a heavy heart. Nothing had confused his own objective in joining the Australian mission and he could not appreciate the ideological difficulties of his fellow Trappists as much as the distress their departure would cause their loyal supporters. To make matters worse he had been asked, in effect, to pull the wool over the eyes of these faithful friends until it was too late for them to intervene.
It was while taking a holiday with Bishop Kelly in Geraldton that Father Alphonse received notification from Sept Fons of his ‘release’ from the office of superior and his recall to France. Having worn the Trappist habit for twenty-seven years, done service in New Caledonia and, alone of the religious sent out, given ten years’ unbroken service to the Australian mission, the only reason he could think of for being displaced by a mere novice was that Father Nicholas had reported against him to his superiors.
He returned to Beagle Bay to find the Spanish priest carrying out his charge in grim silence and all the religious, except Brothers Xavier and John Berchmans, preparing to take their departure. Father Jean Marie and young ‘Father’ Narcisse had been summoned from Disaster Bay and informed that they must return to France with the others. Father Jean Marie probably realized the truth of the situation but anticipated obtaining permission from his superiors to return and carry on at Disaster Bay for a time at least. Before leaving his mission he had assured his people that he would soon be back, and charged them, under the leadership of Thomas Puertollano, to look after everything until his return.
Some of the religious no doubt hoped, for reasons they had already expressed to their superiors, that their sudden recall meant an end to their long and irksome compromise. Others were deeply troubled in conscience for the future of the natives. An Irish-Australian priest who had joined as a novice not long before had, on receiving the order to depart, applied to Bishop Gibney to be allowed to remain in Australia as a secular. His request was apparently taken as a weakening of his missionary resolution and he received a terse reply. He then wrote again, implying that he had no desire to leave his Order if they were to remain in Australia and asking whether there was any prospect for the foundation of a new Trappist house in the southern diocese. He received, for his pains, an even more testy letter from the Vicar-General informing him that there was no question of such a thing. The letter continued:
You were, likely, most well aware of the fact. . . .
You ask, ‘What will become of the new Christians? There are close on 300.’ If they are abandoned, you with your Order will answer for it ... God will know where to sheet home the blame.
‘Nine of us,’ you say, ‘are ordered to Elathroun, - halfway between Jaffa and Jerusalem.’ If this be so, pray go there without delay. The Bishop gave you clearly, by telegram, to understand that there is no place in this diocese for runaway missionaries....
Since the name of the inquiring priest does not appear among those who sailed for France, it can only be assumed that he shared the Vicar-General’s opinion of the move and left the Order. But most bewildered and heartbroken of all was no doubt Father Alphonse Tachon whose early efforts at Beagle Bay had characterized him as not only zealous and hard working but normally realistic and not lacking in humour. As time went on, however, the devout little man had developed the inordinate but unconscious possessiveness towards the Aborigines that, they so often evoke in their white associations. It seems that he had come to regard himself as the divinely appointed custodian of the Australian mission and, not without justification, as its real founder. The fanatical diligence with which he strove to hold his divided community to the strict observance of their ancient tradition and to wean the Aborigines from theirs had been noted by the more down-to-earth Australian clerics and was more than hinted at by the Vicar-General in a letter imploring the Benedictine Bishop Salvado, then in Rome, to try to prevent the Trappists abandoning Beagle Bay. In this he states:
... All the trouble, as far as we know, is with the superior. Father Alphonse Tachon is most unfit to rule as he is half crazy with scruples, but troubles of this kind should not be dealt with by running away. , . .
Father Alphonse now saw in the tormented Spaniard the personification of the powers of darkness that had for so long contrived to destroy his mission and the souls of ‘les pauvres sauvages’ whose feet he was guiding along the path to salvation. There can be little doubt that he was driven, through the bitterness of his personal hurt and disappointment and fear for his native flock, to a state of mental breakdown. Bishop Gibney, reporting privately, later in the year, on the state of the mission wrote:
At the commencement of the present year half of the buildings was blown down or pulled down and the College destroyed by fire. A considerable part of the Church was pulled down by one of the Fathers, without authorization.
It would be unfair to assume from this that the priest in question was Father Alphonse, but the suspicion is strengthened by the accounts of the older mission natives, and an ambiguous telegram sent to Perth by Father Nicholas shortly after the departure of most of the religious. This read:
January two large buildings Beagle Bay refectory of Chapter destroyed by storm. Large building Father Alphonse destroyed by fire....
Whatever the true story it is clear that the departure of the pioneer Trappists from Beagle Bay was both dramatic and emotional, and that such buildings as were not destroyed by fire, accidentally lit or otherwise, were demolished or damaged in a hurricane that pounced like the wrath of the Lord - or of Galalang - as the monks and brothers were about to leave.
Father Nicholas, sorrowfully surveying the scene of ruin and desolation over which be was now superior, must have decided that, for the sake of all concerned, he should now break his silence. His letter to the Vicar-General sent shortly after the departure of the religious and quoted anon suggests that, in a last minute effort to make his peace with Father Alphonse, he disclosed the secret reason for his sudden rise to authority. In the same letter he mentions entrusting this monk with a petition to his superiors and asking him to further defend the cause of the mission in his name.
The natives recall how Father Alphonse, wasted with fever and fasting and bent with toil, collapsed near the end of the eight-mile walk to the coast and how, weeping for his and their own grief, they had carried him for the rest of the way. Whatever arguments they had had with him or however eccentric he may have become they knew that he had acted always from motives of true goodness and for this they honoured him. In a mixture of French, English and their own tongue, then the lingua franca of the mission, they had murmured assurances that he would soon grow strong and come back to them. He had nodded mutely under his cowl, knowing as well as the natives themselves that this was the last he was to look on the tangled Dampierland scrub and the strange wild people he had come to save and grown to cherish.
Very different the desolate little band that boarded the lugger at Beagle Bay from the eager recruits who had been welcomed to the mission with a peal of bells a few years before. Prepared to face suffering, even martyrdom, with the strength of glorious certainty, their worst agony had been, after all, the result of doubt and indecision. The environment had rejected their rule and the savages to whom they had offered the enlightenment of a doctrine of love had humbled them by their own understanding and charity. The native people, in all their simplicity, had baffled their would-be teachers and caused them to reflect on aspects of the human heart never revealed to them before. Had they come indeed for love of their primitive fellow men, or for devotion to a highly evolved ideal of spiritual detachment?
But even those who had been most dubious of their missionary role looked back in desolate regret as the wind caught the lugger sails and the dark people, waving from the beach, struck up the song that had been composed for the Trappists’ departure from France by their sisters at Macon:
Partez, partez, Freres, pour l’Australie!
Portez la-bas le Nom de notre Dieu!
Nouse nous retrouverons un jour dans la patrie,
Adieu, Freres, adieu!
Only when he had seen them on their way was Father Nicholas free to reply to the urgent inquiries of the two bishops. He wrote in Spanish to the Vicar-General:
... After all that has happened with Father Alphonse in relation to Beagle Bay mission whose direction has been entrusted to me despite my reluctance, now at last I can write to give satisfaction to His Lordship and to your Reverence. Please tell the Lord Bishop on my behalf that I have felt the incident deeply in my soul ... I will say nothing to excuse myself but I should let you know, in the cause of truth, that never did I aspire to the charge of superior, nor have I taken the very least step towards acquiring it. On the contrary, I remain very antagonistic to my appointment, but in accepting it I have not done more than to obey the final and unconditional orders before which a religious is able only to incline his head.
Father Alphonse believed he found in my telegrams contradictions that existed only in his imagination and on reading them again in my presence they gave him cause to repent ... the poor Father tortured himself and was the victim of his imagination...
It is certainly not for me to assume to judge the actions of the superiors nor to enter into discussion of the motives that prompted such a strange and unexpected resolution. ...
It is only an unfortunate combination of circumstances that has given this bad appearance to the proceedings taken, and, that obliges me to explain and justify them. ...
Well, dear Father, although ignorant of the cause of this order, I confess that it has grieved me profoundly, especially because of the love I profess for the blacks for whom I have always sacrificed myself. I came to Australia for the secret attraction that I felt for this unfortunate race and for whose benefit I made the sacrifice of my life to God. Our Superior-General allowed me to entertain the hope that I might live and die in this country and therefore I blessed God with all my heart when I became aware of his Lordship’s visit to our Father-General in Rome and of the salutary effects that followed. To receive the present order that put me at the head of all, not to build and consolidate, only to destroy, that is to say, to disband the community, has been a hard blow to me and one I will not easily forget. And who would believe that the charge of Superior in such circumstances could be in any way enviable?
I suspect that that the information presented to the Superiors by two of our sick and discontented religious who returned to Europe declaring that the mission was not able to support itself in the least and that our efforts on behalf of the blackfellows [sic] would have remained sterile has been the cause of this contretemps. I believed it my duty to send Father Alphonse to Europe in my name and with my letter, to defend the cause of the poor blackfellows and to explain verbally to the Superiors the true state of the mission. ...
The only thing I fear is to receive a new order to proceed immediately with the liquidation. In such a case would it not be better for his Lordship to come to an understanding with me to buy for himself, from the government, the mission territory with its springs and gardens and existing stock to save our natives from falling into the hands of Jews and Protestants? His Lordship, with Monsignor Kelly might place here some zealous priest like Father Martelli to minister to Broome and Beagle Bay, or some faithful Catholic who would take care of these places until the arrival of another religious community.
I myself would willingly remain if it were God’s will and my Superiors consented, at least until another community replaced us.
... Immediately after the departure of our religious a Protestant pastor established himself at the entrance of King Sound. I fear he is working with the government to claim our mission property. Jews and Protestants wish to buy the breeding cattle on our pastures but I tell everyone that I have no intention of selling. ...
I wish now more than ever that they [Bishops Gibney and Kelly] would come immediately to Beagle Bay and put me unconditionally under their orders, ...
Bishop Gibney readily exonerated Father Nicholas from all responsibility for the sad affair but news of the Trappist decision could scarcely have reached him at a worse time. The Kimberley mission, though so close to his heart, was after all only one of his many concerns. Community activities occupied him in every direction, for not only the population increased following the gold strike but the end of government aid for denominational schools by an 1895 Act of Parliament had added tremendously to the financial and administrative strain of his office. His reputation as a just and wise man also meant that his advice was called upon in political problems such as the serious labour dispute of the previous year in the settlement of which he had played a leading part. To bear, shortly after learning of the near destruction of the mission by fire and hurricane, that all but three of the Trappist religious had been withdraawn was a severe shock to him. Having publicly refuted rumours that the Trappists planned to abandon their mission the news surprised, angered, and embarrassed him. He managed, none the less, to turn a confident front on the doubting world and insisted that the monks were faithfully holding the fort until the arrival of another missionary band. He realized, however, that it would be difficult either to persuade the Trappists to return or another community to replace them without the guarantee of a government subsidy and the long promised, but still unsettled, freehold tenure of the 10,000 acre mission. In reply to renewed representations he was informed that neither would be considered until the stipulated £5,000 fixed improvements had been proven, in which seemingly impossible stipulation the authorities no doubt saw an end of the whole affair. In this they had not reckoned on the bishop’s determination and unconquerable optimism for he decided in this case to go himself to the mission and put things in order before the arrival of the official valuer.
The Vicar-General was left to explain to Cardinal Moran his Lordship’s absence from an important Catholic meeting in Sydney at that time.
Your Eminence should know [he wrote] that there has been a great upset at the Trappist mission. It was most unexpected as everything seemed to be progressing peacefully and favourably. The bishop was nothing short of indignant when it came to be whispered about that several of the fathers and brothers had left and when finally it came to be known that the rest of the community were preparing for flight by selling off all the stock and other belongings of the place. Not all that had been promised the missionaries had been done for them. The government especially were in default; yet it seemed to the bishop a shame that the Trappists should as lightly abandon their great enterprise. How different their French levity from the Spanish constancy of Bishop Salvado and his Benedictines through years’ and years of discouragement and trial of every sort. ...
Dr. Gibney is now away in the wilds and perhaps Propaganda may not hear of what is going on. Would it not be well for Your Eminence to let them know at Rome of the impending danger. ...
It is clear that the missioners at Beagle Bay have been eminently successful both from the financial point of view and - which is of more consequence - from the consideration of the great good, well done, for many poor neglected souls. For them to fly now and abandon the natives would be a disgrace and a calamity affecting the Catholic Church throughout the Colony.
Early in August, when almost ready for departure with the Italian priest, Dean Martelli, the bishop had been approached by Mrs. Daisy Bates, an Irish journalist, who had come out for The Times some two years before to report on the condition of the Aborigines. Although herself an Anglican, this enthusiastic young woman impressed the bishop as a sincere and eloquent ally of the native people and be agreed that she should accompany his party to Beagle Bay.
Detailed accounts of their experiences, first as articles and later in her book, The Passing of the Aborigines, have been written by Daisy Bates herself, her style striking an oddly lighthearted and feminine note in a story of so much zealous masculine endeavour, earnest soul-searching and bewildered study of native customs and psychology. Aboriginal behaviour never greatly puzzled or surprised this extraordinary woman who was to become their beloved Kabbarli, grandmother and counsellor of the desert tribes. It is not hard to picture her as she was at the time, for in fact she changed little in her long and active life. Always small, slim and quick-moving, she clung to the fashions of her youth, dressing even in her bush camps in long, tightwaisted frocks, dust coat and buttoned boots, Queen Alexandra toque, gossamer veil, and neat white gloves.
The bishop’s party was met in Broome by Father Nicholas and his friend Filomeno Rodriguez who put himself and a lugger at their disposal. Rodriguez was one of the most colourful personalities in an area already renowned for its ‘characters’. He had come from Manila as a humble diver but he had claimed the hand of his employer’s daughter, Maud Miller, when she was only fourteen years old and his fortunes had grown with his family. His eldest son, Giovano, born, like the rest of his ten children, on his mother schooner Pearl, was the first name in the Broome baptismal register. Rodriguez, now a big man in the pearling game, was a good friend to his Church and his less fortunate countrymen and generous to the cause of the Aborigines.
His schooner Scree Pas Sair that was to take the party to Beagle Bay was a lugger with a history. Originally the floating palace of Rajah Brooke, it had been bought from him by Lord Delaware for a cruise to the South Seas and there sold to Edward Cockayne Chippendall, ex-naval officer and adventurer son of an English clergyman. Chippendall manned it with a crew from the Solu Archipelago north of Borneo with whom he introduced ‘dress diving’ to the Australian pearling grounds. His experiments paved the way for more modern and efficient methods of procuring shell but most of his crew perished and he himself died, presumably as a result of foul play, in 1886. His partner eventually sold the lugger to Rodriguez but the bishop’s party soon discovered that fifteen years in the pearling trade had stripped her of all pretensions to luxury.
Father Nicholas, obviously somewhat nonplussed, had explained that there was no accommodation whatever for a woman at the Beagle Bay monastery and that according to Church law, no woman except a queen or the wife of a Head of State could be allowed within its walls.
However [Daisy Bates wrote] there I was, and the dear little acting abbot [Father Nicholas] took it upon himself to grant a dispensation, and went out to see what furniture he could buy for me, making wild guesses at what a female might need. His bewildered and exaggerated idea of hospitality filled me with astonishment...
At the end of three days’ voyage they found horses and a bullock wagon awaiting them on the beach at Beagle Bay. The horses, we are told, were ‘Trappists, too, skin and bone in their poverty, and stopped so often for their meditations and devotions that the bullock-team arrived before us.’
The mission Daisy Bates described as ‘a collection of tumble-down paperbark. monastery cells, a little bark chapel and a community room of corrugated iron, which had been repeatedly destroyed in bush fires and hurricanes’. She met there Brother Xavier, Sebastian Alkaleno, a Filipino who had become a Trappist novice to help Father Nicholas, and little Brother John Berchmans who, having been with the monks since childhood, fled at sight of her ‘as from the world, the flesh and the devil which I represented’. Before she left, however, this boy had overcome his distrust to the extent of making her a pair of kangaroo skin shoes and sleeping trustfully in her company when camped in the bush.
Small and disorganized, though the Trappist community then was, they maintained their long night vigils, their meals of pumpkin and rice, with sometimes a little beer brewed from sorghum, and slept on the same comfortless beds. Their fluctuating native congregation, reckoned all to
about 150, still struck the visitor as being half wild – their front teeth knocked out, bodies slashed with ritual scars and wearing bones through their noses - but the conch shell reveille brought most of them straggling up at dawn to sing hymns and prayers. Only a few young people now used the dormitory that Father Alphonse had put up for the protection of the women. All the others slept on the ground in hollows scooped out and warmed with hot stones on wintry nights.
Since the recent exodus of religious the reduced staff had been able to cope with no more than the basic needs of the people, so not only were most of the huts and buildings in ruins but the wells had fallen in and the gardens had sadly deteriorated. The bishop, however, outwardly undaunted by the task of presenting £5,000 worth of improvements to the government within three months’ time, set everyone to work. From morning to night, their hands blistered by rough gardening implements, the community toiled in the blazing sun. Father Martelli, who was in delicate health, sometimes fainted with heat exhaustion, but the bishop, with Father Nicholas, the brothers and a few native men, and Daisy Bates with her band of women never flagged.
When the valuer arrived the last corner had been cleared, the wells cleaned, fences and buildings straightened up. The sheer courage and enthusiasm of the bishop and his helpers must have won the support of this official who embarked on his task in a spirit of warm-hearted co-operation.
He was surprised [Daisy Bates records] to see a thriving property where he had expected ruin and decay. Every screw and post, every fruit and vegetable, buildings, wells, trenches and implements were meticulously valued, and with the livestock on the run, the supplies in the store, the sorghum and sugar-cane fields, the tomato and cucumber patches, and the orange, banana, coconut and pomegranate groves, the sum reached over £6,000. Even one Cape gooseberry bush and one grape-vine had to be valued. The Mission was saved for the natives!
All together and in much jubilation we made the first bricks of sand and loam and a clay for the new convent and monastery, of which I laid the foundation brick... 
The ‘fixed improvement’ issue settled at last, the mission could now officially claim the promised 10,000 acre freehold, which, in the absence of a government surveyor, the bishop and his helpers set out to measure with an old lugger compass and a chain. Daisy Bates’ account continues:
The bishop and I were the chainmen and we walked in a steamy heat, of 106 degrees at times, sometimes twelve miles in the day. Over marsh and through the pindan, now lame from the stones and prickles, now up to our thighs in bog, we plodded on... We were always hungry. Brother Xavier, in charge of the commissariat, would forget the salt or the bread or the meat, or the place where he had arranged to meet us, or that we existed at all; but in hunger and hardship we managed to keep our good humour throughout our whole long stay, strange companions in the solitude of the bush.
On the night walkings, rosaries were chanted all the way home, the natives and brothers responding. I often stumbled and fell in the dark but that rosary never stopped...
I compiled all the survey notes at night. Those notes were later a great source of amusement to the bishop and his staff, but the bishop received the title-deeds of his 10,000 acres, so the mud-stains and blots scarcely mattered. Later, in Perth, he presented me with an inscribed gold watch, in memory of our survey work and the saving of the mission for the natives. ...
Their last task was to visit the little mission at Disaster Bay that Father Jean Marie and young ‘Father’ Narcisse had left some six months before. It was a gruelling two days’ journey, walking beside the bullock wagon, through heavy sand and scrub, but they were rewarded on arrival by a touching welcome. Thomas Puertollano had taken a temporary job with a pearling fleet to help maintain the mission, but the natives had meanwhile kept open the wells, watered the gardens and guarded the supplies of rice, tea, flour, sugar and sugar-cane that had been left in the unlocked store.
I should scarcely have credited [Daisy Bates remarks] that the natives could know there was food within reach and yet refrain from touching it out of regard for, not fear of, the missionaries.
When the people asked how soon their beloved fathers would return to them, the bishop, not wishing to deceive them, said that the Trappists might not be able to come back but that other good priests and brothers would take their place. This the natives were not prepared to believe, for Father Jean Marie had himself told them he would return. They had worked hard not to disappoint him and were confident he would not disappoint them.
Here, as at Beagle Bay, the tribes people had not seen a white woman before and Daisy Bates was a source of wonder and delight to them. The women and children crowded around the doorway of her open hut to watch her dress:
I have always [she tells us] preserved a scrupulous neatness and all the little trappings and accoutrements of my own very particular mode of dress, sometimes under difficulties, but I think I never made a more laughable toilet than that one. Every motion of mine, as I laced my corset and eased my shoes on with a horn, brushed my hair and adjusted my high collar and waist-belt, was greeted with long-drawn squeals of laughter and mirrored in action, though the slim black daughters of Eve about me had not even a strand of hair string between the whole thirty.
On the last stage of their journey, when walking from the mission to meet the Scree Pas Sair at Beagle Bay, the bishop’s strength at last gave out. He was carried aboard the lugger almost delirious, but managed to rally briefly to admonish a naked Malay to put his clothes on!
Daisy Bates, loyal to the bishop’s cause, later wrote an optimistic report of the mission. She described the garden, after their three months’ work, as again ‘a Chinaman’s paradise’, with eight thousand heavily bearing banana trees, fifty-two coconut and sixty date palms, plantations of sugarcane and rice for local needs, flourishing citrus fruit and every known variety of vegetable. She claimed that much of the stock ‘would have carried off prizes at a show’ and said that the difficulty of keeping horses, owing to the prevalent poison weed, had been overcome by introducing couch grass and hardy Timor ponies. She confessed herself wrong in expecting to find the mission native ‘a sneak and a sycophant - a sort of flour and rice Christian’, and described the faces of the people as expressive of the change that had come into their lives and the sincerity of their religious devotion.
From the book, written in her later years, it is clear that she was truly touched and impressed by the mission and its people, but even more so by the great-hearted man who had fought so hard for them and closed his eyes to their weaknesses. In loyalty to him, and to help his cherished mission to its feet again, it would seem that she had even been prepared to wear rose-tinted glasses in writing her contemporary report. When it could no longer harm his cause, and perhaps in be light of her own later experience, she revealed that she had few illusions about me wild people’s devotion to work, the wholeheartedness of their conversion or the reality of their Christian ‘marriages’. Close contact with the women at Beagle Bay had convinced her that most of those whose marriages to Manilamen had been blessed in all good faith by Father Nicholas regarded themselves as being merely ‘on hire’ from their rightful tribal husbands. She did not make this public at the time but she claims that her evidence to the bishop and Father Nicholas decided them to inquire more closely in future before consenting to such mixed unions.
Her summing up of the Trappists’ contribution, though warmly appreciative, was somewhat ironical, in view of their high spiritual aspirations:
[They] did the greatest service in the State of Western Australia, for they demonstrated in the most practical manner the suitability of the Kimberley area for any kind of produce. These little Trappists may be justly ranked among Australia’s finest pioneers.