Coming of the Light and Christianity

Memorial in the shape of a boat to the London Missionary SocietyIn July 1871, the Reverend Samuel MacFarlane, a member of the London Missionary Society, anchored off Kemus Beach at Erub (Darnley Island) in the Torres Strait, where the inhabitants were known to be fierce warriors. He was accompanied by New Caledonian mission teachers and their wives.

Dabad, a warrior clan Elder on Erub, met them on the beach, and in defiance of tribal law welcomed the missionaries.

This event became known as the Coming of the Light, and recognises the adoption of Christianity throughout Island communities during the late nineteenth century. Coming of the Light is celebrated by Torres Strait Islanders on 1 July each year with church services, re-enactment of the landing at Kemus, hymn singing, feasting, and Ailan dans.

For Torres Strait Islanders, the arrival of the missionaries marked the beginning of a new era, and Islanders use the Torres Strait Creole (Kriol) word bipotaim (meaning before time) to refer to the era before the coming of the missionaries.

The Torres Strait Islanders' acceptance of the missionaries and Christianity has been credited with ending conflict between different Island groups. Pacific Islander missionaries also brought new language, songs, dances and customs, and new cultural influences from the Pacific islands. On a practical level, the missionaries also provided Torres Strait Islanders with some protection from exploitation in the maritime industries.

The acceptance of missionaries and Christianity in the Torres Strait led to profound changes that have affected every aspect of life since then.

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Church influence

Two Ttorres Strait Islander graduating priests in white robes and bare feet with a bishop in full church regalia.By the end of the nineteenth century, most Islander communities were nominally Christian and formed around the nucleus of the church.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonial administration allowed the London Missionary Society (LMS) an extremely broad sphere of influence in all aspects of Islander life, including education. The LMS employed Pacific Islanders as pastors to minister to local Torres Strait Islander people, at a time when other Melanesian and Polynesian cultures were having a profound impact on local customary practices. The missionaries maintained their influence until the end of 1914, when the LMS handed over its activities to the Church of England.

In 1915, the Queensland Government took over responsibility for school education, and the Church of England took responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the Islanders.

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Torres Strait social hierarchy

The divisions established in colonial society in the Torres Strait were firmly structured on racial grounds, with Europeans assuming the position at the top. Pacific and South Sea Islanders — with their longer relationships with, and experience of European habits, language, morality, and work ethic — were regarded as superior in ability and skill to Torres Strait Islanders, who were relegated to the lowest position. Later, Japanese labourers were to take their place below Europeans in the social hierarchy.

In time, the skills of Torres Strait Islanders, their conversion to Christianity, inter-marriage with Pacific and South Sea Islanders, and adoption of their customs differentiated Torres Strait Islanders from both neighbouring Melanesian and mainland Aboriginal peoples. The geographic place of the Torres Strait has been, and continues to be, socially constructed and reconstructed.

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Ailan Kastom

It was only with European contact that the various Island communities came to be considered as a single cultural group. Until then, identity for Islanders was connected with their individual islands. Torres Strait Islanders now identify as belonging to the wider cultural group of Torres Strait Islanders from which a body of customs, traditions, observances and beliefs, referred to as Ailan Kastom, has developed and continues to develop.

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