‘The Coming of the Light’ Celebrating 150 years of Christianity in the Torres Strait 1 July 2021

Congregation during a sermon at All Saints Anglican Church, Erub Island, 2011. Sarah Scragg, 32197 Church service at All Saints Anglican Church, Erub Island, image 32197-0001-0016, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Viewers are advised this blog contains culturally sensitive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material and images of deceased persons.

In 1871 on 1 July representatives from the London Missionary Society arrived on Erub Island (Darnley Island) accompanied by South Sea Islander evangelists and teachers.  

Clan Elder and Warrior, Dabad greeted them on their arrival. Ready to defend his land and people Dabad walked to the water’s edge when the Rev Samuel McFarlane dropped to his knees and presented The Bible to Dabad. Dabad accepted the gift, interpreted as the ‘Light’, introducing Christianity to the Torres Strait Islands. 

The people of the Torres Strait Islands adopted the Christian rituals and ceremonies and continued to uphold their connection to the land, sea and sky, practicing their traditional customs, and cultural identity referred to as ‘Ailan Kastom.’ 

Each year on 1 July, ‘The Coming of the Light’ or ‘Keriba Lagaw Buiya’ in traditional language is a day of celebration, performance, oral tradition and reverence. 

Coming of the Light celebrations 2011 – 2016 

People assemble outside All Saints Anglican Church, Erub Island, 2011. Sarah Scragg, 32197 Church service at All Saints Anglican Church, Erub Island, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

In 2011, a group of Lifou islanders from New Caledonia travelled to Erub Island to join in the celebrations and re-enactment of the 'Coming of the Light'. The visit enabled Lifou islanders to reconnect with their descendants who had settled on Erub more than a century earlier. 

The 27 images by photographer Sarah Scragg record the visit, the church service, the interior and exterior views of the All Saints Church, and the people in worship, receiving communion and cultural exchange. You can see more of them on State Library’s catalogue One Search

In 2016 Townsville photographer Alf Wilson travelled to Erub, photographing the celebrations and traditions observed for the ‘Coming of the Light’. The 10 images in the collection captured the community assembling for the event, performers in traditional costume, and members of the clergy preparing for the service.  View more of the Alf Wilson digitised images relating to the ‘Coming of the Light” on State Library's catalogue One Search.

Young men and women dressed in traditional costumes in the procession for the Coming of the Light Festival on Erub Island, 1 July 2016. 31450 Alf Wilson photographs Palm Island and area events, Image number 31450-0017-0009, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Church ministers with group of people in costume for the Coming of the Light Festival, Erub Island, 1 July 2016. 31450 Alf Wilson photographs Palm Island and area events, Image number 31450-0017-0004, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Crowd gathered for part of the ceremony at the Coming of the Light Festival, Erub Island, 1 July 2016. 31450 Alf Wilson photographs Palm Island and area events, Image number 31450-0017-0005, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Badu Island 1977-78 

In 1977 schoolteacher Wayne Torrens and his wife Gayle were posted to Badu Island. Both were very involved in community events and during the two years they were resident on the island Wayne photographed local events and filmed special occasions involving the community. 

Among his photos is a small group of images capturing the ‘Coming of the Light’ preparations and ceremony involving the people of Badu Island. 

The Torrens family collection of photograph albums featuring Badu Islanders and the Wujal Wujal community in north Queensland number in the hundreds. The 17 images relating to the ‘Coming of the Light’ on Badu Island are digitised and can be accessed on State Library's catalogue OneSearch.  

Baduans preparing for a Coming of the Light parade, Badu Island, 1977-78. 31661 Torrens family photographs, photographic slides and film footage of Badu Island and Wujal Wujal, Image number 31661-0004-0087, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

Baduans getting ready for The Coming of the Light service, Badu Island. 31661 Torrens family photographs, photographic slides and film footage of Badu Island and Wujal Wujal, Image number 31661-0004-0089, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

Baduans getting ready for The Coming of the Light service, Badu Island. 31661 Torrens family photographs, photographic slides and film footage of Badu Island and Wujal Wujal, Image number 31661-0004-0090, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Anglican Ministry in the Torres Strait 1949 - 1973

Dr Wilhelm Rechnitz, a German Jew who was deported to Australia from England early during WWII spent most of his time living and working in the Torres Strait. He converted to the Anglican faith and was ordained a Minister in 1953. Considered a language expert, he recorded the Indigenous languages of the Torres Strait and translated church texts into local language. He lived in various parts of the Torres Strait including Weiben (Thursday Island), Erub (Darnley Island), Badu (Mulgrave Island) and Saibai. 

His collection of more than 200 black and white photos are digitised and include images of local events and gatherings, island scenes and people going about their traditional customs. You can view the images on State Library's catalogue One Search.

All Saints Anglican Church on Darnley Island, ca. 1958. 6341 Dr Wilhelm Rechnitz Papers 1949-1972, Image number 6341-0001-0602, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

All Saints Anglican Church on Erub dates from 1919. It was constructed below the site of the original London Missionary Society Mission, house, and school. 

Builders used local materials---basalt, as well as lime produced from burnt coral. The proximity of the church to the early mission buildings ensured that it had a close link to the island’s history. 

It has evolved and changed over the years. Originally built under the guidance and direction of local island man, Manai, assisted by Albert Ware, a South Sea Islander man, it underwent significant remodelling in 1963. The roofline was raised and the internal walls extended. Limestone from surrounding reefs was used to complete this work. 

The cross symbolising the arrival of Christianity on Erub Island filmed for the exhibition, Islands: hidden histories of Queensland islands. 2018, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. 

Erub: The coming of the Light, 2018  

In 2018, State Library of Queensland hosted the exhibition Islands: hidden histories from Queensland Islands. A digital story was commissioned as part of the exhibition featuring the close personal connection of Erub Islanders to the ‘Coming of the Light’ and the artists interpretation. Listen to Erub artists Ellarose Savage, Jimmy Thaiday, and Racy Oui-Pitt share their experience.  

You can watch the artists talk about their personal experiences and their interpretation of the ‘Coming of the Light’ through art. Prints of the linocuts are held in the John Oxley Library collection. 

Erub : the coming of the light digital story. 

A digital story commissioned for the exhibition 'Islands: hidden histories from Queensland islands', held at the State Library of Queensland from 30 June 2018 to 27 January 2019. The story complements the six linocuts displayed in the exhibition. These artworks, part of accession 29469 Darnley Island Arts Centre linocuts 2005-2006, were selected for the exhibition because of their depiction and interpretation of 'The Coming of The Light' festival. This digital story features interviews with three artists whose works were displayed in the exhibition.

Collections

Collection Records

Films

Flickr

  • Coming of the Light – curated album of photographs featured on Flickr Commons, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.   
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Thanks for a wonderful article, that not only tells a story, but point us to others who have also told the story - in pictures.

I lived in New Calédonia almost 20 years and stayed on Lifou Island, juring my time sent on Lifou the local familys at Mou village told me the Mission teacher called Matika from the family Matika returned from the Torres Strait to Lifou and was given a new garden area by the big chief, he named it "Popuwa(unsure of spelling)" after seeing the Torres Strait. The Mcfarlane settelment is still on Lifou Island at Chepené Village. Mcfarlane would have planned his mission to the Torres Strait partly by talking the people on sailling boats which went to Australia taking sandal wood..and the Torres Strait had already a fishing industry...as well as being exposed and influenced to the outsiders. I was told many sailling boats landed on Lifou before Mcfarlane settled, these boats just passing spoke english to Lifou locals so they pickup some words. The big chief of Mou village told me they had a St Johns boys school on Lifou Island many years back(unsure of date). A few years after the Kanak teachers along with Mcfarlane went to the Torres Strait to settle there was a big tital wave hit Lifou and killed many people, the whole village of Mou was moved back up in land to higher ground.

Walter, we appreciate your sharing this information with the John Oxley Library blog audiences. The Coming of the Light photographic collections are an important record of the Torres Strait Islander history and its links with the people of New Caledonia. Thank you for adding this content about Lifou Island and its people.

Among the 27 images Sarah Scragg photographed in 2011 are two showing Church Warden Walter Lui. I hope you have had a chance to see them online. They include Walter lighting a candle https://hdl.handle.net/10462/photosbd/0020178
and another of Walter outside. https://hdl.handle.net/10462/photosbd/0020180

View all the images from this link - http://onesearch.slq.qld.gov.au/permalink/f/1upgmng/slq_alma21244093200…

Anne Scheu, Engagement Officer, Queensland Memory.