Bittersweet centenary

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It was on a long drive through the Atherton Tablelands in far north Queensland some years ago that Aunty Val Green opened up to me about the history of the nearby Mona Mona Aboriginal mission—run by the Adventist Church from 1913 to 1963. Under Aboriginal “protection” policies of the day, local Djabugay people, as well as members of surrounding tribes, were placed by the state under the care of missionaries to be educated and “Christianised”. Some came willingly. It was considered a compassionate policy in the light of the preceding century, during which at least 10,000 Queensland Aborigines died violently as white settlements expanded.
 

    

I learnt to love Jesus. I learnt respect, I learnt discipline—just like all the elders here. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the upbringing the Mona Mona people gave me.

Aunty Val told me that some things were not as they should have been. For example, there were couples who lived at the mission who had their young children taken away and put in dormitories. She said some of the kids didn’t even know who their parents were. The rules were strict and English was the only language allowed. Troublemakers were sent to the much harsher Palm Island government reserve, off the coast of Townsville.

When the children grew up, some were told by the missionaries who they were to marry. These decisions included consideration of skin colour, with darker people matched with light-skinned spouses.
 

In 1998, the Seventh-day Adventist Church officially apologised to Indigenous Australians who were forcibly removed from their families and placed in institutions run by the state and the churches, such as Mona Mona. It is apparent that there are stories from the history of Mona Mona that contain chapters which we wish could be changed.

And yet, if you listen to other stories that many of the past residents tell—as they did at the mission’s centenary celebrations at Mona Mona (September 21-26)—you’ll mainly hear happy memories of horse riding, swimming in nearby Flaggy Creek and the brass band. 
 

“Every girl, I think, that was on the mission learnt how to play the piano,” said Aunty June Grogan, who grew up at Mona Mona, “and the boys the cornet—the trumpet—they were in the band.” For some years the mission also grew enough fruit and vegetables to feed everyone on the property, which was some 200 families in 1963, when Mona Mona was closed under new “assimilation” government policies. 
 

    

So were the years of Mona Mona, the glory years, or years of regrettable, cultural and human insensitivity? The uncomfortable answer, according to those I spoke to during the centenary gathering, appears to be “both”. While some of the Mona Mona staff appear to have willingly participated in separating families and dispossessing Indigenous people from their land, language and culture, it has to be conceded that those who served at Mona Mona were fairly successful in preparing a generation of tribal Aboriginal people for a transition into the 20th century, imparting literacy and important work skills. And it’s clear they did this largely in a spirit of evangelism and sacrifice—even love, which was clearly felt by those they came so far to help. 

“I learnt to love Jesus,” said Aunty Flo Brim with tears in her voice, during Sabbath centenary meetings. “I learnt respect, I learnt discipline—just like all the elders here. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the upbringing the Mona Mona people gave me.” 
 

    

The old mission hymns were sung again during the centenary celebrations. The dwindling number of original residents in the choir was boosted by Mona Mona descendants, some of whom hold a more pessimistic view of their history and have pushed for compensation and land rights over the 650 hectare property. But they sing together.

It’s clear Mona Mona mission operated in a different era, with different cultural assumptions and values that are difficult to justify today. But it’s a time looked back on fondly by many who attended the celebrations. Pastor David Blanch, who retired from the presidency of the Greater Sydney Conference last year, grew up at Mona Mona as a staff child. Despite cracked ribs from a recent car accident, he was determined to attend the celebrations and told the congregation how an older girl by the name of Rosie Grogan “smacked my bottom more than any other Aboriginal person here at Mona Mona”. And as the laughter died down: “I have her to thank for keeping me on the straight and narrow, and that I am a pastor today.” That girl was taken out of school at nine years old to look after the non-indigenous children. She’s now Aunty Rose Richards, an active Adventist, respected community worker and an elder in the Cairns region.
 

In the historical display tent, I was sorting through a series of historic Mona Mona ID photos with Aunty Rose, the surnames flipping by in alphabetical order—Aplin, Brim, Grogan, Mitchell, Riley. Suddenly she stood up and walked away. Later she told me the images and the memories had upset her. “Seeing those old boys, those singers . . . I cry when I hear those hymns you know—I can hear the voices.”
 


Kent Kingston worked with Indigenous people in Adelaide and Far North Queensland for a number of years. He is now assistant editor of RECORD.