Martina, the first of priest’s 150 Aboriginal wives

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By JOHN P McD SMITH

One hundred years ago Francis Gsell “purchased” the first of his 150 wives. This is his story.

A Catholic Aboriginal mission was established on Bathurst Island in 1911 with the land being granted by the South Australian Government in 1910. 

Father Francis Gsell arrived and selected a site for the mission on the south-eastern tip of Bathurst Island making sure that the location had no sacred significance to the Tiwi people. The place was called Nguiu.

In his early observations of Aboriginal people Gsell said: “They possess a conscience and are capable of mental, even intellectual and spiritual processes and, given the opportunity, they can reach a high standard at the best.” 

There is also a duty “of justice in making what restitution can be made”.

Negative contact with white men had already occurred and the Tiwi were trading their women with the white man.  It was not uncommon in Port Darwin for Aboriginal girls to be sold for as little as sixpence or traded for tobacco and alcohol. 

The Mission at Nguiu was set up in competition with the local evils, which wasn’t all perpetrated by white men.  Gsell explains: “[Women were] little more than ‘beasts of burden’, who according to a man’s whim, may be cajoled, thrashed, killed or even taken to market to be traded infamously.

“[Soon] Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart came … and had much to do with improving the lot of the Aboriginal women.”

When the two sisters arrived, it met with the approval of the Tiwi men who felt that Father Gsell was now running a more normal domestic situation with the arrival of his two ‘wives”! 

As a consequence, Aboriginal children and their mothers were permitted to come to the mission. By 1925 there were 65 Aboriginal children at the school.

Gsell began a vegetable garden and encouraged the Tiwis to supplement their diets with vegetables. He also started a small dispensary where basic medical treatment could be offered. 

One of the worst diseases which afflicted the Tiwi people was yaws which, being related to leprosy, is a series of sores that eat away at the skin tissue. This terrible disease was arrested with the assistance of Dr Cook from Darwin by means of an intra-muscular injection.

However, the lowly status of the Tiwi women continued to be an issue of great concern to Gsell. 

He found the marriage customs to be particularly unpalatable.  His own words relate the situation: ”Girls were born married and always belonged to a man. If they ran away it would invite certain death.  An older Aboriginal man could have up to 25 wives.

“It was always a sad sight to see these poor little mites from eight to ten years becoming the playthings of old [men].” 

What could Francis Gsell do? 1921 was Martina’s nemesis year.  That is 100 years ago now.  Martina, who lived at the mission became the centre of a fierce marriage dispute. 

Gsell said: “That Martina was indeed, a little guide sent … to show us the way through the gloom ahead whereby we might now march well, well guided by this little one … a heroine of events which allowed me to change the lives of herself and many of her sisters.”

A hairy man came to the mission to claim Martina for his wife and Gsell knew that no-one could challenge the law of the tribe, yet he could hardly bear the thought of seeing this beautiful, bright girl being sold into a marriage to this old man. 

Things became drastic when Martina said she would not go with this man, but everyone knew that she must.  She went up to Gsell and clutched his soutane (cassock) crying out: “Oh help me Father! Do not let me go! I do not want to go with this old man who is ugly!  Please! I want to stay at the mission! Please Father, let me stay!”

Gsell was overwhelmed by this desperate plea.  He felt that far deeper trouble could be caused if he tried to interfere with tribal law.  In a state of great personal distress Gsell gave the only answer he felt that he could give:  “You must go because the law says you must go. Yet pray Martina, because God can save you.”

So poor Martina accepted her fate leaving with the man to her new life which Gsell described as having “less joy than the lowest beasts of the forest”.

Gsell struggled with his own feelings of utter despair.  Yet five days later Martina had returned to the mission having run away. 

There was a gash in her leg from a spear, inflicted by her husband because of her unwillingness to submit to him. 

The child was in a state of terror and Gsell offered her his protection.  By evening a large, angry mob stood at the mission gates muttering and gesticulating while Martina clutched Gsell pleading with him to save her. 

There were those who didn’t want the missionaries to stay. Gsell was again deeply distressed. What was he to do? He decided to go and talk to the tribesmen in a friendly manner in an attempt to gain some time by offering food and rest for the night, to which they agreed.

Francis Gsell barely slept that night.  He spent the night hours praying and thinking. Slowly a feeling crept through him that he could save Martina. 

By morning his plan was ready.  On a long table in front of the mission house he placed a good blanket, a sack of flour, a sharp knife, a hatchet of good quality steel, a mirror, a handsome teapot, some bright beads, a pipe and some good tobacco, a few lengths of brightly coloured calico, a few tins of meat and a couple of pots of treacle.

Early the following morning the tribesmen approached the table displaying great interest in the array of treasures. 

After suitable time had passed Gsell made his appearance.  He made a great issue of the wares, handling and displaying them one by one before the mesmerised eyes and when he felt the moment was right, he struck a bargain offering the wares in exchange for Martina.

There was gasping and gesticulating for Gsell’s offer caused great consternation and the men said that they must go into council to make a decision for if they agreed they would be transgressing tribal law. The minutes dragged by as the tropical torpor hung in the air. 

After much haggling, the council broke up and the husband of Martina approached Gsell with a broad grin across his face. The girl could be sold in return for the goods, but she must be only the wife of the priest! Gsell had his bargain! The tribesmen eagerly gathered the treasures leaving in a state of great excitement while Martina withdrew from the scene. 

So Martina became Gsell’s first “wife” and over the years he traded up to 150 young Tiwi girls from fateful polygamous marriages.  These girls grew up at the mission eventually marrying young Tiwi men of their choice.

In 1938 Gsell left the Bathurst Island mission after 27 years.

He was named first Bishop of Darwin. 

He became affectionately known as the bishop with 150 wives.  Martina went on to live a happy family life after she married a young Tiwi man named Agau. They had two daughters.

Detail for this story comes from the book “The Bishop with 150 wives” by F X Gsell published by Angus and Robertson 1955.

PHOTO: Martina, the first girl bought by the Mission, with her husband, Agau and their two daughters, Elizabeth and Mary.

[John P McD Smith is the chair, St Francis’ House Project.]

2 COMMENTS

  1. Reasonably accurate account it seems, but the book The Bishop with 150 Wives was written by Father Frank Flynn MSC. Fr Flynn was a famous eye specialist and Rugby Union player who joined the priesthood. He continued to do eye operations in Darwin and enjoyed life very much as a chaplain for the RAAF.
    Although it is true that the Tiwi once practised polygyny (as distinct from polygamy) their women generally had gender equality at a level much higher than most First Australian societies.
    Nguiu is now called Wurrumiyanga – mainly because muruntawi (whitefellas) couldn’t pronounce Nguiu.

  2. The Bishop with 150 Wives by F X Gsell is a great read. Published 1955. Available at ABE.
    In 1951 the book “Distant horizons: mission impressions” was written by Rev Frank Flynn. Foreword to that book was written by F X Gsell.

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