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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Accidental Ethnographer (2g)—Ocean and Isle: Thursday and Friday Islands

One year ago on Round and Square (6 June 2011)—Living and Learning: Mockery By Mencius 
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "The Accidental Ethnographer." (Coming Soon)
Click below for other posts from Ocean and Isle:
Isle 1            Isle  2            Isle 3           Isle 4            Isle 5            Isle 6            Isle 7
[a] Strait tips RF
I gave a lecture at the Doylestown Historical Society on June 1st, as part of Doylestown, Pennsylvania's big bicentennial celebration. The subject was the American explorer and evangelist William Edgar Geil (1865-1925). This is part of a larger project that I am working on this summer in Doylestown with the help of Beloit College anthropology major Megan Nyquist '14. As I did a few weeks ago in preparation for another lecture (on another subject), I am posting some of Geil's own writings. This was enormously helpful to me the last time I tried it, and I think it is worth another try. I will, over the course of my summer research, post my lecture and some of the early results of the research Megan and I are doing. In the meantime, though, I want to start the "Accidental Ethnographer" series with William Geil's own words. I will post two or three readings from each of Geil's dozen books over the course of May and June.

[b] Passage RF
William Edgar Geil was a world famous figure in his day, and the reasons he has been lost to history (from his death until now) are as interesting as the underpinnings of his fame. Here is a very brief overview. In a day before anthropology or Chinese (or African or Micronesian) studies had a toehold in world universities, William Edgar Geil traveled the world, took extensive notes, returned to Doylestown, and wrote books. Depending on how you count them, he wrote almost a dozen—many of them thick and substantial in ways that a turn of the (last) century reader would understand, even if many people today would not. He traveled across central Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, spent a year in Australia and New Guinea, and then found an abiding love for the study of China (which is where I "met" him, in a manner of speaking). He traveled the length of the Great Wall, journeyed the Yangzi River from Shanghai into southeast Asia, visited all of China's provincial capitals, and is the only Westerner to have written a book about his travels to all five sacred mountains of China.

He wrote about it all, and he took pictures. The former is not without problem; the latter is easily his legacy. It is all a fascinating picture of an American abroad in a peculiarly resonant time in American history—from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to the end of World War I. This series will grow as my research does, but let's get started with Geil's own words—a little from each of his published books.
 ***  ***
Only a chapter or two away from passages of admirable cultural understanding, William Edgar Geil takes a different rhetorical tack. It combines a kind of geo-Biblical "landmark" imagery with an account of missionary institutions on the Torres Strait. When combined with the other entries from Ocean and Isle, Geil's account of the south seas shows the full range of his thinking. As I have stated many times before, he's complicated. Today's selection could easily be typecast as amateurish and one-dimensional. They are, indeed, in keeping with the writing and speaking that he did throughout his career. When read together with all of the material in "The Accidental Ethnographer (2a-g)," we see a strange and fascinating figure who should have a place in the complicated prehistory of academic anthropology.

And, indeed, even these lines are complicated and wince-inducing. If you don't think so, just look at the end of the "poem." It is not enough to call it a different era. We need to challenge it and understand it.

Ocean and Isle—Thursday and Friday Islands
William Edgar Geil (1902) 
"In the beginning, God created Thursday Island"; so began the Hon. John Douglass, C.M.G., in his great lecture before the Royal Geographical Society. The ex-Premier of Queensland intends to be understood as saying, that the foundations of this little island are laid in the bed-rock of the oldest geological formations; and is probably as old as the mightiest monarchs of the Himalayas and Andes. Its history is interesting and easily told. Read it, as suggested by Governor Douglass:—

     Landmark No. 1.—Creation of Thursday Island, unrecorded—Omne ignotum pro
     magnifico—probably the same as the sun, moon, and stars.

     Landmark No. 2.—The visit of the sons of God to the daughters of men—also 
     beyond historical computation, an insoluble problem.

     Landmark No. 3.—Luis Vaez de Torres, A.D. 1606.

     Landmark No. 4.—Captain Cook, A.D. 1770. As the Act was being thought out 
     and passed which levied a duty on tea, and lost to Great Britain the American 
     colonies, Cook was annexing Australia and these Islands, thus compensating
     somewhat for Britain's loss through the tea duty.

     Landmark No. 5.—Voyages of the "Fly" and the "Rattlesnake." This brings us 
     down to modern days. The island is composed of two cannon-crowned hills,
     and three other small mountains, with plenty of rocks, but little soil. According
     the recent census, Thursday Island has now a population of 1,600 odd; this is
     literally true, for there are no two alike. It is probably the most cosmopolitan
     population for the number of its inhabitants that one could find on this planet. 
     This feature of the island has been celebrated by a poet unknown, in the 
     following stanzas:— 
                                      "Up in regions equatorial,
                                                Blest with scenery pictorial,
                                                Pursuits mainly piscatorial,
                                                       Lies an island known to fame.
                                                Pearling lives and pearling thrives there,
                                                Colored races live in hives there,
                                                White men only risk their lives there.
                                                       Thursday Island is its name. 

                                               "Every race it opes its gates to,
                                                 Every country it relates to,
                                                 Key to Hell and Torres Straits too,
                                                         Through a speck upon the map.
                                                 What though whites first trod upon it!
                                                 What though Anglo-Saxons won it!
                                                 Chows and Cingalese now run it,
                                                          Aided by the wily Jap." 

[c] Multiple RF
The islands belong to the group known as the Prince of Wales Archipelago. The writer has just returned from a visit to several of these islands of Torres Straits, in the "White Star." During the cruise of the "White Star" it became necessary for us to go to Warrior Island to capture a man who had gone to Long Island and stolen some chickens and other articles of housekeeping. The number of nationalities involved in the capture and arrest, and trial, conviction, and imprisonment of the rascal, illustrates the curious mixture of races in this Prince of Wales Archipelago. The man who stole the hen was a Malay, the man who owned the hen was a Madras Indian, the witness of the theft of the hen a Fijian, the constable who arrested the culprit who stole the hen was a Scotchman, the captain of the vessel which caught the thief was a Hamburger-German, the boy who caught the hen on Warrior Island an aboriginal of Australia, the judge before whom the man who stole the hen will be tried is an Englishman, the jailer is an Irishman, the cook a West Indian. Besides which three other nationalities are concerned with the punishment of the stealer of a hen! 

A conglomeration surely; but it pretty accurately represents the heterogeneous population of Thursday Island. In addition to 1,600 odd, there must be reckoned 2,032 men of all colors engaged on the floating pearl stations, for the "floating system" is now in use. In former years there were frequent returns of the pearl-shelling boats to the island to unload shells and pearls. But now months elapse between visits, while in some cases only once a year do the fleets return. This means that these workmen of various nationalities and religions, faiths, and no faith at all, are entirely cut off from opportunities of attending religious services. At Christmas time these fleets all come to Thursday Island and are paid off. And is it any wonder that with 16,000 pounds sterling of their money going into the hands of the liquor shops and so forth, there should be riot, bloodshed, and murder! In all the realm of commercial operations in a fully civilized and properly governed region are there to be found men who have greater need for missionary work than these same divers, slug hunters, and pearl shell sorters?

[d] Heterogeneous RF
The problem which the bishop must solve here in missionary work is as difficult as any come to the hand of an earnest worker. There is the fact of the heterogeneous resident population; next the 2,000 odd men of all nationalities belonging to the pearling fleets. But, add to this mixture of minds and religions vigorously conducted liquor shops, cementing the minority of the people into a mass of undesirable humanity, and you have a problem sufficient to stagger the stalwart faith of many an honest and faithful messenger of the gospel. It is here one sees, within the bounds of 900 acres, what some twenty or more aboriginal people are like taken away from home, and surrounded by men (the male population is five times that of the female) bent on selfish purposes. The picture is one which some philosophers who believe in the inherent goodness of human nature might with profit to themselves hang on their study walls.

Near to Thursday Island are four Tuesday Islands and one Wednesday Island. Farther off is Sunday Island, and across two miles of strong current is the beautiful Friday Island, set apart for the lepers of Queensland. All can tell of shipwrecks and rescued boat's crews, of both kindness and brutality displayed by the native savages when unfortunate persons have been wrecked upon their coasts. Torres Strait is probably as full of interest to the student of native races, and the observant traveller, as any narrow and dangerous ship's passage through which trunk line steamers pass. A few years ago the Government Resident was removed from the Albany Pass on the mainland of Queensland to this point, Thursday Island, for reasons as much military as commercial, quite as much for the soldier and sailor as for the pearler and the beche-de-mer fleets.
[e] Grit RF

It was on account of the strategic position and the calling port of great steamship lines, joined to the ready need of the archipelago for Christian effort that the newly-made bishop of the year-old diocese of Carpentaria decided to make this his headquarters. And the facts previously mentioned regarding the character of the population and need of the island commend the wisdom of the bishop's choice.

The Salvation Army is here with its street meetings, its soldiers in uniform, and band composed of one instrument, a monster bass drum! This is played by a huge colored man who addresses the crowd in "Pigeon English," and accompanies solos on his musical instrument! They are full of grit, this little band of hardy and earnest Salvationists; they have more grit than greenbacks, but there is not much for figures to deal with in connection with their efforts. This is not to be taken as indicating a lack of good works. In this conglomerate population where sin abounds, we will rejoice to simply find agencies for spreading the gospel even though they reach only a few.

Roman Catholic missions are not prosperous. With characteristic worldly wisdom they have the best site on which is erected their little wooden church, and they have a good building to accommodate the priests and sisters. When when I asked the head priest for the number of communicants, his reply was that the shifting nature of the population makes anything in the way of statistics misleading. The Sisters' school of sixty pupils is prosperous, but aside from this there is little to show for the work of the well-manned mission in Thursday Island. 

[f] Strategic RF
The Chinese Joss House is the only fully alien place of worship on the island, and is remarkable for the number of exploded fire-crackers in the front yard. A cripple is caretaker of this religious house. The Chinese have a strong contingent in the archipelago, and many of them are small vegetable farmers and shopkeepers.

In concluding this chapter, let me enforce that here are being solved problems of great interest to the whole Christian church, and questions are arising here which will have their counterpart in most mission fields during the next quarter century. Too recently begun is the work for purposes of forming an opinion concerning the wisdom of the present methods employed, but as the white population remains largely untouched by the plans now in vogue, it might not be amiss to suggest a more vigorous policy, having in mind the immediate conversion of the English-speaking portion of the community. If New Guinea and Northern Queensland develop into thickly settled white communities, then in the future Thursday Island is likely to become a second Hong Kong. But whether such commercial importance or not attaches to Thursday Island, the strategic position for military and religious operations must continue.[1]

Click below for other posts from Ocean and Isle:
Isle 1            Isle  2            Isle 3           Isle 4            Isle 5            Isle 6            Isle 7 
[1] William Edgar Geil, Ocean and Isle (Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902), 191-199.

Geil, William Edgar. Ocean and Isle. Melbourne: Wm. T. Pater & Company, 1902.
[g] Alien RF

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