In 1912 the Wororo people, near Derby in north Western Australia, watched silently as the Presbyterian missionaries, Robert and Frances Wilson, anchored their lugger and went ashore to establish the Port George IV mission on Worora land. The Aboriginal oral tradition is that a great debate ensued in the Worora camp for many weeks. Clearly they were puzzled by these people who came with crosses not guns. ‘Kill them’, demanded Ambula, one of the elders, while Indamoi and others yelled ‘No! They are not trying to harm us. They do not hunt our food. They have given us food and gifts. We have nothing to fear from them.’ 1 In other places across the top of Australia from Cape York, through Arnhem Land, to the Kimberleys and north Western Australia around 1900, the sails of missionary luggers disturbed the rhythms of Aboriginal daily life.
The movement of the missionaries into northern Australia was seen by the churches as the last chance for missionary activity among the Australian Aborigines. As Bishop Frodsham cried out in 1906:
The Aborigines are disappearing. In the course of a generation or two, at the most, the last Australian blackfellow will have turned his face to warm mother earth… Missionary work then may be only smoothing the pillow of a dying race, but I think if the Lord Jesus came to Australia he would be moved with great compassion for these poor outcasts, living by the wayside, robbed of their land, wounded by the lust and passion of a stronger race, and dying. 2
The Anglican Roper River Mission was subsequently established in Arnhem Land. By the 1920s more than 20 Christian missions were founded in the northern regions of Australia, most of them on the coast or islands, but some in the interior.
Almost all were in remote areas which meant that they were not quickly engulfed by European settlement as had occurred in the south. Instead, these northern missions began contacts with the Aborigines that often lasted for generations, some even to the present day.
The first missionaries in the north were stout people of raw courage.