‘Facts about the child-wife problem from Groote Eylandt, 1938– 1939’: how the account of Sister Elizabeth Taylor sheds light on mission policy and missionary responses to Aboriginal cultural practices in late 1930s Northern Australia
This paper will examine one missionary’s account of child-wife practices on Groote Eylandt in Northern Australia in the late 1930s. Elizabeth Taylor, a nursing sister, served on the Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission station among the Anindilyakwa people of Groote Eylandt for just under eighteen months in the late 1930s. During her time on Groote Eylandt she became concerned that girls were being betrothed from infancy and going to their husband’s camp from a young age. Following her time of service, she wrote an account of polygamy and child-wife practices for the CMS Aborigines Committee. In this account, Taylor seeks to explain the problem of the practice as she sees it, and calls for stronger action against the practice to become mission policy. She titled her account, ‘Facts about the child-wife problem from Groote Eylandt, 1938–1939’.
Recent historical writings have critiqued the careless use of cross-cultural accounts like Taylor’s for simplistic reconstructions of the cultural practices of the observed culture. However there is also a growing recognition of the value of missionary accounts for gaining insight into missionary attitudes, policy and practice and specific interactions between missionaries and indigenous peoples. Huber and Lutkehaus suggest colonial studies have often focussed on the effects of colonialism on the colonized while depending on ‘large generalizations about colonizers without regard to the finer points of geographical, institutional, or historical variation’. Grimshaw and May also see metanarratives about colonialism and imperialism as potentially silencing the diversity of interactions between missionaries and indigenous peoples.Further, Harris has suggested the implementation of more progressive mission policy during the mid-20th century in an Australian context was a complex process significantly dependent on beliefs and attitudes of individual missionaries.
Consequently, this paper will examine Taylor’s account as a source that sheds light on mission policy and missiology at the time. Earlier missionaries on Groote Eylandt had questioned how they should respond to polygamy and ‘girl wives’. Later missionaries would take more active steps to oppose polygamy, persuading or pressuring some older men to give up their youngest wives to single men. This decision had complex and debated consequences for those directly involved and for the complex social relationships on Groote. Missionaries also actively discouraged child-wife practices through social pressure, exclusion from the mission, the mission dormitory, and legal action in the 1960s. However, prior to 1944 CMS did not have a clearly documented or comprehensive policy for its Northern Australia missions and how they were to respond to local cultural practices. As a result this paper will explore Taylor’s account for insights into mission policy and missionary responses to complex marriage practices on Groote Eylandt prior to 1944. However, this requires that Taylor’s individual account be first situated in the wider historical context surrounding mission policy. So, before looking at Taylor’s work in detail, this paper will begin with a brief examination of developments in missiology during that era more generally in order to understand the context in which Taylor worked and wrote.
Secondly, this paper will examine in more depth Taylor’s concerns with the existing mission policy towards child-wife practices and her call for stronger action by the mission. It will examine Taylor’s account for the insights it gives into some of the values, attitudes and organisational factors that influenced her perceptions and responses and the implementation of mission policy at the time. To this end, the second portion of this paper will explore some of the factors that shaped Taylor’s experience and perceptions of child-wife practices. Ultimately, this paper will conclude that, while Taylor’s concern and call to action were well-meaning, they also reveal a lack of understanding of the cultural complexities surrounding child-wife practices, which in turn highlights the complexity of the issues and developments around Aboriginal missiology in that era more generally.