The Roper River Mission was the first of five Missions to be set up by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in the Northern Territory. It was established in 1908 by the Church Missionary Association of Victoria (CMA) which was later to become the Victorian Branch of the CMS. Situated in Arnhem Land, 110 kilometres upstream from the mouth of the Roper River, the Mission covered an area of 320 square km with 16 km of river frontage. According to John Harris in We wish we'd done more: Ninety years of CMS and Aboriginal issues in north Australia this area was known to local Aboriginal people as Mirlinbarrwarr. The land was leased to the Mission by the Government of South Australia. The Commonwealth Government paid an annual subsidy of £250 to the Mission.
The Roper River Mission was intended to bring 'Christianity and civilisation' to the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land. To this end it was to be an industrial and agricultural station as well as providing spiritual instruction and Western education. According to Harris, the CMS also intended that the Mission be a safe haven for Aboriginal people where they could be protected from massacre by white settlers.
Three Missionaries from Victoria and three Aboriginal Missionaries from Yaraba Mission in Queensland arrived at the Roper River site on 27 August 1908. By 1909 there were 200 people staying at the Mission.
Within a year of its establishment a makeshift school was being run at Roper River. A 1911 Mission report stated that 33 children were living at the Mission station separately from their parents and relatives. It noted that:
'The most hopeful feature of the work is that among the young. The year closed with 17 Boys and 16 Girls in residence…We owe thanks to the resident Protector for the help rendered in influencing the parents to leave their children at the Station …'
By 1913 the number of children had nearly doubled to 63 including 26 girls and 27 boys between the ages of 5 and 18 years. The Mission was paid a Government subsidy for approximately 10 of the children who were deemed at the time to be 'half-caste'.
Dormitories had been established prior to January 1913. Miss Elsie Masson, after visiting Roper River in July 1913, was asked to present a report to the NT Administrator regarding the Mission. In outlining the work being done with the children at the Mission she stated that:
'The object of the Mission is to educate these children, instruct them in practical and religious matters, eradicate their savage instincts, and make them capable of looking after themselves. … All the children attend the school, which is divided into three classes. Here they learn to read, write, tell the time, do simple arithmetic, and learn by heart. … Before breakfast, and for two hours in the late afternoon the boys work in the vegetable garden or at carpentry. The vegetable garden is irrigated with water pumped from the river. … The boys look after the engine that pumps the water, of course, under supervision. Their carpentry consists of making plain benches and seats. The girls all learn housework, taking their turn at different kinds. They begin with sweeping the yard, bringing in wood, etc., and go on to laying the table and helping in the kitchen. … They do all the washing and are learning to iron…'
The Bishop of Carpentaria visited the Mission in 1914 and described some of the buildings including the dormitories:
'The outward appearance of the Mission has enormously improved since my last visit three years ago. With the exception of the boys' dormitory, which is utterly worn out, and the ladies quarters, which are old and dilapidated, the buildings are good and substantial, and everything is tidy, well-arranged, and in good order, and kept clean…The girls' dormitory is a good useful building, and in the absence of a church or schoolroom, has to be used for all services. The windows, however, ought to be made much more secure than they are.'
In 1918 the Reverend E.H. Warren, who was Superintendent of the Mission, wrote to the NT Administrator to say that police at Newcastle Waters wished for the Mission to take 20 Aboriginal people that they considered to be 'half-castes'. Warren expressed concern about the number of Aboriginal people of mixed descent at the Mission and asked for a government subsidy of five shillings a week for each 'half-caste child on the mission.'
By 1920 the CMS were considering moving the entire Roper River Mission to Groote Eylandt due to poor soil quality and damage to the buildings and crops caused by white ant infestations. The Rev Warren also considered it important to segregate the Aboriginal people they deemed 'half-caste' from what he called the 'degrading influences' of white settlements.
In 1924 35 children and young people from the Roper River Mission, who were at that time considered to be 'half-caste', were transferred to the newly established CMS Groote Eylandt Mission at Emerald River on Groote Eylandt. At the time the Reverend Warren was the Superintendent of both Roper River and Groote Eylandt Missions, Nine years later, in 1933, after changes in CMS and government policy, 14 school aged Aboriginal children considered to be 'half-caste' were moved from Groote Eylandt back to the Roper River Mission with the intention that they would be taken to the government run Kahlin Compound in Darwin and the Bungalow at Alice Springs. However, fears that some of the children might be suffering from leprosy meant they were not moved on and they remained at Roper River.
A compound for people suffering from the disease leprosy was situated at Roper River Mission in 1928. Government documents and newspaper articles show that some residents at the Missions discovered to have the disease were taken to the Mud Island Lazarette and after 1931 to the Channel Island Leprosarium.
In 1937 responsibility for administration and staffing of all CMS Missions fell to the Federal Council of the CMS. This included Roper River. Severe floods destroyed the Mission entirely in 1940, forcing it to be relocated to higher ground at a site known as Ngukurr.
In 1942 after the bombing of Darwin during World War II, many Aboriginal children and young people who were considered to be 'half-caste' were evacuated from Missions in the Northern Territory. Children from the CMS Missions at Roper River and Groote Eylandt were moved to a temporary home in Mulgoa, west of Sydney in NSW know as the Church Missionary Society Home for Half-castes, Mulgoa. The children lived there until they were again relocated in 1948 and 1949. The majority of the boys from Mulgoa were transferred to St Francis House in South Australia and many of the girls went to St Mary's Hostel in Alice Springs. A few older young men and women remained in Sydney.
Records suggest that during World War II the CMS was unable to keep the dormitories at their Missions operating because of a lack of staff. After the war the dormitories for older girls were reopened for a time before being phased out by the late 1950s.
In 1968 the administration of the Mission at Roper River was handed over to the Welfare Branch of the Northern Territory Administration. In 1988 the Yugul Mangi Community Government Council was formed. It took over control of the former Mission and the township became known as Ngukurr.
20 May 2021
Cite this: http://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/nt/YE00010
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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