150th Anniversary of the Coming of the Light

by Imelda Miller, Curator, Torres Strait Island and Pacific Indigenous Studies, Queensland Museum

2021 will mark the 150th anniversary of the Coming of the Light and the arrival of Christianity into the Torres Strait Islands. 

Coming of the Light is a holiday celebrated by Torres Strait islanders on July 1 every year. It recognises the adoption of Christianity through the Torres Strait Islands in the nineteenth century.

Monument on Kemus, Erub eastern Torres Strait, 2021. Photo: I Miller, Queensland Museum.

Arrival of Christianity

From the 1840’s the London Missionary Society (LMS) had been working to spread the word of Christianity into the southwest Pacific. In an attempt to spreading into New Guinea it was decided that a main base be made on an island in the Torres Strait.

On the 1 July 1971, Reverend Samuel MacFarlane, a member of the LMS, Reverend Archibald W Murray, along with South Sea Islander evangelists and teachers Tepeso, Elia, Mataika, Gucheng, Kerisidui, Wauaded, Sivene and Josaia arrived at Erub an island in the eastern Torres Strait.  It was on a beach near Kemus, a small cove on the island, that they came ashore. They were met by Dabad, an Erubian warrior chief who in welcoming  the London Missionary Society clergy and teachers went against  his own laws and Islander custom.

With Christianity embraced by people of Erub, the missionaries continued to spread Christianity across the Torres Strait Islands, yet this first meeting and the arrival of the Gospel was described as the Coming of the Light.

Photograph of Coming of the Light celebration at the memorial at Kemus c. 1959 Kemus, Erub, Torres Strait
Photographer Mellor Queensland Museum Collection EH7437

Re-enactment, Feasting and Celebrations

July 1, 2021 is the 150th anniversary of the Coming of the Light. In the Torres Strait there will be a church service, re-enactment of the first meeting with the LMS, along with feasting and celebrations with singing and dancing across Torres Strait communities in the islands and on the mainland.   

This year many Torres Strait Islanders will gather at Kemus on Erub, to celebrate this 150th anniversary. Unfortunately, due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions many services and celebrations have been cancelled across the mainland cities and towns.

On going legacy

The acceptance of missionaries and Christianity into the Torres Strait Islands brought change.  One thing is for sure it led to profound transformations that affected every aspect of life from that time onwards in the Torres Strait Islands.

Today some Torres Strait Islanders are connecting with Pacific Islander families connected to the South Sea Islander evangelist who first came with the LMS on the boat Surprise, in 1871.

It is important for us all to know this history.

In the exhibition Island Futures: What lies ahead for Zenadth Kes? an artwork by artists on Erub, speaks directly to the Coming of the Light. 

Let us see your Coming of the Light celebrations by using #IslandFuturesQM.