Avert thy eyes (or give them cloth): mission mob and their apparent fixation with nudity


Reading through archival material is often quite surreal and sometimes quite amusing. This is definitely on the more ‘amusing’ side of things. The following transcript or part thereof is from an oral-history interview (recorded in 1980) with Ella and Harold Shepherdson who were central Missionary figures in the Arnhem region. ‘Int’ here is obviously the interviewer:


Int: ‘Your time was fully taken up with the dispensary work?’

ES: ‘Oh, yes, and the sewing class.’

Int: ‘You held sewing classes with the native women?’

ES: ‘Yes.’

Int: ‘And did they respond to the sewing class quite well?’

ES: ‘Oh yess, they enjoyed it quite well.’

Int: ‘And you had the material sent over from Darwin?’

ES: ‘Yes, and from south too.’

HS: ‘It came in the mission boxes.’

ES: ‘We had a lot of mission boxes which had rolls of material and we used those. We made mostly skirts in those days.’

Int: ‘I was going to say, I suppose skirts for the women, and the kiddies, would they wear very much at all?’

ES: ‘No, not much at all.’

Int: ‘Little loin clothes or nothing perhaps?’

ES: ‘Mostly nothing.’

HS: ‘Nothing usually.’

Int: ‘And the natives generally, did they like wearing cloths, or nothing at all?’

ES: ‘Oh, I think they liked to get into clothes.’

HS: ‘They liked them too much.’

Int: ‘Like to wear clothes too much?’

ES: ‘Oh, yes.’

Int: ‘Because of the weather they were really better naked, weren’t they? That was their normal way of living.’

ES: ‘Yes, but they saw us with clothes and they copied us more or less.’

Int: ‘And being so near the sea, they were used to water and used to swimming?’

ES: ‘Yes.’

Int: ‘The normal way of being unclothes was more suitable?’

ES: ‘Yes, I’m sure.’

Int: ‘But it was a good thing, and a handy thing, for them to know how to sew?’

ES: ‘And learn to wash and how to keep themselves clean.’

Int: ‘Yes, so that your time was fully taken up with that?’

ES: ‘Yes.’


The literature written by former missionaries is also replete with references to the relative nakedness of local people.

In she and Harold’s combined memoir, for example, Ella Shepherdson recalls an unfortunate time when they were very short of dress material because their basic supply of ‘only 100 yards per month for the whole district’ had not been received for a year. In an attempt to amend the situation one of the missionaries from Fiji, ‘Aminiasi’, made the local women skirts made from coconut leaves. ‘Unfortunately’, Ella writes, ‘they were not very popular’ (Shepherdson 1981, p. 53).


Ha ha!

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Filed under Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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