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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 288-290

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Book Review

Charles Abel and the Kwato Mission of Papua New Guinea 1891-1975

Charles Abel and the Kwato Mission of Papua New Guinea 1891-1975, by David Wetherell. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press (website:, 1996. ISBN 0-522-84736-6, xxviii + 247 pages, maps, photographs, appendixes, notes, bibliography, index. Paper, A$24.95.

In a lucid narrative, historian David Wetherell presents several strands of the complex life of Charles Abel, founder of the Kwato Mission, with some reflection on the contribution of the mission to the shaping of modern Papua New Guinea. In his research Wetherell, who taught in Papua New Guinea from 1963 to 1970 and is now a senior lecturer in history at Deakin University, had access to what may be the largest personal archive in Papua New Guinea, the Abel Papers in the New Guinea Collection at the University of Papua New Guinea. Using Charles Abel's own publications and letters, family correspondence, and accounts by those who admired and despised him, Wetherell tells the story of a brilliant and authoritarian leader "in whom a number of personalities seemed to work in harmony, and merge in an overall concord with the personality of his wife: the planner and visionary, the fireside actor, the disciplinarian, the tender and sympathetic father, the controversialist, the sportsman, and the lover of scenery" (xviii).

Charles William Abel (1862-1930), an Englishman who had spent some years in New Zealand, arrived in British Papua in 1890 to work with the London Missionary Society. The following year, with his fellow missionary E W Walker, he established the [End Page 286] base of an LMS missionary district on Kwato Island, near Samarai to the south of Milne Bay. Abel's vision for Kwato was of a "total" community in which Papuans, separated from the "darkness" of their past traditions, would develop Protestant Christian values and learn industrial skills to ensure their survival in a changing world. An ordained Congregational minister, Abel nevertheless had an essentially lay view of ministry. The Kwato Extension Association, which he was to establish, would run plantations in the Milne Bay area and a boatbuilding enterprise and dairy farm on Kwato Island; it would train teachers and evangelists and promote the sports of cricket and football. After a time, Abel dispensed with the Samoan pastors who had been sent by the London Missionary Society to minister in the Kwato mission, as Polynesian pastors and evangelists did in other LMS undertakings in Papua, preferring to work directly with "his" Papuan converts.

In Australia at the end of 1892, Abel married Elizabeth Beatrice Moxon, an English-born Evangelical whose family had migrated to Australia in 1890. She would be a staunch companion in his work and would bring an aura of Victorian gentility to the large family home on Kwato. Over the next four decades, with his wife and their children, Abel promoted a Kwato community made up of his family and Papuan adherents. In 1918 the Kwato Mission, bent on a missionary agenda that would remove converts from their "heathen" cultural contexts and form, as it were, a new society, separated from the London Missionary Society. With the assistance of British, Australian, and, later, American benefactors, who admired the mission's efforts in technical education as well as its evangelical fervor, Kwato went on to establish several communities. When Charles Abel died in 1930 in a car accident in England, his wife and children and leaders among the Papuan Christians continued his work. The elder son, Cecil Abel (1903-1994), led the Kwato Extension Association after his father's death; while studying at Cambridge, he had been influenced by the Moral Re-Armament teachings of Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Groups, and under his leadership something of an MRA revival spread through the Kwato domain.

The Pacific War dispersed the Kwato community, and the island base was used as a recreation center for the thousands of American troops in Milne Bay. Attempts to regroup...