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Abel, Charles William (1862–1930)

by Nancy Lutton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Charles William Abel (1862-1930), missionary, was born on 25 September 1862 in London, son of William Abel, a Congregationalist librarian, and his wife Harriet, née Dobson. A fervent political liberal, Abel migrated when young to New Zealand as a farmworker and lived for a time among the Maoris, winning trust by helping them trade with Europeans. Deciding to become a missionary, he returned to England, entered Cheshunt College and in 1889 applied to the London Missionary Society for appointment to New Guinea. He was ordained in 1890.

Abel began work at Port Moresby on 23 October 1890 and relieved James Chalmers briefly at Motumotu. In August 1891 he joined F. W. Walker, who had just moved the head station for the east end of New Guinea from Suau to Kwato Island in China Strait. Mainly because of hard physical labour by the two men, Kwato was reasonably habitable by late 1892 and some buildings had been erected. That year he went to Sydney and on 22 November married Elizabeth Beatrice Emma Moxon (1869-1939). At Kwato the Abels and Walker began their teaching programme which, besides elementary subjects and Bible-study, included carpentry for boys, sewing and fine lace work for girls, and sport, especially cricket. Technical education gradually predominated. Walker fell out with the directors of the L.M.S. and resigned in 1896, but the Abels struggled to make Kwato a model station. A feature of the plan was the settlement system whereby native children, segregated as infants from their parents and village life, sold the products of their industry to Samarai. Adult converts also worked at their trades for the mission and became lay evangelists.

Dr R. W. Thompson, foreign secretary of the L.M.S., visited Papua in 1897 and approved this system, but Abel's local colleagues and other missionaries were harder to convince. When he was on furlough in England in 1900, his popular lectures were supplemented by a small pamphlet, Kwato, New Guinea, 1890-1900, which gave further details. He was asked to write the L.M.S. children's gift book: Savage Life in New Guinea was ready by the end of 1901. This was the only substantial book he ever wrote, and critics tend to take statements from it out of context.

Abel's major contributions to Papuan development were yet to come. As Australia prepared to take over the administration, he became more concerned for the future of his people. J. H. Angas of South Australia donated £1000 for industrial work at Kwato; this allowed Abel to expand with a sawmill. From 1901 he became widely known in New Guinea both for success in teaching good English and for championship of the rights of Papuans in cases against Europeans. His disclosures of the Milne Bay scandals in 1901 made him very unpopular in Samarai but earned him the trust of Papuans. He gained the ear of Alfred Deakin, the prime minister, through whom he met Atlee Hunt, who encouraged Abel to report on affairs in Papua. When the acting administrator Judge Robinson committed suicide after a royal commission into the Goaribari affray was appointed, a faction supporting European settlement alleged bitterly that Abel had driven Robinson to his death.

During his 1909 furlough he persuaded the directors to let him plant coconuts on land and with money promised to him by friends. This venture, known as Enesi (an acronym of the benefactors' names), was to provide work for Papuans on plantations managed by Abel's converts, and in competition with white traders. He had 500 acres (202 ha) planted within two years but, when other missionaries objected, he agreed to sell the plantations at cost to the L.M.S. if it continued the work. Unfortunately it soon became apparent that the society could not afford to maintain the properties; the deputation sent out to investigate in 1915-16 recommended sale of all but 100 acres (40 ha). Abel would not accept this, and in 1917 travelled to London to confer with the directors. Assisted by influential friends, including three former governors of Papua, he persuaded the society to incorporate the Kwato Extension Association. This enabled him to manage Kwato independently while remaining an honorary missionary; the island was leased to the association for ten years. Some capital was gathered, but the depressed state of the Papuan economy after 1918 demanded another fund-raising tour. In 1921 he and his family went to England, leaving Kwato in the charge of Madge Parkin (1865-1939), his wife's cousin, who had been working there since 1896.

Financially unsuccessful in England, Abel accepted an invitation from the evangelist W. L. Moody to the United States of America. There he found supporters, organized as the New Guinea Evangelization Society, who paid for the education of his four children, who had all decided to become missionaries, and sent him back to Kwato early in 1924 with enough funds to carry on and the promise of a hospital. The next six years saw continual negotiations, often acrimonious, before the L.M.S. agreed to sell Kwato to the Evangelization Society. Abel travelled to America and England in 1929-30 to settle the business, but died after a motor accident in England on 10 April 1930. His ashes were returned to Kwato, where the work was continued by his wife and family.

Abel was a religious fundamentalist and a strong individualist. The Kwato system created an elite through what his critics saw as aggressive recruitment, strict discipline and paternalism. On the credit side it discouraged evangelical gloom and was totally free of racial prejudice. Abel strove to give his people self-respect and to train them in the decision-making which would eventually be required for self-government. He believed that to survive the impact of cultural change Papuans had to acquire European skills. He aimed at the whole life of the Papuan — spiritual, industrial, social, recreational and cultural. They learned their lessons so well that the Kwatos came to consider themselves as a people apart, calling themselves 'insiders' and those not brought up on Kwato 'outsiders'. Neighbouring peoples expressed their admiration for him in religious legends.

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Citation details

Nancy Lutton, 'Abel, Charles William (1862–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/abel-charles-william-4964/text8236, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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