Thursday, 09 June 2011 15:41



Bishop F.X. Gsell MSC


Francis Xavier Gsell was born in Alsace in 1872 shortly after Franco-Prussian War. His family had been French, but shortly before his birth the Alsace became German.

He studied to be a priest and was ordained in Rome before coming to Dawin in 1906

In 1909 he became a naturalised Australian and in 1911, he went to the Tiwi Islands to established a mission - he lived with Tiwi for the next 27 years

Bishop Gsell became concerned by the marriage customs among the Tiwi people, and began a practice by which he ‘bought’ young girls who had been betrothed to older men, freeing these girls to receive education at the mission school and, in time, to marry men of their own choosing.

In all he bartered for 150 young girls, which later led to him being called “the Bishop with 150 wives”.


The Tiwi Custom had been that at first blossom young girls were given to Old men to add to their collection of wives - powerful men had many wives. Similarly, older widows were given to maturing young men as their first wife.


The cultural system had a Social Security dimension, and as Bishop Gsell would supply good steel axes in exchange for the young girls, and because it was clear that the girls were well looked after, the swap was seen to be fair and good value.

Francis Xavier Gsell

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Francis Xavier Gsell OBE was an Australian Roman Catholic bishop and missionary, known as the "Bishop with 150 wives". He was born at Benfeld, Alsace in 1872. He was ordained as a priest in the order of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in 1896, after study in Rome.

He began active missionary work in Papua in 1900, then in 1906 re-established the Catholic Church in Palmerston (now Darwin), Northern Territory. He established an Aboriginal mission on Bathurst Island in 1910 and worked there until 1938. Though unsuccessful in converting adults, he persisted with children's education and "bought" many girls promised in marriage to older men according to tribal custom. He became known as the "Bishop with 150 wives" (also the title of his autobiography) for his activities in freeing girls from such arranged marriages, thus making it possible for them to marry men of their own age.

Gsell was Bishop of Darwin from 1938 to 1949, during which time he was influential in founding Aboriginal missions at Port Keats and Arltunga. He died in 1960.

Martina’s story

A brief summary might be helpful.

Gsell describes the pivotal incident in Chapter V, simply entitled ‘Martina’. She was ‘an intelligent, lively little girl’. Like some other little Tiwi girls, she stayed with the Sisters for schooling, but back in 1921 was not yet baptised.

An old man came out of the bush one day and claimed her as his ‘promised’ wife. With sorrow, Fr Gsell had to say farewell to her: they were all bound by the tribal law. Martina begged to be allowed stay, but she was led off in tears. She did not settle down and was punished with a spear-thrust into her leg. As soon as she could, she fled back some 40 miles to the mission. When her husband and his companions came with their spears ready to take her back, with a fight if need be, Gsell managed to delay them. Over night he got the idea of buying her from her husband and his tribe.

Tiwi were quite happy to sell their women for a few days to visiting pearl divers and such like, but to sell her forever was not an action sanctioned by tradition! Gsell laid out a most enticing array of goods like axes, knives, flour, tobacco and pipe. After long discussion the Tiwi men decided that they could sell Martina as his wife, provided he kept her as such.

So Fr Gsell gained an official Tiwi wife. He said he never agreed to the codicil that he would not pass her on to another. In due course she found a young baptised Tiwi man whom she was happy to marry. They had five children. When her daughter, Elizabeth, was claimed as ‘promised’ wife, Gsell came to realise that in buying a wife he also had to add ownership of his ‘wife’s’ female offspring into the bargain: he had to buy off the prospective son-in-law as well. When Gsell was made bishop, he was proud of the soubriquet ‘Bishop with 150 wives’. Sadly, Martina contracted leprosy later on in life and died at the Channel Island leprosarium. (Martin Wilson MSC)