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The Lightbearer Takes Spiritual Light to Southeast Asia

The Lightbearer Takes Spiritual Light to Southeast Asia

In the early 1930’s, Indonesia, Malaysia, and what is now Papua New Guinea were virtually untouched by the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. How would the good news reach these lands? Responding to the need, the Australia branch (now Australasia branch) purchased a motorized 16-meter (52 ft), two-masted sailboat, or ketch. It was given the name Lightbearer, because the crew, who were all pioneers, * were to use it to spread spiritual light in distant lands.—Matthew 5:14-16.

Preaching in New Guinea

In February 1935, the crew of seven sailed north from Sydney, on Australia’s east coast, heading for Port Moresby, New Guinea. They caught fish en route and stopped at several ports for fuel, extra food, and repairs. On April 10, 1935, they put out to sea from Cooktown, Queensland. They used the ship’s engine as they headed toward a passage through the hazardous Great Barrier Reef. But the engine started making an unusual noise and had to be shut down. Should they turn back or sail on to New Guinea? The captain, Eric Ewins, said that “it went much against the grain to go back.” So the Lightbearer sailed on, safely arriving at Port Moresby on April 28, 1935.

The crew of the Lightbearer, from left: William Hunter, Charles Harris, Alan Bucknell (foreground), Alfred Rowe, Frank Dewar, Eric Ewins, Richard Nutley

While a mechanic repaired the engine, the crew, except for Frank Dewar, preached the good news in Port Moresby. Frank, described by one of the men as “a tough pioneer,” said, ‘I took a load of books and walked inland perhaps 32 kilometers [20 mi] or more calling on the settlers.’ On his way back, he took a different route and had to wade across a small river inhabited by crocodiles. But he took care and made it back to town safely. The crew’s efforts in the ministry paid off. Some people who accepted Bible literature at that time later became Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Preaching in Java

When the engine was repaired, the Lightbearer left Port Moresby and headed for the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (now largely Indonesia). After making several stops for supplies, the crew docked in Batavia (now Jakarta) on July 15, 1935.

At that point, crew member Charles Harris left the Lightbearer and stayed in Java, where he zealously continued to preach the good news. * “In those days,” he said, “our work consisted mainly of placing Bible literature and then moving on to the next town. I carried publications in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, and Indonesian. People readily accepted our literature, so I placed up to 17,000 pieces a year.”

The Lightbearer in full sail

Charles’ zeal drew the attention of the Dutch authorities. Once, an officer asked another Witness, who was preaching in Java, how many Witnesses were working in East Java, where Charles was. “Only one,” the brother replied. “Do you expect me to believe that?” the officer barked back. “You must have quite an army of workers down there, judging by the amount of your literature being distributed.”

Preaching in Singapore and Malaysia

From Indonesia, the Lightbearer sailed to Singapore, arriving on August 7. At each stop, the brothers played recorded lectures using the boat’s powerful amplifier and loudspeakers. This method of proclaiming the good news often gained considerable attention. In fact, the Singapore Free Press reported that “a loud voice boomed across the water . . . on Wednesday night,” adding: “It was a unique lecture . . . being projected . . . from the ketch ‘Lightbearer,’ which has been giving Watch Tower programme[s] in Singapore since her arrival from Australia.” The report also said that “in favourable conditions such programmes can be plainly audible across the water for . . . two to three miles [3 to 4 km].”

While the Lightbearer was at Singapore, Frank Dewar left to begin a new assignment. He recalled his departure this way: “We began pioneering in Singapore while continuing to live on the boat. When the time came for the Lightbearer to sail on, Eric Ewins gave me quite a shock. He said: ‘Well, Frank, you said that you chose Siam (now Thailand) as your territory. This is as far as we can take you. Now, off you go!’ I gasped and sputtered: ‘But, I hardly know where Siam is from here!’” Eric told Frank that he could get there by train from Kuala Lumpur, in what is now Malaysia. Frank obediently set off for Kuala Lumpur and arrived in Thailand several months later. *

As the Lightbearer sailed up the west coast of Malaysia, it stopped at Johore Bahru, Muar, Malacca, Klang, Port Swettenham (now Port Klang), and Penang. At each port, the crew broadcast recorded Bible lectures by loudspeaker from the ship. “A flying saucer could hardly have aroused more interest,” said Jean Deschamp, a Witness who was then serving in Indonesia. After playing the recordings, the crew went ashore and placed literature with interested ones.

Preaching in Sumatra

From Penang, the crew sailed across the Strait of Malacca to Medan, Sumatra (now part of Indonesia). Eric Ewins recalls: “We had an interesting and pleasant stay in the Medan district, and the good news fell on many a welcoming ear.” The brothers placed about 3,000 pieces of literature in that area.

As the Lightbearer continued southward, the crew preached at major harbors on the east side of Sumatra. In November 1936, the ketch returned to Singapore, where Eric Ewins departed. A few weeks later, he married Irene Struys, a Witness who lived in Singapore. Together, Eric and Irene continued their pioneer ministry in Sumatra. Of course, the Lightbearer now needed a new captain.

Preaching in Borneo

The new captain was Norman Senior, a trained navigator. He arrived from Sydney in January 1937. The crew then sailed from Singapore to Borneo and Celebes (now Sulawesi), where they witnessed extensively, venturing as far as 480 kilometers (300 mi) inland.

When the Lightbearer arrived at the port of Samarinda in Borneo, the harbormaster refused to allow the crew to preach to the local people. However, when Norman explained our preaching work, the man became cooperative and even took some literature.

On another occasion, a local minister invited Norman to speak at his church. But instead of giving a talk himself, Norman played five phonograph recordings of Bible lectures, and the minister responded favorably. He even took some literature to give to his friends. This cleric’s response, however, was the exception. The clergy in general were not happy with the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, they became enraged at the bold witnessing of the crew and even pressured the authorities to ban the Lightbearer from entering other ports.

The travels of the Lightbearer, showing geographic names used at the time

Returning to Australia

In December 1937, as a result of the clergy-inspired ban, the Lightbearer sailed back to Australia. The crew dropped anchor in Sydney Harbor in time to attend a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in April 1938. That was more than three years after the Lightbearer left Sydney. The boat was sold in the early 1940’s, just after the work of the Witnesses in Australia was banned. “She had doubtless served her purpose,” said Brother Ewins, who described his service aboard the Lightbearer as some of “the happiest years of my life.”

The Lightbearer’s Lasting Legacy

The crew of the Lightbearer sowed Kingdom seed in a vast region with a large population. And despite opposition, their work gradually bore fruit. (Luke 8:11, 15) Indeed, in the lands where those early pioneers preached, there are now more than 40,000 Kingdom proclaimers. What a wonderful legacy for a handful of courageous men and their appropriately named sailing boat!

^ par. 2 Pioneers are full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

^ par. 8 Charles Harris’ life story was published in the June 1, 1994, issue of The Watchtower.

^ par. 12 See the 1991 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, page 187.