The Bishop with 150 Wives

Francis Xavier Gsell is famous for his work among the Tiwi people, from whom he purchased the marriage rights to young women as part of a broad evangelisation strategy. A mythic figure in popular histories of the Northern Territory, Gsell is often remembered as the apocryphal ‘Bishop with 150 Wives’. But Gsell’s complex legacy has rarely received thorough academic scrutiny. In his thesis, History PhD Candidate Michael Francis explored the life and career of Gsell. Find out more about this fascinating history in Michael’s completion seminar, available to watch below.

The Bishop with 150 Wives: Interrogating the Missionary Career of Francis Xavier Gsell MSC (1872–1960), PhD Completion Seminar, 28 May 2020

Michael Francis, in his PhD thesis, examines the missionary and ecclesiastical career of Monsignor Francis Xavier Gsell MSC (1872–1960). Gsell is often regarded as a man of peculiar vision, appearing in Australian history, as if out of thin air, when he arrived on Bathurst Island in 1911. But rather than provide yet another hagiography, this PhD project goes beyond the many myths and legends, instead using Gsell as a lens through which to examine race relations in northern Australia during the first half of the twentieth century. It locates him within the context of evolving Indigenous policy in the Northern Territory, over which he exerted significant influence through strategic collusion with Commonwealth authorities, while simultaneously demonstrating the ways in which Gsell stood at the forefront of shifting Catholic attitudes towards First Nations peoples.

Delivering his completion seminar as part of the History Discipline Brown Bag Seminar Series, Michael reveals Gsell to be a man of strong conviction, incredible political reach, and conflicting legacy. Gsell worked as an advocate for Indigenous welfare and challenged the racist attitudes of his contemporaries. Notwithstanding his ethnocentric paternalism, his gradualist approach to Christian conversion helped ensure the survival of a great many aspects of traditional culture on the Tiwi Islands. Yet Gsell also wholeheartedly endorsed assimilation policies which saw the forced removal of mixed-descent children from their families from as early as 1910. This resulted in the destruction of many Indigenous languages and cultures as, torn from kin and Country, these children became members of the Stolen Generations.

By providing this point of entry into his wider doctoral research, Michael ultimately aims to provide a new and holistic appraisal of Gsell’s life and legacy in the Northern Territory.

Michael Francis is a doctoral candidate with the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. He was born and raised in Darwin in the Northern Territory and has lived in Melbourne for the past decade. He has worked in various roles as a research assistant, sessional tutor, and administrator, including three years as the Assistant Dean and Director of Academic Programs at Newman College. Michael specialises in histories of the Catholic Church and community in Australia and is particularly interested in the intersections between class, race, and religion.


Michael is also the author of Contesting Catholic Identity: The Foundation of Newman College, Melbourne, 1914–18 (2018)

Feature image: Natural esplanade at the [Bathurst Island] Mission looking southeast toward Buchanan Island, 1912. Joe Cooper (L) and Monsignor Gsell (R) are in near distance, while OLSH nuns, Sr Joseph Schaap and Sr Kieran Doyle and Indigenous women and children are visible in the background. Photographer: James Pinkerton Campbell. National Library of Australia, Canberra, PIC/7459/119 LOC Album 1017