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Christian Missions & Aboriginal Australia – a Story of Survival (Part 1/2)

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

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[Without Christian missionaries, there’d be no Aboriginal people in Australia today. Missionaries saved Aboriginal people. This is part one, part two is here.]

Note: this topic has also been covered in this video.

It is easy to blame Christianity for the demise of Indigenous people around the world.

But after reading John Harris’s ‘One Blood: 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity, I’m convinced that without Christian missionaries, there’d be no Aboriginal people in Australia today.

Harris – a historian, shows on 956 pages of his meticulously researched book how the encounter of Christian missionaries and Aboriginal people evolved during the turbulent, and, to the Aboriginal people destructive, settlement process.

It is true that in the 15th - 18th centuries, Christianity played a key role in the attitudes of European colonial empires. Discoverers claimed all “new” lands after Pope Alexander VI issued the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ in 1493, declaring all lands not occupied by Christians to be empty, available for settlement and Christianization.

But in the late 18th and 19th century Australia, Christianity was no longer the main force driving the western empires, including the British.

It was the Industrial Revolution, science, and Darwinism.

And through that lens, Aboriginal people were seen and treated as “impediments to progress.”

This view of Aboriginal people led to their near extinction.

Christianity balanced that “progressive” movement and saved Aboriginal people on missions.

Early missionaries were struggling to get the missions off the ground and keep them going. In the beginning, they were the only ones defending the Aboriginal people, most of whom soon had nowhere to go in their own country. Later, they were the first to advocate for Aboriginal land rights.

In that sense, early missions were akin to the Jewish ghettos in medieval Europe. The ghettos too were enclaves protecting the vulnerable and often massacred minority amongst the indifferent but often hostile majority. The irony is - the Jews had no country until 1948, whereas Aboriginal people became the minority in their own country.

Like everything imported to Australia after 1788, Christianity was one of many changes affecting Aboriginal people. But it comes out favourably in the context of what was going on since the “white man” disembarked from the first ships.

Let’s now contrast both attitudes, non-Christian and Christian, towards Aboriginal people.

All quotes in this article are from Harris’s book.

Early non-Christian views of Aboriginal people

In the initial stages of white settlement, Aboriginal people were considered sub-human.

Philosophically, this view was rooted in the Greek concept of the ‘Great Chain of Being’, popularised by the 17th century philosopher Locke. According to Harris, this view held that “all creation was a chain in which each link was inferior to that above but superior to that below.” Europeans saw themselves at the top of the chain, and everyone else below.

But philosophy played a minor role in shaping settlers’ attitudes…

According to Harris, “Darwinian evolution lent scientific respectability to the belief in European superiority. The rise of evolutionary theory coincided with the availability of data on Aborigines so that the world’s scientific and anthropological journals abounded with evidence of their cultural and intellectual inferiority. Anatomical measurements were widely used to demonstrate Aborigines to be ape-like. Compared to Europeans they were invariably found to have smaller skull capacity, larger pelvises, longer arms, longer vertebral disks, vestigial tails and so on.”

Since the evolutionary theory maintained the survival of the fittest, and Aboriginal people were considered physically, culturally and intellectually “unfit,” their extinction was believed to be a natural progression of evolution. For example, their lack of resistance to imported diseases, e.g. smallpox, was seen by many as proof of them being a “dying race.”

The early settlers were keen on speeding up their extinction.

There were many massacres of Aboriginal people in the early 19th century, e.g. the 1838 Myall Creek massacre, where eight men killed 28 Aboriginal people.

Here’s what Sydney Herald wrote about Aboriginal people soon after the massacre:

… [They are] the most degenerate, despicable and brutal race of beings in existence, and stand as it were in scorn to ‘shame creation’ – a scoff and a jest upon humanity, they are insensible to every bond which binds man to his friend: husband to wife, parent to its child or creature to its God. They stand unprecedented in the annals of the most ancient and barbarous histories for the anti-civilising propensities they put forth.”

The article, supporting the killers, reflected the views of the white majority.

Early Christian views of Aboriginal people

Early Christian and non-Christian settlers differed on a key issue: whether the settlement process should result in the destruction of Aboriginal people themselves.

In the 1850s, Christians of some prominence, e.g. newspaper editors and parliamentarians “rejected the widespread and racist claim that Aborigines were sub-humans whose extermination was a law of nature. They believed Aborigines to be inferior but not irredeemably inferior. It was morally justifiable to take and improve their land in the interests of progress but it was not morally justifiable to destroy them in the process.”

This distinction was key.

Whereas the non-Christian majority interpreted the demise of Aboriginal people as proof of their inferiority and accelerated their “natural” downfall … the Christians saw their demise as a sign of mistreated people who needed help.

In 1858, Edward Wilson, editor of Victorian newspaper Argus “accepted the usual derogatory view that Aborigines were inferior both mentally and physically. Although this presumption was wrong, his conclusions based on it followed a truly humanitarian, perhaps even Christian, logic. Their ‘weakness’, he reasoned, was not an argument for dispossessing them, but an argument for treating them justly.”

It was a fine line to walk in the 1850s, when the interests of the settlers were gold, pearls, seals, and above all land for pasture and farming.

Aboriginal people were a roadblock.

According to Harris – “Above all white people, it was the missionaries who saw the injustice of the dispossession of Aboriginal people of their land. Many missionaries had the courage to speak out against abuses. Among the missionaries were those who saw with bitter and painful clarity that the dispossession of Aboriginal people by members of a so-called Christian nation contradicted the gospel and prejudiced Aboriginal people against the religion of the whites.”

Not that many people cared about religion. Again, the 19th century was a period of reason, science, evolution and progress, and Aboriginal people were considered a dead end on the evolutionary and scientific superhighway.

Protecting their mere survival was a tough sell for the Christians.

How did they justify their protection to the majority?

(An absurd question today, but a serious one back then.)

The Christians’ belief in the intrinsic worth of Aboriginal people was anchored in the Old Testament’s verse from Acts 17:26: “God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth”.

This verse opened the door to a long, difficult, but at least some path towards Aboriginal and white coexistence where the latter doesn’t annihilate the former.

The first official mission opened in the Central West of NSW in 1830 and other missions were slowly established in other colonies, then states.

Struggles of early missions

Missionaries were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Not only were they fighting antagonistic public, police, and the government … they were slowed down by their own prejudices (more on that later).

They were looking for suitable sites far away from white settlements, where the Aboriginal people would be safe from attacks, alcohol, prostitution, and diseases.

But the settlement process was rapid, and once a resource, e.g. gold, was found near the mission (which happened often); once the land was sold to pastoralists or graziers (which happened often); or once the missionaries ran out of money (happened often), they had to move or close down.

Unlike in the Pacific Islands, e.g. Fiji or Papua New Guinea, where the conversion of the village chief resulted in the conversion of the whole village, there were no quick conversions of Aboriginal people, whose social structure was different.

The landscape and climate weren’t exactly the Garden of Eden either, and finding a suitable spot for missions was tough. Droughts and deserts, low-fertile soil, crocodiles and venomous snakes, swamps and jungles, malaria, typhoid and cholera, and long distances were huge challenges.

Sadly, the missionaries often ran out of Aboriginal people whose demise was commensurate with the proximity of white settlements.

Until after World War II, the missionaries were the only people who cared for the Aboriginal people, and the missions were places of Aboriginal survival. Without them, it’s likely there’d be no Aboriginal people left today.

For example, missionary Joynt wrote in 1918 that the “function of the mission was to protect the Aborigines from being: (1) Exploited. (2) Demoralized. (3) Killed.”

Remembering his childhood in the Northern Territory, Roberts, an Alawa man said in 1979 - “If the missionaries hadn’t come, my tribe would have been all shot down.”

Harris writes – “In south-eastern Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century, missions like Lake Tyers and Maloga were places of survival. The major threat from which these missions protected Aboriginal people was no longer violent death. Missions later provided such refuges elsewhere in Australia, as the frontier extended north, but in Victoria and NSW the killing was mostly over. The ultimate threat to Aboriginal survival came from the low birthrate.”

The earlier, southern missions were smaller, more regimented, and often wedged between farms. The later, northern missions were larger, less regimented reserves. This reflected the landscape and historical sequence because the south was settled earlier than the north.

In the second half of this article, we’re exploring the Curse of Ham, four key differences between the western and Aboriginal worldviews, and what lesson can we learn from all this.

Catch you then.

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