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Missions to the Aborigines

From the first settlement, for a generation Aboriginal people were largely ignored by the church. The great missionary societies in Britain were fully stretched financially and in their imaginations in reaching the 'higher' civilisations of India and China, and the more romantic of missionary challenges in the South Seas islands and in Africa. Catholic missionaries were few in number and even later in coming. In the first sixty years of settlement, all the missions to indigenous Australians failed dismally.

The first official missionary to Australia was the Rev. William Walker, a Wesleyan, who arrived in 1821. Aboriginal people were, he contended, the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, on whose offspring Noah had put a curse. Walker also concluded that Aborigines could not continue to 'go walkabout' and be Christian. They were now to be settled on land reservations, where the missionaries would train them in the skills ofagriculture and manufacturing. From 1825 in quick succession, 10,000 acre grants for missions were made to the Congregationalist, Anglican and Wesleyan missionaries. They all failed quickly. At the LMS mission near Lake Macquarie, Lancelot Threlkeld laboured largely on translation work until 1841, by which date none of the Awabakal survived to read his work.

There was less abject failure in the second half of the nineteenth century. Two Moravian missions in Western Victoria lasted from 1858 to 1905, when they became self-governing and financially independent communities. Then there were missions whose 'success' may be attributed to the charismatic men who ran them: the Lutheran, Carl Strehlow, at Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory; Dom Rosendo Salvado, the Spanish Benedictine bishop, at New Norcia in Western Australia; and John Gribble of the Church of England Warangesda Mission in New South Wales. Common to all the relatively successful missions were a measure of recognition of Aboriginal culture, teaching in the vernacular, recognition of indigenous leadership, and the insight, earlier denied, that Aboriginal people had their own spirituality.

In 1908 the Church of England began its Roper River Mission, the Catholics began work on Bathurst Island in 1911, and in 1916 the Methodists established a mission in Goulburn Island. They proved more successful than the earlier missions in the southern states. This was partly because Aborigines in the north were not swamped by a majority of whites, were able to retain more of their customs and culture, and were readily employable in the cattle industry. It became apparent that the Aboriginal population was increasing again, for which Christian missionaries deserve a modicum of credit.

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