In several historical accounts, the dormitories constructed to house children have borne most of the weight of the charge that missionaries were guilty of destroying Aboriginal culture. By separating children in dormitories and strictly limiting contact with parents ¾ even though the latter still lived in another part of the mission compound ¾ the missionaries have been accused of corrupting the cultural development of the children, replacing the Aborigines’ own spiritual beliefs with those of Western Christianity. Christine Choo has written:
One of the most significant effects of the transfer of children to the dormitories which occurred between 1900 and the 1950s was the loss of contact with the older members of their families and communities, and consequently the erosion of their knowledge of traditional life. Generations of Aboriginal women who lived at Beagle Bay missions have spoken about their sense of loss of culture, and their attempts as children to maintain contact with the older people in order to obtain information about the old ways, which the missionaries frustrated. As children they were not allowed to talk about their parents or enquire about them; they were forbidden from speaking their own languages, among themselves or with the older people in the Colony; the parents who lived in the Colony were not allowed to visit or make unregulated contact with the children.
Other historians have taken this case further. The missionaries’ ultimate aim was radical: to discard what they regarded as the savage customs of nomadic life and bring up children in ‘a civilized and Christian way’, training them in the habits of ‘industry, cleanliness and order’. According to Bain Attwood in The Making of the Aborigines, the principal Victorian mission at Ramahyuck aimed through its Christian rituals, its teaching and even its architecture and landscape to destroy former notions of collectivism, egalitarianism and kin obligations in favour of paternalism, modesty, cleanliness and, above all, individualism. The act of baptizing converts and giving them Christian names was designed to replace names drawn from places or totemic animals that reflected the Aborigines’ subordination to their communities and to nature.
The missionaries sought to make each an integrated centre of consciousness, distinct from the natural world and other Aborigines; they were to become accustomed to choice and the achievement of status, rather than being bound by the obligations of a kin-based society which ascribed status; the individual was to replace the group as the crucial moral or ethical unit, a strong sense of sin and responsibility for their own salvation replacing notions of shame.
Similarly, an emphasis on cleanliness and decency, including washing, using a toilet and wearing clothes, claimed Attwood, ‘went hand in hand with the missionaries’ desire to instil their own conventions of gentility’.
Other recent historians have emphasized the brutality and authoritarianism the missionaries allegedly deployed. In Governing Savages, Andrew Markus titled one section of his book ‘Muscular Christianity’, which he opened by asserting:
The coming of the missionaries entailed the establishment of a new centre of authority, both moral and physical. The dominant approach of the age was ‘strictly authoritarian’. Missionaries attempted to impose a new morality, involving acceptable forms of behaviour and appropriate punishment for transgressors.
According to Markus, the dormitory system, which was a feature of life on most missions in the inter-war period, was an extension of the missionary imperative to exercise control over the lives of the children they removed there.
Under various forms of compulsion, parents handed over children between the ages of five and ten. The children were compelled to sleep in separate dormitories for boys and girls were locked in from sunset to sunrise.
Their rationale for this, Markus said, was a conservative disdain for unpredictable and disorderly forms of behaviour.
If young and old were allowed to mix freely, the result was ‘chaos’, or in the view of Reverend E. Gribble, moral depravity: on a north Queensland mission, when the girls were allowed to mix with adults on weekends ‘shocking things happened’.
Today, throughout the western world, most academics and other members of the intelligentsia subscribe to a form of cultural relativism that regards the missionaries’ ambitions as grave moral errors. The idea of Westerners bringing civilization to people whose culture had never developed beyond that required for the kinship networks of small hunter-gatherer bands is now decidedly out of fashion. Even within the current intellectual framework, however, it still needs to be said that the missionaries were neither as morally crude nor as culturally insensitive as they are now routinely portrayed. Australian historians have not told their full story.
For a start, most historians allow their readers to assume that the Aborigines had no choice in any of this. The truth was the missions were not prisons and the adult Aborigines who lived on them were not captives. They could leave whenever they wanted to, and could take their children with them if they chose. The missionaries had no legal authority or any physical means to restrain them by force. Apart from children declared wards of the Chief Protector or the Aborigines Protection Board and sent to a mission by their order, most people had to be enticed to come and persuaded to stay. Those Aborigines determined to preserve their traditional culture were free to keep well away from the missions and bring up their children with whatever beliefs they chose to give them. Indeed, those who did come in to the missions, especially the mothers and their children, usually did so because they wanted to escape the life they led in traditional society. Hence, the cultural change inflicted on mission residents was imposed on willing recipients, with the exception of a small minority of orphans and neglected children, almost all of them half-castes.
Moreover, in order to demonize the missionaries in the eyes of their readers, most recent historians have constructed straw men, Hollywood stereotypes rather than people of their time and place. In reality, most missionaries were far from crude, authoritarian fundamentalists bent on totally obliterating the beliefs and practices of the heathens. By the early twentieth century, some Christian missions had been operating in the new worlds of the Americas and the Pacific for the best part of 400 years. Most well knew that to make converts they could not do it in blanket opposition to the existing cosmologies of the indigenous peoples, but only by working with them and through them. Others, however, with little or no traditions in the field, were much less sensitive. It is historically inaccurate to write about the latter as if they were the only kind. One of the few Australian historians of recent decades who understood this was Peter Biskup. In his 1973 history of Aboriginal policy in Western Australia, Not Slaves, Not Citizens, he included a chapter on the practical difficulties and doctrinal compromises the missionaries had to make in order to reach the hearts and minds of the first generation they hoped to lead to Christ. He also made it clear that it was very hard to generalize about the missions since different ideas prevailed at each one, even within the same Christian denomination and even at the same mission at different times. In discussing the north and east of Western Australia, Biskup provided the following scenarios.
Beagle Bay: The first Pallottine superintendent, Father Joseph Bischofs, insisted the brothers interfere as little as possible with the customs of the Aborigines who came to the mission. This extended to endorsing traditional marriages between old men and child brides, and as noted earlier, even persuading Bishop Gibney in 1900 to officiate at one such wedding. Father Bischofs was an anthropologist ‘of some repute’ and he established a tradition that saw a succession of academic researchers come to Beagle Bay for extended periods of fieldwork. In 1908, visiting anthropologist, Professor Hermann Klaatsch of Heidelberg University, observed that the Pallottines demonstrated ‘religion need not interfere with the natural pleasure and enjoyment of the aboriginal race’. In his 1928 account of the Pallottine approach at Beagle Bay, Father George Walter wrote: ‘It is not the duty of the Missionary to repress a child’s Aboriginal nature and for this reason the children are given as much freedom as possible to follow their customs and practices.’ After the First World War, the mission welcomed the anthropologist and linguist E. A. Worms, who in 1935 was joined by colleague Herman Nekes. One of their primary tasks was to identify those aspects of Aboriginal culture that were compatible with Christianity. They became so immersed in the Aboriginal cultures they studied they eventually became joint authors of the monumental text, Aboriginal Languages, published in 1953.
Kunmunya: From 1927 to 1940, when it was run by the Reverend J. R. B. Love, this Presbyterian mission on the west Kimberley coast practised what it called ‘enlightened gradualism’. Like the Pallottine superintendents, Love was a highly educated man, with degrees from Adelaide and Melbourne universities. Love’s guiding principle was to ‘save the black race as a black race, keeping everything in the tribal organization that is good, and using it as a foundation on which to build Christianity’. There was no separate dormitory at Kunmunya and children slept with their parents while attending school. Love condoned tribal mutilations and the circumcision and sub-incision of boys, but he strictly opposed polygamy, child marriage and ‘the evil influence of the banmandja (medicine man)’. At funerals, he criticized tribal practice of divining the person who had killed the deceased but nonetheless conducted hybrid ceremonies where, after the Christian rites, he participated in shouting farewell to the departing spirit of the dead person. To help convert his charges, Love translated the gospels of Saint Mark and Saint Luke into the Worora language. At his mission school, children were instructed in English as well as in their tribal language.
Forrest River: At this Anglican mission, a diametrically opposed set of relations existed. This derived, however, less from the missionary aim of winning converts and far more from the personality of its superintendent, the Reverend Ernest Gribble. Biskup described him as ‘headstrong, self-righteous and authoritarian, with a permanent chip on his shoulder and a tendency to blame others for his or the mission’s misfortunes’. If Aboriginal parents refused to allow their children to attend the school or to sleep in the dormitory, he stopped their rations. On reaching adolescence, he married them in complete disregard to their parents’ wishes or tribal custom. He discouraged family life, allowing couples to spend the night together but in the daytime keeping the women in the ‘ladies compound’. The Australian Board of Missions became so concerned at the rumours surrounding his administration, it asked Professor A. P. Elkin to investigate the mission. Elkin recommended that Gribble, who in 1928 showed clear signs of being mentally unbalanced, be replaced. His successor, his son Jack, proved little better and in 1930 was implicated in a number of incidents involving flogging of inmates, chaining them to posts for sexual offences, and pouring water over snoring boys.
Drysdale River: This mission, located at Pago on the north Kimberley coast before its relocation to nearby Kalumburu in the 1930s, was founded by the same order of Spanish Benedictine monks who in 1846 established the New Norcia Mission, north of Perth. Despite their experience, the Drysdale River Mission was one of the least successful in attracting children. Its small size and lack of funds for major building works meant that its few children lived in closer contact with their families and with traditional culture than on any of the other Kimberley missions. Although founded in 1908 it did not construct a dormitory for girls until 1931. Until then, the few girls it singled out for further education were normally sent off to the school at Beagle Bay Mission.
Mount Margaret: Of all the Western Australian missions, Mount Margaret seemed to be the one that did most to advance its charges into the modern world. In secular terms, it was widely regarded by contemporary observers as a success. It was established in 1921 under the auspices of the Australian Aborigines’ Mission (later the United Aborigines’ Mission) to the east of the goldfields centre of Laverton. Its founder, the businessman turned missionary R. S. Schenk, knew what was required to make a living in the modern world. Refused funding by A. O. Neville’s department, Schenk started a trade in dingo scalps with local Aborigines, and persuaded some to become small-time gold leaseholders. He stressed vocational education for the boys, giving them skills in carpentry, shearing, mechanical engineering and all aspects of mining so they could take advantage of the opportunities for skilled men on the goldfields. For girls, as well as domestic service, his mission offered training in nursing and typing, both growth areas of female employment. The arrival at Mount Margaret of Mary Bennett in 1933 saw a major improvement in teaching methods at the mission school, including the adoption of the state school curriculum. (Bennett later described her methods in the booklet Teaching the Aborigines: Data from Mount Margaret.) However, of all the missionaries in the state, Schenk was the most uncompromising in his attitude to Aboriginal culture. He strove for the speedy breakdown of almost all Aboriginal customs and traditions. He opposed not only those aspects of the culture that were incompatible with Christianity but also apparently neutral customs too. He had an acrimonious relationship with Neville, accusing him of wanting to keep full-blood tribal people as ‘museum specimens’ and of sanctioning the ‘stark and barbarous superstitions of the dark ages’. He was also opposed to academic anthropologists like Phyllis Kaberry who visited his region and ‘encourage the natives in all kinds of superstitious rites in opposition to our teaching’.
P. J. Bischofs, ‘Die Niol Niol, ein Eingeborenenstamm in Nordwest-Australien’, Anthropos, 3, 1908; ‘Chiringa und Totems in Nordwest-Australien’, Anthropos, 4, 1909