WOLF IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING
It was maintained by many of the colony that the blacks had no language at all but were only a race of the monkey tribe. This was a convenient assumption, for if it could be proved that the Aborigines… were only a species of wild beasts, there could be no guilt attributed to those who shot them off or poisoned them. Congretional Missionary, Lancelot Threlkeld 1853 (Gunson, 1974).
For over two millennia, Christians have been driven by a burning conviction to carry their message to the world and seek justice for those who are suffering. In Australia, early colonial Christian missions were sometimes regimented places that meant the loss of freedom for Aboriginal people, and the decimation of culture and language. Yet often, too, they were places of safety and survival for a people suffering at the hands of the first convict colony. Places that embraced language and culture as evidenced by records that show that the earliest translation of English to Aboriginal language was on these missions.
In the unbalanced society of the early years of the penal settlement, convicts outnumbered everyone else; men far outnumbered women. Apart from a few officers’ wives, the only women were convicts. Having very little control over their lives, many were assigned to male settlers as ‘servants’, were selected by the colonial gentry as their mistresses or drifted into a life of prostitution. When the shiploads of female convicts arrived, extra rum was issued. “The whole colony,’ wrote T.W. Plummers in 1811, ‘is little more than an extensive brothel.’ (Ward, 1967).
It is with this understanding that I approach my own conversion to Christianity. It is an uncomfortable double bind of two forces at work within myself. First, through the revelation of Jesus that I’ve had, my whole life has changed. I’ve discovered a peace and a way of life that far surpasses anything I’ve experienced. Destructive behaviours, mindsets and forces in my life have disappeared. I’ve changed and its surprised me. My heart has become soft.
However, I struggle with the notion that some people, in the name of God, ran missions that failed Aboriginal people leaving a painful legacy that lingers today. On one hand, many in the Aboriginal community are Christian and a unique Aboriginal church has emerged with strong Indigenous leadership, but on the other, there’s a long-standing resentment of Christianity for the atrocities committed.
(Some of our fellow colonists) have, in justification of a great crime, striven to believe that these black men are not of our race, are not our fellow creatures. We Catholics know that one soul of theirs is, like one of our own, of more worth than the whole material world, that any human soul is of more worth, as it is of greater cost, than the whole mere matter of this earth, its sun and its system or, indeed, of all the glories of the firmament. Catholic Archbishop John Bede Polding, 1869 (O’Farrell, 1969).
Bindi Cole Chocka
Gunson, N.1974, Australian Reminiscences and Papers of LE. Threlkeld, AIAS, Canberra (2 vols), 46.
Jackson, M. 2016, The work of art: rethinking the elementary forms of religious life, New York, Columbia University Press, 7-8.
Ward, R. 1967, Australia: A Short History, Sydney, Horwitz, 40.
Pastoral letter of the Archbishop and Bishops of the Province 1869. Reproduced in O’Farrell, P. 1969, Documents in Australian Catholic History, Melbourne, Geoffrey Chapman (2 vols), 413-418.