Stories from an early missionary to the Aboriginal people

The following excerpts are taken from Black but comely, Glimpses of Aboriginal life in Australia, by missionary Rev. J.B. Gribble (1847-1893), founder of the Warangesda Mission.

In describing the condition of the Aboriginals prior to contact with British settlers, Gribble wrote:

Of course it was simply the condition of the savage—a savage of the lowest type. For with the exception of the bushmen of South Africa, some suppose the aborigines of this country are about the lowest type of humanity. As the lowest savages they lived, without clothes, without care, without trouble for temporalities, subsisting on the simple products of nature without let or hindrance. Morally they were extremely dark—so dark, indeed, as scarcely to possess any idea or conception of anything superior to themselves. Their chief superstition seemed to encircle the great Unknown, and of Him, the Great Spirit, they possessed a terrible dread. Their religious sentiment, if I may so express myself, was Fear, only Fear.

Gribble went on to admit that while the British brought with them much good, they also, through their immoral practices, introduced the natives to vices they would otherwise have been ignorant of. The effects were devastating.

Along with much which tends to honour God and benefit mankind, the European has introduced very much into Australia of quite an opposite character. With the noble institutions of England, which are the pride and boast of her children in the colonies, we have introduced its vices; and these exotic plants have taken deep root in the new soil, and have brought forth a terrible harvest. The aborigines in their low moral condition came into the closest contact with these new and injurious influences; and they have gone down before them like snow before the rising sun. The vices which we introduced, which by our practice we recommended, and which they most naturally adopted, have sent them wholesale into eternity, and are still rapidly mowing down the remnants of the race.

Consequently, events such as those that follow, were becoming an increasingly common occurrence:

Intoxicating liquor is readily procured by the prostitution of the females; and scenes of debauchery that would shock the most abandoned denizen of Romeo Lane are of common occurrence. ‘The law prohibiting publicans from supplying drink to aboriginals is openly violated. Travelers through the towns indicated may at any time see numbers of aborigines with their gins (women) in an inebriated condition drinking at public-house bars, being as freely served as if there were no enactment against their being supplied. The police, for some reason known to themselves, never make the slightest attempt to prosecute, although the law is hourly broken before their eyes. Many of the natives are afflicted with loathsome disease, the result of gross immorality. Surely some means can be divised to put an end to this frightful state of affairs. If the Government failed to perform its obvious duty some body of philanthropists ought to take the matter up and remove the scandal from the fair fame of the colony.’

On another occasion, Gribble recounts:

I found them [Aboriginals] in a condition shocking to contemplate. I visited their camps; I entered their wretched bark and bough gunyahs. I went from place to place, and everywhere I met with the same wretchedness and woe. In some instances, on making a first visit to a camp, the children ran away from me terrified at my presence; whilst their mothers—some of them, alas! only children themselves—cowered in their little dens like so many wild beasts, doubtless wondering what brought me to such a place. In one camp I gleaned from the women that a tiny half-caste infant was concealed close at hand. I made a search, and by and by I discovered what I at first supposed to be a bundle of dirty rags stowed under some bushes, but on raising it I found it contained a dear little infant girl. Oh! at that sight how my heart sickened and my blood warmed! Such helplessness, such woe, caused by the professedly Christian white man! And this case, I soon learned from good authority, and from personal observation, was, so to speak, but an index to a ponderous volume of iniquity existing throughout the colony in this very respect.

Mixed-blooded children, abandoned by their white fathers seemed to be a major issue. And not only that, but we’re told when the girls gave birth to “half-caste” infants, they were deserted by their tribes too, “left to their own dread resources, without food, and nearly naked… at the mercy of every white scamp and vagabond.”

…these unfortunate children, many of them with well-formed and attractive features, and doubtless possessing minds capable of deep and thorough cultivation, are allowed to run as wild as the emu and kangaroo—and this state of things existing in a country which boasts a Christian Government, and whose churches contribute large sums annually towards the support of Missionary enterprises in far distant lands! And again, quoting the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘I have recently visited some of their camps on Murrumbidgee, and found black women and numbers of their half-caste children in a state of the most melancholy destitution, deserted by the male members of the tribe; for I find that when the black girls are ruined by white men, so-called, they are then as a rule left to their own dread resources, without food, and nearly naked. And these poor creatures were at the mercy of every white scamp and vagabond. And what, I ask, is the consequence? The up-rising of a race of wild half-castes in the very midst of a Christian community. And I speak within bounds when I say there are hundred of these young half-castes on the creeks and rivers of Riverina running wiles as the emu and kangaroo, with no idea of anything above or beyond themselves and their immediate surroundings. ‘Like brutes they live, And like brutes they must die,’ unless rescued by true Christian charity.

Naturally, mothers and their mixed-blooded children, abandoned by both whites and blacks, were in great need of help, as the shocking incident below reveals:

On another occasion the keeper of a low bush hotel supplied the camp with drink, called in the white men around, and as an eye-witness informed me, ‘the scene was a little hell.’ The following morning I visited the camp, and there I witnessed a most revolting sight—poor old women and quite young girls helplessly drunk. One poor young creature, with a half-caste babe upon her bosom, staggered towards me at my approach. I said: ‘What have you been doing, Louisa?’ ‘I have been drinking,’ she replied. ‘Who gave you the drink?’ ‘Mr. D–,” referring to the publican; and then, with the big tears streaming down her black face, she cried: ‘Oh, do take me away from this place. I don’t want to be a bad girl. I did not want to take the drink, but they made me take it.’ I said: ‘If you will wait till to-morrow I will bring a buggy and take you away,’ which, of course, I did, to the exceeding joy of the poor creature.

In response to the horrid abuses witnessed, Gribble sort to establish Mission stations for the well-being of the natives, especially abandoned and abused women and children.

I inspected a certain portion of the river in search of a suitable site for a Mission station. During this tour we found a little camp of women and children, and we prevailed upon them all (eleven in number) to go along with us. The poor creatures willingly undertook a journey of two hundred miles to escape the horrors of their camp life. I subsequently removed several young women to my home at Jerilderie, where they were properly cared for. But all this time the conviction grew stronger and stronger that a Mission should be founded at once on the Murrumbidgee…

Before long, word about Gribble and the work he was conducting among the natives spread:

It was then that the poor waifs and strays in the district, hearing that the home was prepared for them, began to flock to Warengesda, our ‘House of Mercy,’ for protection and food. Our accommodation was small, and our means were slender, but seeing so many unfortunate women and children in a state of hunger and nakedness touched our deepest sympathies, and we were compelled to admit them…

As time passed on our numbers continued to grow, more natives came pouring in from all quarters—from the Darling, the Lachlan, the Murray, and even from the distant Naomi. Hearing that there was a home for the black on the Murrumbidgee, they came to see for themselves, and although some returned, many decided to remain.