Rugged and painful past

Cavan Brown, The Blackfellow’s Friend, Perth: Access Press, 1999.

Paperback 296 pages. (Approx $34 from online suppliers, or borrow through the public library system.

Reviewed by Ted Witham (re-posted for National Sorry Day).

Some years ago, I was at an ecumenical, outdoor service in a country town. To begin the service, a local Noongar elder welcomed us to his country, “where Noongars have roamed for tens of thousands of years.” The congregation (two-thirds “wadullahs” (white people)) listened with a stillness of respect.

When aboriginal formally welcome wadullahs to their country, the welcome is always an offer to receive a gift. The tone of the welcome is totally hospitable. “This is our land,” they say, “and we positively want to share it with you.”

Reading any story of aboriginal-white relations over the past 200 years makes me reflect how astoundingly generous and forgiving towards Europeans the aboriginal people have been.

Cavan Brown’s new biography of The Reverend John Gribble is a novelised account of the failed attempt by the Anglican Church to set up a mission for aborigines near Carnarvon in the 1880s. The story traces the fascinating, if somewhat depressing, events in which the passionate motivations of Gribble were crushed and terminated.

On his arrival in Carnarvon, Gribble held high hopes for his mission. He gave to the mission near the town the name of Galilee Baba, after the Sea of Galilee and the Ingarra word for water. His vision was to provide a place where aborigines could live in reasonable conditions, not in the dust and dirt of their camps, where the sick could be cared for, and where aborigines could learn to read and write.

Soon after his arrival, he travelled to the site of his remoter mission. As he travelled through station country, he observed the ways in which some station people treated aborigines: rounded up for work on the stations, imprisoned if they ran away, bound by the Masters and Servants Act, for which they could not have given informed consent. He observed sexual exploitation of aboriginal women, and degrees of cruelty towards all the aboriginal people there.

Being a man of high principle and precipitate action, Gribble complained loudly about these practices, both locally, and in the Perth newspapers.

The response came quickly and vigorously. Bishop Parry initially supported Gribble’s comments. However, pressure was brought to bear on Bishop Parry and the mission committee he chaired. Influential families and pastoral lease-holders joined in a condemnation of Gribble. Cavan Brown’s telling of the story reveals how the Diocese caved in to this pressure, believing that it was better to avoid dividing the small community than dealing with admitted injustices.

Because of his comments, Gribble was assaulted, and his complaints were dealt with slowly and inadequately. Gribble’s temper became more aroused. British justice could not even be meted out to him, a European. What hope did aborigines have?

Eventually, Gribble returned to NSW, bitter and defeated. The Bishops in the Eastern States continued to support him and his mission work with aborigines.

Cavan Brown explains in his Preface that he chose deliberately to write the story of Gribble in novel form, rather than as straight history. His purposes were twofold: to make a more readable story through reconstructing dialogue, and to bring to light the motivations of the various characters.

His imagined conversation between Bishop Parry and his Presbyterian friend, George Truscott, explores most sympathetically the dilemma into which the Bishop had fallen. The immediate threat to the Diocese came from pastoralists who would remove financial support for the Cathedral. This explains the immediate conflict into which Winthrop Hackett, Charles Harper and other prominent Anglicans placed him. However, the Bishop’s deeper intention in withdrawing support from Gribble appears to have been a long-term strategy. He hoped to win slowly and surely an understanding from the white establishment about the treatment of aboriginal people.

The title for Cavan Brown’s book, The Blackfellow’s Friend, may produce controversy today because of its lack of political correctness. The title is in fact taken from Gribble’s tombstone in Sydney, and was intended as a tribute for Gribble’s life work. But even in the 19th Century, a phrase like “Blackfellow’s Friend” was used by Gribble’s opponents as a way of insulting and belittling his positive disposition towards aborigines.

Equally controversial may be Brown’s attempts to write down aboriginal Creole. He has transcribed the sounds and untaught grammar of aboriginal speakers in a way that some readers may find offensive. On the whole, I think Brown has succeeded in achieving a balance between arousing cute contempt for the limited English spoken by aborigines and a sense of realism.

Cavan Brown, as a Baptist pastor, has not been so successful in describing the peculiarly Anglican world of Bishops, Deans and Archdeacons. Perhaps only Anglicans will notice that Bishop Parry’s responsibility for Western Australia is described several times as a “parish”, when it was, by definition, a Diocese. I doubt very much that Anglican clergy were addressed as “Rev.” in the 1800s. The English pattern was to call the ordained “Mister”, and use the full form, “Reverend” only in writing about a priest.

For non-Anglicans, these may be quibbles. They certainly do not destroy the vigour of the story telling, but they do betray, along with numerous typographical errors, hasty sub-editing, which does detract from the enjoyment of the book.

In sum, I recommend this book strongly. It is a courageous and enticing piece of historical story-telling that will open perspectives both on the legacy of Church matters and also on the rugged and painful history of the way whites have treated the original owners of Australia.

First published in The Anglican Messenger.

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