On Aboriginal humanity

John Harris describes what motivated missionaries in 19th-century Australia.



John Harris describes what motivated missionaries in 19th-century Australia.


“God hath made of one blood all nations of the earth.” That is a verse from the Authorised Version of the Bible, from the Book of Acts. And I eventually chose that as the title of my book, One Blood, because I just found this verse time and time and time again, in the diaries of missionaries, underlined in their Bibles, written in their letters home: “God hath made us of one blood.” Of course, the modern translations have wimped out, you know, “God made all people equal” or something or other, which doesn’t sound anywhere near as dramatic – I like the “one blood” because there’s something visceral about that. There’s something visceral about having the DNA, about having the blood of Aboriginal people, and I just found that phrase “one blood” so powerful. And it was a kind of creed. It was a kind of creed of those missionaries. Sometimes, I think, reminding themselves against the odds that they were equal to these people and they had to take note of that in what they did.

The people around the missionaries certainly didn’t think of Aboriginal people in terms of any kind of equality. Many of them justified the killing of Aboriginal people by saying that they were “below the white man species” – that’s a phrase from one of the newspapers. They believed that they had a right to oppress, exterminate, evict Aboriginal people from their lands because they were lesser. And sometimes many of them thought they were so much lesser that they were equal to, as they said, “the brute creatures”, they were just not created human, they were not born human.

Unlike everybody else in the community, missionaries believed that Aboriginal people were human. There was no point in being a missionary if Aboriginal people are not human. Missionaries believed that Aboriginal people were created by a creator God who had created the black and white races. And they believed that they were human, and therefore – and this is terribly important to missionaries; it mightn’t be important to the community now – they believed that Aboriginal people were people for whom Christ died, and they deserved care and deserved to hear the gospel as much as anyone else in the world. And in that sense, missionaries saw Aboriginal people as their equal.