On the better and worse of missions

John Harris considers the impact missionaries had – and could have had – on the lives of Aboriginal people.



John Harris considers the impact missionaries had – and could have had – on the lives of Aboriginal people.


Missions played an extremely important part in maintaining Aboriginal populations; in fact I often ask myself, with all the criticisms of missions, would life have been better for Aboriginal people if there were no missions? If simply they had to interact with pastoralists, police, the marines, and so on. If there were no missions, would there be as many Aboriginal people alive today? And I think the answer is fairly obvious.

On those missions they got genuine care, they got fed, they got healthcare, and so on. And there were missionaries who went and retrieved ill Aboriginal people, injured Aboriginal people from afar and brought them in. One missionary wrote: “As I lifted the man from the cart, pieces of his flesh adhered to the timber of the cart.” Now, this missionary took that man into his own kitchen and into his own home and his wife cared for him. Now that story is repeated time and time and time again.

There are negative elements as well, of course, to Christian mission. I mean these missionaries were people of their time, so they came from what they regarded as a Christian culture. They came from Europe, they came from England, they believed that they had come from Christendom. They may not have used the phrase, they just believed that what they came from was a Christian culture. So therefore, they believed when they came to Australia that what they were doing, what they were aiming at, was not just helping Aboriginal people understand about Jesus, but to help Aboriginal people become like them. And “help” might be too gentle a word; to force Aboriginal people, in some cases, to become like them, that is, to adopt the ordered village life. To have the ordered English village, the farm and the farm labourers, the church in the centre of the little village and all of that kind of thing – that was what they envisaged for Aboriginal society and culture.
Very, very few of them, particularly in the earliest days, ever thought that perhaps they should travel nomadically with Aboriginal people, perhaps they should tell the Aboriginal people about Jesus and leave it at that, and let Aboriginal people see what that story said to them and whether they wanted to embrace it or not.