The colonial project

What happened when “Christian” Europe began to extend its influence globally, in the Age of Empire?



How missionaries changed the world


What happened when “Christian” Europe began to extend its influence globally, in the Age of Empire?


JUSTINE TOH: As the centuries rolled on, and Christian Europeans left their own shores in the age of exploration, they often left Jesus’ ethic of humility behind. The urge to dominate others proved irresistible.

Australia was no exception, beginning with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

The indigenous nations who inhabited this continent were the custodians of the world’s oldest living culture.

NGARDARB RICHES: Life before the British came was very different. Everyone had the language and the cultures. Every tribe and clan had everything intact, working with the land, the ecosystem, everything.

UNCLE DENIS: In Aboriginal culture and lore, you belonged to the land, you didn’t own it, you belonged to the land so it’s a lot different, so if you belong to something, then you cherish it more, it’s more important to you, that’s where your life comes from, that’s where your living comes from.

JUSTINE TOH: The colony’s original intentions were to “establish harmonious relations with the natives”. But it didn’t work out that way. Diseases, land grabs, and outright massacres led to the annihilation of entire communities. Little more than a century after first contact, the indigenous population had been reduced by up to 90%.

UNCLE DENIS: To lose the land, or to not be associated with the land or belong to the land anymore, you moved off to some other place, was a tragedy you know – it was like losing your family, your dignity, your identity.

JOHN HARRIS: In the simpler terms it meant that they couldn’t get to their waterholes, they couldn’t get to their hunting grounds. But it disrupted society in all sorts of other ways because they were a religious people, all different parts of their land had religious meaning to them. They weren’t able to fulfil the ceremonies, they weren’t able to care religiously and spiritually for their land, and so their whole way of life was made naught.

JUSTINE TOH: In many places around the world, missionaries came ahead of colonisers. But the church was slow to send missionaries to the Aboriginals, or “New Hollanders” as they were known.

But as British people settled here, the church came with them, and its record when it comes to indigenous issues is, like much of Christian history, very mixed.

Churchmen saw little difference between Christianity and Western civilisation. And when the interests of Aboriginal people came into conflict with the economic interests of the colony, plenty of clergy were clear about which side they stood on.

JAMES MOORHOUSE: God did not make this earth simply for the savage tribes to wander over. He made it for the scene of happy homes which are supported by industry, and if a set of men stood in the way of another set of men doing that work, it is the order of divine providence that the hinderers should be swept away.

JUSTINE TOH: But in spite of the apathy and outright racism, there was one point beyond which genuinely Christian people would not go. They simply couldn’t accept the idea that Aboriginals weren’t even human. Their Bible insisted that all people were made in the image of God. White or black, civilised or not, God had made all nations of one blood.

JOHN HARRIS: “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, 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.

JUSTINE TOH: One of the flashpoints of Aboriginal-settler relations took place in 1838, at Myall Creek in Northern New South Wales. Eleven mounted stockmen approached a peaceful camp belonging to the Wirrayaraay tribe. 35 Aboriginal men, women, and children were roped together, and taken to this ridge. Then the slaughter began.

Children were beheaded, and men and women forced to run between attackers who hacked at them with swords. A girl was spared, so she could be raped. After the drunken celebration that followed, the bodies were dismembered and then burnt.

The massacre was unusual. Not because of its brutality, but because some of the killers were actually brought to justice.

JOHN HARRIS: One of the differences here was that the facts were so well-known and so obvious, and indeed I think people had become so used to the killing of Aboriginal people that they became garrulous; they talked about it and it wasn’t hidden. And for that reason, the Attorney-General wanted to bring these people to trial. Now, he was a committed Catholic and I think that has a lot to do with it. And he brought them to trial, but in that first trial of those seven men, who were defended by funds put in by the northern pastoralists, the jury acquitted them.

ACTOR (JUROR): “I knew well they were guilty of the murder, but I for one would never see a white man suffer for shooting a black.”

ACTOR (JUROR): “I would never consent to hang a white man for a black one.”

ACTOR (JUROR): “I see the blacks as a set of monkeys. The sooner they are exterminated from the face of the earth, the better.”

JUSTINE TOH: The Attorney-General, John Hubert Plunkett, refused to give up. He filed new charges against seven of the eleven perpetrators, and was backed by clergy across the land.

ACTOR (JOHN SAUNDERS): Does it seem strange to speak of the majesty of the New Hollander? The Saviour died as much for him as he did for you. And now by every sentiment of love and humanity and you are bound to love him, to admit him to your fraternity, and to treat him as your fellow man.

JUSTINE TOH: The second time around, seven of the murderers were found guilty and hanged. The result outraged the Australian public.

JOHN HARRIS: 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. And missionaries had to hold out against that.

JUSTINE TOH: But there’s no denying, the church was very much caught up in the colonial project. It’s a pattern repeated around the world.