This teacher taught Aboriginal children ‘leading and writing’. His students changed Australia for the better

Jan 12, 2021 by

If a teacher’s success is measured by their students’ achievements, then Thomas Shadrach James must be one of the most successful teachers in Australian history.

Old black and white studio portrait photo of a middle-aged man wearing a three-piece suit and tie.
Thomas Shadrach James taught some of the leading Aboriginal activists of the 20th century.(Supplied)

If a teacher’s success is measured by their students’ achievements, then Thomas Shadrach James must be one of the most successful teachers in Australian history.

He taught in a small schoolhouse near the Murray River on the border of Victoria and New South Wales.

The government at the time ruled that the children he taught should not receive more than three years of education.

But James’s students would become some of the leading Indigenous activists of the 20th century.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this article contains images of people who have died.

His standing in the community was such that he became known as Grandpa James.

“He didn’t talk about reading and writing, he talked about leading and writing,” his granddaughter Robynne Nelson says.

‘A very clever boy’

James was born in 1859 on the African island of Mauritius, then a British colony.

His Indian parents arrived on the island to work as indentured labourers on the sugar plantations.

James’s father then became a catechist, or educator, for the Anglican Archbishop. Later, to pay for his son’s education, he worked as an interpreter for shipping companies and the government.

Ms Nelson, who travelled to Mauritius to learn more about her grandfather’s early years, says James was “a very clever boy”.

“Even at the age of 14, he was working with his father to educate other children,” she says.

But tragedy struck the family. First James’s younger brother died, and then his mother.

Soon after, James’s father remarried. His new wife was a young woman, not much older than James himself.

“This became a real divide between him and his father,” Ms Nelson says.

“He ended up wandering down along these shipping yards, befriending a ship captain — and ended up jumping on a boat and coming to Australia.”

A spiritual calling

James worked in Tasmania as a teacher before moving across Bass Strait to study medicine at Melbourne University.

But his plans to become a surgeon were thwarted when he contracted typhoid fever, which gave him the shakes.

Then, a walk along Melbourne’s Brighton Beach in 1881 changed his life.

A  black and white photo of a beach. Trees line the hills behind. People in upper-class Victorian-era dress sit in foreground.
Brighton Beach as it was in the 1880s.(National Library of Australia)

He came across a group of people singing — a choir of Yorta Yorta people from the Maloga Aboriginal Mission, near Echuca-Moama on the Victoria/NSW border.

“That day I felt the Lord had spoken to me,” he later wrote.

He met the mission’s founder, Daniel Matthews, and offered to teach there.

Soon, he was living on the mission near the Murray River, teaching in a small wooden hut.

Teaching ‘over and above’ the law

Maloga Mission was part of a system of reserves the NSW government used to “manage” the Indigenous population, La Trobe University emeritus professor of history Richard Broome says.

“Aboriginal people were to be transformed from their traditional ways into black Christian farmers,” Dr Broome says.

The government dictated that Aboriginal children only receive three years of education, until they were nine years old.

“They had an imagined destiny for these children as rural labourers or domestic workers,” Dr Broome says.

Black and white photo of about 50 children standing with a man and blackboard in front of a small wooden building.
Thomas Shadrach James, right, stands with his students in front of the Maloga Schoolhouse in 1884.(NSW State Archives and Records)

In 1886, a local journalist who spent a week at Maloga Mission reported that “for all practical purposes the pupils are better educated than the majority of state school children”.

James wrote about his approach, saying such results were “attainable by speaking to the scholars themselves and seeking at all times to make their work in school a pleasure”.

Dr Broome says James would have given his students a sense that they could succeed if they worked hard.

“He built their self-esteem,” Dr Broome says.

“He would have believed also, through his Christian message, that they had the right of equality before God.”

Ms Nelson says James’s classes went “over and above what the law allowed”.

“He was teaching them to grow up to be leaders,” she says.

“He taught them about India and the Raj and how the people rose up — how the pen was mightier than the sword.”

And his classes weren’t just for the kids.

The Scholars Hut

At night, under candlelight, James taught special classes for the adults of the mission.

“What he was doing was giving the skills of activism,” Dr Broome says.

“The ability to advocate to government on your own behalf, to write petitions, to write letters.”

The night school became known as the Scholars Hut, and many of the Yorta Yorta men living on the mission put the skills they learned there to good use.

“They started writing letters off to the governor, asking for farm blocks they could farm for themselves,” Ms Nelson says.

At the same time, Maloga’s days were numbered.

The mission, run by Matthews and his wife Janet as a private enterprise, was underfunded, and Matthews became increasingly overbearing.

“He was a paternalist, he [thought he] was going to guide the Aboriginal people to a better life,” Dr Broome says.

“But, of course, the young men knew what they wanted and they started to request land from the government — and started to arc up against his control.”

‘Our home’

The campaign by the Scholar’s Hut students resulted in the government announcing a new reserve, five kilometres upstream from the Maloga Mission.

The reserve was given the name Cummeragunja — meaning “our home”.

Black and white photo of a teacher and large group of students outside a weatherboard schoolhouse.
Thomas Shadrach James (left) and his students at the Cummeragunja Mission schoolhouse, NSW.(State Library of Victoria)

“Our people moved there from Maloga in 1888 with the promise of land that the governor was going to give to our Aboriginal men,” Ms Nelson says.

Twenty 40-acre farm blocks were given to residents and the mission became a productive, thriving farm producing wheat, wool and dairy, with the residents working towards self-sufficiency.

By this time, James was married to Aboriginal former student Ada Cooper, and the couple had children of their own.

They’d moved with the other residents away from Matthews and his mission to Cummeragunja, where James took on an expanded role in the community, not just as a teacher but as church minister, cricket coach, choir leader, football team manager, linguist — and healer.

A historical photograph of the Cummeragunja team of Aboriginal footballers in 1900.
Cummeragunja’s football team in 1900. The mission had successes in both cricket and football.(Supplied: Jenny Hocking)

Yorta Yorta elder Alfred Turner, also known as Uncle Boydie, says if anyone at Cummeragunja took ill they would call upon Grandpa James.

“Any time of night, he would go and attend to them,” he says.

Ms Nelson says James’s medical approach was informed by his Indian heritage, his study at Melbourne University, and Aboriginal bush medicine.

“He was also the dentist, by the way, but that was pretty rough going,” Ms Nelson says.

The Cummeragunja Walk-Off

In 1907, the NSW Aborigines Protection Board took back the land blocks they’d given to individual farmers on Cummeragunja. Later, the land was leased to white farmers. The community protested loudly, to no avail.

Then, in 1909, the Aboriginal Protection Board began taking Aboriginal children from their families — and Grandpa James was powerless to stop them.

“When the authorities would come onto the mission, he’d tell them all to run and hide, down the riverbank, their own secret places to hide,” James’s granddaughter Rhonda Dean says.

“[Later] he would take them home to his place with Grandma Ada, and he would go over the lesson that day, because he didn’t want them to miss out, even though, Mum said, there was much sadness for those that had gone.

“He was able to give them that courage to go on — and that we’ll fight later to get our girls back.”

Over the next three decades successive administrators subjected Cummeragunja residents to increasingly restrictive and dehumanising conditions.

Farming profits were taken from the community, residents needed a pass to enter or exit the mission and workers were given measly rations. Housing and sanitation were inadequate.

Finally, in 1939 — 17 years after James’s retirement — the deteriorating conditions at the reserve led to the Cummeragunja Walk-Off.

Hundreds of people met and decided to permanently leave the mission in protest. James, in his late 70s and living across the river in Mooroopna, took the minutes for this historic meeting.

Regarded as the first-ever mass strike by Aboriginal people in Australia, the walk-off has been described as a defining moment in Australian Indigenous activism.

The leaders of the strike were former students of Thomas Shadrach James.

Source: This teacher taught Aboriginal children ‘leading and writing’. His students changed Australia for the better – ABC News

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