Indigenous Rights before their time

John Dickson shares the inspiring story of Daniel Matthews

Much has been said and written recently about the injustices suffered by Aboriginal people at the hands of the European settlers. Christian missionaries have come in for their share of criticism – much of it deserved. However, some counter-stories deserve to be told. Here is one of them…

Only three generations ago Aboriginal people in Australia were being shot for bounty, raped at leisure, and filled with alcohol for the fun of the spectacle. It was widely believed in Australian society that Aborigines were less than human. Based on quasi-evolutionary assumptions, many settlers considered the indigenous people to be a ‘throw back’ to our ape-ancestry, and therefore devoid of a ’soul’. Unbelievable!

The first people to turn the tide on this bizarre evaluation of Australian Aborigines were Christian missionaries. Although it is virtually common place to condemn these missionaries as naive, imperialistic, insensitive bigots, it must be remembered that in the 1800s the closest thing Aboriginal people had to a ‘friend’ amongst the invading British Empire, were Christian missionaries. What follows is the story of one such missionary family. What makes this family stand out for me is that, unlike most of the missionaries of their day, they were lay people, with no official title or position within the Church.

Daniel Matthews lived with his wife, Janet, on the Murray River (near Echuca) from the 1860s through to the turn of the century. They ran a successful shop with Daniel’s brother, William, called, ‘Matthews Brothers Central Merchants’. It provided food, clothing, and other vital supplies to the settlers up and down the river. They also owned a house on a fairly large plot of land just out of town. By the standards of the time you could say the Matthews lived a reasonably comfortable (albeit hard-working) life. This soon changed.

Matthews’s journal records an incident in which he witnessed a large number of Aborigines in a desperate, poverty-stricken and drunken state. That night he wrote in his journal words that would begin an amazing journey for him and his family, ‘My God! Can this be right?’. From that day, the Matthews committed themselves to the service of the Murray River Aboriginal people.

The commitment of the Matthews family often took the form of devoting their available resources to the good of the locals. One obvious example was the pen. Matthews had a way with words, and he used it powerfully as an advocate for the Aboriginal people.

he discovered that his property had previously been regarded by the local Indigenous people as sacred land (known to them as ‘Maloga’). His response was to give a large portion of it back to them

It is reported that he systematically wrote to every newspaper and government agency in the country begging the Australian leaders and public to change their attitudes to the indigenous people and treat them with the full dignity and respect they deserved. Mostly, his words fell on deaf ears, but he has left us with some of the most lucid and moving pieces of writing about Aborigines in our nation’s history.

Another resource Matthews devoted to his beloved friends in the area was his land. Quite early on he discovered that his property had previously been regarded by the local Indigenous people as sacred land (known to them as ‘Maloga’). His response was to give a large portion of it back to them. From that day, Maloga Mission (as it became known throughout Australia) was to be used for the Murray River people, not for Daniel’s commercial profit.

In a very short period of time, Maloga became a safe haven for Aborigines all over NSW and Victoria. What the indigenous people found at the property was a place where they could freely hunt and fish, receive medical attention (disease amongst Aboriginal people in the mid-1800s was rampant), get a European education (Janet was a school teacher), and, when the fish were low, be assured of meal.

Maloga was also a place to hear about the Christian faith. In a piece published for the Australian public, entitled, An Appeal on Behalf of the Australian Aborigines, Matthews explained his Christian hopes for the 20 acres of land he had given over to the service of the Murray River people: ‘The site is pleasantly situated on the Murray river, and was originally one of the old camping grounds of the Lower Moira and surrounding tribes.

Whether it was their time, talents, food, land or faith, what the Matthews possessed, they devoted to the people they loved

Here, where the wild corroboree was danced, we pray that soon the spot will be made resonant with youthful voices, whose hearts will be attuned to the praise of their Saviour.’ This could easily be interpreted as imperialistic but it was not so understood by the local indigenous people of the time. Within a few years of penning these words, the Matthews’s hopes were beginning to be realised. Although the Matthews held no official position in the Church, and neither of them had theological training, they both had a good head for the Bible and a keen heart for promoting the public the ancient faith.

Together, Daniel and Janet Matthews made a significant impact on the faith of Aboriginal people. It gave the Matthews great satisfaction to see some of their beloved friends come to a firm and lasting faith in Christ. Janet wrote in her diary of three young girls she was particularly fond of—Susannah, Sarah and Louisa— who ‘remained constant Christians, through tempestuous circumstances, to the end of their lives’.

Whether it was their time, talents, food, land or faith, what the Matthews possessed, they devoted to the people they loved. At times, Daniel and Janet’s love for the local people meant great personal risk and sacrifice.

On occasion, Daniel took Aboriginal children into his mission by force. He did not take them from their families however, but from sex hungry white settlers. It was quite common in this period for lone settlers to chain a young Aboriginal girl to his bed—to be used at leisure. When Daniel heard of this happening in his area, he daringly marched into the settler’s house, broke the chains or ropes and rescued the girl. On more than one occasion he was shot at and beaten up for such commando-like activities. He didn’t seem to mind, however. In Matthews’s mind, the result was well worth the risk.

many of Daniel’s contemporaries thought he was crazy. They would often say of him, ‘He’s got black-fellas on the brain’

Probably the best example of the Matthews’s self-sacrifice was the family business. Despite much pleading from Daniel’s brother to concentrate more on the shop and less on the Mission, Daniel could not pull himself away from serving to the Murray River people. As a result, Matthews Bros., previously a thriving business, went broke. From what we can piece together of Daniel’s life, he worked an 18-hour day, six days a week, for almost four decades. And it took its toll—on his business, his health, his family, and his friendships. In fact, many of Daniel’s contemporaries thought he was crazy. They would often say of him, ‘He’s got black-fellas on the brain’.

Many stories could illustrate the love Murray River people had for the Matthews family—such as the swans which King Billy, ruler of all the Murray River people, brought to Matthews as gifts. One of the most endearing stories involves one of the last ‘Old Men’ of the Murray River people. ‘Old Tommy’ was a dear and loyal friend to Daniel. On one occasion in the 1860s Daniel had to return to England for some family business matters. At the thought of not seeing ‘Mr Maloga’ for some time, Tommy was quite distressed. In fact, shortly after Daniel had left, the elderly man somehow caught a train to Melbourne, and on arriving at the city asked people, ‘Which way England?’. The report of Daniel’s return from England several months later, reads more like a reunion between two children than two grown and stately men.

The friendship and affection of the Aborigines toward Matthews is eptiomised by the title the locals bestowed on him. They called him, ‘Maranooka’, their special word for ‘friend’. It captured so much of the relationship between Matthews and the indigenous people of NSW and Victoria. Although he was to many of them a protector, a teacher, a doctor, an evangelist and a pastor, he was still, in a most profound sense of the word, their friend.

In 1887 a journalist from the Footscray Advertiser was sent from Melbourne to write a story on the life of the mission. The article concludes with some unconsciously insightful words, words that take us to the heart of what drove the Matthews family for three long decades. He wrote:

The aboriginals are basking in the sunshine of plenty, sitting under their own vine and fig tree; while the superintendent, I gather from outsider sources, has impoverished himself and his family, being forced to neglect his own material interests through his extra care and affection for the blacks. I left the place feeling that a life had been given away in devotion to the natives’ welfare.

Footscray Advertiser, 2 April 1887.

Dr. John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia)