John Harris describes the dire situation for Aboriginal people in the 19th century.
In the second half of the 19th century you’ve got a complex history because in the south, invasion has happened, colonisation has happened. And you’ve only got to look at the maps of pastoral properties and see Victoria are gradually becoming more and more and more filled with squares and lines saying, “These are pastoral properties” and very little area left that is natural to the Aborigines.
On the other hand, in the far north, invasion is only starting to happen. The white pastoralists and timber-men and all the rest of it are only just coming to the north and history is being repeated. In the south, in what you might call settled Australia, colonised Australia, Aboriginal people were in disastrous circumstance. They were kept away from their hunting grounds, they had no means of survival, they were hungry, they were diseased, they were destitute, and they were in despair.
For these people, some of those missions offered refuge – the only possible refuge. There are many, many cases of Aboriginal women giving their children – I’m not talking here about the taking of children; that’s actually later, and wasn’t done by missionaries, but we might come to that – women giving their children to the missionaries, swapping family life for the survival of their child. Because children survived on the missions. You can go and look today at the surnames of Aboriginal people in Melbourne and they are the surnames of the Aboriginal people on the missions, because missions were places where they survived. Outside the missions, they didn’t survive.
There was violence, from which missionaries protected them. Very real protection was afforded by missionaries; we’ve only got to see the criticisms of missionaries made by the police, who are pursuing Aboriginal people and find that they can run to a mission. Missionaries gave them real protection in a physical sense, they gave them food, they gave them healthcare. And in particular – something which is not said enough – they protected the girls in particular from sexual predation. And that meant not only did the Aboriginal people survive on the mission, but the girls grew up fertile. And that’s not something which happened outside the mission because the girls grew up infertile because of venereal disease.