On the man who educated generations of Aboriginal activists

Matt Busby Andrews tells the remarkable story of Thomas James.



Matt Busby Andrews tells the remarkable story of Thomas James.


Thomas James is vital, not just to the story of Cummeragunja but to the Indigenous justice movement of the entire nation. The Australian Aborigines League, which was really the first effective political justice force, had all its members of any consequence intellectually shaped by one man.

Thomas James is there in Mauritius when a Tasmanian trading ship comes in. He’s recently lost his mum, and he’s broken-hearted because his dad has remarried very quickly. He’s resentful. Hops on this trading ship to Tasmania, makes his way to Melbourne, full of ideas about becoming a doctor. He was exceptionally smart, he could speak at least three or four languages, and he was a very effective and successful herbalist. He goes to Melbourne University, hoping to leap into a medical career, when he contracts typhus and develops a shake. His hope of becoming a surgeon dashed. And now we see him walking along Port Phillip Bay near Brighton, his heart broken again, when he hears singing. It’s a mission; evangelists are preaching. They’re Aboriginal evangelists from the Maloga Mission, and he is caught up in their message of grace and says to the missioner, being Daniel Matthews, “What can I do to help?” And he says, “I need someone to help me teach and educate these people, because they’re going to need it.”

There really is no one more significant than Thomas James – whom a lot of people thought was Aboriginal. He married into a famous Indigenous family, the Cooper family, and his skin colour must have been exactly the same. So, in newspaper articles they all talk about his son being a full-blood Aboriginal. So he was very quickly accepted. Also, he could speak Yorta Yorta, the language of the Bangerang, flawlessly.

He then becomes the educator to essentially three generations of people, not just teaching them English, but from what we can work out, teaching them the Westminster system. That’s the only explanation that I can manage to explain how his students – like William Cooper and others, and Margaret Tucker, etc – became so expert at managing government. It didn’t happen in any other mission across the country. Why did it happen at Maloga/Cummeragunja? It’s because of one man, Thomas James.

It’s frequently known as the Scholars’ Hut, Thomas James’ schoolhouse – which still stands in Cummera today. And … well, you’ve got the great one, which is William Cooper himself. So he’s born 1860, he would have been there – well, he was there in the very early years of Maloga and which Thomas James would have been there. Then you’ve got people like Margaret Tucker – she was at Warangesda for a while, with another great missionary called Gribble. But she would have been involved in the Scholars’ Hut. And then the one that comes after – although he says he was a terrible student – is, of course, Doug Nicholls, later to become Pastor Doug, later to become Sir Doug Nicholls.