Aboriginal Missions

Cape Barren Islanders (AOT, PH30/1/6671)

Tasmania is the only Australian state that has had no church-run mission settlements for Aborigines, although the churches did work in partnership with the government. At Wybalenna there was an emphasis on 'civilising' and converting the Aborigines, but the settlement was primarily a state initiative and responsibility. Before the 1850s none of the churches demonstrated a sustained commitment to, or even interest in, the Aborigines, and at Oyster Cove even nominal Christian instruction was eventually abandoned.

From 1852, however, there was a series of 'missions' to those described as the 'half-castes' of Bass Strait, by some of the most energetic local Anglican clergy, including Bishops Nixon and Bromby, Archdeacon Thomas Reibey, the Rev George Fereday and Canon Marcus Brownrigg. Until the 1890s these 'missions' were confined to reasonably regular, and apparently welcome, summer visits. Indigenous Christian community leaders, such as Lucy Beedon, skilfully utilised the mission as a means of having the community's needs, aspirations and identity recognised and promoted within white society, at a time when an influx of settlers into the previously remote islands and muttonbird rookeries was threatening economic and cultural survival. The fruits of this partnership were manifest with the appointment in the 1870s of a resident teacher and, most importantly, in the establishment of the Cape Barren Island Reserve in the following decade.

From 1889 Bishop Henry Montgomery expanded the church's role on Cape Barren, establishing a resident missionary-school teacher position with broad state-sanctioned powers. The tension between the church and Aboriginal view over the purpose of the reserve now became manifest, with Montgomery attempting to change the Aborigines into a settled agrarian people. By the late 1890s relations had broken down and, following Montgomery's departure from Tasmania in 1901, the Church of England withdrew from its dominant role in running the reserve.

Further reading: J Boyce, God's own country?, Hobart, 2001.

James Boyce