Life

One of the earliest offers by First Nations people to help repair the damage of colonisation ended in failure. How does the history of Cummeragunja demonstrate the value of the Voice? By Daniel James.

From Maloga to the Voice

A black and white photograph of a class of school children with their teacher. The school is in the background.
Teacher ​​Thomas James (left) with schoolchildren at Cummeragunja.
Credit: State Library of Victoria

In 1887, a long time ago but yesterday in the scheme of things, a group of petitioners from Maloga mission on the banks of Dhungala – the Murray River as many know it – wrote to the governor of New South Wales requesting a small parcel of their own land on which to toil.

For better or for worse – it’s still too soon to tell – Maloga was by then home to many of my people, the Yorta Yorta, and to people from other tribes. Many had fled from Victoria to free themselves from the menacing clutches of the Aborigines Protection Board. By this stage of white history, that colony to the south had become far more efficient in its disassembly of the culture and customs of First Nations people. The protection board was established on the assumption Aborigines were a dying race and the way to speed up our demise was to remove children from families. So-called “half-castes” were no longer allowed to live with their parents and immediate family – they were to be removed from culture and the risk of breeding into the dark race again. The whole point of the colony’s policies was to see the half-caste’s line fade into the general population and the “full-bloods” die out altogether. Imagine for one second what it would be like to be subject to these laws. Go on, I dare you.

Before all of this, for tens of thousands of years, the idea of people from other nations encroaching on and living on the land of others was unthinkable. The fine balance between the land, the songlines scored across it and the natural borders between different people had remained intact. There was no need for invasion, for conquests between the Yorta Yorta, Dja Dja Wurrung or Taungurung. Sure, there were disputes, but there was more than enough to go around. Along with the bountiful river, easily poachable goannas, the eggs of ducks and swans, the lean meat of kangaroo, emu, fibre-filled yams through to the fatty delights of charcoal-baked wallaby were all in abundance during the good times, and all part of a fragile yet thriving ecosystem. When the seasons were in balance, as they so often were, the land was so plentiful possums were considered almost a last resort as a food source; they were far more prized for their skins than their meat, according to palates tuned over millennia.

Nonetheless, in the year of “our Lord” 1887, the people of Maloga wrote – most likely under the guidance of schoolmaster Thomas James – to Lord Carrington. They asked the governor of NSW, a freemason, for a small allocation of land – of their land – to work as their own. Among them was the emerging leader William Cooper, who was among the last of his people to buy into the missionary experiment and convert to Christianity as his mother, Kitty, and his siblings had done when they were taken in by the Maloga missionaries, Daniel and Janet Matthews.

The petition read:

Your Excellency,

The following of the Aborigines and half-castes on the Maloga Aboriginal Mission Station, and the neighborhood thereof, hereby showeth that while grateful for the benefits conferred upon them by the liberality of our Government, in aiding the Aborigines Protection Association to provide a home for them and their families, and also recognising their debt of gratitude to that association, they would suggest that on the recommendation of that society those among us, who so desires, should be granted sections of land of not less than 100 acres per family in fee simple or else at a small nominal rental annually, with the option of purchase at such prices as shall be deemed reasonable for them under the circumstances, always bearing in mind that the Aborigines were the former occupiers of the land. Such a provision would enable them to earn their own livelihood, and thus partially relieve the State from the burden of their maintenance. We think that such a provision would be far more in accord with the wishes of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria in this the jubilee year of her reign than many of the methods adopted to celebrate that occasion, and also that it would be a fitting memorial in connection with the celebration of the Centenary of the colony. Trusting that your Excellency will see fit to grant our petition, your petitioners will, as in duty bound, ever pray. On behalf of the petitioners. – Robert Cooper, Samson Barber, Aaron Atkinson, Hughy Anderson, John Cooper, Edgar Atkinson, Whyman McLean, John Atkinson (his mark), William Cooper, George Middleton, Edward Joachim (his mark).

 

The petitioners, through the governor, were offering the people of New South Wales a solution to a problem that was not of their own making – to “relieve the State from the burden of their maintenance”. As was always to be, Aboriginal people were seen as a problem that needed to be solved. The Maloga petition was one of the early offerings to colonisers in an attempt to help reconcile the damage done with a pragmatic solution. Their solution was far from perfect, but it was the first step towards building a life in the new world, out of the soil that was theirs, by what William Cooper later called their “divine right”.

With the promise of work for independence and a reluctant belief that the way of the whitefellas would result in a new kind of bounty for their communities, the people of Maloga moved upstream and cleared the land. The trees that had provided shelter for thousands of years and habitat for countless living creatures were felled and dispatched to make way for grazing pastures, paddocks for the northern sun to beat down on the sandy soil and all those who worked on it. One can only imagine the physical and emotional toll of clearing some of what was sacred. The old people looking on from a distance, devastated to see the land as they knew it disappear, while at the same time feeling the optimism of the younger generations, and the hope that buying into this new world would give those who would come after a better life. They were taking a risk, making a leap of faith.

The experiment at what became known as Cummeragunja worked for a time, but as the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Association, following Victoria’s lead, became more efficient in its work, and then more centralised, the promises made to my people were reneged on. The cleared land was taken back by the board and given to local pastoralists to work instead. Cummeragunja in its first incarnation was over. The faith afforded the colony by the people of Maloga and then Cummeragunja had been for nothing. It was an early lesson that in centralised bureaucracies, where decisions are made by clerks, far away from the people those decisions affect, it is always the white lobbyists and their interests that are heard most clearly.

In 2023, one of the most tumultuous years in our young democracy’s history, what can we learn from the countless humble offerings made by Aboriginal people?

Opponents of the Voice, many of whom claim to be great capitalists, only see its establishment as a cost, rather than an investment. The same mentality of the protection boards seeps into their thinking – that they know what is best for us, better than we do. We remain a problem. And rather than protection of Aborigines, it now seems the arbiters of society and all that is right need to protect the people from Aborigines.

At this year’s referendum, it is Aboriginal people who are taking the bigger risk, making the leap of faith. We are placing a semblance of trust in the same colonial constructs and mindsets that continue to constrain us. Some of us won’t be able to take that leap, and that is fine and that is understandable. How could you trust a system that wilfully stole our children from the loving embrace of their families? That’s a fault line that runs deep. But the lesson I have learnt from my old people, my line – advocates and leaders such as William Cooper, Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls, Margaret Tucker, Bill Onus and many more who carried on the fight for our people – is that if we don’t try, nothing changes.

They spent their lives chipping away at this nation’s edifice. Here and now, we just might be in a position to end the beginning of their work – despite all that has happened. 

This is part one of a three-part series on iterations of the Voice: past, present and future.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2023 as "From Maloga to the Voice".

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