Aboriginals as Saviours

The Reverend E. R. B. Gribble spent his younger years as a stockman. But he was persuaded by his father to help run the Mission. Drawing on a lifetime of experience, he writes what may be called a dissenting opinion. Challenging the common prejudice against Aboriginal capability. And doing so, not with theory, but with some very powerful stories.

Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 - 1954), Friday 26 January 1940, page 11

Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 – 1954), Friday 26 January 1940, page 11

The article is transcribed as follows:

The Australian Aborigines.

(By E. R. B. G.)

In dealing with the question of the aborigines, the first fact that shonld be borne in mind by all thinking Austra- lians is that Australia is the only por- tion of the British Empire that cost Great Britain nothing to acquire.

A vast continent’was acquired with- out difficulty or cost, and out of that country we have gained untold mil- lions of pounds worth of gold, wool, silver, coal, timber, wheat and other products.

It may rightly be said that the orig inal possessors were not using the land. It was, we might say, God’s will that we Britishers should take’ posses- sion of so fair a land, but it is also plain that God expects us to do our duty as Christians and as colonisers by the people we have dispossessed, and to do our utmost to up-lift and Christianise them.

We are told that the summit of Mt. Kosciusko is the oldest formation of land on the earth, and the aborigines are one of, if not the oldest race of men on the earth.

When, we took possession of Austra- lia the number of aborigines has been variously estimated at 500,000 500,000, 150,000.

Whatever may have been the correct number the fact remains that in less than a century and a half they have completely disappeared from many part of the earlier settled portions, and only about 80,000 remain.

Tasmania has not a single native left, Victoria under 200, New South Wales somewhere about 6000, Queens land 21,000, South Australia 2000, West Australia 32,000 and the Northern Ter ritory 20,000.

These numbers are arrived at mainly by the annual distribution of blankets but there are very many aborigines, es pecially in the north-west of the con tinent and in Arnhem’s Land, who do not receive such gifts, so that the actual number remaining is certainly much above the figures officially given

It has been said that not only were the aborigines not using this richly endowed land, but that they were, be fore we came, a fast disappearing peo ple. This is not true.


The fact is they were stationary a regards numbers. The whole country was divided into innumerable tribal dis tricts over which the tribes roamed that area was their own. The old men governed.

Now, when a stockman takes up country he knows how many head of cattle the country can carry to the acre.

The aborigines could not extend their tribal areas; they depended en tirely upon Dame Nature for sustenance.

It was necessary that the populatio be kent within the carrying capability of the tribal area. Henee came about abortion, infanticide, certain rites to prevent conception, and, chief of all, the survival of the fittest. Thus the population was being kept within the carrying capabilities of the tribal area.

The smallest tribes were in the poor est parts of the continent; the large and most powerful in the most product ive parts. The great river systems Victoria and New South Wales carried the largest tribes.

The most advanced, most numerous, most powerful tribes were along the great rivers, but, alas! they have al most entirely disappeared. These tribes were in great contrast to the tribes in the tropical north as regards physique, variety and care in the making weapons and (owing to the colder wi ters) the making of beautiful skin rugs and various utensils.

When the white settler arrived the

people could not retreat before the newcomer-it would mean the invasion of the area of another tribe. Hence there was nothing for it but to stay on their own tribal territory, see the game destroyed or dispersed, and then become hangers-on of our civilisation.

Hence it is that to-day in the North and centre only are the aborigines be found in anything like large num bers, simply because the numbers of the invaders has not increased to to same extent as in the earlier settlled parts. But the story will be the same as the white population expands.

Governor Phillip described the ab igines around Botany Bay as friendly in the extreme, and it was not un after Governor Phillip’s day that they changed in their attitude, and in di patches from Sydney to the home au thorities this was attributed to the

influence of escaped convicts who cast in their lot with the aborigines. Ev to-day the aborigines owe in a great measure their decadence and rapid dis appearance to the fact that it is with the lowest of the whites that they get into close touch.


Even from very early days they have given proof of loyalty and faithfulness to those who have treated them well. We all, I dare say, have read of that wonderful story of the great explorer Kennedy, who lost his life in his tragic attempt to reach Cape York overland from where Cardwell now stands; how his faithful aboriginal servant, Jacky Jacky, although wounded himself tended his master until he died, and then, through hostile tribes, carried his masters papers and dispatches safely through to Cape York and delivered them to the captain of the schooner waiting there.

In St. James’ Church, King street Sydney, this deed is placed on rec on a memorial slab to Kennedy’s memory.

Away back about the year 1853 town of Gundagai, New South Wa was swept out of existence by the flooded Murrumbidgee River during a night of storm.

Yarrie, an aboriginal-boy of about 15 years, in a bark canoe on his own init ative saved the lives of some dozen people in that awful night of storm rain and flood. He was given a brass medal and then forgotten.

Many years passed, the blacks came but few, and were rarely about the river. One day a man travel down the river found an aged aborig inal man dying of starvation in a bark lean-to. It was the hero of Gundigai, Yarrie. He was taken to Gund and cared for. His story was remem bered; money was raised for him, but it was too late; he died very soon after he reached the town.

Gundagai should erect a memorial to that gallant aborigine. If a white man had done the same deed he would never have been forgotten.

Lord Forrest, surveyor, explorer statesman, had an aboriginal servant named Tommy who accompanied his master on all his explorations through the heart of Australia. Lord Forrest always said that be owed the success of his journeys to the faithfulness and ability of his boy Tommy, and when the latter died he had erected over his grave a fine stone monument to the memory of an aborigine who was not only his servant but his friend.


Naybor was a bush aborigine of the Northern Territory, untouched by our civilisation. He, with two others, was wanted for the theft of flour from the tent of some prospectors. A police officer was sent out to arrest them. This he seems to have easily accom- plished. The three were chained, each with a separate chain around the neck, the ends being fastened to the officer’s stirrup iron. They started for Darwin, the natives walking beside the horse. It was the wet season and on reaching a certain river they found it in heavy flood. The officer hesitated about crossing, so he ordered the prisoners to swim the river, each with his chain wrapped round his body. They crossed safely, and then the officer entered the water on his horse. Towards, the centre of the stream he was washed out of the saddle and swept down stream. Seeing the officer’s danger Naybor, with his chain around his body and without a moment’s hesitation, sprang into the river, reached his captor, and brought him safely to the bank. One need not comment on such a brave and noble deed.

Leaving the unconscious officer with the other prisoners, Naybor went down the river to a prospector’s camp and obtained assistance. In due course they all arrived in Darwin. The aborigines were tried on the charge preferred against them, and were acquitted amid cheers.

Time passed, and the story got to King George V. A gold medal was sent out and the ribbon given to Nay bor, whilst the medal can now be seen at Canberra. Naybor and his. mates were then liberated and went back to their own country. This story surely shows that the primitive aborigine is endowed with those qualities which distinguish between the human and the brute.


There are numbers of such instances one could place on record. There is I space only for one instance of faithfulness and sheer courage of which I one can speak from personal knowledge. Six years after the formation of the Forrest Hiver Mission in the far north-west of Australia,’ the writer was in the town of Wyndham with the mission launch and a crew of two aborig- inal boys aged about 18 and 14. These lads were bush boys whose lives until a few years before had been spent quite apart from the white race.

On our return from Wyndham, just as we reached the mouth of the Forrest River, a serious breakage occurred in the engine. We at once anchored just inside the river. There was no hope of towing the vessel with the dinghy I against the turbid, rushing tide; like- wise it was impossible to get up the I river the 30 odd miles to the mission.

We were 12 miles from Wyndham, which lay on the opposite side of the Gulf. The two boys were given the launch flag, a mirror, and a box of matches, with instructions to proceed along the coast through mangrove swamps, mud, and crocodile infested creeks until opposite the town, the Gulf being 31/2 miles wide at this par- ticular spot. They left the launch at 2 p.m., and to the writer it seemed im- possible for help to arrive earlier than the next afternoon. Early next morn- ing the writer was awakened by the sound of the approach of a launch, which he knew was the Government vessel from Wyndham, there being no other vessel of any description nearer than Derby, which was 800 miles down the coast. Presently the launch came round the point into the river and the two lads could be seen on deck.

It appears that they reached a spot opposite Wyndham by sundown, but failed to attract attention. They dis- covered a crocodile’s nest and made a meal of a number of the eggs, and then decided to swim across. Their sarongs and singlets they carried on their heads. The tide was rising with a strong wind. In those parts the tides are amongst the highest in the world and the rise and fall is over 30 feet. Darkness fell as they swam. A workman from the Wyndham meat- works was fishing on the, long jetty and he heard them calling as they struggled across the strongest current near the jetty, which proved too strong for them.

They were swept away up the Gulf. The fisherman raised the alarm, and in a few minutes the launch went to their rescue. The wind and tide carried them above the town for two miles when the launch succeeded in reaching them. Owing to the bad weather the launch had to remain at anchor until the tide turned. The boys were quite unconcerned as to their own exploit, being anxious about help being sent as soon as possible to the mission launch.


The aborigine is a good linguist. He learns English quicker than any white man ean learn to speak in the aborigine’s language. He is quick to learn. Even adults have gone to school and learnt to read and write with only a few hours’ teaching a week. Three of such pupils became lay-readers in the Church.

In Victoria, at the Ramayuck Mis sion School, the children attained the distinction of being the only school in the colony (as it was then) to obtain 100 per cent, marks in 1871. In 1872 Inspector Todd reported that the school had again obtained 100 per cent, marks under the new Education Act, and in 1873 the same inspector reported that 941/2 per cent, marks had been obtained. The decrease was caused by the children of settlers being allowed to attend the school, who, by frequent absences, had reduced the average.

Douglas Grant, an aborigine born in the Atherton district, was taken to New South Wales and sent to school. He was a full blood. The writer knew him for many years. In 1930; he saw the writer off at the steamer in Sydney when leaving for Townsville. For six years Douglas was a draughtsman at Mort’s Dock, Sydney. He served, in the Great War, was a prisoner of war-in Ger- many, was repatriated. For three years he was secretary of the Re I turned Soldiers’ League in Lithgow, New South Wales. Then later he worked at the Water Board. Sydney; when retrenched, during the depres- sion he got employment, at the Museum, Sydney. Be died a few years ago.

David Uniapon, full-blood, a native of South Australia, is still living. Preacher, inventor, scientist, he has worked for years at the Adelaide Uni- versity.

Rev. James Noble, born m Nor- manton district, North Queensland, and taken to New Sooth Wales at the age of about eight years, was ordained in St George’s Cathedral, Perth by Bishop Trower of the North-West Diocese. After the ordination, the Bishop said to the writer: “I have ordained many men, both black and white, in Africa, but I have never heard the Gospel in the ordination service read-so-well or so distinctly as it was read by James Noble this morning.”

Noble has helped in the establishment of no fewer than five missions of the Church among his own people. He now, in his old age, is spending his days at his old home, Yarrabah, after many years of hard work in three States.

One could go on almost indefinitely, but the foregoing will serve to show that the despised aborigines have in tellects of no mean order. They need opportunity, but above all they need an incentive to live, and that can only come from the preaching of the Gos- pel of Our Lord.

No Government in the world can uplift a primitive race. A Government can cater for them with food, cloth- ing, work and education, but to get such a people to take an interest in themselves as a people and to arouse in them the desire to exist, ts the work of the Church of God.


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2 Responses to “Aboriginals as Saviours”

  1. Les Nugent July 11, 2013 at 2:33 am #

    In 1976 I went to Gundagai, NSW as a young police officer and was told the story of Yarri, a young Aboriginal man who in his bark canoe saved many a settler in the Big Flood (1853). A travelling artist painted the rescue scene on the walls of the Criterion Hotel. I left there is 1982. I am still a police officer after 42 years and work in Albury, NSW. During NAIDOC week I went to the Koori kindamara Pre-School (Woomera) day in Albury to talk to the youngsters…I wanted to remind them of one of my favorite hero…..yep Yarri. I have worked along the banks of the Rivers for many years. I have seen the mighty rivers in flood and am always in awe of Yarri and the other ABORIGINAL people who save many lives on that day in 1853. The locals were told by the people not to build on the Gundagai flats….and tragically they did not listen to the people. Yarri is a true hero, and he is not forgotten.

    • busby andrews July 17, 2013 at 2:05 am #

      It’s a stunning story. Do let me know if you’ve ever heard the story differently – or if any of the details are wrong.

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