The Aboriginal couple who “beat settlers at their own game”

History remembers Reverend James Noble as the Aboriginal tracker who discovered the charred remains of the Forrest River victims.

But this was just one dark chapter in an extraordinary journey that took Australia’s first Aboriginal Deacon across the country.

It might seem unusual for a traditional Aboriginal man to work for the Anglican Church, but Noble’s Great Granddaughter explains that he didn’t have much choice.

Tabatha Saunders, a Badtjala and Bidjara woman, says “the colonials were hell bent on indoctrinating the ‘savages’” back then.

“I think he saw the way of the ‘whites’ as a portal for him to win what was was really a losing battle for our people under the colonial regime. If he could glide under the radar, and ‘assimilate’, he would be able to help communities in his own way,” says Saunders.

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Australia’s first Aboriginal Deacon, Reverend James Noble. Photographer: Unknown. Source: Christians of the Australia Clay

Noble did just that, spending his youth working as a stockman in Riversleigh in the early 1890s, before moving with his employer to Invermien, New South Wales.

“He was well regarded as a good worker and as a teenager, he asked to be educated. The people who owned the cattle station sent him to school. From there he ended up in Invermien, and was given private lessons,” according to Saunders.

At a time of ruthless killing, dispossession and the enslavement of Aboriginal people, Noble could be considered extremely fortunate.

Dr Chris Owen, author of the book Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia, explains that “the racial status of Aboriginal people in Australia was at the lowest rung on the social ladder.”

“It is clear in voluminous historical records that the white colonists really didn’t even see them as human,” Owen says.

It’s therefore unsurprising that Noble determined “if you couldn’t beat them, join them,” as Saunders puts it.

Noble became a Missionary and travelled to Aboriginal communities from Palm Island to Broome, working tirelessly to help them build a better future. Saunders feels that he “beat them [white settlers] at their own game” by “keeping [Aboriginal] communities together and showing compassion, humanity, and spreading that compassion and understanding.”

While Noble could not have done this alone, he was fortunate enough to meet a Badtjala woman named Angelina at Yarrabah Mission.

Angelina’s journey to Yarrabah was a harrowing one. Born in K’Gari (Fraser Island), she was removed from her traditional homeland and sent to Cherbourg Mission. Here, she was abducted by a horse-dealer.

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Angelina Noble, James Noble’s wife and a carer and teacher at numerous Missions. Photographer: Unknown. Source: Angelina Noble Centre, Australian College of Theology.

“She was kidnapped, disguised as a boy and used as a sex slave by a pedophile,” says Saunders, her Great Granddaughter.

“They got to Cairns and the police must have got a whiff of something untoward and she got found out and sent to Yarrabah Mission where she met my Great Grandfather.”

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Tabatha Saunders, James and Angelina Noble’s Great Granddaughter.

Free from her abuser, Angelina thrived at the Yarrabah school. She later married James and travelled the country with him, helping him to found churches throughout Northern Australia, and assisting the Mitchell River and Roper River Missions – where they constructed houses, sheds and horse yards, delivered supplies, cared for the sick and livestock.

It is extraordinary that an Aboriginal couple were able to make such a difference at a time when key politicians such as WA Legislative Council member, George Simpson, declared “…it will be a happy day for Western Australia and Australia at large when the natives and the kangaroo disappear.”

Dr Owen says that Noble’s position as a Missionary and later, a Reverend, made him a “King amongst his people.”

Although their work for the Church offered them higher standing, James and Angelina’s journey was not without risks. Such was the disregard for Aboriginal life that an anonymous column in the Sunday Times (March 30, 1902) noted that there were “cut-throat” men throughout the Kimberley who felt that “the taking of a nigger’s life was of no more consequence than the drowning of a superfluous kitten.”

Noble and family

Rev. Noble (2nd from the right), Angelina Noble (far left) and their family at the Forrest River Mission, 1925. From the State Library of WA collection. Photographer: Wilma and Harry Venville.

Angelina, in particular, enjoyed an independence that was incredibly rare for an Aboriginal woman. Historian Noel Loos has also highlighted that her contribution has sometimes unfairly been reduced to that of sidekick (to James) in Australian history books.

In his book White Christ, Black Cross, Loos says “because of the male domination of the Anglican Church during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Angelina’s role was often overlooked. She has been seen as James Noble’s support.”

“She was much more than that. Missionary women as nurses, teachers and housekeepers, interacted generally at greater human depths with Aboriginal people than most male missionaries,” according to Loos.

Saunders agrees, noting that Angelina was indispensable because she knew at least 5 Aboriginal languages and up to 14 different dialects. This linguistic ability proved vital when they moved to the Forrest River Mission in April 1914, where Aboriginal people from numerous clans and language groups lived.

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Rev. Noble’s House at the Forrest River Mission in 1925. Source: Frank Bunney Collection, State Library of Western Australia.

Through Angelina, the Forrest River residents were able to report Police reprisals for the murder of pastoralist Frederick Hay by Lumbia, for the rape of his wife Anguloo. These killings would later become known as the Forrest River massacres.

Numerous residents had gone missing and Angelina reported several accounts of shootings to the head of the Mission, E.R. Gribble. Gribble sent James – his best tracker – to investigate.

James soon discovered that the stories were true. He found charred teeth, bones, hair and improvised ovens, across the banks of Forrest River and by the bases of trees.

This evidence, combined with Gribble and the WA Aborigines Department’s testimony, forced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Alleged Killing and Burning of Bodies of Aborigines in East Kimberley and into Police Methods When Effecting Arrests, where Angelina served as the official interpreter.

While the perpetrators eventually walked free, simply bringing them to trial was remarkable.

This is exemplified by Kimberley Pioneer Richard Allen’s contention that “hundreds of men, women and even children were shot down in this period [the Killing Times]. Where once natives roamed in hundreds only 40 odd years ago, hardly any survive, and you can ride in these ranges for days and never see a sign of natives let alone track.”

Put simply, Aboriginal lives did not matter. Prosecution for taking an Aboriginal life was rare and an Aboriginal couple being so prominent in the process was unprecedented.

Despite the harrowing things they’d heard and seen, and the injustice of watching the perpetrators walk free, the Nobles carried on – just as they had done throughout their turbulent lives.

A year after the Royal Commission, 24 buildings, most of which had been built by James, stood proudly at Forrest River. Angelina taught the children and cooked for the residents and staff of the Mission, which was thriving with a population of 170 Aboriginal people.

Many of these buildings still stand today.

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The Church where Rev. Noble preached at the Forrest River Mission, 1925. Frank Bunney Collection, State Library of Western Australia.

They returned to Yarrabah in 1934 as James’ health began to decline. He eventually died on 25 November 1941, while Angelina died on 19 October 1964. They were survived by two sons and four daughters.

Their strength, resilience and bravery gives their descendants great pride. But it is also a story that we should all embrace as we come to terms with the darker side of our history.

As we reflect on Aboriginal massacres, it’s important to not view Aboriginal people purely as victims, but also recognise their incredible strength and resilience.

Saunders feels “the pride and strength” of her ancestors every day. We too, should be proud and seek to draw on the strength and wisdom of the traditional owners of this land.

Charred bones, teeth and makeshift ovens at Forrest River

In August 1926, on the scenic banks of East Kimberley’s Forrest River, an Aboriginal Deacon named James Noble found a pile of charred human remains.

Famed for his tracking skills, Reverend Noble was sent by Reverend E.R. Gribble to investigate whether Aboriginal residents of the Forrest River Mission had been shot en mass by the WA Police.

Noble began his search at Wodgil, where he found a series of horse tracks and footprints. He followed them to a quiet, picturesque site called Gotegotemerrie, where he spotted a mound of ashy sand on the riverbank.

As he ran his hands through the sand, he discovered singed teeth and bones scattered everywhere.

Just 40 feet from these remains lay a deep hole covered by stones, where a large fire had been left to burn- it appeared to be a makeshift oven. The footprints of three women were also spotted, leading to a nearby tree where they appeared to have been chained.

Noble had discovered just a fraction of the atrocities carried out by Police constables Graham St Jack and Denis Regan, and a posse of 11 locals, in what is now known as the Forrest River massacres. The killings came in response to the murder of Nulla Nulla Station co-owner Frederick Hay, by an Aboriginal man named Lumbia, for the rape of his wife, Anguloo.

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Rev. James Noble performing a christening at the Forrest River Mission a year before the massacre, 1925. From the State Library of WA collection, courtesy of Wilma and Harry Venville

Although they left a heavy toll, the killers’ attempts to cover up their crimes had failed, as Noble’s Great Granddaughter, Tabatha Saunders, explains- “they thought they could hide the massacres, but my Great Grandfather found the evidence.”

“This story has become more important to me as the years go by,” says Saunders, a Badtjala and Bidjara woman. She often wonders “what horrors must have been going through his mind as he walked along the sand that day?”

“I am very proud of his work and the role he played in this particular situation, as harrowing as it must have been.”

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Tabatha Saunders, Reverend Noble’s Great Granddaughter.

Her Great Grandfather returned to Gribble with a parcel of charred remains, which were promptly delivered to the local magistrate at Wyndham, Dr A.R. Adams. But this was only the beginning.

Noble returned to Gotegotemerrie with Rev. Gribble and the WA Aborigines Department’s Inspector E.C. Mitchell. Together, they inspected the “improvised oven”, which was also loaded with scorched fragments of bones, teeth and skulls, as were chunks of charcoal in a shallow pool nearby.

Historian Dr Chris Owen says make-shift ovens were a common tool for destroying massacre evidence during this period. “It was a method used from the 1890s through to the 1920s,” he says. “Police did investigate a lot of alleged killing of Aboriginal people and incineration became the way in which all evidence of a murder was obliterated. No [physical] evidence of killing meant no killing occurred and thus investigation ceased.”

“The killers would build an enormous wooden pyre and throw the bodies on it. Often, the condemned had to collect the wood before they were shot. After the fire had died they would come back and possibly burn them again, then stomp on any remaining bones to crush any evidence.”

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A photograph of a “Bullet-scarred” tree in Dala after the massacre. Four Aboriginal priosners are alleged to have been shot by this tree. Photographer: Unknown. Source: Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Alleged Killing and Burning of Bodies of Aborigines in East Kimberley and into Police Methods When Effecting Arrests.

Noble, Gribble and Mitchell followed the tracks of the perpetrators, their horses and their captives, to other sites in Rounggu, Mowerie, Umbali and Dala, where they found more “make-shift incinerators”, as Saunders calls them, and bone fragments.

The tracks of the three women held captive ended about 6 miles from Gotegotemerrie- by another pile of ashy remains.

While we will never know the true extent of the bloodshed, one of the few survivors at Forrest River, an Aboriginal girl named Loorabane, provided an eyewitness account, translated sixty years later by Lily Johnson, in an interview with Christine Halse:

…the police got all those Aborigines from the Kular tribe that lived from the coast to the mission…they put the men on one chain and the women with their children and their kids on another chain. Some of those women had babes at the breast…they killed the men. They just lined them up and shot them one by one…the women had to watch those men being shot…their husbands and brothers and relatives… the men had to collect wood first. They didn’t know why they had to collect that wood but they had to get a big pile of it…They lined them up and shot them…then they cut them up into pieces, you know, a leg, an arm, just like that and those bits of body were thrown on the wood…and burnt there…the women were taken to another place just a bit away…and had to stand on the river bank but it was dry that time of year and they were shot there so their bodies just fell into the river… they bashed the brains out of the babies and threw them into the river with their mothers and burnt the lot…there’s a lot of bodies. It took a long time to burn…With the women was a mother and her two kids… they had bush names. They couldn’t speak English…The boy’s name [was] Numbunnung (Kangaloo) and the girl was Loorabane…the boy spoke to his sister in language and told her that when that chain came off to grab mum and head for the bush…they were at the end of the chain…but [when they ran away] the police shot at them…they killed the mother and the girl got shot in the leg there [pointing]…they hid in the roots of the pandanus grass in the Forrest River. They hid under water and breathed through a bit of pandanus grass, you know, it’s hollow, like a straw…the police looked for them everywhere but they just kept real still, not moving ‘cause they were so scared…by evening, when they thought it was safe to leave, they moved out…swam across the Forrest River and travelled all the next day and then the day after until the evening until they reached the mission where they knew they’d be safe…I was playing with the other girls…when Loorabane came…She was shaking with fright…She told us what happened and we told Mamma [Angelina Noble] and Mamma told Jim [Noble] and he told old Gribble.

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A photograph of Rev. Noble at another massacre site in Mowerie, where the three women are alleged to have been shot and burnt. Rev. Noble (Centre) and a boy named Ronald (Right) are pictured searching through the ashes for charred bones. Photographer: Unknown. Source: Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Alleged Killing and Burning of Bodies of Aborigines in East Kimberley and into Police Methods When Effecting Arrests.

That same year, Charles Overheu, brother of Nulla Nulla co-owner Leopold Overheu, told historian Neville Green that over 300 Aboriginal people were shot in the reprisals.

The death toll is still highly disputed, with some historians estimating that 30 to 40 were killed, and others up to 100. There is no doubt though, that many innocent lives were lost.

“The trauma – intergenerational trauma – is real. We hear these stories about our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers. This is still in living memory for us. It hurts,” Saunders says.

She thinks not only of the death and devastation her Great Grandfather discovered, but also the sacred traditions that were broken along the way.

“How much lore was broken with regards to death rituals? How many songs and rituals did he sing to himself while he found the bones of the fallen? How many rituals did he perform to cleanse himself of the spirits of the dead who would have been hounding his soul asking why this had happened? Was he allowed to be involved in rituals to allow the dead to pass to the Dreaming?”

What we do know is that the massacres may never have come to light without Noble’s discovery and with Gribble’s assistance, the perpetrators were arrested for murder and a 1927 Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Alleged Killing and Burning of Bodies of Aborigines in East Kimberley and into Police Methods When Effecting Arrests was held.

Commissioner GT Wood praised Noble’s skills as a tracker and his reliability as a witness, describing him as a man of “great acumen and ability”. However, his and other witnesses’ evidence would have been lost without the help of his wife, Angelina Noble.

Angelina spoke at least five Indigenous languages, acting as an interpreter for Gribble during early reports of the shootings and as the official translator at the inquiry.

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Rev. Noble (2nd from the right), Angelina Noble (far left) and their family at the Forrest River Mission, 1925. From the State Library of WA collection, courtesy of Wilma and Harry Venville.

“My Great Grandfather might have found all of the evidence but without her they would never have been able to understand. She is probably more important in the outcome than my Great Grandfather,” says Saunders.

Despite their efforts, and the Royal Commission’s conclusion that at least 11 Aboriginal people had been murdered and their bodies burned, significant tampering with witnesses and evidence meant that the Police on trial walked free.

Three Aboriginal trackers who led the Police to sites containing improvised ovens and bone fragments, disappeared on the eve of trial. Tommy Doort, the Aboriginal servant of Nulla Nulla co-owner Overheu, also vanished. However, Lumbia was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

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Lumbia (far left) pictured in chains in the Sydney Morning Herald, arrested for the murder of pastoralist Frederick Hay, which resulted in a massacre at Forrest River.

In the Royal Commission’s final report, GT Wood said “I must record my displeasure that those trackers were not produced before the Commission, and I cannot exonerate the police at Wyndham from responsibility for their absence or for the very slight effort that seems to have been made, when their absence was discovered, to secure their return and attendance.”

He bemoaned the “conspiracy of silence” that had compromised the investigation- a common problem following the public hanging of seven European settlers responsible for the Myall Creek massacre in December 1838.

In his book Every Mother’s Son is Guilty, Dr Owen noted that there was a “very curious correlation between the absence of records and an area known to have had a large number of police involved in ‘dispersals’” of Aboriginal people during this period.

“Whilst the deliberate killing (including shooting, poisoning and burning) of Aboriginal people was illegal, it was accepted within sections of the European colonist community in the Kimberley, and most northern frontiers across the border and into Queensland, from the time of first colonisation apparently up until the 1920s and possibly later,” according to Owen.

Although the perpetrators escaped punishment, Saunders knows her Great Grandfather made a significant contribution to truth-telling that we can continue to build on as a nation.

“As his descendant, I am very proud that James was responsible for bringing 2 policemen to trial even though they were acquitted. It was only based on my Great Grandfather’s evidence and tracking skills that this came to be- unheard of in that day and age.”

“The Forrest River Massacre is one of the biggest [known] mass slaughters of Aboriginal people in modern times. The fact that an Aboriginal man brought the perpetrators to trial is stunning.”

Through his and his wife’s bravery and perseverance, the memory of the Forrest River victims lives on and although it is a painful story, Saunders feels a deep responsibility to pass it on.

“I will continue to tell this story to my children, as harrowing as it is, because I think it is important that they understand where their strength comes from. We continue to survive.”