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.

Noble portrait 2

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.

Angelina N

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.

Noble house

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.

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