Reverend James Noble became Australia’s first Aboriginal Deacon at the height of the frontier wars.
Aboriginal people were routinely murdered, dispossessed and enslaved at this time, and Dr Chris Owen says they were “at the lowest rung on the social ladder.”
So how did Noble become an ordained and respected religious figure?
It might seem unusual for a traditional Aboriginal man to work for the Anglican Church, but Noble’s Great Granddaughter says 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 really a losing battle for our people,” she says. “If he could glide under the radar, and ‘assimilate’, he would be able to help communities in his own way.”
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,” Saunders says.
Noble became a Missionary, travelling to Aboriginal communities from Palm Island to Broome, working tirelessly to help them build a better future.
He could not have done this alone, but he was fortunate to meet a Badtjala woman named Angelina Bradley 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.
Sadly, at just 14 years of age, Angelina was abducted by a horse dealer who took her to various parts of Queensland and “used her as a sex slave,” according to Saunders.
“He disguised her as a boy and gave her a boy’s name,” she says. Saunders shudders at the thought of her Great Grandmother’s ordeal – “She was a kid for God’s sake”.
Eventually, they were discovered by Police in Cairns, who freed Angelina and sent her to Yarrabah – where she met James.
Angelina Noble, James Noble’s wife and a carer and teacher at numerous Missions. Photographer: Unknown. Source: Angelina Noble Centre, Australian College of Theology.
Angelina thrived at the Yarrabah school and would later marry and travel the country with James.
Together, they helped to found churches throughout Northern Australia and assisted the Mitchell River and Roper River Missions. They constructed houses, sheds and horse yards, delivered supplies, and cared for the sick and livestock.
Saunders feels that her Great Grandparents “beat them [white settlers] at their own game” by “keeping [Aboriginal] communities together” and spreading compassion and understanding.
Although their connection to the Church gave them some freedom and standing, the Nobles’ work and travels were not without risk.
Such was the disregard for Aboriginal life at the time that an anonymous column in the Sunday Times (March 30, 1902) noted that there were “cut-throat” men throughout the Kimberley who felt “the taking of a nigger’s life was of no more consequence than the drowning of a superfluous kitten.”
Politician George Simpson even declared at the WA Legislative Council that “…it will be a happy day for Western Australia and Australia at large when the natives and the kangaroo disappear.”
Dr Owen confirms that “it is clear in voluminous historical records that the white colonists really didn’t even see them as human.”
Tabatha Saunders, James and Angelina Noble’s Great Granddaughter.
Nevertheless, they persisted and Angelina, in particular, enjoyed an independence that was extremely rare for an Aboriginal woman. In his book White Christ, Black Cross, Historian Noel Loos says that her significant contribution has sometimes been underestimated by historians.
“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.
Angelina knew at least 5 Aboriginal languages and up to 14 different dialects, making her indispensable as they assisted displaced Aboriginal people across the country.
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.
Her linguistic ability also proved vital when they moved to the Forrest River Mission in April 1914.
Forrest River residents came to Angelina in 1926 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.
Police constables Graham St Jack and Denis Regan led a group of 11 armed locals in deadly shootings of anywhere between 30 to 100 Aboriginal people who lived at the Mission.
Angelina translated residents’ accounts of the shootings to the head of the Mission, E.R. Gribble.
Gribble sent her husband – his best tracker – to investigate.
The stories were true. James found charred human remains that had been scorched in make-shift ovens by the banks of Forrest River.
He brought Gribble and the WA Aborigines Department’s Inspector E.C. Mitchell to see the evidence. Their testimony forced a Royal Commission into the killings, with Angelina serving as the official interpreter at the trials.
Despite the evidence, the harsh reality was that Aboriginal lives did not matter to settlers at the time and the perpetrators eventually walked free.
Prosecution for taking an Aboriginal life was extremely rare and an Aboriginal couple being so prominent in the process was unprecedented.
It would have been little comfort to the Nobles though, after witnessing unspeakable horrors and a great miscarriage of justice.
Rev. Noble’s House at the Forrest River Mission in 1925. Source: Frank Bunney Collection, State Library of Western Australia.
All they could do was endure and carry 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. Many of these buildings still stand today.
Angelina taught the children and cooked for residents and staff, as the Mission’s population grew to 170.
They eventually returned to Yarrabah in 1934 as James’ health began to decline. He eventually died on 25 November, 1941, while Angelina died much later on 19 October, 1964. They were survived by two sons and four daughters.
The Church where Rev. Noble preached at the Forrest River Mission, 1925. Frank Bunney Collection, State Library of Western Australia.
Saunders feels the pride and strength of her ancestors every day, but their resilience and resourcefulness, which is shared by many other Aboriginal Australians, is not highlighted enough.
Instead, harmful stereotypes persist. “I just find it sad that the racism against us is so ingrained. That we are lazy, we are alcoholics et cetera,” she says.
“It is hard as an Aboriginal person, to walk on this land and through it’s many countries and cities and still feel like an outsider. Fear is actually what I feel when I walk through this country,” says Saunders.
“I don’t always take on board the filthy stares and the sideward racism. But I feel them nonetheless.”
She plays her part in breaking down these stereotypes as a co-host of a radio program called “SoulJah Sistars”. The program raises awareness of the achievements of Aboriginal people and people of colour more generally, in politics, the arts and sport.
While there is still work to do, she is optimistic that a “rising tide of unity” is building.
We should follow her Great Grandparents’ compassion and perseverance to raise the tide further.