Too Much Cabbage and Jesus Christ by Catherine Bishop

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

The arresting title of this book comes from a 1928 account of an Aboriginal job applicant who had ‘escaped’ from Annie Lock’s mission because there was ‘too much Jesus Christ and cabbage.’

This is an indication of how cautious one must be in examining Annie Lock’s work in the missions. Sources from her era (1876-1943) are coloured by attitudes of the time, government policy, Annie’s personality and work. Of course, all that played out against the lives of the Aborigines themselves, uprooted from their traditional ways and thrust into the mostly well-meant, but strangely foreign, missions.

These missions were a form of cultural dispossession, although well-intended. Annie was a symbol of this dichotomy – she was both good and bad, as this excellent examination of her work by Catherine Bishop, an eminent historian, demonstrates.

One of fourteen children, bound by household chores with no time for education, she faced a future marked by drudgery.  In 1901, aged 25, she chose a two-year missionary course which equipped her with the skills, even medical rudiments, to become a missionary.

While Annie’s life is the focus in the book, the progress of missionary work is scrutinised and has been exhaustively researched.

Her first posting was to Sackville Reach, north west of Sydney. She became a mother figure, caring for children. Some lived with her in her house, and this became an established pattern in her life.  Never reluctant to challenge authority, when sent to Forster in 1906, she fought for the right of Aboriginal and white children to attend school together. Previously they were sent to separate schools, often side by side.  She arrived in missions aiming to ‘save’ and ‘civilise’ indigenous locals and bore the prevailing attitude of racial superiority to the ‘natives’.

It must be remembered that the history of Annie Lock and her ilk is one-sided as those who were affected by the missions did not produce written accounts of their experience.

Oral history, with its shortcomings, is their record.

In 1909, Annie left Forster, and set sail for Western Australia to become the matron in an orphanage in Perth. The State was governed by paternalism and assimilation in policies for Aborigines. Prejudice was stunningly and openly obvious. One man published ‘a horse and a dog are infinitely superior to any black human’.

The missionaries did what they thought was in the best interest of the native children but this process meant trauma, destruction of family and culture, and often a disregard for human rights.

Annie herself was short and round with an imposing uniform but her warm smile and willingness to touch and cuddle little ones meant she was more readily accepted than other missionaries. She brought food, medicine, and clothes which were readily accepted.

She was tirelessly recruiting children for Dulhi Gunyah, the ‘home’. She used persuasion rather than the police force to obtain children who would ‘face a brighter future’.

As matron, she was busy. The boys and girls were smartly dressed to go to church. One of the ‘beneficiaries’ of this regime says ‘Christianity for breakfast, dinner and tea’.  However, she made sure that besides the work, school, church and dull routine, the children had treats, especially at Christmas.  Fundraising in the community and donations of food made all this possible.

Often clashing with critics, Annie moved to Sunday Island. Life was very different there. There was another missionary, a male. It appears that this was an exclusively working arrangement. There was never a whisper of scandal….

It was here she began to realise the importance of mingling culture with the Christianity.

So, in the 1920’s, she ventured into Central Australia and lived in primitive conditions with tribes of local natives, struggling with language which could lead to occasional amusing outcomes.

This is a book rich in the history of missionary work in the early twentieth century with Annie Lock epitomising the dedicated, well-intentioned, misguided and sometimes controversial lives of those who devoted years to this, often plagued by ill-health and in rough conditions. This review is merely a glance at the content of Too Much Cabbage….

The politics, conflicts and dramas of Annie’s unselfish life are detailed and authoritative.

It is therefore valuable for all who are fascinated by this stage of interaction between the original inhabitants and the colonists, and the tenuous links formed by the spread of Christianity.

The social aspects of life 100 years ago in those parts of our country I found fascinating and it underlined the changes that have occurred. Catherine Bishop’s superb focus is on an outstanding woman who, despite controversies that surround her, must, for many reasons, be admired.

Too Much Cabbage and Jesus Christ

[2021]

by Catherine Bishop

Wakefield Press

ISBN 978 174305 857 2

$39.95; 328pp

 

 

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