Tragic tale of first Aboriginal monks

I browsed the Yabun Festival stalls and found a fantastic book for $10, The Grand Experiment by Anouk Ride. It’s a true story of an Aussie journalist who saw an etching of two Aboriginal boys in monk outfits years ago in the New Norcia monastery, Western Australia. So she digs into the history and wrote this book.

The Aboriginal monks. Engraving: Pablo Alaborn, circa 1851, Benedictine Community of New Norcia Archive.

They were sent to Europe (by sailing ship) to learn Latin and Italian and English in Italian monasteries, and met the Pope. They travelled to England and France and South Africa.

One of them was very bright and learnt quickly but the other was homesick and hated it. The boys used to call letters “talking papers”, boats were “moving houses” and at first they thought boats were large animals.

It has a lot of historical detail – basically it was hoped their education would prove that “savages” could be trained and “civilised”.

There are diary notes from the monastery’s founder, Salvado, spelling out his intentions, and letters the boys wrote and newspaper accounts. They were even written about by Daisy Bates and Florence Nightingale. Turns out they were “celebrities”, as the first Aboriginal monks.

Florence Nightingale wrote in 1864 that the main problems for Aborigines were: the introduction of liquor, use of Indigenous women as prostitutes, hunger from deprivation of hunting grounds, attempts to civilise Indigenous people by interfering with customs, poor sanitary conditions, cruelty and ill treatment.

In 1842, in Britain, educated humanitarian people held “Meetings for Sufferings” to try to help Aboriginal people avoid a bleak future. The problem was, they thought Christianity was the way to salvation, so conversion and education were pursued.

The author summarises that Salvado was paternalistic but had good intentions, as back then, Aboriginals were viewed by many as “mere animals”. Also, Darwin’s ideas were coming out, so it was convenient for some people (especially slave owners) to classify races differently.

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