The Lamb Enters the Dreaming

Robert Kenny's remarkable book is the story of Wotjobalak man, Nathanael Pepper, who reaches the heights of religious acceptance and hope in the late nineteenth century and yet is doomed never to move beyond a certain level. When he dies at the age of 36, after an extraordinary life as an interpretor of two worlds, he has achieved only the status of ‘native helper’.

For the Melbourne Review

Robert Kenny's study of the life of the remarkable Nathanael Pepper takes us to the precipice of understanding several dimensions of the 219 year relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The first puzzle on which Kenny sheds light is the mindset of 19th century missionaries. He presents a compelling case that missionaries were the most benign supporters for Indigenous people in early colonisation. Kenny’s central argument is that in the ‘dispersion of Noah’s descendants’, Aboriginal people were considered the descendants of Ham and were cursed to become ‘servants of servants’. This at least meant that Aboriginals were seen to be equal with Caucasians in their humanity and capability as servants of God. The central pathway for the sinner was the same white or black. Wotjobalak man Nathanial Pepper, the first Indigenous convert to Christianity was, in this context, a revered and important figure: “the first born of the Native church”.

A second puzzle, captured in the title of the book, is the likely impact not of white men but of their animals – cows and sheep. These Kenny argues would have not just been precursors of terrible disease and disrupted the subsistence economy of Indigenous communities but would have entered the mystical sphere of Indigenous life with shattering effect. I have often discussed with Gerhardt Pearson, Hopevale elder, the effect of Captain Cook’s encounter with his forefathers and particularly the taking of a number of turtles as the repairs were being made to the Endeavour in 1770. It was the taking of a dozen turtles by the desperate sailors that precipitated the only violent conflict in the brief sojourn on what is now theEndeavour River at Cooktown. Why? Wantonly killing a person’s totem was akin to murder of the person itself. No permission was granted to take so many from the guardians of the turtle or its clan. With some good understanding of traditional Indigenous culture Kenny perceptively writes of the misunderstandings between colonists and Nathanial Pepper’s country men in which bullocks appear as centaurs and sheep become a symbol of rupture, but also through the missionaries, a central motif of the path to salvation. Pepper’s role as a guardian of the Lord’s flock therefore has double meaning and power.

A third puzzle concerns the early pre-conditions of the destructive welfare economy for Indigenous Australians. Kenny alerts us to the fact that it is Darwin not Christianity that has most to blame for the fact that Indigenous protectorates became, after 1866, places of torpitude, not salvation. Whereas for missionaries the descendants of Ham were equally capable, alongside any Caucasian, of striding to the highest level of acceptance and culture, with the early crude conceptions of Darwin, scientific racism enters with stunning results. Thomas Huxley writes: “The highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins…” Thus social Darwinism inaugurates a hateful period in which aborigines become State responsibilities in protectorates where they are doomed to extinction. All of the industry and effort at communication, translation and community building expended by dedicated missionaries becomes reduced to a bureaucratic holding exercise in which certain children with sufficient Caucasian genes can be plucked to assimilation.  This also explains why communities that stayed under the guardianship of dedicated Catholics and Lutherans became the sources of strength for great leaders like Patrick Dodson and Noel Pearson and why the struggle has been longer and more bitter particularly for those people and communities who struggled against the scientific racism of the late nineteenth and mid twentieth century.

All this is symbolized by the fact that the great Nathanial Pepper who reaches the heights of religious acceptance and hope before 1867 is doomed never to move beyond a certain level. When he dies at the age of 36, after an extraordinary life as an interpretor of two worlds, he has achieved only the status of ‘native helper’. In bringing all these strands together Kenny has achieved a very great feat. The book is one of the most important to be written on Australian Indigneous affairs. It deserves the widest possible readership. I believe it will only be bettered by our growing contingent of Indigenous scholars who have much to teach us.

Robert Kenny, The Lamb Enters the Dreaming Nathanael Pepper & the Ruptured World; Scribe Books,Melbourne, 2007

Peter Botsman

Honorary Professorial Fellow, 
School of 
Political Science, Criminology & Sociology, 
University of