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Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014

Dharmalan Dana: An Australian Aboriginal man’s 73-Year Search for the Story of his Aboriginal and Indian Ancestors by George Nelson and Robynne Nelson, 364 pp, ANU Press, Canberra, 2014, ISBN 9781925021493 (pbk), $45.00.

This book tells how the grandchildren of King Billy, a Waywurru man, and of Samson Peersahib, an Indian Mauritian, crossed paths in Yorta Yorta country and of how their descendants lived as Aboriginal people in modern Australia. The author, George Nelson, a Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung man, tells the story of his family to show how his experiences are part of a larger, longer story of Aboriginal perseverance, still unfolding in the lives of family members today. Nelson’s research into his family raises questions about ‘Grampa James’, the Indian (or was he Mauritian?) teacher and preacher Thomas Shadrach James, a man of respect and renown through Aboriginal communities but also a man whose origins remained mysterious, until now. The book is also the story of Nelson’s literal lifetime of research, searching for Grampa.

Nelson writes in a more autobiographical than academic style. His tone is warm and familial. Many of his stories are memories passed down by family members. The book is littered with notes from Robynne Nelson, his daughter, as she gives an alternative perspective, revealing her thoughts and frustrations in the research process, providing additional flourishes, detail and nuance. The interplay between the father’s and daughter’s voices brings a fresh dynamic feel; I felt I could hear them yarning together, interrupting at times, elaborating at others.

It begins with accounts of Nelson’s ancestors and their families, complete with stunning photographs. It covers family births, marriages and tragedies until the time of his own boyhood in Mooroopna in the 1930s. The number of names and family connections was somewhat overwhelming as an outsider. I was glad for the various family trees later in the book. Nelson tells stories his father told about his Yorta Yorta ancestors: their hunting and fishing, names and language. He does not shy away from the troubles in his parents’ marriage. During the War, his father tried to enlist, but his mother’s ill-health prevented him from leaving. Nelson also recalls his memories of Grampa James — his presence, his bush remedies and healing treatments, his writing desk and his Bible — noticing that ‘although he was black he was a different “kind” of black to us Aboriginal people’. At age seven, he began his ‘little mission’ to find out about Grampa.

The second section continues Nelson’s autobiography, beginning with his marriage to his sweetheart, Brenda from Cummeragunga. He worked in the flour mill and bought a house in Echuca. The family grew. We learn about Nanny Pris, who taught Nelson what Grampa used to tell her: ‘we are as good as white people!’ This conviction drives Nelson’s athletics career. He becomes a successful runner who then goes on to train Aboriginal runners. Another major event in Nelson’s life is his scholarship to the University of Adelaide in 1988. He discovered archives full of sources on the Maloga mission and began a thesis on Grampa which, though unfinished, grew into this book.

The story then turns to Grampa himself. Nelson tells of how Grampa arrived at Maloga mission in 1881 as an assistant teacher. When the community was moved to Cummeragunga in 1888, Grampa moved too and continued as a school teacher. Grampa was a writer. He was constantly writing to government authorities asking for school equipment. He corresponded with R. H. Mathews, describing the various clan groups and providing a census. In Nelson’s words, his strategy was ‘to empower Aboriginal people to become great leaders and writers’. Grampa was also a preacher, a healer and an advocate. But tensions between Grampa and the station manager led to him being labelled a ‘troublemaker’. He was dismissed from the school in 1922. Despite his role as educator of a generation of Aboriginal leaders, Nelson found, puzzlingly, his family knew little about Grampa’s origins. Some said he was Indian, others Sri Lankan, still others said he came from Mauritius.

The next section opens up a larger story about networks of migration and cultural exchanges across the British Empire. Nelson goes with his daughter to Mauritius to uncover the truth about Grampa. The story is told from their perspective as their research unfolds such that the reader experiences the suspense and excitement. Unfortunately, this also meant including the dead ends of research which, at times, made for confusion as a reader. The detailed timeline in the appendices proved useful at this point. They eventually discover the story of James Peersahib, Grampa’s father. Peersahib grew up in Madras. His parents diligently taught him the Quran, though he attended a Christian school. In 1854, he travelled to Mauritius as an indentured labourer where he converted to Christianity through association with the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Grampa was born in 1859 and educated by his father in the CMS School where he too became a teacher. But when Grampa’s mother died, he fled, leaving for Australia in 1878. Shortly after arriving he began teaching at Maloga mission.

Finally, the book turns to Grampa’s legacy. Participants in the Cummeragunga Walk Off, the Day of Mourning and authors of the 1935 petition to the King were Grampa’s students. Nelson attributes Grampa’s concern for Aboriginal people and brilliant teaching to his Islamic heritage, his knowledge of global racial inequalities, his awareness of international struggles against colonial oppression, his mission education and the model of his father, also an educator. I found here I wanted to know more. What did Grampa write about politics, faith, race or Empire? Though the book points to the significance of Grampa’s transnational experience for his teaching and advocacy, there is scope for this to be explored in greater depth. The book closes with stories and photographs of Grampa’s descendants, giving a sense of living history, still unfolding even now.

Though the book is primarily a family history, I commend it to those interested in histories of Aboriginal politics and Empire. Grampa’s story is compelling and, importantly, sheds light on the ways Aboriginal communities have long been connected to global politics. The book will be essential reading for researchers of Cummeragunga or Maloga. It should also be of encouragement and interest to Aboriginal educators. The warmth with which its stories are told gives great insight into the personal experiences of those concerned. George Nelson’s lifetime of research into Grampa reveals Grampa to be a towering figure in Aboriginal history. The book is a great achievement.

Laura Rademaker

The Australian National University

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