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Aboriginal missions on the River Murray

Point McLeay Mission (Raukkan)

Point McLeay Mission (renamed Raukkan in 1982) was founded in 1859 by the Aborigines’ Friends Association. This station was designed to help the Aboriginal people of the Lower Lakes area.  The poor quality of the land allocated did not assist good agricultural practices, and neighbouring farmers were unhappy about the efforts being made at the mission. This, coupled with the lack of ongoing funds, restricted development and made self support near impossible.

Land shortage resulted in underemployment; land clearing by adjacent farmers destroyed the hunting and fishing, and even basket and mat weaving was threatened by the reduced amount of reeds available.  Various trades, such as wool washing, a fishing industry and boat making were tried, but after successful starts, were stalled by competition from the local towns, or changing conditions in the lake (for example increasing salinity).

In 1916 the state government took over Point McLeay (Raukkan), administering it as a government reserve, but improvements were not forthcoming and conditions deteriorated.  It cost the government five times the amount of money it had given previously to the Aborigines’ Friends Association towards the mission’s support.

Finally in 1974 Point McLeay (Raukkan) was handed back to the Ngarrindjeri people, who now administer it themselves.

Manunka Mission

Mrs Janet Matthews established this mission in 1901 with 40 acres [approximately 16 hectares] of river frontage upstream from Mannum. A school was established for the children, many of who were taught to read and write, but there was no opportunity for them beyond this. Basketry and other rushwork helped to support the mission work, and some of the men found work with local farmers as well as seasonal hunting and fishing. The mission was closed in 1916.

Swan Reach Mission

The United Aborigines Mission, using the shelter of a gum tree initially as their church, began the mission at Swan Reach in 1925. A crude hut, built from kerosene tins and a floor of reeds, rapidly replaced this. The location of the mission on low lying land adjacent to the town, was prone to flooding and was considered unsuitable from the beginning. Small houses eventually replaced the temporary wurlies. Eventually problems over fishing licences and then sanitation with insufficient toilets, led to the replacement of the Swan Reach Mission with Gerard.

Gerard Mission

The United Aborigines Mission established the mission at Gerard in 1945 on over 5000 acres of land downriver from Loxton. Gerard replaced the mission at Swan Reach.  With a river frontage of 1½ miles [approximately 2.5 kilometers], there was great hope for the mission, particularly after a very favourable assessment by CG Grasby, the District Horticultural Adviser (Department of Agriculture). A full report was produced and guidelines for irrigation and plantings provided, and a start was made with 300 grape vines.

Pre-fabricated huts were obtained from a former Army camp and other fittings from the Woodcutters’ Camp at Loveday. Gerard Mission school was opened in February 1946, after the school at Swan Reach had closed the previous December, so continuity was maintained.

As well as transferring Aboriginal people from Swan Reach, some were brought to Gerard from Ooldea, in South Australia’s far west.  The hopes of self-sufficiency were unfulfilled, despite considerable clearing and planting of citrus and stone fruit trees, and herds of sheep and cows. Regular employment for the men outside the mission was elusive.

By 1946 the Aboriginal residents were given the chance to have some say in organising their community and formed their own council for welfare and social activities, under the overall management of a government superintendent. In 1974 the reserve was handed to the Aboriginal Lands Trust, and operated under its own full council.

In the late 1980s the Gerard community revived traditional crafts using the work of Edward Eyre and others as reference.

Ration Stations

Mission stations were run by individuals or groups with a strong commitment to evangelism; at the same time they educated the children, with the ultimate aim of absorbing them into the white community.

Ration stations on the other hand, were simply that – a place where the government handed out supplies of food and clothing to Aboriginal people, partly to compensate in a small way for the loss of their land and the hunting and fishing they thereby lost.

Moorundie, with Edward Eyre in control, was established south of present-day Blanchetown, in 1841. In 1856 the office of Protector of Aborigines was abolished and as a result most of the ration stations were closed.  However following the report of the Select Committee on the state of the Aborigines in 1860 (SAPP 165/1860), the Protector’s office was re-instated and ration depots re-opened.

In the 1960s, Aboriginal people became eligible for government benefits provided for other members of the community, and distribution of rations was discontinued.

Further reading:

Survival in our land; Aboriginal experiences in South Australia since 1836.

Wakefield Companion to South Australian history pp 10-12, 18

Atlas of South Australia edited by Trevor Griffin and Murray McCaskell, 1986  pp 30-31 ‘Aborigines and Europeans.’