Heathdale flower 12th November 2020

Sir Douglas Nicholls

Sir Douglas Nicholls' steady grace in the face of unfathomable hardship is an incredible example for us all.

Heathdale flower

(While Aboriginal, the adjective, is acceptable. The use of the noun, Aborigines, is largely considered an outdated and insensitive term due to racist connotations from its colonial past. In the following piece, it is used in historical names and quotes only.)

You may have heard of Sir Douglas Nicholls. If you’re a footy fan, you would see his name plastered across the turf during the Indigenous round, named in honour of a man who spent his life serving God by advocating for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. By the end of his life he was remembered as a talented VFL football player who played 54 games for Fitzroy; the first Aboriginal person to be knighted; Governor of South Australia; Pastor of the Church of Christ Aborigines Mission in Gore Street Fitzroy, which was home to worshippers of all colour; and Father of the Year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of what he is known for is — for lack of a better description — stuff ‘white people’ understand. However, in similar ways to Dr Martin Luther King Jr who lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organise black churches in non-violent civil rights protests to end segregation, Sir Doug Nicholls was an active leader in the political organisations that gave a voice to Australia’s First Peoples.

In 1956, Pastor Doug became the first field officer for the Aboriginal Advancement League, and edited its journal, Smoke Signal. He was also elected secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In 1972, at roughly the same time that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and became Sir Douglas Nicholls, he was also awarded the title Bapa Mamus or Headman of the Indigenous Nations by the Torres Strait Islander communities at a major Ceremony at the old Aborigines Advancement League in Northcote.

Nicholls brought his faith to bear throughout his life, devoted to serving people in his community through housing, aid, and spreading the message that God’s grace is poured out to all people, regardless of race. In a program aired on the ABC, Nicholls gives a sermon that begins in Acts 17 where Paul was talking to the Athenian people “reminding them that Christ had made out of one blood all nations of men,” he began. His question to the congregation was, “why bother about Aborigines? I want to suggest three things about why you should bother about the Aborigines. Firstly, we belong to a great family of God and he had made out of one blood all nations of men. Secondly, why you should bother about the Aborigines; we’re part of the Great British Commonwealth of Nations. And thirdly, we want to walk with you. We don’t wish to walk alone.”

As he so often demonstrated, that statement showed his incredibly gracious attitude towards an empire that took much from him personally, and his people. Nicholls was born at Cummeragunja Station, a mission established in 1888 at the behest of Aboriginal people who were dissatisfied with the authoritarian leadership of Maloga Mission Station’s founder Daniel Matthews. It was the fruit of a successful appeal to the New South Wales government for the creation of a new reserve with a farm of 1800 acres so the local Koori people could live sustainably. For a time, there was somewhat of a ‘golden age’ at Cummeragunja, where despite the neglect of a string of superintendents, the people thrived with successful commercial enterprises that directed finances back into the community for its benefit. During that time, Thomas Shadrach James (Nicholls’ uncle by marriage), was able to move his school from Maloga to the new station and educated a number of the early leaders of the Aboriginal movement; Ada Bethel Cooper, William Cooper, Jack Patten, Eric and William Onus, and Nicholls. However, this golden age was short-lived.

The Aborigines Protection Act of 1909 was established to give ‘Protection Boards’ full control over First Peoples on settlements. This piece of legislature gave these boards – which always had the Inspector-General of Police as Chairman – ownership of all property, livestock and goods within the settlement, as well as control over the distribution of any financial aid apportioned by the Government. It also gave them custody of Aboriginal children, and the ability to remove any Aboriginal person from the reserve who they believe should be earning a living away from the reserve.

Perhaps the most chilling portion of this law is the eleventh clause, which spells out the unfettered ability of the board to take any Aboriginal child and force them into slavery, under the auspices of an apprenticeship.

“11. (1) The board may in accordance with and subject to the provisions of the Apprentices Act, 1901, but indenture bind or cause to be bound the child of any aborigine, or the neglected child of any person apparently having an admixture of aboriginal blood in his veins, to be apprenticed to any master, and may collect and institute proceedings for the recovery of any wages payable under such indenture, and may expend the same as the board may think fit in the interest of the child.

“Every child so apprenticed shall be under the supervision of the board, or of such person as may be authorised in the behalf by the regulations.

“Any such child so apprenticed shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished for absconding, or for other misconduct, in the same way as any child apprenticed by his father with such child’s consent.”

Under the guise of protection, these insidious laws gave rise to the Stolen Generation and stripped First Peoples of any remaining rights and sovereignty. By law, Aboriginal people living in missions no longer had custody of their own children. Nicholls’ elder sister, Hilda, became a casualty of the Stolen Generation, and Doug himself was forced off the mission to find work at the age of 14. He constantly experienced racism both publicly and privately, having to leave Carlton Football Club before playing a game because the trainers didn’t want to touch him. Yet, ever gracious, Nicholls said that though he was often hurt in public life, he felt he was better for being hurt.

Nicholls was no doubt reflecting on these times and many like it when he spoke at Wesley Church in 1939, saying, “The skeleton in the cupboard of Australia’s national life is its treatment of the aborigines… it is one of the saddest stories of modern times that we should have become an outcast in our own land, with not even the rights and privileges that are extended to many aliens. We appeal for the right of education, for at least some of the rights of citizenship, for the chance to become useful citizens in the land that was ours by birth.”

There is much more to Sir Doug Nicholls story – both hardship and great success – but there is one quote that beautifully sums up his deep desire for our country – reconciliation. His family would often relate that one of Nicholl’s favourite sayings was, “To get a tune out of the piano, you can play the black notes, and you can play the white notes. But to get harmony you need both.”

May God grant us the strength to follow Sir Doug Nicholls example in reconciliation and grace no matter what befalls us.