Johnson, M. (2020), "Book review", History of Education Review, Vol. 49 No. 2, pp. 272-274. https://doi.org/10.1108/HER-10-2020-080
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited
Found in translation: many meanings on a North Australian mission
Written by Laura Rademaker
University of Hawai‘i Press
xix + 231pp.,
Historians, writes Laura Rademaker, should be “skeptical of missionaries' overconfident claims that might lead us to think a ‘colonization of consciousness’ took place” at the Angurugu Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission on the Groote Eylandt archipelago, in Australia's north (181). The phrase “colonization of consciousness” is Jean and John Comaroff's term, developed in their 1991 book on Christianity and colonialism in South Africa. In her nuanced and deeply researched history of the Angurugu mission, Rademaker convincingly demonstrates why we should be skeptical both of missionaries' wishful thinking and of scholarly arguments that overstate the effects of European colonialism, particularly in places where imperatives of land dispossession or labour exploitation were not as significant. She invites this scepticism not in order to rescue the evangelical project but, rather, because of the enduring agency of these Indigenous people – Anindilyakwa speakers. Rademaker certainly does not let missionaries off the hook. She repeatedly draws attention to their settler colonial ambitions, the coordination of their intentions to evangelize with white nationalist policies of the assimilation of indigenous peoples for their own good. But she is alive to the ways in which Anindilyakwa speakers selectively engaged Christianity, sometimes indigenizing aspects of it, other times rejecting its ideological premises or presumed benefits.
Rademaker's focus in the book, as the title alludes to, is on verbal language. This makes sense given that the missionaries' primary mode of conversion was through the spoken word. It also makes sense given that Anindilyakwa is the now-standardized term for the language that the “clans” (an anthropological import) speak across the archipelago; they do not have an ethnic or political name for themselves as a whole and in this book it is language that convenes them. Opening the book with an amusing example of mistranslation, when Anindilyakawa people re-named the song sung to them by the first missionary as “Jesus loves my chest hair,” Rademaker points out that her focus is primarily on mistranslation and the possibilities that such failed acts of carrying meaning across linguistic difference opened up for Anindilyakawa's indigenizing of Christianity. The opportunity is also one for the historian coming later, as Rademaker finds rich examples of the ways in which Anindilyakwa people resisted, refused, or transformed aspects of what the missionaries were trying to teach them. By the end of the book, we discover that in fact the teaching was two-way (although Rademaker is hesitant to fully embrace Howard Morphy's claim that at the Yirrkala mission across the water Yolngu speakers and the Methodists engaged in a “mutual conversion”).
The book is organized into seven chapters. Six of these span the years from the mission's founding in 1943 through to the 1970s (an epilogue suggests that at present the church is barely attended). Chapter one provides a useful history of Christian missionary activity in the Pacific and Australia in the 19th century; this context is significant mainly in elaborating what was distinctive about the “late” efforts on Groote Eylandt. In the 19th century, the CMS had made use of vernacular translations of the bible, the deployment of Indigenous missionaries, as well as encouraging the development of European agricultural practice to civilize first in order to win converts; the earlier 20th-century missions on the northern Australian mainland were mainly concerned with protecting Aboriginal people from annihilation. These ideologies were at work only inconsistently at Angurugu. Chapter two explores the differing interpretations of the founding of the mission, the attempts by missionaries to use force and threat, and their reliance on interpreters. Chapters three, four, and five examine the competing language ideologies of missionaries and Anindilyakwa speakers in relation to orality, the written word, and the debate over whether or not the missionaries should themselves learn Anindilyakwa. By the 1960s, it seemed to missionaries on Groote Eylandt that their efforts to Christianize were having little effect. Moreover, Indigenous rights activists across the country were forcing white Australians to change their assumptions about assimilation. Whereas in the first two decades, missionaries had been preoccupied with English as the medium of conversion, policy now changed. Missionaries should learn Anindilyakwa. But this decision was not one that went down well, either with missionaries themselves (only one ever made any real progress in learning the language) or with all Anindilyakwa speakers, for a variety of reasons that are explored in chapter six. Chapter seven returns to the role of emeba (songs) that play a central role in Anindilyakwa life and were the medium through which they engaged perhaps most extensively with the evangelical repertoire.
Historians of education, particularly those interested in cross-cultural histories, will find much of value in this book given its focus on language learning, orality and the written text, and strategies of reading and listening. Rademaker's clear prose and methodological sensitivity make it a suitable model for upper-level undergraduate as well as postgraduate teaching. Found in Translation is a fresh and vitally important addition to new studies of Indigenous history in the context of settler colonialism that seek to move beyond the binaries of colonizer and colonized and explore the limits of one-dimensional assumptions of power.