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Dharmalan Dana

Dharmalan Dana: An Australian Aboriginal man’s 73-year search for the story of his Aboriginal and Indian ancestors

George Nelson
Robynne Nelson
Volume: 28
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Dharmalan Dana
    Book Description:

    A Yorta Yorta man’s seventy-three-year search for the story of his Aboriginal and Indian ancestors including his Indian Grampa who, as a real mystery man, came to Yorta Yorta country in Australia, from Mauritius, in 1881 and went on to leave an incredible legacy for Aboriginal Australia. This story is written through George Nelson’s eyes, life and experiences, from the time of his earliest memory, to his marriage to his sweetheart Brenda, through to his journey to Mauritius at the age of seventy-three, to the production of this wonderful story in the present.

    eISBN: 978-1-925021-50-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Dedication
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xiv)

    In 1855 at Majorca near Maryborough Victoria, on the land of the Dja Dja Wurrung people, a baby boy is born to Mary Jane Tegurrk¹ and Harry Karakom Gorrakkum.² They name him Henry Harmony Nelson. In 1872,³ as a young man he travels with his tribe across country to Mount Beauty in the high country, for the Bogong Moth gathering and harvesting. It is there that he meets Maggie Stone McDonald, the girl that he will someday marry. Her mother died in child birth and she is being raised by her Grandparents, Billy and Mary (otherwise named by white man...

  6. Our Way
    (pp. xv-xvi)

    • Introduction
      (pp. 3-4)

      My earliest memory is as a small boy standing with Dad and my Nanny Priscilla (Pris) Mackray on the steps of the Cummeragunga (‘Cummera’)¹ Hospital. Nanny Pris held onto my hand firmly as we waited to go through the door. Nanny was quite a large and tough lady, with dark gentle eyes, smelling sweetly of the beautiful talcum powder she always wore. On the other side of me stood my dear father – a tall strong and dark man, anxiously waiting to enter the hospital door. It’s 1935, I am only two years old and my Mum had just given birth...

    • 1. Beginnings
      (pp. 5-20)

      My Mum Rebecca ‘Betsy’ Clements was born at Brungle Mission near Tumut in 1912. Her Dad was Ernest Clements, a Wiradjuri man, and her Mum Kitty Atkinson, was a Yorta Yorta woman. Granny Kitty had five children 1 including Edith, Watson, Violet, my mum Rebecca ‘Betsy’ and Lilian ‘Lily’. Mum told me that when she was about ten years old living at Brungle with her Mum and Dad, her father went to Granny Kitty one day with a magnificent idea, or so he thought. He decided that if they sent my Mum (and her sisters) to Cootamundra Girls Home, and...

    • 2. Nanny’s Stories
      (pp. 21-28)

      I spent a lot of time with Nanny Pris throughout my childhood and she used to love telling me stories about her life, our old people and the days of Maloga and Cummeragunga Missions, and, particularly, the story of her romance with Grandfather George.

      Nanny Pris fell for the tall handsome George Nelson (the first), the sixth child of nine kids, sometime in the early 1900s. His family (Grandfather Henry Harmony, Granny Mag and their children) had moved between Framlingham, Mt Franklin, Coranderrk and Lake Tyers,¹ before settling at Cummera, 250 km from Coranderrk but I can’t tell you exactly...

    • 3. A Little Fulla
      (pp. 29-38)

      In 1938 I turned five years old. I remember Mum and all my Aunties putting on a party for me. Mum went to a lot of trouble to make the day special for me and what a glorious day that was. There were Dad’s sisters Aunty Ruby (Near), Aunty Bay (Atkinson), Aunty Iris (Atkinson), Aunty Markie (Saunders) all helping Mum with the cooking. It was a major production and Nanny Pris was the ‘main director’. The men were smart enough to stay out of the way and the women excitedly chattered amongst themselves as they baked and decorated.

      Then when...

    • 4. Hunting and Gathering
      (pp. 39-50)

      During my early years moving around and camping in the late 1930s to early 1940s I learnt a great deal from my Mum and Dad about the history of our people – the Yorta Yorta, our ancestry, culture and traditional way of life. Whenever we set up camp in the bush it consisted of a hessian bag tent. We never built anything more onto that because we moved so often there was no point so we made do with what we had. Then, whenever they had the chance they would tell my brother Keith and me stories about the old tribal...

    • 5. Dad’s Work
      (pp. 51-54)

      Before and after he was married, Dad spent years working on burning charcoal and this work would take him to Barmah Forest and Coomboona, with men, young and old, like Alf ‘Boydie’ Turner (William Cooper’s grandson) who was just a teenager at the time driving the horse drawn lorry, Uncle Stan Charles, Uncle Les Briggs and Mr James, a white bloke from Barmah.

      In those days charcoal was used to power cars with combustion engines, especially during the war years when petrol rationing was in force. It was also used in factories and hospitals for their furnaces. Dad and his...

    • 6. Nothing Stays The Same
      (pp. 55-78)

      From 1939, our happy home life started to change for the worse and it was like a domino effect. I was only five years old so I don’t remember the order of things but I vividly remember what occurred. First of all Keith and I were very excited to see that Mum was having a baby. As I have said before she was a tiny woman, but she was huge in this pregnancy and really struggling. So no one was really surprised when she went into labour early and delivered two baby girls; sadly, they were born two months premature...


    • 7. Starting Out
      (pp. 81-102)

      Brenda was born at Cummeragunga on 5 March 1935. Her parents were Ron Morgan and Ella Morgan (nee Cooper) and she was the second youngest of ten children; she had six brothers and three sisters: Irene, Stafford, Ronnie (Hairy), Albert (Doodah), Lydia, Ernie, Jimmy, June and Bagot. The Morgans were a big mob and a very closeknit family full of love, respect and great support for each other. So, you can imagine the challenge I had when I first started out with Brenda because of all those brothers keeping an eye on me! It took a while to win them...

    • 8. A Brilliant Career
      (pp. 103-122)

      In those childhood years of living out bush with Mum, Dad, the Uncles and Aunty Lily, some of the fascinating tales they loved to tell were about the talented sportsmen and women that came out of Cummeragunga, including runners, boxers, footballers and cricketers and more. I was especially taken by the stories of our Aboriginal men who were successful on the very rich professional foot running circuit before, during and after the Depression years of the 1930s.

      While sitting by the fire at night after we’d had our evening meal, they told Keith and me many tales of the men...

    • 9. From Runner To Trainer
      (pp. 123-130)

      As a runner I guess I fell into training. Because I was having good running success, I started to be known around town and in the running profession so some people approached me to train them, and some I approached myself as I thought they had some real potential.

      One day back in 1956, the year before my first win at the Bendigo Mile a 14-yearold school boy introduced himself to me on the steps of the Echuca Post Office; he told me he was Noel Hussey a student from St Vincent’s Catholic College in Bendigo and asked if he...

    • 10. Back To School
      (pp. 131-140)

      From the time I was married, I spent 15 years doing shift work between the Echuca Flour Mill and Echuca Ball Bearing Factory and I had had enough of shift work.

      Over the next few years I took on a number of different jobs to make ends meet. We moved to the Goulburn Valley so I could get work at the Shepparton Abattoirs where I was working with my brother Brien for some time and Brenda was working as a domestic with Goulburn Valley Base Hospital. I then moved over to Pullar’s orchard at Ardmona as an orchard hand and...


    • 11. His Mission Life
      (pp. 143-168)

      As you now know, I have really been searching for Grampa’s story since I was a seven-year-old boy. But it’s been over the past 30 years (since the 1970s) that I have been undertaking more serious research, seeking out answers to my many questions about Grampa Thomas Shadrach James, his life here and his life in his homeland wherever that might be. I would ask anyone who would listen what they could tell me about Grampa, and as I have mentioned earlier in this story, it was surprising to me how different his children’s stories were about him. I just...

    • 12. The Land Grab: 1907–1910
      (pp. 169-180)

      Grampa tried to walk a fine line between his work and life in our community. But, as time wore on, being an advocate for our community and the broader Aboriginal community, and at the same time keeping the white community happy, turned out to be a very challenging task.

      George Harris had arrived at Cummeragunga as a manager in the 1880s. My father-in-law Ronald Morgan wrote about Harris, remembering that Harris had given good service to the community for some years, raising his own family there, but he seemed to become more and more intrusive. Some people believed that he...

    • 13. A Man Of The Community
      (pp. 181-192)

      One of the greatest roles Grampa filled at Maloga and Cummeragunga and in the broader community was that of healer, and this means healer in both the physical health and advocacy/educative sense.

      Grampa came from a strong Indian heritage and from what we have learnt about his past, there is no doubt he would have grown up learning many old ways of traditional healing. But another form of ‘healing’ that Grampa may have taken from his Indian heritage is his knowledge of the strategies used for the fight for Indian independence and among Indians and other colonised people in places...

    • 14. The Rebellion: 1912–1922
      (pp. 193-204)

      The year 1910 had finished well for Grampa. There had been warm recognition – from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people – of his tireless contributions to education, healing and community service. And the tensions at Cummeragunga seemed to have lifted a little with the transfer of manager Harris soon after Grampa’s complaint against him, the APB’s investigation and final report in August 1910.

      But the storm clouds were still gathering. It had been Protection Board policy changes – rather than Harris’ personal decisions – which had led to so much heartache when the family farms were grabbed in 1908. So even though Mr Harris and...

    • 15. The Man Of Mystery
      (pp. 205-208)

      Despite all that I had learnt about Grampa over the years, through the family and community stories and the vast collection of letters and documents I had uncovered, I realised that I knew nothing of Grampa’s life prior to him coming to Maloga. He still remained a mystery.

      His name was Thomas Shadrach James, or at least that’s the name by which we always knew him. It wasn’t until the 1990’s, after much research, that I came to realise that this was a name he chose for himself as he fled his country of birth.

      When Brenda and I married,...

    • 16. The Letter
      (pp. 209-212)

      In early 1992, while still studying in Adelaide, Brenda and I returned home to Mooroopna for a visit with family. We tried to get home as often as we could, to catch up with everyone. On this trip we called in to visit Aunty Ruby Near (Dad’s sister) at her home in Mooroopna. As we walked up her driveway, there was the smell of freshly baked scones spilling out of her house. The smell took me back to the days living with Nanny Pris and the constant aroma of baked goods coming from her home. Aunty Bay Atkinson (Dad’s sister)...

    • 17. Across The Indian Ocean
      (pp. 213-224)

      On 23 August 2006 I headed off with Robynne across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius – the land from where Grampa had come from 130 years earlier. His journey would have taken four weeks in a steam boat or tall ship, across the wild seas. Our trip took 11 hours on an Air Mauritius jet plane flying direct from Melbourne. How times have changed!

      We arrived on the same day as we left Melbourne, because we had gone back six hours in time, landing safely in beautiful Mauritius. I was a little disoriented from my tiredness and the time change; at...

  10. PART 4: ROOTS

    • 18. Retracing His Footsteps
      (pp. 227-238)

      On Robynne’s next trip to Mauritius in October 2010 some things had changed a great deal, with Cousin Sydney’s memory now failing and Aunty Priscilla Thomas now in a nursing home, frail and unable to remember anything at all.

      This time we were relying heavily on family recalling something new, Govinden’s support to access St Thomas Church records, and new friends and connections to provide some direction and support where possible. Robynne would also be attending a conference in the city of Port Louis to talk about Grampa in the hope of generating some interest and support from key historians...

    • 19. Searching For Clues
      (pp. 239-244)

      In April 2012, Robynne headed off to Mauritius with a list of places to go, people to see and information to find. While in Mauritius, Marie-France was so kind as to act as tour guide taking Robynne to the Lands and Property registry; the National Library to look for newspaper death notices; to the Coromandel Archives to look at shipping records; and to meet John Linko at the Anglican Archdiocese offices for Christian Missionary Society records because of our new found link to the first Bishop of Mauritius in theDiocese of Mauritiusbook. But yet again, even with all...

    • 20. Our Mauritian Family Recipes
      (pp. 245-248)

      According to Lorna Purahoo, Mauritian cuisine is very very tempting and mouth watering. Food is an important part of Mauritian culture. Diversity is the keyword in the Mauritian cuisine, which consists of a mixture of Indian, Chinese and European. Once you try Mauritian food you will never be able to give it up....

    • 21. Bishop Ryan’s Journal
      (pp. 249-262)

      Once back home Robynne started to pull everything together; a couple of weeks later she provided Mr Govinden with a detailed report so that he would be up to date with all that we had found and be able to continue his search. Now that Marie-France had made such a strong link to the name Peersaib in the bookDiocese of Mauritius(Curtis 1975), we wanted to go back to the journals to see if we could confirm whether this Peersaib was James or Samson. Robynne started searching more broadly for the Christian Missionary Society records and any records relating...

    • 22. Uncovered Treasures
      (pp. 263-276)

      We received an email from Mr Govinden Vishwanaden letting us know that he had finally located birth certificates for Grampa and a girl named Jahangeerbee Peersahib. Having those in our hands along with the birth and death certificates for the boy Samson Peersahib meant that we could finally cross check the information to see how they all relate.

      Grampa’s birth certificate noted that his birth name wasThomas Shadrach Peersahib. He was given his mother’s maiden name as his Christian name from birth. His parents were James and Esther Peersahib (with no mention of Samson or Miriam). He was born...


    • 23. Great Southern Land
      (pp. 279-284)

      It was sometime between his father’s wedding to Lokheea on 16 March 1878 and the birth of their first child Jahangeerbee (Ruth) on 31 July 1880, that Grampa decided it was time to move on. We know from our Mauritian family that he was still in Mauritius at the time of his father’s wedding, and then left because of that marriage.

      Grampa left Mauritius and arrived in Tasmania, Australia, where he was listed in the Tasmanian Education Department archives as having applied for a teaching job on 23 August 1879, nine days before his 20th birthday.

      Grampa’s application form was...

    • 24. Grampa’s Ways
      (pp. 285-296)

      Grampa’s life covered two periods of intense conflict at Cummeragunga. In the period from 1908 to 1922, Cummera people were in open rebellion as first their land and then many of their children were taken away. Despite Grampa taking a principled stand at all times, trying to work out the best course for fairness and justice, the Aborigines Protection Board blamed him for the troubles. The Board and its managers were open about their fears that Grampa’s skill as a teacher was supporting Aboriginal people to speak up for themselves and express themselves clearly in official letters. The mission manager...

    • 25. Going Forward Looking Back
      (pp. 297-302)

      Now, as this story comes to an end, I sit here on my verandah, in the love seat that Brenda and I once shared. Brenda was my wife for 58 years, but she was tired and weary and went on ahead of me to the Dreaming. I sit here alone, staring out into space as I do every day, thinking back over the years of my life, with the sun beating down on my face, a soft breeze blowing through the gum trees and the birds all around me singing their tunes. I have just turned 80 years of age....


    • Appendix One: Ronald Morgan’s (1952) Reminiscences of the Aboriginal Station at Cummeragunga and its Aboriginal People
      (pp. 305-320)
    • Appendix Two: ‘Cumeroogunga Mission – Story of Its Early Days, Tribute to Teacher’
      (pp. 321-324)
    • Appendix Three: ‘George Nelson Wins Richest Mile’
      (pp. 325-326)
    • Appendix Four: Thomas S. James’ letter to R.H. Mathews, 27 September 1897
      (pp. 327-330)
    • Appendix Five: Timeline
      (pp. 331-356)
    • Appendix Six: My Track Record
      (pp. 357-358)
    • Appendix Seven: Interviewees And Contributors
      (pp. 359-360)
    • Appendix Eight: Bibliography And Further Reading
      (pp. 361-364)