Thomas Shadrach James
|Thomas Shadrach James|
September 1, 1859
|Died||January 9, 1946
|Children||Miriam, Priscilla, Shadrach Livingstone James, Rebecca, Garfield, Ivy, Carey|
Thomas Shadrach James (1 September 1859 – 9 January 1946) was a Methodist lay preacher, linguist and herbalist. However, it was as a teacher, first at Maloga Aboriginal Mission and later at Cummeragunja, that he is remembered in history. Through this role, he equipped and influenced generations of Aboriginal activists, including Margaret Tucker, Pastor Doug Nicholls, George Patten, Jack Patten, William Cooper and Bill Onus.
On his birth certificate, Thomas James is recorded as being "Thomas Shadrach Peersahib". His father was denoted as James Peersahib (in other documents, this name is Peersaib). And his mother was Esther née Thomas. The a couple were both Tamil, of Indian descent living in Mauritius. His father James had been raised a Muslim in Madras and had moved to Mauritius to work as  an interpreter to Magistrate Edward Henry Martindale at Wilhelms Plaines. However, following some years of hardship at Black River had asked a local missionary to become a Christian and later became a catechist in the Anglican church.
As a young man, Thomas lived in Port Louis and was educated at the local school. Even as a teenager, he achieved local stature as an educator of other boys. However, in his later teens he was traumatised, first by the death of his younger brother Samson (in 1875), then the death of his mother shortly after, and by the quick remarriage of his father to Luckheea, which he saw as insensitive. With these misgivings, he decided to make a journey to Australia and began using James as his surname, presumably to honour his father, though he would never see him again. James was fluent in Tamil, French, English and probably Yorta Yorta.
His interest in medicine and preaching may have come from his mother's family back in Ceylon. His maternal uncle Manuel as well as his cousins Gamiel and William "Nesam" Paranesam were all deacons of the Anglican Church. So too was his cousin Abishegam Thomas, who was also a medial doctor. Abishegam's family remember that, even as a young teen, "Shadrach was a really brilliant student; he was not only brilliant, his English was perfect and he did very good work".
Thomas arrived in Tasmania in 1879, applying for a teaching job on 23 August, and may have taught there for sometime. It's believed by the family that he then moved to Melbourne to begin studying medicine, but he developed typhus - the subsequent shakes making a future in surgery impossible. With that setback, he found himself greatly attracted to the work of mission - after meeting a great number of Aboriginal evangelists and singers at Brighton in Melbourne on 3 January 1881.
The group of 25 Indigenous men and women had travelled down from the Maloga Mission, and Thomas was introduced to the founder of the mission, Daniel Matthews, by a mutual friend, the shipping entrepreneur, Charles Crosby. It's not known whether it was from Thomas listening to the message of the missionary or the black evangelists, but it is recorded that Thomas James believed, “God spoke to me that day!” In the memory of Daniel's son, J K Matthews, "the result was that Mr James offered to assist in the mission work without remuneration.". The missionary accepted his offer.
Teaching at Maloga and Cummeragunja
Thomas James became permanent assistant to Daniel Matthews when the Maloga School received its recognition as a State School on 1 August 1881, and from then on it is understood he received a government salary. Then, when Daniel Matthews formally resigned as official teacher at Maloga in August 1883, the department installed, "The gentle Indian schoolteacher, Thomas James, who was much liked by his pupils..." 
In 1885 James married Ada Bethel Cooper, who had been one of the older students at his school when he first attended. She was a Yorta Yorta woman, whose mother, Kitty, was one of the real elders of the community. The couple were to have eight children, including Shadrach Livingstone James, who later became an Aboriginal activist and noted public speaker. Thomas would take Indigenous Australians to Sunday school, in order to "assist in preaching the Gospel of Salvation to the settlers on the Victorian side of the Murray".
Over the course of his four decades of teaching James taught many Aboriginal people who later rose to prominence including Douglas Nicholls (his nephew), William Cooper (his brother-in-law) and Bill Onus. Essentially, the men and women became who went on to be the founders of the Australian Aborigines' League had all came from the "scholar’s hut" of Thomas James. He taught them ‘reading and writing’ (according to a letter he wrote to Chief Inspector Thomas Pearson on 28 August 1891) But it seems he also gave these leaders rhetorical skills, an understanding of government and rights.
While at Cummeragunja he worked as a translator of the Yorta Yorta language. And he never ceased in his passion for preaching and evangelising, not just at Cummeragunja (where he was the Sunday School teacher), but out of town too, to Indigenous people and to white farmers, in places like Nathalia and Picola.
During his career, he had many struggles with authorities, including some Mission managers, such as Mr Harris; as well as, at times, the Department of Education and the Aborigines Protection Board (APB). For one thing, Mr James' preaching was a cause of concern, for didn't just win souls, it caused discontent. One sermon, on February 7, 1909 was interpreted as inciting unrest about the removal of the Aboriginal farm blocks. Mrs Harris, the managers wife, wrote about the matter with great fury, saying that Mr James was being ‘disloyal to the APB who were trying to bring about friendly relations between the blacks and whites’. In return, the APB blamed him for unrest at Cummeragunja and the board and managers began speaking openly about their fears that he was giving the people ideas – enabling them to write petitions and complain. The APB tried to sack him twice; however, this was not easily achieved - as he led a very successful teaching team, with marks for children, both black and white, being above average for the state. The 1908 departmental report found that the Cummeragunja school had “earnest, capable and enthusiastic teachers. They are thoroughly in sympathy wth the whole of the coloured parents and children and their influence is a good one.”
Sensing he could not survive too many more controversies, Thomas James resigned his position in 1922.
In 1922 James retired from teaching having been removed as head teacher in 1922 
He had hoped that his son, who was his teaching assistant, would be appointed as his replacement. However the New South Wales Government decided to appoint someone else.
From there he moved to North Fitzroy James worked as a herbalist and masseur, specialising in treatment of arthritis.
It is recorded that Mr James published a book on Aboriginal culture called Heritage in Stone; however, no copy can currently be found.
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- As recalled by his daughter, Priscilla, recorded in George Nelson, Robynne Nelson Dharmalan Dana: An Australian Aboriginal Man's Search for the Story of His Aboriginal and Indian Ancestors (ANU Press, Canberra, 2014) p271
- CUMEROOGUNGA MISSION: Story of Its Early Days Riverine Herald (Echuca, Vic. : Moama, NSW), Thursday 15 August 1946, page 3 National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article117122325
- Nancy Cato, Mister Maloga (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1976) p110
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- George Nelson, Robynne Nelson Dharmalan Dana: An Australian Aboriginal Man's Search for the Story of His Aboriginal and Indian Ancestors (ANU Press, Canberra, 2014) p25
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