Beong! Beong! (more! more!)”: John Harper and the Wesleyan Mission to the Australian Aborigines
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Beong! Beong! (more! more!)”:
John Harper and the Wesleyan Mission to the Australian Aborigines

I said to them in their own language “Were gairer” be not afraid, at which words they sat down and became quite composed. One of them was much pleased to hear me speak in the native tongue, and exclaimed “Beong! Beong!” (more more)

Harper Journal, 5 March 1825).1

In July 1826, two Methodist gentlemen sat down for a tense meeting with the New South Wales (NSW) Attorney-General, Saxe Bannister (1790–1877): the Rev. Ralph Mansfield, Secretary, and William Horton, Treasurer, represented the NSW Auxiliary of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS).2 The matter at hand was a controversy that had arisen from a venture undertaken by the Society on a remote penal establishment on the frontier at Wellington Valley on the lower Macquarie River about 100 kilometres north-west of Bathurst in central-western NSW. In particular, there were questions to be answered about the conduct of a young missionary, John Harper (c. 1800–1862), who was alleged to have publicly misrepresented the short-term results and long-term prospects for the evangelization of the Wiradjuri people native to the area.3 It was reported in the press – but widely disbelieved – that Harper had already begun the translation of scripture (‘which implies a grammatical knowledge of the structure of the language’), that the people were so entranced by his facility in the language that they had begged him “Beong! Beong!” (more! more!), and that he had affected such a change in the morality of the native people that not only did they forbear swearing but had ceased to force their wives to have illicit intercourse with male convicts. The intervention of the Attorney-General is a fair indication of the political sensitivity of Harper’s claims and their possible repercussions for government policy relating to the small community of Wesleyan Methodists in the colony and their fledgling missionary activities.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the political engagement and enthusiasm of Methodist missionaries in British colonies had been persistently controversial; the threat of scandal in New South Wales was, potentially, highly embarrassing to both church and state. In the Cape Colony, the involvement of Wesleyan and other missionaries in a campaign to denounce what they saw as the oppression of native people by settlers was to be a significant factor in ongoing hostility between English and Dutch colonizers. Under the cover of a humanitarian campaign against “spiritual and social bondage,” it was generally believed by Dutch settlers that missionaries, backed by the British government, were attempting to subvert their claims to land and their control and access to native labor.4 As Elizabeth Elbourne, Richard Elphick and others have argued, the intervention by missionaries in the Cape was part of a religious and cultural campaign in which settlers, missionaries and imperial administrators contested the moral purpose of empire. The Cape was not the only colonial site where Methodist missionaries were engaged. In 1825 Thomas Fowell Buxton, the parliamentary leader of the anti-slavery party that had succeeded in securing the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and who was later instrumental in the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the treatment of Aboriginal people in British colonies in southern Africa, Australia and North America, had raised questions in parliament about the demolition of the Methodist Chapel in Barbados in what appeared to be retaliation for the church’s agitation on behalf of slaves.5 In his speech on this occasion, Buxton’s words echo claims made by Harper for his work with the Australian Aborigines: “Mr Shrewsbury had devoted himself laboriously to the improvement of the negroes, and with the best results. Instruction was gaining ground; marriages became more frequent; the marriage tie was held more sacred.”6 Shrewsbury was obliged to suffer constant harassment which Buxton called “the common lot of a Methodist Missionary”: planters would walk into the Wesleyan chapel on a Sunday, failing to remove their hats and whistling, provocative acts which escalated into a full-scale riot on October 5, 1823 during which a mob consisting of...