La Trobe historian wins Premier's award for book on early Aboriginal Christian conversion

La Trobe historian wins Premier's award for book on early Aboriginal Christian conversion

12 Sep 2008

La Trobe University scholar Robert Kenny has won the history prize in this year's Victorian Premier's Literary Awards for a book that deals with the conversion to Christianity of the first tribal Aborigine in Victoria by missionaries.

Titled The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World (Scribe Publications) the book looks at Pepper's conversion from the youth's point of view. It illuminates a highly significant moment in history, in 1860, when European society and Aboriginal spirituality collide on the colonial frontier.

The judges said it was 'a bold and challenging history, immensely erudite yet sparkling with lyrical prose and sharp insight. Kenny recovers – with absolute conviction and profound implications – the moral and symbolic worlds of two societies, and Nathanael Pepper's extraordinary efforts to reconcile the lamb of Christ and Aboriginal dreaming.'

Pepper was a member of the Wotjobaluk tribe which inhabited the Wimmera when Moravian missionaries arrived from Germany. It took Dr Kenny seven years to reconstruct the tale and his version of the youth's conversion which also won the 2008 W.K. Hancock Prize from the Australian Historical Association for the best first book in any field.

'The book is all about the ideas and tensions operating in the incident of Pepper's conversion,' Dr Kenny says.

'It represents a meeting of European and Aboriginal cosmologies and symbolic worlds. Part of my argument is that the Moravians were evangelical Christians and they believed just as much in an enchanted spirit-filled world as the Wotjobaluk people.'

Dr Kenny suggests that when Nathaniel Pepper and his people saw the Europeans arrive with their sheep, they perceived the animals as part of the spirit world.

'They regarded the sheep in a totemic way, as a European totem. And they were right. The Moravians' emblem was the Lamb of God, and passages in the Bible relating to the Good Shepherd impressed Pepper.'

Dr Kenny has pieced together his story from quoted conversations in diaries, letters by Pepper and documents in the headquarters of the church in Germany. 'It was a very odd thing to be in a baroque German village covered in snow while reading about the Wimmera,' he says.

Dr Kenny chose to focus on Nathaniel Pepper because he was a convert from a tribal way of life.

'The way he approached Christianity was modified by the Wotjobaluk outlook. He had a good idea of Christian theology and understood the differences.' Dr Kenny accounts for the conversion in a way that subtly underlies the pathos of the situation for the Wimmera people.

'Christianity is the religion of suffering. The Wimmera people were living in a world in which the old cosmologies had been severely challenged. It was not that their land had been taken from them. It disappeared and turned into another land. European animals changed the whole dreaming. The cosmology had been ruptured and in this ruptured world youths like Pepper were drawn to a new explanatory system.'

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