This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Nathaniel Pepper (c.1841-1877), Aboriginal evangelist and teacher, was born in the Wimmera district of Victoria, one of at least five children of Billey (Toney) and Iabbe (Linna); Billey was a leader of the Gromiluk group and the Wotjoballuk clan of the Wergaia people. In 1845 two Irishmen John Pepper and George Belcher selected Coonanga Mamool in Gromiluk territory, Pepper taking the western side of Lake Hindmarsh. The Wotjoballuk worked for the new owners.
The occupation had taken its toll on local people and the Moravian missionaries Friedrich Hagenauer and Friedrich Spieseke agreed to start a mission. On 17 January 1859 they opened a school at Lake Hindmarsh and established Ebenezer mission, near the Wimmera River. One of the first pupils was a youth referred to as 'Pepper' by Hagenauer, who also recorded that the boy's father was chief. A talented student, Pepper was soon able to read the New Testament and conduct morning classes. Outside the mission, he taught the Wotjoballuk in their own language.
On 12 August 1860 Pepper was baptized, choosing the name of Nathaniel (Nathanael). The missionaries broadcast his baptism widely, declaring that he worked as a true and faithful evangelist. Hagenauer toured Melbourne and Geelong, telling of the conversion and showing pencil sketches of Nathaniel and examples of his writing books. Pepper's conversion was deep and powerful. By 1862 he had early signs of tuberculosis but he continued working on the farm and preaching to his people.
On 21 May 1863 at Ebenezer he married with Moravian rites Rachel Warndekan, an 18-year-old, Christian Aboriginal girl from King Georges Sound, Western Australia. Twelve months later they had a son who died soon after his birth. Pepper was appointed a missionary assistant in 1865 with a salary of £12 per annum. Over the following years his illness caused the loss of a lung. Although he recovered, Rachel had contracted the disease. She died in March 1869.
That year Pepper followed Hagenauer to Ramahyuck, Gippsland, where he taught the children and preached to the adults. He also conducted church services at Ramahyuck and in local churches. On 17 February 1870 he married Louise Arbuckle. She was 16, an Aboriginal Christian girl of the Bratowoloong people. He was 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall and at this time his weight was down to 128 lb. (58 kg). A sketch of him in European clothing showed a good-looking man with a neat moustache and beard. He worked as a carpenter and farmer at Ramahyuck. His kindness and sympathy towards the sick, his charity and readiness to help, 'made him beloved among the blacks as well as among white people'.
The Peppers lived with their children in a cottage not far from the mission church, but by 1876 his health had deteriorated and he was seriously ill. He died on 7 March 1877 at Ramahyuck and was buried in the churchyard there with the whole congregation taking part in the funeral service. His wife and their three sons and one daughter survived him. Nathaniel's descendant Phillip Pepper (d.1985) was a leader of his people a century later.
Tess De Araugo, 'Pepper, Nathaniel (1841–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pepper-nathaniel-13148/text23799, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 August 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005