Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, Christina (1809–1893)

by Leith G. MacGillivray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Christina Smith (1809?-1893), teacher and missionary, was born probably on 25 July 1809 at Glenlyon, Perthshire, Scotland, one of nine children of devout Presbyterian parents James Menzies, tenant farmer, and his wife Catherine McNaughton. About 1832 Christina married Finlay Stewart. After her husband's death she migrated to Victoria with two brothers and her son Duncan Stewart (1833-1913), reaching Port Phillip in the David Clark on 27 October 1839.

Christina worked for five months as a housekeeper for Rev. William Waterfield and nursed her ill brother. On 19 October 1841 she married with Presbyterian forms James Smith (1796-1860), a minister's son who had emigrated from Scotland in 1840 and was teaching at a day school in Collins Street Congregational Church vestry. They had eight children. In 1845 the Smiths moved to Rivoli Bay south (Greytown), an isolated port in south-eastern South Australia, where Christina was the sole European woman. James worked variously as postmaster, agent for the South Australian Co. and as storekeeper for his brother-in-law Captain Emanuel Underwood, a coastal trader. According to her son Duncan, her husband did not treat Christina well.

Convinced that Aborigines were victims of European aggression, disease and land depredation, Christina 'yearned to be used by God' in ministering to 'the miserable remnant' of the formerly numerous and powerful Booandik (Buandig) people, whose territory ranged from the mouth of the Glenelg River to Beachport. At their request, as their numbers were rapidly diminishing Smith began recording their customs, legends and social relationships for the 'antiquary, historian and philologist'. Duncan compiled a Booandik vocabulary and was appointed interpreter in 1853, having acted in the position since he was 14. In that capacity, he attended legal proceedings throughout the district and in Adelaide.

In 1854 the family moved to a small farm near Mount Gambier. Despite her frail physique, Christina supplemented their income by undertaking physically demanding work on nearby sheep runs. Next year the Smiths opened a night school where they nurtured Aboriginal orphans and taught adults of mixed race until James's death on 4 January 1860. In 1864 Mrs Smith published as a pamphlet a memoir of Wergon, an Aboriginal Christian convert, and in 1865 Caroline and Her Family. That year, with funding from Lady Burdett-Coutts provided through Bishop Short, Mrs Smith achieved her long-held dream of establishing a school and home for local Aboriginal children, in Commercial Street West, Mount Gambier. Her pupils learned prayers and hymns and completed religious exercises based on Scripture. Proof of her claim that Aborigines were not 'too low intellectually or morally to be either Christianised or civilised', students left her school literate and prepared for service locally. Due to an epidemic and loss of support, however, only four students remained in 1867 and the school closed in 1868 to become a home for Aborigines.

In 1880 as Mrs James Smith she published The Booandik Tribe of South Australian Aborigines, an account of their rites of passage, songs and language, with brief biographies of fourteen converts. An influential ethnography, blending scholarly observation with personal narrative, it was a unique window onto an Aboriginal-settler frontier. In 1881 she contributed to the work of A. W. Howitt. Christina Smith died on 28 April 1893 at Mount Gambier and was buried in Lake Terrace cemetery. Duncan Stewart, and three sons and three daughters of her second marriage, survived her. In 1994 the Mount Gambier building in which she had established her school was classified for its heritage value.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Carthew, Rivoli Bay (Millicent, SA, 1974)
  • T. McCourt and H. Mincham (compilers), Two Notable South Australians (Beachport, SA, 1977)
  • B. Dickey (ed), The Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography (Syd, 1994)
  • W. Prest (ed), The Wakefield Companion to South Australian History (Adel, 2001)
  • Mt Gambier Heritage Survey (1994)
  • Australian Feminist Studies, 16, no 34, Mar 2001, pp 83 & 91
  • Border Watch, 29 Apr 1893, p 2
  • South-Eastern Star, 2 May 1893, p 2
  • Observer (Adelaide), 6 May 1893, p 15
  • C. Smith diary (State Library of South Australia)
  • D. Stewart diary (State Library of South Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Leith G. MacGillivray, 'Smith, Christina (1809–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-christina-13198/text23895, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Menzies, Christina
  • Stewart, Christina
Birth

25 July 1809
Glenyon, Perthshire, Scotland

Death

28 April 1893
Mount Gambier, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation