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Shadrach Livingstone James (1890–1956)

by George E. Nelson

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This is a shared entry with Thomas Shadrach James

Thomas Shadrach James (1859-1946), schoolteacher, and Shadrach Livingstone James (1890-1956), Aboriginal activist, were father and son. Thomas was born on 1 September 1859 at Moka, Mauritius, son of Samson Peersahib, an Indian interpreter, and his wife Miriam Esther, née Thomas (d.1876). Named Shadrach James Peersahib, he received his early education at a private school in Port Louis. When his mother died and his father remarried, he boarded a boat for Australia.

Soon after he arrived, Shadrach contracted typhoid fever. He was befriended by Aboriginal people who treated him with a traditional herbal medicine (old man weed). Having recovered, he dropped the surname Peersahib in favour of James and adopted the Christian name Thomas in memory of his mother. In 1881 he met Daniel Matthews, a Cornish missionary who was conducting a revival meeting on the beach at Brighton, Melbourne. James responded to his request for a volunteer teacher at the Maloga Aboriginal School, New South Wales, where he worked for the next two years without payment. On 1 October 1883 he was appointed head teacher by the Department of Public Instruction. He married Ada Bethel Cooper on 14 May 1885 at Maloga with Presbyterian forms.

When the Maloga residents were shifted in 1888 to the government reserve, Cummeragunja (Cumeroogunga), James reopened his school there and educated a number of Aborigines who were to become active in the early political movement: they included his wife, brother-in-law William Cooper, and later Jack Patten, James's nephew (Sir) Douglas Nicholls, and Eric and William Onus, founders (1933) of the Australian Aborigines' League. James also served as a Methodist lay preacher. He conducted a dispensary on Cummeragunja mission and assisted visiting doctors to perform minor operations.

After his retirement from teaching in 1922, James moved to Barmah, Victoria, and then to Melbourne. He set up a visiting herbal and masseur business from his North Fitzroy home and specialized in the treatment of arthritis. While in Melbourne he published a book on Aboriginal culture, Heritage in Stone. Survived by his two sons and four daughters, he died on 9 January 1946 at Shepparton and was buried in Cummeragunja cemetery with the forms of the Churches of Christ.

Thomas's and Ada's third child and eldest son, Shadrach, was born on 15 May 1890 at Cummeragunja. He received his early education at his father's school before passing the teachers' examination and working under him as his assistant. At Christ Church, Echuca, Victoria, on 15 December 1909 he married Maggie Campbell with Anglican rites. In their North Fitzroy home, Shadrach and his father gathered together a small pioneering group of politically minded Aboriginal people. On behalf of the group, Shadrach addressed various organizations and lobbied for improvements to the conditions under which Aborigines lived and worked.

In 1928 Shadrach moved with his family to Mooroopna, in the Goulburn Valley, to obtain employment in the fruit-picking and canning industry. He took a position at the Ardmona Fruit Products Co-operative Co. Ltd. Because of his education and capacity for public speaking, he was elected secretary of the local branch of the Food Preservers' Union and vice-president of the Goulburn district council. To the local Aboriginal people he became spokesman, lobbyist, legal adviser and representative, organizer of functions and letter writer.

As honorary secretary (1928-55) of the Aboriginal Progressive Association of Victoria, James persisted with his appeals, in copperplate handwriting. He asked for full education standards for Aborigines and the teaching of technical subjects, for land and the facilities to develop it, and for employment of Aborigines in the public service. He also advocated Federal rather than State responsibility for Aborigines, Aboriginal representation in parliament, and equal rights and citizenship for all Aborigines in the Commonwealth. He recommended payment of the maternity allowance to Aboriginal women, recognition of tribal law in the Northern Territory, and the appointment of educated Aborigines to the Department of Native Affairs. His requests were dismissed by government officials, one of whom minuted: 'S. L. James is not an Aboriginal . . . His father is an Indian and his mother is a half-caste Aboriginal'. James died of myocardial infarction on 7 August 1956 at Geelong and was buried with Presbyterian forms in Mooroopna cemetery; his wife, three sons and two of his four daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Cato, Mister Maloga (Brisb, 1976)
  • Historical Society of Mooroopna, Mooroopna to 1988 (Shepparton, Vic, 1989)
  • Aboriginal and Islander Identity, 3, Jan 1979
  • Australian Historical Studies, 25, no 101, Oct 1993
  • James letters, 1926-56, A431/1 item 49/686, and A659/1 item 45/1/4924 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

George E. Nelson, 'James, Shadrach Livingstone (1890–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 May, 1890
Cumeroogunga, New South Wales, Australia


7 August, 1956 (aged 66)
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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