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Rodolphe Samuel Schenk (1888–1969)

by R. H. W. Reece

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Rodolphe Samuel Schenk (1888-1969), missionary, was born on 29 October 1888 at Macorna, Victoria, son of John Francis Schenk, a Scottish-born stationmaster, and his Victorian-born wife Elizabeth, née Bell. He attended a New South Wales interdenominational theological college and in 1917 joined the United Aborigines' Mission. From Walgett, where he built a bag church and a wooden hut for himself, he ministered to Aboriginal communities, travelling long distances by motor cycle, addressing meetings and making converts. In 1920 he spent four months in Melbourne preparing for a new mission on the Western Australian goldfields.

Choosing the old Mount Margaret goldfield, he leased its common and began to erect huts and raise goats to finance provision of rations. Soon groups of Aborigines came to 'sit down' at the mission and helped to build fences, shepherd goats and pull sandalwood. His success in attracting Aborigines and his policy of paying them modest wages antagonized local pastoralists who tried to sabotage the mission and have it moved into the desert.

In Melbourne on 14 October 1922 Schenk married Isobel May Johnston, a typist; at Mount Margaret she taught crafts to the women. The products helped to finance the mission, as did the publication of Schenk's 'prayer letters' by the U.A.M. and concerts given by the Mount Margaret Minstrels. School classes began in 1926 and from 1932 Mrs Mary Bennett taught there; it was in basic literacy and numeracy, craft and vocational training that the mission made its greatest impact.

Mount Margaret had been secure from 1927 when police began to entrust Aborigines of part-descent who were state wards to Schenk's care rather than to the Moore River government settlement north of Perth. This was approved by the chief protector of Aborigines Auber Neville, who strengthened Schenk's hand by making the mission a central rationing station. Thirty children were accommodated in the first Graham Home by 1930; parents were encouraged to settle at the mission—unlike the dormitory-based régimes of other Aboriginal institutions. The mission used a 'no work, no rations' formula; earning opportunities expanded with the installation of a small ore-crushing battery, and low-grade alluvial ore was exploited by Aboriginal miners. Others learned carpentry, shearing and station work.

Schenk originally purchased miners' huts and building material which he reassembled at Mount Margaret; the Depression allowed him to buy more buildings. Water was a problem but medical facilities were provided by Mrs Bennett's gift of the Christison Memorial Hospital in 1936. By 1933 the European staff at Mount Margaret numbered ten, there were forty-one students at the school and the mission had the appearance of a regular township.

Difficulties surfaced when Aboriginal elders resisted Schenk's unsympathetic and fundamentalist interference with traditional practices. He opposed infanticide, the ritual drinking of blood, the use of sacred boards (which he thought were deified), and in-law avoidance laws which undermined his mass meetings. While not conversant with the local languages, he advised his subordinates to learn them and his daughters became fluent.

Mount Margaret was visited in 1930 by Adolphus Peter Elkin and Phyllis Kaberry who hoped to conduct field-work there. Elkin later criticized Schenk's attitude to traditional Aboriginal beliefs; in turn the missionary accused the anthropologists of fostering 'works of darkness' and 'the resurgence of the devil'. However, J. B. Birdsell and Norman Tindale, who came in 1939, thought Mount Margaret 'the best solution to the pressing half-caste problem'. Supporting the mission's assimilationist approach, Tindale predicted that it would become less relevant to Aborigines as they entered white society. Nevertheless, Schenk bitterly opposed the 'merge' and 'absorb' policy for Aborigines of mixed descent which Neville advocated; he resented the chief protector's complaint that the growing Mount Margaret population was undermining assimilation.

After World War II outside employment attracted many older residents but they were replaced by tribal people from the Central Reserve. Schenk had contributed to setting up another U.A.M. settlement at Warburton Range in 1933.

In 1954 Schenk retired to his farm near Esperance where he died on 7 August 1969, survived by his wife, three daughters and son. He had been one of the best mission administrators, his management skills ensuring his unpaid staff's continuity of service. His reading on developments in Africa influenced his educational policies and he was regarded as an authority on Aboriginal affairs. Many Mount Margaret people found responsible jobs and the mission became an important reference point for Aborigines' emerging identity. Mount Margaret Mission closed in 1975, and the lands were transferred to the Aboriginal Movement for Outback Survival.

Select Bibliography

  • H. P. Smith (ed), The First Ten Years of Mt Margaret, W.A. (Melb, 1933)
  • R. M. and C. H. Berndt (eds), Aborigines of the West (Perth, 1979)
  • R. W. Schenk and M. R. Morgan (compilers), Father's Photos (Albany, WA, 1983)
  • M. R. Morgan, A Drop in the Bucket (Melb, 1986)
  • S. Judd and K. Cable, Sydney Anglicans (Syd, 1987)
  • University Studies in Western Australian History, vol 3, no 4, 1960
  • West Australian, 14 Aug 1969
  • J. E. Stanton, Conflict, Change and Stability at Mt Margaret: an Aboriginal Community in Transition (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1984).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. H. W. Reece, 'Schenk, Rodolphe Samuel (1888–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 October, 1888
Macorna, Victoria, Australia


7 August, 1969 (aged 80)
Esperance, Western Australia, Australia

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