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Florence Nightingale helped indigenous health

A joint study between an outback missionary and the famous nurse in the 1860s showed an advanced and caring attitude towards Aboriginal people. By Tiffany Shellam

Today the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in health, education and social wellbeing is huge, with experts offering different opinions as to the cause, prevention and solutions.
I do not claim to be an expert, or to offer a solution. I am a historian; someone who is interested in the connections between the past and its persistence and effects in the present.

Recently I came across a connection between a Benedictine missionary in Western Australia and nurse Florence Nightingale in the 1860s. Nightingale conducted a study on the mortality rates of indigenous children attending native colonial schools across the British Empire. Like many colonial observers in 1860 Nightingale was anguished as to why Aboriginal children were contracting preventable diseases and dying from the same diseases that non-indigenous children would recover from quickly. Her research question: “Can we civilise the natives without killing them?” was sent, along with a statistical questionnaire, to all the principles or missionaries who were schooling indigenous children.

Whether or not her study offered a solution or prevention to what many at the time saw as inevitable, it could prove useful to contemporary nurses working in the area of indigenous health.

The missionary, Rosendo Salvado, was the principle of New Norcia mission. Salvado participated in Nightingale’s study. Drawing on his experience of daily encounters with the Yuat community, he supplied detailed statistics to Nightingale and discussed with her his philosophy of safe civilisation and Christian conversion of colonised peoples.

At a time when Aboriginal extinction was a common belief, the two attempted to find practical solutions to Aboriginal depopulation. They were part of a small, but growing, group of observers who used social statistics and knowledge gained from spending time with indigenous people to inform their ideas about Aboriginal capabilities in health, education and survival.

Salvado discounted missionaries for giving up on Aboriginal people when faced with disease and depopulation. He believed that these failed missionary endeavours had not been “correctly supportive” of indigenous people.

He had a vision of a self-supporting mission village of Aboriginal families living and working on their own country. It was hoped that Aborigines living at the mission would experience a sense of social stability, denied to other groups forced off their lands by settlement or herded into centralised reserves.

Salvado wrote about the fine balance between Christian instruction, agricultural training, physical exercise, continuing Aboriginal cultural practice and missionary “patience”. In 1859, in a letter to another missionary, Salvado revealed his optimism: “Ploughing is over, with half the work done by the [Aboriginal] Australians …They have to be given time, and allowed to go away on their own business; they usually come back, and bring others with them. It is hard work, but not, as some say, impossible.”

Nightingale connected with him through her survey in 1860. She had just returned from nursing in the Crimean War where the death rate from preventable disease was seven times that from wounds. Her commitment to indigenous people’s wellbeing and mortality sprang from her interest in sanitation and the prevention of infectious diseases in hospitals and armies.

Salvado’s return form for Nightingale described New Norcia’s focus on outdoor education and play, slow Christian conversion, agricultural training and traditional Aboriginal cultural practices. His form shows that none of the children residing at New Norcia had died in 1860.

In response to other failed missionary attempts, Salvado encouraged a degree of self-determination for the Aboriginal residents to prevent homesickness, which he believed caused actual death. He wrote of the Aboriginal boys’ and girls’ “three-week long bush-holidays”. Another missionary at New Norcia wrote of how these holidays prevented illness and death: “Every Thursday…all the native boys and girls…go out through the forest…hunting. They enjoy very much such excursions, and whenever they return home after having such a recreation, evidently they appear to have improved their health.”

Rather than diseases in themselves being the cause of Aboriginal depopulation, Salvado pondered, “I cannot help thinking that the true reason must be another”. Addressing Nightingale’s research question he found it “not a simple question but a difficult problem”. He agreed with her statement that Aborigines “seem to be as yet a mystery to the medical world” and that her colonial returns “throw little light on the causes of the disappearance of native races, unless these are to be found in the great prevalence of tubercular and chest diseases”. Salvado did not answer the medical mystery directly. Rather, his solution focused on prevention.

Encouraging temporary return to country and kin was a rule that Nightingale endorsed as part of her belief in gradual conversion. She expressed a similar sentiment in her 1860 paper on Maori depopulation, stating that indigenous people must not entirely relinquish their cultural traditions.

Their remedy reveals a sensitivity to Aboriginal wellbeing and to Aborigines’ own belief that being away from their country for too long caused actual sickness. This was certainly the Aboriginal people’s own explanation and the historical and present-day record is littered with comments about Aboriginal people being “heartsick” or “homesick” for country.

Salvado believed the “self-interest” of Aboriginal people was the real prevention for Aboriginal illness and death. This self-interest included settling on country, owning that country and reaping the benefits from agricultural production.

The conclusion and publication of Nightingale’s study drew heavily on the ideas and practice of Salvado. She also believed that with greater sensitivity and patience, Aboriginal people could be helped to adjust to colonial life and survive and that Salvado’s strategy of self-interest would ensure that Aboriginal people would participate effectively in the wider colonial community.

The Yuat showed Salvado what they needed to do in order to survive through their requests to stay close to kin and country and to keep practising traditional customs alongside new ways of being.

Today, interactions between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians can likewise benefit from the sorts of measured conversations that Salvado and the Yuat engaged in.

Dr Tiffany Shellam is a lecturer in the school of humanities at Deakin University.

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