thomas james

Thomas Shadrach James: Australian Christian Educator

20 October 2021

2.1 MINS

A most unlikely man, Thomas James, was engaged in education in the early days of Australian schooling. Even more improbable is the fact that he said he went into teaching because ‘God spoke’ to him.

The Life of Thomas Shadrach James

Thomas Shadrach James was born into a Tamil speaking Indian family on the island of Mauritius in 1859.

After his mother died and his father remarried, he immigrated to Australia as a young man. His dream was to be a surgeon so he started studying Medicine at Melbourne University. Nonetheless, he soon became extremely ill with typhoid and had to stop his studies.

James recovered, but the disease had left him with shaky hands and he realised they would never be steady enough for him to operate.

What was he going to do? His dream was crushed.

He was a sad and disappointed young man, a stranger in a strange country. Thomas James found himself at a Christian meeting attended by both white and Aboriginal people. It was held in a marquee in a paddock near the beach.

“God spoke to me at that meeting,” he told people and his life changed direction. It was also at that meeting that he met Janet and Daniel Matthews.

They ran an Aboriginal mission at Maloga on the Murray River.

God’s Calling for Thomas James

James believed that God told him to go and teach these children at the Maloga mission. The Matthews were delighted to hear that he wanted to join the mission, but they couldn’t afford to pay a teacher.

Nevertheless, that didn’t deter James!

Knowing that it was what God wanted for his life, he said he’d teach without being paid.

James turned out to be an incredibly successful teacher! He established an education program attended by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children.

The school flourished with James leading it, and, after two years, in 1883, the NSW Education Department officially appointed him as the salaried headteacher of the Maloga school.

The children and the community looked up to him and he was very popular. When he married a Yorta Yorta woman from the mission, he became accepted thereafter by the Aboriginal people as one of their own.

James’ Christian Concern

As an outstanding educator, Thomas James was concerned for the community and for all aspects of his pupils’ lives, including their spiritual and moral education.

He advocated strongly for equality for all people, petitioning the government for full education for all children at a time when Aboriginal children were second-class citizens in their own country.

He inspired his students. Many of them caught James’ passion for fairness and he taught and guided them to achieve justice and equality for Aboriginal people.

A number of his students contributed significantly to the advancement and recognition of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. These included William Cooper and Bill Ferguson, the instigators of what is now called NAIDOC WEEK.

Sir Douglas Nicholls, the Aboriginal activist who later became the first Aboriginal governor of South Australia was one of James’ pupils.

His own son, Shadrach James trained as a teacher and became his father’s assistant. Thomas James was known and loved as ‘Grandfather James’, a strong role model and an outstanding educator who taught people far more than the school curriculum.


Originally published on DIDUNO. Image from Christianity Today.

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  1. John coverdale 20 October 2021 at 10:52 am - Reply

    Thanks for article, fantastic.! The story of Naidoc week starts with William Cooper in most peoples thinking, in Actual fact it begins with an Obedient Servant named Daniel Matthews who swam rivers to rescue imprisoned Aboriginal women used as sex slaves by pastoralists! The Book “One Blood” by John Harris makes for excellent reading of our History. Thanks again.

  2. Rhonda Pooley 21 October 2021 at 5:04 pm - Reply

    Australia needs to know more of these stories.

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