Thomas Shadrach James: Teacher and community leader

by Graham McDonald 

One of Australia’s early educators came to teaching in a surprising way … 

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

He emigrated to Australia as a young man, after his mother died and his father remarried. His dream was to be a surgeon, so he started studying Medicine at Melbourne University. But he became very ill with typhoid and had to stop his studies. He recovered, but the typhoid 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. But one day, Thomas found himself at a Christian meeting attended by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It was held in a marquee in a paddock near the beach. 

‘God spoke to me at that meeting,’ he later told people. 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. 

Thomas believed that God was telling him to go and teach the children at the Maloga mission. The Matthews were delighted to hear the news that Thomas wanted to join the mission, but there was a problem: they couldn’t afford to pay a teacher.  

That didn’t stop Thomas! Knowing that it was what God wanted for his life, he said he’d teach without being paid. 

He turned out to be a very successful teacher! He established an education program attended by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. The school flourished with Thomas leading it, and after two years, in 1883, the New South Wales Education Department officially appointed James as the head teacher of the Maloga school – with a salary. 

The children and the community looked up to Thomas and he was very popular. When he married a Yorta Yorta woman from the mission he became accepted ever after by the Indigenous people as one of them. 

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

Thomas spoke strongly about equality for all people. He petitioned the government for full education for all children at a time when Indigenous children were treated as second-class citizens in their own country and did not always have fair access to education.  

Thomas inspired his students to work for justice, too. Many of them caught his passion for fairness and he taught and guided them to achieve justice and equality for Indigenous people. 

This created an important legacy. A number of his students grew up to contribute significantly to the advancement and recognition of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. These students included William Cooper and Bill Ferguson, some of the people whose work led to what is now called NAIDOC week. Sir Douglas Nicholls, the Aboriginal activist who later became the first Indigenous governor of South Australia, was also one of his students. 

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

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