A new book tells the remarkable story of how the message of Jesus was able to reach an ancient Australian culture.
Makarrata: The Australians of Arnhem Land, has been written by accomplished Australian author, Michael Chambers, and is a riveting look at how the first Australians came in connection with both the Gospel, and revival.
During a recent interview, I spoke with Michael, at home in Mildura on the Murray River in northwest Victoria. During our discussions, Michael told me that he arrived in Australia from New Zealand as a young man to explore the Outback. He eventually managed remote sheep and cattle stations, before starting a successful career with mining giant, BHP, and settling in Darwin with his growing family.
He spent time in ministry with the Yolngu communities in Arnhem Land and owned several iconic fishing tackle shops, before retiring in Mildura at the age of seventy with his wife, their five children, and eleven grandchildren.
Michael’s second book, Makarrata is a prequel to his previous work, WALKING AMONG THE STARS. That book was a historical fiction set in the Lake Mungo district of western NSW, centred on the Ngiyampaa people who still live there and their experiences of European settlement.
When I asked him what made him write Makarrata, he told the following story.
“In 1994 I was asked to lead a group of about thirty Aboriginal people from Arnhem Land to Israel for Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles,” he said. We had didgeridoo and clapsticks; we were painted up and sang and danced for eight thousand Jewish and prominent political people.”
He went on to explain that these Yolngu people are still living, fishing and hunting on their own lands, and English was generally a second or third language. They had invited him to teach about Biblical marriage and his love of Israel. He was asked to speak at many gatherings and invited to participate in some important ceremonies.
I was surprised when he told me that many from the mostly Christian community had already visited Israel, some more than once. About a decade prior to this, there was a mighty revival in the Church there, which has persisted to this day. Even now, they are very spiritual people.
“While we were travelling in Israel, I pondered these unexpected circumstances, and that’s when I first had the idea to write a book, an historical fiction that in part examines reasons as to why a remote Aboriginal church in a still largely tribal community could have such a manifest love of the Jewish people,” Michael continued.
“I found the answer to that when I finally researched the subject, some thirty years later!”
I then asked about Makarrata and its meaning. Michael explained that in the Yolngu tradition, the term has several meanings, including the restoration of peace after a dispute, a treaty or agreement, and legal connotations that can signify a ceremonial trial, like one of the stories told in the book.
Michael also shared that he wrote the book to address some misconceptions about missionaries and their impact on modern Aboriginal culture and lifestyle. He believes, as do many Yolngu, that without the Christian teachings and economic intervention of the missionaries, the people would have lost both their lands and their culture.
He pointed out that the book covers a broad range of topics, starting at the beginning of time, and including the Yolngu people’s long history, encounters with cannibals, finding 14th-century African coins on a remote beach, and their relationship with deadly snakes and sharks. It also explores tales of witchcraft and sorcery, romance, healing, and redemption.
“Makarrata is a series of interlinked stories, covering a period of about 6000 years,” Michael told me about the book and its characters. “So many characters come and go. The main characters appear later in the book. In 1920, a young Edward Cornish arrived home from the war in Palestine. After the Australian army liberated Jerusalem, Ted stayed behind to spend a year with a group of learned rabbis in the Old City.
“Finally returning to his hometown of Gellibrand, in the Otway’s, he marries his childhood sweetheart Betty and dedicates his life to bringing the gospel to Aboriginal people. The Methodist Missionary Society sends him to remote Murŋginy Island, off the coast of Arnhem land. Together, the couple raises a family, and as well as bringing Good News to their new Yolngu friends. They also encourage the beginnings of a successful sawmilling business, market gardens and a commercial fishing operation.”
Mike also believes that Makarrata: The First Australians of Arnhemland will be informative, inspiring, and a valuable source of insight and context for those interested in Aboriginal affairs.
I now realise the unique viewpoint that Michael Chambers brings to the topic. For example, his experiences living and working with Aboriginal culture and communities, as well as his travels to Israel and exposure to Jewish culture, give him a unique perspective on the intersection of different cultures and traditions.
Makarrata: The Australians of Arnhemland is now available globally.