Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Emma Jane Callaghan (1884-1979) - Aboriginal nurse and midwife

Note to Readers: The following story is largely drawn from Shay Ann Kelly's biographical entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography on-line edition. My focus is on the New England connection. Those interested in the full story should read Shay's full entry.

Shay Kelly records that Emma Callaghan was born on 28 February 1884 at La Perouse Aborigines' Reserve, Sydney, the younger of twins of William Foot, fisherman, and Kathleen Sims of the Dharawal tribe. At the age of 4 she injured her head and was tended by Retta Dixon who was to found the Aborigines' Inland Mission of Australia.

Although Emma left school after third grade, she wanted to be a nurse. About 1903 Dixon took her to visit the Dunggutti (Dainggatti) people at the Nulla Nulla Aborigines' Reserve near Bellbrook in the Upper Macleay Valley. The Reserve had been founded in 1885 upon 36.4 hectares of Aboriginal Protection Land.

Unlike her mother, Emma had fair skin, blue eyes and red hair. She believed that she had a mission among her people. Returning to Bellbrook about 1905, she attended Sunday services and learned to play the organ; she also helped older Aboriginal women when they assisted in childbirth, earning their trust and respect.

From that time she registered Aboriginal births. In addition, she regularly searched the camps and humpies for sick people, crossing flooded creeks and riding through the bush to tend her patients: Aborigines were not admitted to Kempsey hospital until an annexe was built in the 1930s. Emma held religious services for the Dungguttis in the open air under trees or in the small, crudely-built, tin church on the reserve. With the police as witnesses, she buried the dead.

On 20 September 1909 at Nulla Nulla Aborigines' Reserve Emma married Athol Callaghan, a 22-year-old labourer and a Dunggutti of mixed descent; they were to have eleven children. A competent needlewoman, she made her own hats, as well as clothes for herself, the family and the community (even wedding dresses and ball gowns). During the childhood of her eldest son Harry, she began to learn the intricacies of the tribal language and translated Bible stories into Dunggutti.

About 1928 Mrs Callaghan moved to Armidale to be closer to medical facilities for her husband who was suffering from tuberculosis. Finding that Aborigines were living in appalling conditions on the fringes of the town, she lobbied the mayor and the Anglican bishop until her family obtained a house. Her home soon became an impromptu hospital; she practised as midwife to her people and nursed them without charge. Dr Ellen Kent Hughes visited the Callaghans' home to see patients and any local Aboriginal family in need of treatment. Highly respected among the White community, Emma encountered no personal prejudice.

I found the Armidale link very interesting. On the surface, Armidale appears to have been a special case in its reactions to Aboriginal people. Yet I am not sure of this. Is it just because we do not understand the full complexity of indigenous relations with what was then a largely European community?

At Athol's request, the family returned to La Perouse after seven years at Armidale. Through the Homes for Unemployed Trust, in 1939 Emma bought a block of land near the mission, and a timber-and-fibro house was built to plans provided by her friend Kent Hughes.

From here, Emma's story becomes largely a Sydney story. I will leave it to you to follow up.


Daughter of the King said...

This woman, Emma Jane Callaghan-Cook, was my great grandmother, of who I am so very proud. She has inspired me towards missionary work also and has left an amazing Christian legacy through my family for which I will be eternally grateful. She literally paved the way of faith, by which I now walk also through God's grace. I thank God for her faith that has inspired me to run with Him also. How good is the Lord! And how great are His ways.

Jim Belshaw said...

Happy new year DofK. I think that you do indeed have a great grandmother to be very proud of. How did the Christian legacy follow through your family?