Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

Lancelot Threlkeld, Biraban, and the Colonial Bible in Australia

Hilary M. Careya1 c1

a1 University of Newcastle, New South Wales

Ethnographers, historians, and linguists have argued for many years about the nature of the relationship between missionaries and their collaborators. Critics of missionary linguistics and education have pointed out that Bible translations were tools forged for the cultural conquest of native people and that missionary impacts on local cultures nearly always destructive and frequently overwhelming (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997; Rafael 1988; Sanneh 1989). Sociolinguistic readings of scripture translation have emphasized the cultural loss inherent in the act of translation and even seemingly benign activities such as dictionary making (Errington 2001; Peterson 1999; Tomlinson 2006). To make this point, Rafael (1988: xvii) notes the semantic links between the various Spanish words for conquest (conquista), conversion (conversión), and translation (traducción). Historians, on the other hand, have generally been more skeptical about the power of mere words to exert hegemonic pressure on colonized people and have emphasized the more tangible power of guns and commerce as agents of empire (Porter 2004). Few would deny the symbolic power of the Bible as a representation of colonial domination, as in the saying attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu by Cox (2008: 4): “When the white man arrived, he had the Bible and we had the land; now, we have the Bible and he has the land.”


Acknowledgments: I thank the Australian Research Council for funding research visits to consult the London Missionary Society archives in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, the British and Foreign Bible Library in Cambridge University Library, and the Sir George Grey collection in Auckland City Library. Thanks also to Edward James for photography. An early version of this paper was presented at the first meeting of the Australian Society for the History of Pacific Linguistics, Australian National University, Canberra, on 1 August 2008. I am indebted to the CSSH referees for their painstaking comments that helped deepen my interpretation. The deficiencies are my own.