The Grand Experiment: Two Boys, Two Cultures by Anouk Ride

The Grand Experiment: Two Boys, Two Cultures by Anouk Ride

grand experiment

The Grand Experiment is the story of the Benedictines work in New Norcia in the West Australian wheatbelt, this volume explores a fascinating story from the mid-19th century (less than 20 years after the establishment of the Swan River Colony).

The Spanish missionary Rosendo Salvado thought that he could prove that Aboriginal people could be educated and ‘civilised’, by taking Aboriginal boys to be schooled in Europe.  Eventually, two boys, aged seven and ten, were sent by sea to enter a monastery in Naples; unfortunately only one survived.  The author tells this story from Australia’s colonial history in a compelling way; including her quest to draw together the various elements of the story.

In telling the story of Salvado a Benedictine missionary who worked to establish the New Norcia Mission in the years 1846-47, this book provides an insight into the early contact between the local Yuet people of the area and suggests the missionary aims of the monks as enlightened in contrast to that of early settlers.

It records accounts of Yuet peoples becoming more and more dependent on the rations and medical treatment of the missionaries – as their traditional lands are taken up for farming.  The story follows the lives of the first two Aboriginal boys taken from their families and transported to a Benedictine monastery in Italy to be educated as monks. It seems that Salvado wanted to prove that the native Aborigine was capable of being educated.

Also striking is the decay and sense of loss, confusion and abandonment being suffered by displaced Aboriginal people this early in the history of the Swan River Colony.  The two boys when taken for a trip from New Norcia to Perth are struck by the impoverishment of their fellow Noongar people there.

Eventually only one of the boys return home (Conaci died in Italy) and Dirimera returns to find the Yuet community decimated by disease and loss of hope.

The Grand Experiment is a good introduction to the mindset of Roman Catholic missionary work in the early days of European contact with Aboriginal people in Western Australia.

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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