The story is interesting because it highlights how varied the attitude to Aborigines was in colonial times. In this case, there was too high an expectation placed on the two Aboriginal boys:
On January 8, 1849, filled with hope and eager expectation, Francis Xavier Conaci, 7, and John Baptist Dirimera, 11, left Perth with Rosendo Salvado, the energetic abbot of the Benedictine monastery at New Norcia, 160 kilometres north of Perth.In Europe, the Aboriginal boys were lionised:
This extraordinary journey was part of Salvado's great mission, conducted over more than 50 years, to enculturate the Aborigines into Christianity. He lived and camped with them, wrote dictionaries of their language and lobbied for them with colonial authorities.
Conaci and Dirimera were from the Yuat tribe, and had begged Salvado to take them to Rome. The Benedictines hoped to train the boys in European ways and send them as missionaries to the Aborigines of Western Australia.
In Rome, they met Pope Pius IX, who presented them with their distinctive black woollen Benedictine habits, and told Conaci: ''Australia needs a second Francis Xavier; may the Lord bless this boy, and make him into one!''
Salvado presented them to the king and queen of the Two Sicilies, and then to meet the king and queen of Naples at the palace in Gaeta outside the city...
Both boys were granted patents of nobility by the king and admitted to the College of Nobles.
Things went well at first, with the boys doing well at their studies. But as with so many attempts at assimilation, the experiment ultimately failed:
But in March 1853, the abbot at La Cava warned the Vatican about the poor health of the Aboriginal novices. Doctors, including the Pope's physician - believing that the boys' illnesses were exacerbated by homesickness - advised that they should be sent back to Australia.
Conaci spent two months in a Naples hospital, then moved to the abbey at St Paul's Outside the Walls to recuperate. But his condition worsened and he died on October 10, 1853. Dirimera arrived back in Australia in May 1855 a broken boy. Salvado had a hut built for him in the bush and visited him regularly, but Dirimera died in August. ''They pined away,'' Hayes says.
The Benedictines were demoralised by the deaths and never again sought to recruit Aborigines to the order. "It may be that Salvado lost all hope or got depressed by the whole idea," says Peter Hocking, archivist at the New Norcia monastery.
The problem was not a lack of idealism but an underestimation of how difficult assimilation would be.