Radical Books

Review: Australian Aboriginal Protest in Interwar Europe

In June 1921 a letter written by an Australian Aboriginal man living and working in Europe was printed on the front page of Bern’s progressive newspaper Der Bund. In his appeal, A.M. Fernando called upon the Swiss people ‘In the name of humanity… to use all means available… so that all the thinking men and women can learn… how the Australian indigenous people are faring under British administration and rule.’

Thus, for the first time, an Aboriginal person presented the Aboriginal cause directly to the European public, through their own press and from their own streets. In the process an activist career had begun, one that would span several decades and involve its author in a range of actions that eventually would echo all the way back to Australia.

In the mid- to late 1920s, a lone protestor picketed Australia House in London. He wore small toy skeletons pinned around his shoulders. It would seem that Fernando was compelled into action by reports of recent massacres on Australia’s central and northern frontiers – news of which had reached as far as the English metropolis itself. Furthermore, not long after these protests ended Fernando kept several tiny notebooks recording aspect of his life and thought.

Credit: Aboriginal Studies Press

These notebooks reveal another layer of significance to the protests: according to Fernando, his picket was effectively shut down sometime in 1928 through the intervention of one Rev. Pennington, an Australian churchman who had been at the forefront of initiating Anzac Day services and marches in London from before the end of the war. As his church was St Clement Danes, just across the road from Australia House, Fernando’s most well-known protest may well have directly challenged the heightened sentiment of Australian national pride surrounding these annual services and marches in the city. By his very presence on the Strand and through his dramatic street action, Fernando drew attention to Australian Aboriginal war dead in direct contrast to nationalist narratives of mythic battles fought on foreign soil in the name of empire.

There are no known images of Fernando. Just as much of his life remains unknown, so his likeness eludes us. Despite this lack of a photograph to provide a visual cue for our mind’s eye, Fernando’s story is full of strikingly visual moments, including the Australia House picket. It was a career full of action, one shaped by deep emotion and abiding hope as well as despair and anguish.

Born in Sydney in the 1860s, Anthony Martin Fernando travelled to Europe in mid-life where he carried out numerous protests. He was never to return but for the rest of his life continued to enjoy an independent itinerancy and only occasionally secured reliable employment. His various acts of political agency and political writings (letters, pamphlets, a few small notebooks) during the second half of his life constitute a compelling new insight into one largely self-educated intellectual’s first-hand account of Indigenous conditions under colonialism in the British imperial empire.

Men’s hostel in Vienna where Fernando stayed in 1921. Photograph taken by author

The past decades have witnessed a growing awareness of the colonial histories of exploitation, oppression and sometimes murder that have fundamentally impacted Aboriginal Australians’ lives and continue to do so into the present. In the process of this emerging comprehension, it has come to be assumed that Aboriginal people who travelled to Europe before the Second World War would only have done so under the authority of Europeans. Yet Fernando travelled independently from Australia sometime in the early 1900s and actively sought to maintain his autonomy throughout his life. Forty years later, after working variously as a cook, metalworker, manservant, and many times as a street trader in England and Europe, he passed away in post-war London having never returned to Australia. Just before he left and while overseas, Fernando carried out a series of creative and striking public protests on behalf of Aboriginal Australia. In my book, The Lone Protestor: A.M. Fernando in Australia and Europe (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012), I follow his extraordinary life through archives in Australia, Austria, Italy and Switzerland.

In addition to exceeding our assumptions about the possibility of international travel for Aboriginal Australians until after the Second World War, Fernando’s activism contributes a remarkable new voice to the diversity of Aboriginal political thought and action within Aboriginal Australia of his generation. Aboriginal political organizations were forming by the early interwar years and many were influenced by – or sought to engage with – British and European interest in the Aboriginal cause (for example, Aboriginal activist William Cooper and his petition to the British King, begun in 1935 but blocked by the Australian government when Cooper sought to have it forwarded to London in 1938).  But by literally speaking from overseas and occupying city streetscapes, or the pages of progressive media (through a letter in the Swiss press in 1921), by pamphleteering Roman Catholic pilgrims during an international Jubilee in Rome in 1925, or by using the dock at the Old Bailey as his political stage, Fernando brought an immediacy to the question of aboriginality and its relationship to settler colonialism or their combined relationship to criticisms of the British empire in the modern era.

No. 2 Hare Court, Inner Temple, London. Fernando worked in this building as a manservant for several years in the 1920s. Photograph taken by author

According to Fernando’s analysis, the treatment of Aboriginal Australia stood for the lowest ebb of European civilization – the point at which the abiding flaw within colonial discourse was revealed in all its brutality. Over several decades, he spoke out where and when he could against the gulf between the justice and humanity proclaimed by modern empire and its reality. While decolonization in a territorial sense might be central to debates about the supposed eventual ‘end’ of empire in the interwar years, Fernando realized that Indigenous peoples in the settler colonies would have to create another kind of future. He concluded that this future would rely not simply on a full and proper access to ‘civilization’ (on their own terms), but because of the important historical role he saw for them in the renewal of European culture itself. Given Britain as a world power had been deeply corrupted by its own colonial history, Fernando advised that world progress would only be assured through drawing from the inherently progressive capacities of Indigenous people – ‘the Lords and Ladies of Australasia’.

As I argue in my new book about Fernando, although little known in his lifetime and only now beginning to be recognized Fernando is one of the most remarkable figures in Aboriginal, Australian and arguably world history. Growing awareness of his significance may be due to the increasingly transnational outlook in Australian and Aboriginal history in Australia. My own background in transnational history, histories of internationalism and Anglo-Australian humanitarianism has provided a useful framework for writing the story of an Aboriginal Australian protestor in London and Europe. Similarly, new studies of indenture, immigration and mobility have helped to disturb analyses of white/Aboriginal Australia that overlook the many other ‘races’ and groups variously present throughout Australian colonial and modern history.

One of the many gaps in the archival record or in surviving memory of Fernando concerns the first decades of his life, including the father he never discussed. While he often referred to his mother as an abiding force in his life, despite their early separation, his father’s background remains entirely unknown. Given quite late in life Fernando revealed his parents’ surname was Silva, and given he advised Anglo-Australian supporters and English employers who came to know him in London that he had adopted the name ‘Fernando’ in honour of the Italian people (whom he saw as least racist among Europeans), it seems quite likely that Fernando’s father was part of a larger history of interaction between South Asians, Sri Lankans and others – ex-sailors, indentured workers or traders –and Aboriginal women in Australia during the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries.

Travelling by sea among many such intersecting diasporas circling the globe within and between empires and colonies, Fernando brought a particularly Aboriginal Australian perspective to the pressing subjects of his day: the reform of colonialism, the potential of internationalism to be applied in the settler colonies; world religion and politics; the future of the Indigenous peoples as a force in world affairs. All of these and more were brought together in the issue that inspired Fernando throughout his life: the future of Aboriginal Australia.

A recent interview with the author can be found here on Radio National Australia.

You can also listen to a 2007 radio documentary here, which includes dramatization of some of Fernando’s own words.

The Lone Protestor can be purchased from Aboriginal Studies Press

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