Tuesday, November 17, 2009

the remarkable story of Anthony Martin Fernando Aboriginal rights activist

Portrait of Anthony Martin Fernando
by Raj Nagi from the exhibition From Little Things Big Things Grow
"I have pleaded my people's cause since 1887. I have seen whites in Australia go unpunished for murdering and ill treating Aborigines. I have been boycotted everywhere. Look at my rags. All I hear is "Go away black man" but it is all Tommy rot to say we are savages. Whites have slowly shot, starved and hanged us"
Recently a friend of mine introduced me to the remarkable story of Anthony Martin Fernando, an Aboriginal activist who stood outside Australia House in London in the 1920's protesting against Australia's treatment of Aboriginal people. Pinned to his coat were small toy skeletons which he handed out and a placard that proclaimed "This is all Australia has left of my people".

The detail of the life of this remarkable Australian, of which I previously knew little, can be found here .

From the early 1900's, when he left Australia disgusted with its treatment of Aboriginal people, until his death in an Essex nursing home in 1949, Fernando tirelessly and singlehandedly publicized the cause of Aboriginal people internationally and campaigned against colonial domination.

Fernando was born in NSW in 1864 and was removed from his family at an early age. He grew up in a white family who he claimed treated him like a pet. In 1904 he came to Western Australia where he tried to hold the Chief Protector accountable for the treatment of Aboriginal people and made complaints about the New Norcia mission and police threats.

It appears that Fernando left Australia after being excluded from giving evidence in a trial of white men accused and acquitted of the murder of Aboriginal people. Fernando had witnessed the murder.

Convinced that God had entrusted him with a mission to save Aboriginal people from an oppressive colonial system he believed that justice could only be pursued through international pressure. He lived in Austria for a while, where he was interned during WWI, in Switzerland and Italy where he was imprisoned by Mussolini because he was considered "an enemy of an ally of fascist Italy". He tried to obtain an audience with the Pope, wrote articles critical of Australia throughout Europe and appealed to the League of Nations and other national governments.

He returned to England in the 1920's and continued to campaign against the British authorities and the Australian government. He took to the streets of London carrying placards and handing out pamphlets highlighting the ill treatment of Aboriginal people. He picketed Australia House and the Australian authorities tried to silence him.

Fernando was a man of immense courage and strength. He was arrested and imprisoned many times and in the UK efforts were made to have him admitted to a mental asylum. He was charged for pulling a gun on a man who racially abused him.

Fernando's struggle and courage are inspirational. For decades he pursued a one man campaign of unrelenting protest to bring to the world's attention the appalling treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. Despite the setbacks and struggle he never relented.

A program on Fernando that appeared on Radio National in 2007 can be heard here

Fernando's story is part of an exhibition of Aboriginal activism from 1920-1970 titled From Little Things Big Things Grow now showing at the National Museum of Australia. The exhibition sadly won't make it to Western Australia until 2011.

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