Aboriginal activist campaigned in Europe 100 years ago

The story of Aboriginal activist, Anthony Martin Fernando who protested on the streets of early 20th Century Europe and England against the British government and their systematic extermination of Australian Aborigines.

Image source - A M Fernando Notebooks:
London 1929 - 1930: AIATSIS exhibition website

Steve Meacham Sydney Morning Herald May 27, 2012

A pioneering Aboriginal activist took the fight for his people to foreign shores.

Few knew his real name. No photo has ever been discovered. Where he was born, why he fled Australia, even what shaped his political activism remains elusive.
Yet Anthony Martin Fernando was the first Aboriginal activist to campaign from overseas against racial discrimination in Australia.

Fernando is mostly recalled today, if at all, because of his one-man, three-year protest outside London's Australia House which culminated with his arrest in 1928, dressed like a biblical prophet in a cloak decorated with tiny toy skeletons.

The following year, the man who claimed to have been born in Woolloomooloo in 1864 appeared in London's Old Bailey, charged with threatening a fellow market stall holder with a loaded pistol. He claimed he had been forced to take action because British law had failed to protect him from racial abuse.

Both protest and high-profile court case made headlines in Australia, inspiring artists - including a 2007 colour "portrait" of Fernando by Raj Nagi in the National Museum of Australia.

Now the historian Fiona Paisley, author of The Lone Protestor (Aboriginal Studies Press), has uncovered new archival information - including his handwritten notebooks - which shed fresh light on Australia's first international indigenous activist.

In 1925, three years before his most famous protest, Fernando was arrested in Rome. "He'd been handing out leaflets to pilgrims at the Vatican," Ms Paisley explains. "Fernando was a Catholic and had stood at the front of St Peter's Cathedral with a thousand flyers translated into Italian. There were another 9000 at his lodgings. The leaflets called for Catholics to do something about the plight of Aboriginal Australians."

Four years earlier, he appeared at the offices of Der Bund newspaper in Berne, convincing editors to publish his "open letter to the Swiss people". It called for an independent international mandate over Aboriginal reserves in Australia.

"His letter is at the very cutting edge of the internationalism," says his biographer. "He didn't believe the British had to leave Australia, just that international authorities should be directly involved in the Aboriginal reserves and the upholding of Aboriginal rights."

As an adult, Fernando identified with his mother's Aboriginality, though he was probably raised in a Catholic mission in Western Australia. He never spoke about his father, Mariano Silva, possibly a sailor from India or Ceylon - only adopting "Fernando" after fleeing Australia.

Video: Anthony Martin Fernando left Sydney in the 1890s and travelled throughout Europe, publicising the plight of Aborigines in Australia. The notebooks which he kept throughout his travels have been found and returned to Australia.

This followed a protest he had initiated in Western Australia in 1903, against police brutality against indigenous people in goldmining towns. He never returned to Australia.

In the 1920s, he dressed in his cloak and stood outside Australia House, pointing to the skeletons and calling out, "This is all that Australia has left of my people!"

His Old Bailey trial saw him place "white injustice" in the dock. "I have been boycotted everywhere," he told the sympathetic judge. "It is tommy rot to say that we are all savages. Whites have shot, slowly starved and hanged us."

He was given a suspended jail sentence and died in 1949.

"Even though he was an individual voice, he confronts the assumption Aboriginal activism was confined to Australia until after World War II," Ms Paisley says.

Fernando, Anthony Martin (1864–1949)

by Alison Holland and Fiona Paisley

Anthony Martin Fernando (1864-1949), Aboriginal activist and toymaker, was by his own account born on 6 April 1864 at Woolloomooloo, Sydney, son of an Aboriginal woman, probably of the Dharug people. He may have been descended from John Martin, an African-American convict in the First Fleet who had children with Dharug women. Separated from his clan as a child, Anthony worked as an engine driver in Sydney. By the time he returned to his people, his mother had died. The thought of her, he was to assert, was 'the guiding star' of his life. In 1887 he witnessed the murder of an Aborigine by two White men, but was refused the opportunity to give evidence; the murderers were acquitted.

Disgusted with Australia, from about 1890 he publicized the Aboriginal cause overseas. In the following decades he travelled through Asia to Europe, working as a welder, toymaker, jewellery-maker, trader and servant. He lived for a time in Italy where, out of respect for the Italian people, he adopted what he described as a plain, Italian workingman's name. By 1910 'Fernando' was in Austria. British authorities repeatedly denied his claims to be a British subject. Interned in Austria during World War I, in June 1916, stating that he had been born in Australia, he requested prison relief through the consul for the United States of America in Vienna. The British Foreign Office, describing him as 'a negro', referred the matter to the Australian government, which found no evidence of his birth, and his appeal was rejected.

After the war Fernando settled in Milan, Italy, where he worked in an engineering workshop. According to surveillance reports, he attempted to present a private petition to the Pope, interviewed members of the League of Nations in Geneva and protested in a German newspaper against Australian injustice towards Aborigines. Returning to Italy, he was arrested for distributing pamphlets declaring that the British race was exterminating his people. In 1923 he was deported to Britain.

Fernando became the servant of an English barrister who offered him a stipend to settle down and write his life story; but he preferred his independence and travelled again in Europe. By 1928 he was back in London where he continued his crusade by picketing Australia House, 'his long grey beard damp with mist, his frail elderly frame wrapped in a large overcoat'. Pinned to his coat were scores of small, white, toy skeletons and he wore a placard proclaiming: 'This is all Australia has left of my people'. He also spoke at Hyde Park. In January 1929, described as a toy hawker, he appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with drawing a revolver in response to a racial taunt. After some resistance on his part, Fernando spoke to Mary Bennett, who visited his cell while he was awaiting trial. She reported a small man with a gentle demeanour, self-educated, well spoken, with a command of many languages and a good knowledge of the Bible. Bennett found him to be sane, intelligent yet driven. The prison doctor agreed, reporting that 'although he held strong views about his race, there was no indication of any delusions', and no reason to commit him to an asylum. When Fernando appeared in court, he received a sympathetic hearing. He accused Whites of murdering and ill-treating Aborigines, adding, 'I have been boycotted everywhere . . . It is tommyrot to say that we are all savages. Whites have shot, slowly starved and hanged us'. Given a gaol sentence, suspended on two years probation, he briefly worked as a cook in the barrister's employment, then continued his agitations.

In January 1938 Fernando was back before the courts, accused of assaulting a fellow lodger. Unrepentant, once more he protested at the treatment of his people. He was sentenced to three months imprisonment. Later Fernando retired to an old men's home. He died on 9 January 1949 at Ilford, Essex.

Select Bibliography

M. Bennett, The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being (Lond, 1930)
M. Brown, ‘Fernando: the story of an Aboriginal Prophet’, Aboriginal Welfare Bulletin, vol 4, no 1, 1964, p 7
Aboriginal Law Bulletin, 2, no 33, 1988, p 4
F. Paisley, ‘An education in white brutality’, in A. Coombes (ed), Making History Memorable (Manchester, England, forthcoming)
Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Feb 1929, p 17, 21 Mar 1929, p 11, 7 Feb 1938, p 8
GRG 52/32/31 (State Records of South Australia)
A11803/1, 14/89/475 and D1915/0, SA608 (National Archives of Australia)
H. Goodall, Anthony Martin Fernando: Angry Ambassador (manuscript, 1989, privately held).


On Tuesday 26 June from 18.00 to 19.30
State Library of NSW, Macquarie Street (between the Royal Botanic Gardens and Parliament House) Sydney 2000 Venue details
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Please note: All of the images of Anthony Martin Fernando are facsimile images painted or graphically generated - There are no known images available.