Glimpses of an Extraordinary Life

Cover of the book, The Lone Protestor

‘The Lone Protestor: A M Fernando in Australia and Europe’ by Fiona Paisley, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012).

Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased.

The Lone Protestor is the story of a remarkable Aboriginal man who lived in Europe during the interwar years.  Anthony Martin Fernando’s protest about the terrible treatment of Aborigines in Australia was featured on the front page of the highly regarded Der Bund newspaper in Switzerland in 1921.  Fernando handed out hundreds of flyers decrying the behaviour of British towards Aborigines to Catholic pilgrims in the vicinity of St Peter’s in Rome.  He used his court appearances at the Old Bailey to bring attention to the injustice received by Aborigines in Australia.

Creative, intelligent and audacious are some of the words that came to my mind when reading about A M Fernando.  His protests were bold and very public, reaching to institutions that were at the heart of European civilisation. Yet few Australians knew about him at the time. His name has never been mentioned in history books… until now.

Author, Fiona Paisley has undertaken prodigious research in order to share some glimpses of Fernando’s extraordinary life.  Anthony Martin Fernando was born in Sydney in 1864 to Mariano and Sarah Silva.  Sarah was Aboriginal but that is all we know about her.  Little is known about his father either.  Paisley surmises that Fernando’s father was possibly from the Indian sub-continent.  At some stage during the nineteenth century Fernando changed his surname to Fernando and moved to Western Australia

Already my brief summary alludes to the enormous hurdles that Fiona Paisley faced when researching this book.  As I have discussed in my post, Women and Archival Silences, there can be frustratingly little kept in archives about many people that today we recognise are historically significant.  This is because collection policies in the past favoured the retention of the records of those recognised then as important white men.  Hence for many people like Fernando there are only tiny scraps hidden in vast archives.

Writing a history of Fernando is really about putting clues together. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with the majority of the pieces missing.  This isn’t about a biography where… all the loose ends are tied up. This is very much about an extraordinary series of moments where this individual appears in the archives and then in a sense disappears again.

Fiona Paisley on ABC Radio National, first broadcast 2007, rebroadcast 26/5/2012.

Paisley’s work was complicated by the number of different countries in which Fernando lived as well as the fact that as a black man of little wealth and not connected with any organisation his life was poorly recorded during his lifetime.  Very little is known about his life in Australia.  No birth records or schooling records have been found about him and few work records have been located.  Information such as his birth details were gleaned by reading documents relating to his later life held in European archives. By stitching together snippets of evidence Paisley has been able to gather together mere wisps of his life in Australia.  What this has revealed is that Fernando was an articulate writer:

The mission system is corrupt and was never meant to cultivate the primitive mind, with a view to noble thoughts and high aspirations, or manly dignity and womanly virtue.

A M Fernando in a letter to the President of the Aborigines Board of Western Australia, H C Prinsep, 10/10/1903, (quoted in The Lone Protestor, p. 28)

The most substantial record of Fernando’s life in Australia is of his appeal to authorities concerning the conditions at Peak Hill in Western Australia.  He drew attention to the poor conduct of policemen in the town towards Aborigines, the way the New Norcia mission was treating Aborigines and the government policies towards Aborigines.

Fernando’s letter to the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, H C Prinsep, reveals Fernando’s inventive and powerful use of language when he referred to missions as “the murder houses of the Lords and Ladies of Australasia” (p.28).  This reference to the custodians of Australian land as ‘Lords and Ladies’ reflects his understanding that European aristocracy were the land-owning class.  It also reflects his ability to use the European culture of the recipient of the letter to explain the status of Aborigines in Australia.  There is a lot of meaning packed in this phrase.

Fernando was an innovative communicator who used an assortment of strategies to effectively convey his message.  This can be seen through his approach to the well-known Swiss newspaper Der Bund. He correctly surmised that this was a newspaper that would be receptive to his story.  Fernando was a Catholic and the influence of Catholic teachings can be seen in his writing. He recognised the opportunity presented by the public places around St Peter’s in Rome as a centre of western pilgrimage.  His arrest and imprisonment by Italian police demonstrates that his action in handing out leaflets of protest near St Peter’s was effective.  He effectively used the court system in England as a stage from which he could issue his verdict about the colonial system in Australia.

The Lone Protestor is an apt title for this book.  Fernando’s protest was conducted as an individual.  His independence was important to him and he spurned opportunities to link up with like-minded people and organisations.  This may also be seen as a weakness in his strategy.  Would his protest have been more effective if he was a representative of an Aboriginal activist organisation?

This book makes the reader ponder.  It makes the reader want more.  There are so many gaps in this story due to the paucity of sources in archives.  However, these gaps are creative spaces too.  They make the reader wonder what if, to explore more possibilities for this extraordinary Aboriginal man.  It opens our minds to the possibilities that there were other Aborigines like Fernando at this time – eloquent, international travellers, able to adapt to many other cultures.

I would have liked to read more of Fernando’s writing in this book.  The documents that Paisley relied on are not available on the internet.  I would have appreciated transcriptions of John Maynard’s Peak Hill letter in an appendix as well as a complete translation of the leaflet he was distributing at St Peter’s.  In the body of the book I would have preferred to read some extracts of Fernando’s writing first before reading Paisley’s paraphrasing of his words.

This book brings to mind another book about an eloquent Aboriginal man from the same era, Fred Maynard.  The story of Maynard and his colleagues in the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association is told in the book Fight for Liberty and Freedom by John Maynard. You can read my review here.

The work of Fiona Paisley, John Maynard and other historians has revealed some of the world of Aboriginal writing during the interwar years.  I wonder if enough has been revealed to warrant the publication of an anthology of Aboriginal protest writing of this period.

Paisley’s book is a powerful demonstration of the benefits of thinking beyond the nation in history.  It sits within the exciting movement of transnational history that has emerged over the last twenty years.

I hope that this review has intrigued you.   While writing it I kept on reminding myself of the importance of not revealing any spoilers.  If you are want to know more you should read this fascinating book.

Related Links

  • Daniel Browning has done a wonderful job of producing a documentary about Fernando and this book for ABC Radio National’s AWAYE! program.  I recommend you listen to his program, ‘Fernando’s Ghost‘.  On the same page you can view the work of a number of artists who were inspired by Fernando’s life when this documentary was first aired in 2007.
  • Logo for Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012For those interested in an in-depth academic analysis of Fernando’s Der Bund article, you can read Fiona Paisley’s article, ‘Mock Justice: World Conservation and Australian Aborigines in Interwar Switzerland’ published in Transforming Cultures eJournal, Vol 3 no 1, February 2008.  This article is open access.
  • Fiona Paisley has written an overview of The Lone Protestor on History Workshop Online.

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

11 thoughts on “Glimpses of an Extraordinary Life

  1. Really great review Yvonne! It’s detailed, informative and most of all enjoyable – I got a good sense of what the book is about and about Fernando himself. It’s a fine line between paraphrasing and putting in primary source material – I think getting a good mix is something everyone strives for. Thanks very much. 🙂


    • Yes it is a fine line however, particularly when the subject of the biography is as historically obscure as Fernando, I am in favour of allowing the reader to become familiar with the voice of the person via direct quotes. In this case I cannot go to any other sources easily to read Fernando in his own words. It was important for him that he was heard. It was his written and spoken voice that made him remarkable. It was his distinguishing characteristic.


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  4. This is great! Thoroughly enjoyed it! I have been following the work of Marilyn Lake and others in Australia. ‘Transnational history’ (by definition, not imagining history as a neat fit with national boundaries or used for glorification of ‘national’ identity) appears to be a great complement to what has been called ‘new imperial history’ which explores ‘race’, class, sex, sexuality angles (thus going beyond purely political, military and economic questions, though they are also important!). By all accounts, it seems to have revived historiography in Australia and this is just another example. Thanks for making academic work so accessible through your blog!


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