Fernando's Ghost - Transcript

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.

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Radio Program Transcript

ABC Radio National

Daniel Browning: Today we replay a documentary about the solitary life and extraordinary career of Anthony Martin Fernando, one of the first Aboriginal political activists. At a time in our history when Aboriginal people were being confined to reserves and missions, Fernando was blazing a trail overseas. He travelled across Europe from London to Germany, from Switzerland to Italy. On his sometimes wandering journey he left evidence, bits and pieces of an activist life that we're only now putting together.

As you'll hear, Fernando's story is an unlikely one. As a British subject he was interned in Austria during the First World War, while in the 1920s he unsuccessfully petitioned the Pope and was accused by Australian authorities of being a German spy. Fernando told anyone who cared to listen that his people were being exterminated, and that the toy skeletons he made and sold of the streets of London were all that Australia had left of his people. I hope you enjoy Fernando's Ghost.

Anthony Martin Fernando: I had a bitter education in white brutality.

Newspaper article: Fernando declared that he had seen whites go unpunished for murdering and ill-treating Aborigines. He paraded London with a banner, accusing them of these methods. — Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 1929.

John Maynard: Anthony Martin Fernando was one of those great heroes that basically we're unaware of.

Fiona Paisley: It's also a poignant and moving story in that it's as much about trauma and loss and, I guess, despair as well as determination.

Anthony Martin Fernando: We are despised and rejected but it is the black people who keep this country in all its greatness.

Heather Goodall: All of us really thought in very local terms about Aboriginal politics. It was pretty surprising to see Aboriginal political activists in the 1920s and '30s who knew about things in other states and in New Zealand. But the idea that there was an Aboriginal activist in London (and in fact this little story made it clear that he'd been in Italy as well) in the 1920s and the 1930s was really a shock, it was a real surprise.

Anthony Martin Fernando: 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. It is only another kind of state prison, and the murder houses of the Lords and Ladies of Australasia.

Daniel Browning: Anthony Martin Fernando's story is little known, but a growing mythology surrounds him. He was politically active at a time in our history when few Aboriginal people were. What little we know of his life can be gleaned from archival fragments; Swiss newspapers, British court transcripts and Australian government surveillance reports. He delivered his message across Europe on foot in the 1920s. He settled in London where he appeared in court twice. But far from being intimidated into silence he used British courts of law as a political stage to criticise the way Australia treated its Indigenous people. He believed he was on a God-sent mission.

Newspaper article: Charges against man of colour — Street trader and a loaded revolver.

Anthony Martin Fernando, a man of colour who is a street trader with an address at Warner Street, Holborn, was charged on remand at Old Street Police Court yesterday with presenting a loaded revolver at Philip Limber, another street trader, with intent to do him grievous bodily harm. The prisoner was described at an earlier hearing as an Australian Aborigine. Mr Knight, prosecuting, said that Limber was at his stall in Bethnal Green Road when Fernando passed with a tray of toy birds and he made a joking remark to him. Limber said that as Fernando passed his stall he said to him, 'Good morning Darkie,' and laughed. Cross-examined by Sir John Cameron for the Defence, Limber denied that he'd said to Fernando, 'Wash your black face,' and then made a rude remark about him. Fernando, who pleaded not guilty and reserved his defence, was committed for trial.

Newspaper article: Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 1929.

Aborigine's story — In London court — Persecution of blacks.

Anthony Martin Fernando, an Aboriginal toy hawker, born near Sydney, was remanded for a month at the Old Bailey to ascertain what could be done for him. Addressing the Court in fluent English, he said, 'I have been boycotted everywhere. Look at my rags. I cannot make ends meet. All I hear is, 'Go away, black man'. It is all tommyrot to say we are savages. Whites have shot, slowly starved, or hanged us.'

Fiona Paisley: I'm Fiona Paisley and I'm a historian at Griffith University in Brisbane and I've been working on a book about Anthony Martin Fernando. I think I haven't lost the initial reaction that I had to his story, which was really a combination of excitement at such an extraordinary life and respect for this individual and also fascination in his story. It's a very impressive and powerful but also poignant story. So, impressive in that we have a very resilient individual who survived against the odds and was determined to speak out. He was a man who found living in Australia increasingly impossible in the second half to the 19th century, and who then decided the only future was to in fact live overseas and to continue to protest while overseas.

Daniel Browning: Anthony Fernando always identified as Aboriginal through his mother. But there's some debate about where his father came from. His surname, which is shared by a very big Aboriginal family from north-western NSW, might be a clue. Heather Goodall, professor of history at the University of Technology Sydney, has been researching the South Indian seamen who came to Australia in large numbers. She believes Fernando's father may have been one of them.

Heather Goodall: In the Indian Ocean particularly, Indian crews were the major part of the way that whole shipping transport set of lines ran, not just for the British but for the Dutch and the French imperial networks. So we had thousands of Indian seafarers who were the deckhands and the engine men and in some cases the saloon bar attendants, the saloon attendants, on these shipping lines through Australian ports every year. There were something like 20%, 30% of the crews of British ships were Indian. And so the possibility that Indian seafarers would leave the ships and move into the Australian population was actually very high, we just hadn't realised it. Because they often moved in illegally, there aren't good records about their presence, but we find them because those of them who married into the Aboriginal community have left records with their families, sometimes just their name.

Fiona Paisley: It may well be that his father was a Sri Lankan or Goanese man who was in Australia in the 1850s, 1860s. Fernando was born in the 1860s. In a way we're talking about his own political and personal inheritance, if you like. We're trying to work out who his father is, but perhaps a better way to be thinking is where his sense of identity comes from, and, as he makes clear throughout his life, it comes from an Aboriginal identity.

We know that he was removed as a child. He doesn't speak about his father at all, and he does talk about, however, spending his earliest years with a white family. He accuses them of treating him as little more than a puppy, as though he were a pet, and denying him the rights of education. So this was one of his other major campaigns, is the right to education, is the right to understanding oneself and the world and one's own labour.

Anthony Martin Fernando: I had a bitter education in white brutality. I was taken from my tribe before I was old enough to remember my mother, but the thought of her has been the guiding star of my life. People train dogs, but I was not taught anything.

Fiona Paisley: He could have been taken in a raid on an Aboriginal community, and certainly we have massacre histories that include the stealing of children...it was a favourite thing to bring back a little boy or a little girl for the mistress of the homestead to keep, supposedly like a member of the family, to add further tragedy to this experience and the horror for him of, in a way, coming into awareness in the arms possibly of the people who had murdered his mother or his family or certainly had separated him from her. By the time he leaves them, whether he escaped or whether he became a worker on the homestead himself and moved on, by the time he returns to his own people or his own country, his mother has passed on, and she becomes, as he's quoted as saying, 'the guiding star' of his life. So she becomes the symbol of his struggle for justice.

Daniel Browning: While researching Fernando's life, Fiona Paisley found evidence that he was living in Western Australia in the first few years of the 20th century. He wrote a letter to the then Chief Protector of Aborigines complaining about the way he believed that Aboriginal people were being treated at the mission at New Norcia, which was established by Spanish Benedictine monks in the 1860s. At the time it was held up as a model settlement where Aboriginal people were being taught agriculture so that they might become yeoman farmers.

Fiona Paisley: We have this letter from Peak Hill in 1903 where he writes to the Chief Protector of the Aborigines in Western Australia, Henry Prinsep. By the time Fernando writes he's clearly outraged that New Norcia is still being referred to as a great example of the best.

Anthony Martin Fernando: I have not detected any reform made towards these starving and disgraced, but have seen much more grievances practised with a vengeance. New Norcia is nothing but a money-making enterprise, and far worse a slavery system than ever the American system was. It is only another kind of strategy to waylay the champagne-drinking feather-bed class of inquirers.

Fiona Paisley: And he writes a long letter where he takes Prinsep to task for this and he argues that going and talking to people in New Norcia would reveal the truth, if that were only to be done, and of course as an Indigenous person he claims that he's much better able to talk to the Indigenous inmates.

Anthony Martin Fernando: 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. It is only another kind of state prison, and the murder houses of the Lords and Ladies of Australasia.

Fiona Paisley: Again we have a sense of him making a last-ditch effort to actually appeal to authorities. It seems that Prinsep didn't reply to him. There is a note on the file where Prinsep says 'Who is this strange person writing this strange letter?'

Daniel Browning: Until the 1870s the testimony of Aboriginal people was not admissible in the courts. It was believed that their evidence couldn't be trusted. But even senior government officials saw that this was unfair and that it discriminated against Aboriginal people in cases where they were the victims of crimes perpetrated by whites.

Lord Stanley: To Sir George Gipps. It is indispensable to the protection of the natives that their evidence should be received in courts of law.

Chief Protector Hercules Robinson: The destruction of the Aboriginals has been accelerated from the known fact of their being incapacitated to give evidence in our courts of law. They complain of being made to suffer the higher penalties of the law when deprived of its benefits.

Anthony Martin Fernando: I have seen whites in Australia go unpunished for murdering and ill-treating Aborigines.

Fiona Paisley: In later life he argued that it was the fact that he'd been excluded from giving evidence in a courtroom where a white man had been accused of murdering some Aboriginal people, so that it was in fact the failure of British justice, the failure of him being able to access his right to give evidence in a court that was the final straw for him. That meant that there really was no possibility for improving or reforming settler colonialism in Australia from within the nation itself. The only way to do that would be to appeal to an international public.

Anthony Martin Fernando: I am a British subject of Australia. Because of hostile legislation towards the coloured races, I was obliged to eke out my living in other lands since 1890.

John Maynard: He left this country in the late 19th century and from my understanding he gained work as a boilerman on a ship and finished up in Europe, survived the First World War which was an incredible time of turmoil in the world, and he turned up in Europe and was campaigning on behalf of Aboriginal people and issues in the early 1920s.

Daniel Browning: Professor John Maynard from the University of Newcastle who has written extensively on the history of Aboriginal political activism in the first part of the 20th century.

Anthony Fernando left Australia in 1900s, frustrated by the racist policies of the time. After finding his way to Europe he was held in a prisoner of war camp in Austria. After that we find him living in Italy.

Newspaper article: Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 1929.

Fernando, after working for English barristers, became involved with the Fascist Government in 1923, owing to his distribution of pamphlets in Italy alleging that the British Government was systematically exterminating Australian Aborigines.

Heather Goodall: He was in a really interesting position of being in a country which wasn't Britain. That's the other thing, we're all limited to thinking Australia and Britain if we think about colonialism, but Anthony Martin Fernando had the astute political judgment as well as the good fortune to be in Italy, and so he was able to use the difference between Italy and the degree of distance from the British Empire to critique what the British were doing, and he had an audience there. And Mussolini in the early '30s who was at that stage an ally of Britain, deported Fernando to Britain.

Fiona Paisley: 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. And we can kind of patch those stories together. And oddly enough, when you think about it, one of the key documents to opening up more research on his life is an Australian government surveillance report, a confidential report. And in that there's some hearsay evidence, as all these surveillance reports rely on, but also a number of leads and a number of statements about his life that have helped to open up and have provided a way forward in doing some new work on his extraordinary career overseas.

Case file document: Received October 19, 1921.

Confidential and secret. Attorney-General's Department, Investigation Branch.

Mr Anthony Martin Fernando, an Australian native, has recently left Bern for Germany. This man appears to be engaged in anti-British propaganda, especially as concerns 'England's brutal treatment of the Australian blacks' and advocates the creation of 'reserves' or 'refuge territory' for the black race in Australia similar to those allotted to Indians by the Government of the USA. Fernando seems to be actuated less by a concern for the natives than by a desire to do England harm.

Newspaper article: A cry for help from Australia.

An Australian Aborigine, Mr Anthony Martin Fernando, came to our editorial offices last Friday with an urgent request. He is an extraordinarily articulate man and is quite overcome at the imminent final destruction of the Aborigines. Wherever the railway goes, he says, it will be the end of us. Fernando's idea is that the Indigenous people should be allocated their own territory in the hottest part of the country, in the north of Australia, and this territory placed under the mandate of a neutral power. Mr Fernando is thinking here primarily of Switzerland and Holland. The mandated power would have to account to Great Britain for its stewardship. — Der Bund, 1921

Fiona Paisley: Yes, in 1921 he walked into the offices of Der Bund, a progressive newspaper, and engaged the editors in a long conversation about policies towards indigenous people around the world.

Anthony Martin Fernando: Alcohol-free restaurant, Bern, 25th June, 1921.

To the editor of Der Bund, Bern.

Dear Sir, I am not an educated man and ask that you make allowances for my defective grammar and spelling. In the name of humanity I implore you to use all the means at your disposal to assist the mission with which God has entrusted me in order that all educated readers of your newspaper understand what is happening to Australia's Indigenous people under British rule and administration.

The Aborigines of Australia are being exterminated with extreme heartlessness under British authority. Some are being shot. Others who escape this fate meet their deaths through hunger, poisoned food, the stealing of their children and sexually transmitted diseases. If they refuse to submit to the will of the ruling English despots or are late in completing their work...

Case file document: In view of articles he has written in the newspaper Der Bund of Bern, the man appears not only anti-British but pro-German, and it is suggested that he is employed by the Germans.

Fiona Paisley: They know about him being interviewed in Switzerland, so his story about him is published in the Swiss press, it's in German. There's a great deal of concern about Germany at this time, and one of the key aspects of the surveillance report is the idea that he's actually working secretly for the Germans, that he's supporting Germany in the post World War One era.

Anthony Martin Fernando: Those who rule the land and call themselves Australians are indeed nothing more than the descendents of the convicts sent over from England and other vagabonds and adventurers. There is no primitive indigenous people in the history of the world which has the intellectual individuality of the Australian Aborigines. But despite this, the British say that they cannot be tamed. The lion, the tiger and other carnivores and poisonous reptiles can be trained according to the will of man, but the British government has succeeded until now in shamelessly throwing sand in the eyes of all critical researchers, in collaboration with their accomplices in cruelty—the missionaries and the commission of protection—and has persuaded people that Aborigines are not capable of culture.

It is as unusual to see a black man in any Australian city as it is in Switzerland, yet Australia is by nature the black man's land. Should the English be allowed to continue with their plans and expand them? Therefore I beg and beseech you to call on all humanity through the voice of the Swiss people and through them the rest of the thinking world to take deliberate steps to establish a commission of enquiry which will investigate British rule over the Aborigines and wipe it from the face of the earth.

Case file document: On leaving Bern, Fernando is stated to have interviewed certain members of the League of Nations in Geneva, and thereafter to have gone to Berlin. It is understood that on his return from Berlin, he intends to resume his conversations with the League of Nations. He is said to possess an American passport. He seems to have arrived in Switzerland from Italy where he is said to have been in close touch with certain Church dignitaries, and to have addressed a private petition to the Pope.

Fiona Paisley: He also, as a Catholic, made an effort to appeal to the Vatican but was unable; he didn't have a letter of introduction, he said. And then from there, in a sense, European internationalism not really providing him with a foothold, he then appears next in England, perhaps at his most dramatic, where he demonstrates outside the front of Australia House.

Letter: Fernando, Anthony Martin.

With reference to your memorandum 21/2/1575 of the 18th October asking for any information regarding the above-named that may be available, I have to inform you that enquiries have failed to show any trace of him. The Chief Inspector of Aborigines has no knowledge of any person of the name, or corresponding with the description of Fernando.

Daniel Browning: The next time, this next flash when Fernando leaps back into public consciousness is 1929 when his appearance at the Old Baily is reported in The Times and back here in Australia in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Fiona Paisley: Yes, it appears that at that time Fernando was working as a street trader, a toy seller in London, among no doubt a whole variety of street traders from elsewhere, and here he is with his own stall in a street market. Two stalls away from his there's a white man who taunts him, this racial abuse. There's a bit of a scuffle, and during that scuffle Fernando produces a gun.

Newspaper article: When brought back by a police officer he took a fully loaded revolver from his pocket and pointed it at Limber's face, but the policeman caught his hand and threw him down. It looked as though he had every intention of firing it in the man's face. Fernando, who pleaded not guilty and reserved his defence, was committed for trial.

Fiona Paisley: There are policemen nearby, so I think we can see it as very much a sort of performative protest moment. The drawing of the gun, it's hardly done under the cover of the shadows, he's clearly seen by the police who immediately arrest him and take the gun away. The gun was loaded, although apparently the bullets were the wrong type for the gun so it would never have fired. By this time he's in later middle age, in his 50s. And then the second time he's in court for the same thing, ten years later, 1938, he's in his mid-60s. So he's an older man now finding that racism on the streets...we know that there were riots particularly after the First World War where white servicemen came back to reclaim jobs that had been in the meantime taken up by various non-white populations, especially in the port cities, the sailors when they were staying on land in-between voyages. So there was a degree of violence on the streets, and Fernando is very clear about that when he stands up in court at the Old Bailey, he says, 'Look at me, here I am in rags.'

Anthony Martin Fernando: I have been boycotted everywhere. Look at my rags. I cannot make ends meet. All I hear is, 'Go away, black man'. It is all tommyrot to say we are savages. Whites have shot, slowly starved or hanged us.

Newspaper article: Aborigine's story — In London court — Persecution of blacks.

Anthony Martin Fernando, an Aboriginal toy hawker, born near Sydney, was remanded for a month at the Old Bailey to ascertain what could be done for him. Sir Ernest Wild, after hearing the evidence of barristers about the man's good character, declined to imprison him on a charge of presenting a revolver at Philip Limber with intent to do bodily harm. — Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 1929.

Fiona Paisley: Here we can agree with the judge in his case, that we need to think about the individual and his motives. So here we have someone in that sense forced to arm himself who actually really fears for his life. So it's not just having a gun to wave at someone, it's potentially that he would be in a situation where he felt he might have to defend his life.

Newspaper article: Sir Ernest Wild said that it was very provoking of anyone to call attention to Fernando's colour. He asked two barristers, who satisfactorily employed the man, to arrange to assist him. — Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 1929.

Daniel Browning: Fernando's activism eventually led him to the steps of Australia House, the seat of the Australian government in Britain. It was on the corner of this imposing building in central London that he acted out a haunting form of street protest.

Anthony Martin Fernando: Do you see this? Do you see these toy skeletons? This is all Australia has left of my people.

Archive account: Picture London in the grip of fog, and the well-fed, black-coated, bowler-hatted clerks and businessmen with their umbrellas and galoshes slopping along the Strand. Great Scott, what's this? Against the solid stone of Australia House stands a grotesque figure, a black man, hatless and with a grey beard, a mere handful of a man with the fine bones of an Australian Aborigine. He is old and the cold is biting him. Like a figure of fun, he stands in a greatcoat which reaches from his ears to his ankles, and on the greatcoat, pinned from top to bottom, are scores of those little white penny skeletons that the street vendors sell to children. Good Lord, the man is a walking graveyard, yet his eyes are on fire. He points to the penny skeletons and shouts as people pass, 'This is all Australia has left of my people!' Then from the entrance of Australia House (showcase of a nation which inside 130 years or so had all but wiped out a happy, handsome people) issues a neatly dressed official who runs down the pavement and calls a London bobby.

John Maynard: You can imagine the power of that, and the unease that it caused in somewhere like London outside of Australia House, and of course the authorities, they were there...he was jailed on numerous occasions and they tried to have him certified as insane but, again, from my understanding the doctors said that he was a man of very strong conviction and views but that was because of his concerns for what was happening to his people back in Australia.

Psychologist's report: He holds strong views about the manner in which his people are treated, a sign not of insanity but of an unusually strong mind. There is no occasion to commit him to an asylum. — Examining psychologist, Bow Street Police Station, London, 1928.

Fiona Paisley: It's an extraordinary place, to imagine that he was standing in front of this building, it's very busy, it would have been busy then also in the 1920s. So he picketed Australia House not only once but several times, and the authorities kept on moving him on but he'd return, and he'd stand outside the front wearing a long army coat and carrying a tray in front of him with a placard.

It seems likely that we know that one of the ways that he survived when he was in London was working as a toy maker. Elsewhere he worked as an engineer, as a welder, but also here he is a toy maker, so carving, as it turns out, small skeletons. So they were for sale on his tray but most dramatically he had them pinned to his coat. This may have been a strategy used by toy sellers and toy hawkers in the many street fairs in London at this time, street markets, where a whole range of people were selling goods that they'd made or cheap import goods.

And there he was, he literally walked up the road to Australia House and he was using, if you like, that technology and changing it into a political act. So when people came to buy these toy skeletons, as they bought them he would say, 'This represents what's happening to my people in Australia.' So he turned this moment of buying a cheap toy into an extraordinary political statement, and it was one that stayed in the minds of people, it's come down to us through the archives, an incredibly dramatic performance relying on his own body and occupying a very imposing space in the streets of London.

Anthony Martin Fernando: Do you see this? Do you see these toy skeletons? This is all Australia has left of my people.

We are despised and rejected, but it is the black people who keep this country in all its greatness.

Linda Burney: The description of Anthony Fernando outside of Australia House in London in the middle of a London winter, long beard, a very dark-featured man, with an overcoat on with little white skeletons pinned all over his overcoat, saying that this is what's been done to my people...it would be hard to imagine someone doing that today, let alone someone on another side of the world, on his own, away from Australia, knowing what was going on in Australia at that point of colonial history.

Daniel Browning: Linda Burney is an Aboriginal rights activist and now a minister in the NSW government. She's the first Aboriginal person to be elected to the NSW parliament.

Linda Burney: You just think, well, how did he get there, where did he live, what did he do, how did he survive? And what's even more incredible is he died there in an old people's home in Essex, and came back to Australia briefly. But not only did he spend time in London, he travelled Europe, he travelled Asia. I mean, there would be hardly any Europeans, let alone Aboriginal people travelling Asia at that point in time. And he must have been very brave, he must have been an incredibly perceptive, intelligent man who understood perfectly about the importance of taking out the message to the rest of the world. And we're still doing it, getting that message out, and here was a lone Aboriginal man taking our cause to Australia House in London. It's an image that we'll never forget.

Anthony Martin Fernando: Do you see this? Do you see these toy skeletons? This is all Australia has left of my people.

Fiona Paisley: What he was arguing was imminent extinction. And, again, he's using here, in a sense, a discourse that is circulating again the notion of Tasmanian Aborigines were made extinct, we're in danger of making other peoples extinct around the world. I think he was using that to argue not that extinction was going to happen but that there was an urgent need to take action.

Daniel Browning: Fernando insisted on being alone. As we've heard, this occasionally put him in harm's way. But he wasn't completely isolated and friendless. He was employed by two sympathetic barristers, Douglas Jones and FM Crawshaw who tried everything they could to convince him to settle down. It was while he was in jail for picketing outside Australia House that Fernando was befriended by the feminist, humanitarian and anti-slavery campaigner Mary Montgomerie Bennett, the daughter of a Queensland pastoralist. It was a meeting that he only agreed to reluctantly.

Like Fernando, Mary Bennett believed that Aboriginal people had a right to their own homeland within Australia where they could be independent, self-supporting and free, what later became known as the Model State Movement. And it was Mary Bennett who left some of the few first-hand accounts of Fernando.

Mary Montgomerie Bennett: Fernando has most extraordinary tenacity of purpose and devotion to his people. He adores children and is very responsive to kindness. He is very proud and will not take any help, but earns his living as he goes along. He has taught himself all he knows, and this includes many languages and a very fluent, vigorous and pure English which is an extraordinary compound of the Bible and political writings.

Fiona Paisley: As well as this other thread within the history of people like Mary Bennett, like Crawshaw and Douglas Jones and others who are not only persuaded by his story but in a sense are looking for someone like him, especially Mary Bennett and her involvement with the anti-slavery and Aborigines Protection Society who are very interested to know that there is an Aboriginal man appearing at the Old Bailey. And Mary Bennett approaches Fernando to talk with him. He doesn't particularly want to talk with her. Unlike some of his peers in Australia he's not confident that white justice is a possibility, he's not really interested in joining with white activists. In a sense he's beyond that, he is that man in exile.

Mary Montgomerie Bennett: Because I was white he treated me like a criminal, and the power of his conviction was such that he made me feel like one.

Fiona Paisley: But she does get to speak with him and it's a highly influential moment for her. She becomes an important person in recording impressions of Fernando, how he appears, how he speaks, how persuasive he is, how he quotes from the Bible, what an educated and eloquent person he is.

Mary Montgomerie Bennett: Fernando is consumed like the prophets of old with the thought of the wrongs of his race, and his very fine brain is dragged by his very strong passion of devotion to the verge of incoherence.

Fiona Paisley: She imagines that he might become a member of the Aboriginal committee in control of the model state that they have in mind in Australia, but he's not interested in that kind of intervention. She just says, well, we have to respect and honour his decision to remain pretty much a solitary figure.

Mary Montgomerie Bennett: He won't waste his time on us. It is quite understandable. It appears to me that we can only acquiesce in Fernando's decision to stand alone.

Daniel Browning: At the same time Fernando was on the international stage, there was an Aboriginal protest movement here in Australia. It was led by people like Pearl Gibbs, William Cooper, Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten. Pearl Gibbs avidly collected newspaper articles about Fernando's court appearances and shared them with other Aboriginal people she met throughout NSW.

Fiona Paisley: In fact the question of his impact on the Australian context is a really interesting one, and visa versa of course what he knew of Aboriginal activism in Australia. But of course a lot was going on in Australia, a huge amount. By the second time he appears in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, it's 1938 which is of course when the sesquicentenary was happening and the Day of Mourning March, a very important date in the long history of Aboriginal Activism in Australia.

Heather Goodall: In the 1930s we've got a different situation where we've got the Depression had led to big changes in Aboriginal economic vulnerability and people had lost access to a lot of equal rights, and so the sorts of messages that Pearly Gibbs was picking up from other parts of the world...and Bill Cooper, interestingly, was very aware of events in New Zealand and in America with Native Americans. What they were doing was picking up the ways that indigenous and minority people in other areas were using ideas about cultural dignity and also civil rights. People like Bill Ferguson and Pearly Gibbs used those ideas to express and engage with their knowledge of Aboriginal politics and society. So they're not adopting ideas from overseas, they're looking at the way their Aboriginal experience could be strengthened by comparisons with overseas. In a way that's what Anthony Martin Fernando gave to the Aboriginal movement in NSW in the 1930s. The tragedy is that he didn't know that he'd done it.

Newspaper article: Sydney Morning Herald, February 7, 1938.

Aboriginal in trouble — White brutality denounced.

When the 70-year-old Australian Aboriginal Fernando appeared for the third time on remand at the Clerkenwell Court on a charge of having assaulted a fellow lodger, the magistrate asked what he could do to help him.

Fernando declared that nobody could help him and added that his knowledge of the white men's treatment of the blacks, especially the Australian Aborigines, gave him no hope of justice.

The magistrate: 'You are a self-educated man?'

Fernando: 'Yes, I had a bitter education in white brutality.'

Heather Goodall: What Pearly and Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten drew was the message that they weren't alone and that Aboriginal activists, passionate people, had taken the message about the British assaults on Aboriginal people, about dispossession, taken it overseas to Italy and right to the very heartland of the British Empire, into London. And they'd been courageous enough to defend their message and to keep on pressing for dignity and liberty against all the odds.

Daniel Browning: Professor John Maynard is the grandson of the Aboriginal activist Fred Maynard, a waterside worker who set up the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, the first political group to represent Aboriginal people.

John Maynard: There was an incredible rise of oppressed groups who were speaking out. They were speaking out about self-determination, they were speaking out about being recognised as citizens of the world and citizens within their own country in many instances.

Newspaper article: Fernando addressed the Court alleging that he had been boycotted because of his colour and that the whites had ill-treated his race.

He has often spoken in Hyde Park on what he regards as the wrongs inflicted on the Australian and other natives. — Sydney Morning Herald

John Maynard: So you can tie Fernando to this incredible fermentation, if you like, or incredible rise of people and groups speaking out and mobilising at this incredible moment. The colonial powers were suddenly shown to be shaky in the wake of World War One, and people suddenly realised we've got to speak out, this is our time.

Fiona Paisley: Very interestingly, numbers of people respond and offer to support him. Ultimately he prefers to keep his own independence, although as he later recounts he walked through English countryside and was turned away and had to live on what he could find just to survive. So this must have taken a real toll on his physical capacity to keep going, it was a very tough life, this life of independence.

Heather Goodall: There's no question that he was a driven man, he clearly, throughout his life, saw things in terms of political goals and the need to express his passions and his passionate sense of injustice. But I think he's also a great example of the way that politics transcends national boundaries and indeed it transcends identity boundaries. It's about seeking justice in whatever circumstances you find it, and I think that's a message for me as a white Australian, that's one of the powerful messages I get from Anthony Martin Fernando; this is about justice, it's about passion and justice, and that's what he was doing for the whole of his life in the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances. He sustained that passion and he could do that wherever he was.

Fiona Paisley: We have a death certificate for 1946, he's been in an old aged persons home, but we don't know where he's buried. At some point it will be located and we'll know which of the many cemeteries, the greater London cemeteries, just outside of London, where he was buried and maybe we'll find his grave. But there's also the movement of bringing bodies back home. I'm not sure if it would apply in this case.

Daniel Browning: It's incredibly sad for me as an Aboriginal person to think of him being so far away with no-one near him and not anywhere near his own country.

Fiona Paisley: Yes.

Anthony Martin Fernando: I have fought for this cause since 1890 and will not give up as long as I live, or indeed after I die if it is possible to do anything then.

Yours sincerely, in the name of humanity,
AM Fernando.

Daniel Browning: Fernando's Ghost was produced in 2007 by me, Daniel Browning, with technical production by Mark Don. The executive producer was Claudia Taranto. The program was funded by the ABC's Indigenous Staff Scholarship. Tony Briggs read the part of Anthony Martin Fernando. The other readings were by Humphrey Bower, Nick Franklin, Anne Wynter, Brent Clough, Alan Saunders, Greg Richardson and Richard Buckham. Fernando's open letter published in the Swiss newspaper Der Bund was translated from the German by Tom Morton.

Special thanks are due to Dr Fiona Paisley who has done some incredible work in putting together the pieces of Fernando's life. Her biographical study of Anthony Martin Fernando is to be published by Aboriginal Studies Press. Around that time we'll bring you the second part of Fernando's story when some of the questions about his life will be answered.

When the program first went to air in July 2007 it had an interesting effect; at least three artists—a painter and two sculptors—heard the program and made work in a kind of visual response, for a story that has no visual reference points. On our website we've posted some images of the work of the artists Penny Byrne, Sandy Elverd and Raj Nagi.

This program was first broadcast on Hindsight in 2007. It received an honourable mention at the imagineNATIVE film and media arts festival in Canada and was highly commended by the judges of the inaugural John Newfong Media Prize in 2008.