IN 1929, ANTHONY Martin Fernando, an Aborigine, appeared at the Old Bailey in London charged with attempted assault. He admitted to brandishing a pistol at a white man, claiming self-defence. In his address to the court, Fernando embraced the opportunity to explain the racism he faced as an Aborigine living in England, having fled his native-born Australia in search of justice.
Fernando’s testimony demands that we think beyond the white, European and cosmopolitan subjects that have dominated histories of transnational globalisation, including empire and colony. His story provides a remarkable insight into one man’s attempts to bring indigenous politics to a global audience in the late 19th century. Fernando left New South Wales in the 1880s after he was refused the right to give evidence in a case against two white men accused of murdering Aborigines. He then spent decades living and working in Europe, using street protest to publicise the conditions faced by indigenous people in Australia. By the mid-1920s he had become a thorn in the side of Australian authorities. He had been picketing Australia House in London and the toy skeletons he handed to passersby represented, he declared, the larger death faced by Aborigines living under British rule in Australia.
Fernando was received favourably at the Old Bailey and released after a short period of remand. After a second court appearance in 1938 on a similar charge, he remained in self-imposed exile until he died in an old men’s home in England in 1949.
CONTEMPORARY ATTENTION TO globalisation often overlooks the long history of global movement that has characterised European colonisation, but new critical histories point to the extraordinary movement of people (free, immigrant and enslaved) around the globe from the 17th century. In contrast, parallel histories of indigenous movement have been less well recognised. They remind us that cosmopolitanism has a long and complex genealogy.
In relation to accounts of indigenous-rights politics, such histories usually describe the gradual inclusion of “native” rights within international and humanitarian political networks. Humanitarians asserted their status as modern and cosmopolitan by speaking for indigenous peoples whom they declared unable to represent themselves on the world stage. Thus, social justice for indigenous people was caught up in assertions of the “savagery” or “nobility” of “natives”. In contrast, Fernando’s court appearance, his street protests and his self-imposed exile were a creative indigenous response to colonisation. Fernando used official spaces to press his case overseas, and in forms recognised by colonial rule. He was an eloquent spokesman, declaring his innocence in his own case as well as speaking for the broader injustices faced by his people in Australia.
Fernando’s most significant protest came by leaving Australia without attracting official reaction. The act of exile was expressive and creative. His appearance in European cities celebrated his personal opposition to empire. European civilisation was confronted by a “savage”, not at the periphery of the known world but on its own streets and claiming its rights – British justice – as his own.
Recent publications in critical imperial and colonial history offer useful historical frameworks for interpreting Fernando’s life of protest. They help us understand him as both an extraordinary individual and as part of the larger genealogy of global indigenous appearances. While recognising the extraordinary powers of colonisers engaged in “exploration”, “contact” and then “settlement”, the four books discussed here show the possibility of indigenous subjects negotiating colonial relations at the heart of empire. Fernando’s self-conscious use of modern forms of international resistance – street protests and courts of law – extends accepted notions of colonisation and Aboriginal activism. Typically, indigenous Australians were historically absent until the 1930s. Yet Fernando’s example indicates that Aboriginal activism has played a significant role for much longer.
MARK MCKENNA IN ‘This County’ (UNSW Press, 2004), argues that recognising the history of indigenous negotiations of British imperialism is important to two recent and, he argues, interconnected debates – reconciliation and republic. McKenna notes that during the height of republican debates in 1999, leading indigenous activists met Queen Elizabeth II in London “to explore the unfinished business of the historical relationship between Britain and Australia’s first peoples”. They were the first indigenous Australians to meet a British monarch since Bennelong in 1793. Aboriginal activist William Ferguson exploited the historical relationship between royalty and indigenous rights in 1937 when he declared the need to petition the King of England because the federal government seemed unresponsive to the needs of Aboriginal people in Australia.
By the 1930s, Fernando had already abandoned the idea that British justice could improve conditions in Australia. The failure of British justice to uphold his right to give evidence in court in the 1880s led him to leave Australia forever. British justice, embodied in the monarchy, did not promise him an answer to the injustices of colonisation, but had proven impossibly compromised. Rather than British royals, Fernando focused on international bodies – the Vatican, the League of Nations – to pursue his political agenda.
Apart from those indigenous Australians who used the British monarchy in their battles with colonial, state and federal governments, most indigenous people appeared in the 18th– and 19th-century metropolis as exotic objects in an imperial economy. Most who travelled overseas did so as human property to be exhibited by European traders, colonisers or explorers eager to feed local desires for the sensational and the novel from far-distant worlds.
As the collection edited by Barbara Creed and Jeanette Hoorn, Body Trade, makes clear, “collecting” and exhibiting living or dead human specimens was central to the colonial enterprise. Returning with “natives” from newly colonised regions provided an eager metropolitan audience with novelty but also “evidence” of the civilising and uplifting impact of colonisation. Body Trade (Routledge, Pluto and Otago) is dedicated to the work of Gananath Obeyesekere, who has written evocatively of James Cook in the Pacific, in particular the cross-cultural social dynamics of cannibal stories that contributed to Cook’s demise. By rereading colonial texts, the contributors identify indigenous forms of agency even in the most unlikely of contexts. Thus, while the traffic in individuals for display in London and other cities constituted colonial violence, there were creative possibilities for negotiation. Unlike Fernando, whose testimony was circulated to an international audience through the London and Australian press, the experiences of these “native” specimens were conveyed predominantly through European intermediaries. Yet, in each case, the presence of indigenous people in the metropolis is in itself a statement of survival and hence resistance. The significance of knowledge of the metropolis (and perhaps of meeting other colonised peoples while in the metropolis) to histories of indigenous-rights politics can only be surmised.
Although Fernando remained in exile, Australian newspapers reported his protests. Aboriginal activist Pearl Gibbs kept press clippings of his court testimony among her most treasured papers. Gibbs went on to contribute to the Day of Mourning held to protest the sesquicentennial in 1938 and became a leading figure in the campaign for the 1967 referendum to change the Constitution and include Aborigines within the Commonwealth census. The significance of survival and representing one’s own people, as well as (in Fernando’s case) one’s own politics, to an international audience remains. This is despite a context in which such individuals were routinely represented as “last” or as “savage”, “cannibal” – closer to animal than human life.
IN HER RECENT account of Englishness, empire and gender, The Island Race (Routledge, 2003), Kathleen Wilson celebrates the possibility of multiple pasts. She advocates rethinking colonisation to give greater significance to cross-cultural history and to investigate the potential impact of such exchanges. She points to the “interplay in cultural forms and material conditions” that provide for the “conditions of possibility” within empire and that intimately link imperial nation formation with the peoples and cultures of the colonies. Thus, Englishness was a product of the process of colonising the Pacific. Displacing the usual history of a “progressive” civilising national project in which social Darwinism of the late nineteenth century provided the ultimate form of legitimation for centuries of British domination, Wilson revels in “an eighteenth-century British and colonial past, exhilarating in its multiplicities, its complex and transoceanic configurations of cultural, political and demographic movement, and its refusal to settle down into tidy, complacent narratives”. One concerns the first Polynesian visitor to England, known as Omai by his English hosts. Omai journeyed to England in an attempt to improve his status among his own people. Joshua Reynolds painted Omai in neoclassical style in 1780 in London, where he quickly became renowned for his adaptation into “civilised” society during his two-year stay. He returned to eastern Polynesia, supposedly to act as an ambassador for Britain. A quite different ending to the Omai story was presented on stage in an extremely popular contemporary pantomime Omai, or a Trip around the World. The final scene reveals a carnivalesque parade of British actors cross-dressing as “natives”, while Omai marries a British woman and remains in Britain, seduced forever by its “superiority”.
Drawing on the work of anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, Wilson offers a fruitful critique of the imperial narrative in which people living under colonisation have been understood to choose between extinction and assimilation. In its place, Wilson finds a far more dynamic process best described as “transcultural”. With this term we gain “a sense of the confrontational dynamic of the process of creativity and the consequent production” where contact takes place. We can extend this vision of a productive dynamic between cultures and peoples in the Pacific of the 18th century to other contact zones in metropolitan cities.
In Dwelling in the Archive, (Oxford University Press, 2002) an account of Indian women writing from London of home and nation in late colonial India, the United States historian of British imperialism, Antoinette Burton, is also interested in alternative modernities and the transnational subject in colonial history. Burton argues that in order to recognise the “radical possibilities” of the “conditions of post-coloniality” (that is, of being both subject to and a subject of colonisation), we must ask “who counts as a historical subject and what counts as an archive”. Burton calls for us to make connections between home and history, and to include women’s writings about domestic space as historical archives. She points to the ways in which “women” and “native” subjects have been relegated to domestic or personal historical realms, arguing that their significance to, and engagement with history have been, for the most part, underestimated or overlooked. In the writing of home by three Indian women, she finds transnational subjects exercising complex colonial modernities. Their writing was an effort to answer the partiality of official archives, as well as to record their own versions of the past for family members.
This determination to find an audience for one’s own account of history – of mediating between autobiography and the larger historical frames of imperialism and colonisation – also spurred Fernando on. He made his street protests and claimed the right to speak in his own defence and for the Aborigines in Australia in a British court of law. His life of protest illustrates the significance for colonial subjects, including indigenous subjects, of travelling to the metropolis, and showed this had an impact on, not only the travellers, but also those in the metropolis and those who stayed behind.
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