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

A.M. (Anthony Martin) Fernando (1864–1949)

A.M. (Anthony Martin) Fernando (1864–1949) was an Aboriginal activist who travelled to England and Europe to protest about the treatment of the Aboriginal people in Australia.

Early Life

Not much is known about Fernando's early life. He was born in Sydney in 1864. His mother was an Aboriginal of the Dharug people in the Sydney area and his father was probably South Asian, maybe from India or Sri Lanka.
His parents' names were Mariano and Sarah Silva but he changed his surname to Fernando, probably when he was living in Italy.

First Protests, in Australia

Nobody knows when he moved to Western Australia. Most people did not know that he was Aboriginal because he was educated, and could read and write. When he saw how badly Aborigines were treated in Peak Hill (a mining town) he wrote a letter to the WA Chief Protector of Aborigines, Mr H.C. Prinsep, in 1903. The letter complains about how the police treated Aborigines unfairly, how the New Norcia mission was using them like slaves for unpaid labour, and how government policies discriminated against Aborigines.
Fernando wrote this letter two years after the Federation of Australia in 1901. At this time, Aborigines weren't even counted in the census. Their children were taken away from their families to teach them 'White ways' but they were not educated so that they could get proper jobs, and they were mostly not paid for the work they did. Settlers had taken their land and their hunting grounds so Aborigines could not live in their traditional ways, but they were not paid any compensation for the loss of their land, and they could not earn money to buy land or farms or houses of their own. Aborigines mostly had to live in camps outside towns or on missions.
Aborigines had no rights at this time. Fernando was very angry when he witnessed two White men murdering an Aborigine but was not allowed to give evidence about it in court, because he was not a White man. The White men went free.
But nobody took any notice of Fernando's letter and so he decided to embarrass the government into making changes.

Protests overseas

Fernando travelled to Europe, was put in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War 1, and worked as a welder, a toymaker, a jewellery-maker, a trader and a servant.
All through his life he campaigned for a fair go for Aborigines. He wrote letters to newspapers, gave out leaflets, sent a petition to the Pope, picketed Australia House in London and gave talks. His struggle was hard and lonely, and sometimes he was arrested for being a nuisance but did not give up. He died in an old people's home in England in 1949.

Images of Fernando

There are no photos of A.M. Fernando, but his story inspired the artist Raj Nagi to create an imagined image of Fernando wearing the coat he wore to protest about the deaths of so many Aboriginal people. The coat has many little white plastic skeletons sewn onto it. Click here to see the portrait which is at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Why Fernando is important

Fernando is an important hero for Australia because he refused to give in to injustice, and he used modern methods to make the world aware that Aborigines were being denied their human rights.

The Lone Protestor, A.M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012, ISBN: 9781922059055
'Glimpses of an Extraordinary Life', by Yvonne Perkins, <Stumbling Through the Past> 31/1/13, viewed 5/7/13
'Fernando's Ghost' presented by Daniel Browning, ABC Radio National AWAYE, broadcast 26/5/12 viewed 5/7/13
Anthony Martin Fernando, Australian Dictionary of Biography viewed 5/7/13
Anthony Fernando,Wikipedia viewed 5/7/13