Challenging boundaries: A transnational history of Indigenous activism in Australia

By Ella Syme
Written for HIST20070: Australia in the World 1914 to 2014

Australia in the 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of a distinctive form of transnationalism, in which Indigenous Australian activists revealed their transnational engagement with the world. This essay will detail the Indigenous activism of the 1920s and 30s, beginning with the formation of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) and documenting the sequential activism of the 1930s to detail how these early Indigenous Australian activists were both transnational players and national inspirations. By viewing Indigenous Australian activism in this less-explored transnational framework, historians can overcome the limited lens of a local approach to Australia’s history and understand how Indigenous Australians were positioned with and connected to other nation states. To explore these international connections, this essay will first examine the role of Marcus Garvey to reveal how Indigenous activists were aware of global discourses, and yet shaped these ideas to fit their own agendas. By drawing on the work of Ravi De Costa, this essay will further highlight Indigenous Australian activists as transnational players, ultimately revealing that Indigenous Australian activism was not just a local phenomenon but influenced by a number of global factors.  

The political activism of Indigenous Australians did not begin with Eddie Mabo and his battle for land rights in the 1980s, nor with Charlie Perkins and the 1965 Freedom Ride. These protests, although momentous, were perpetuations of a longer history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait activism, an activism which originated with the arrival of British settlers in 1788 and the culture of oppression and exclusion that ensued. The Protection Acts of the late 19th and 20th centuries gave state authorities jurisdiction over the welfare of  Indigenous Australians, and yet the Indigenous population was not blind to the true nature of these ‘protective’ measures. The clear injustices committed against them occasioned a response, and throughout the 1920s and 30s there emerged instances of Indigenous activism in which, as Ravi de Costa argues, Australia was revealed as a nation “criss-crossed by ideas, values and norms” of global dimension. The first indication of Indigenous transnationalism during this period  is seen through the connections between international activists and the establishment of Indigenous Australian activists organizations in the early 1920s. In the years leading up to the creation of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in 1924, Indigenous Australian maritime workers had regular contact with international seamen who spread the idea of indigenous liberation. Evidence of dock workers and their significant role in the dissemination of indigenous rights is not explored in most studies of early Indigenous Australian activism. As historian Tracey Mar points out, historical indigenous protest is often thought of as being “intensely local”, but in actual fact consisted of a number of interconnected moments. Indeed, the sharing of experiences of subjugation and racism between maritime workers from different nations is a clear example of this, and connections with international seamen was not only paramount in the creation of the AAPA, but also for subsequent activists. Fred Maynard, founder of the AAPA, was a member of the Waterside Workers Federation, and his work on the Sydney docks in the early 1900s began his association with “black seamen from around the world”. Jack Tattersall, who would later become involved in the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) alongside Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten, was also a dock worker. Although the APA and AAPA were separate organisations, it is evident that similar ideas influenced them both; as historian John Maynard argues, many Aboriginal Australians drew inspiration from the realisation that “they were not alone” in their struggles.

The early involvements of AAPA activists with other international actors had significant influences on their politicization, and the political engagement of AAPA leaders introduced a new form of Indigenous resistance to Australia, acting as an “inspiration to Aboriginal people of their period and into the future.” Arguably the most significant influence on the AAPA’s discourse was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican born African American activist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey and the UNIA, although focused on the liberation of Africans, had the aim of “embrace[ing] the purpose of all black humanity”. His vision of uniting ‘blacks’ around the world did not forego Australia, but rather helped initiate the unification of Indigenous Australian activists in the fight for their rights. One unmistakable indication of Garvey’s influence on the AAPA is revealed through the phrase “Australia for Australians” shown above the AAPA emblem. The phrase was taken from a speech made by Garvey in 1927, indicating the AAPA’s interest in black movements globally and further revealing their transnational awareness. Although Garvey’s philosophies clearly influenced AAPA leaders, these ideas were transferred into a distinctly Australian framework. For example, while Garvey put significant focus on the ‘Back to Africa movement’ and the recognition of a “national home for our [the African] race”, this obviously had little relevance for Indigenous Australians. Rather than a return to an African homeland, the AAPA called for the recognition of Indigenous land rights while still incorporating Garvey’s values of cultural and racial pride. As John Maynard reasons, the AAPA observed the similarities between Garveyism and their own philosophy and “cleverly unpacked Garvey’s ideals and remodelled it to their own experience in Australia.”  The AAPA was eventually disbanded in 1927, yet the possibility of further, successful resistance had already been instilled.

While these connections between Indigenous Australians’ and other oppressed races across the globe helped to establish the political ideas of activist, this was not the only form of Indigenous transnationalism occurring in the 1920s. Indeed, before the formation of the AAPA there was an individual whose role as a transnational player cannot be ignored: Anthony Martin Fernando, a lesser known but equally important actor in Aboriginal resistance, who brought the idea of Indigenous liberation to the global arena. In the early 1900s Fernando left Australia, traveling across Europe in the hopes of procuring international support, and in 1921 the Swiss newspaper, Der Bund, published his article entitled ‘A Call for Help from Australia’ in which he appealed Switzerland for support of the Indigenous cause. Fernando also petitioned for a meeting with Pope Benedict XV, albeit unsuccessfully, to seek “support” for Aboriginal land rights.  Ravi De Costa argues that by appealing to a ‘higher authority’ such as the British monarch, Indigenous Australian’s have positioned their unique demands for justice within a global framework. Fernando’s plea to both the authority of the Pope as well as to the Swiss population are some of the earliest documented attempts by Indigenous Australians to appeal to an international audience, and yet it is interesting to observe that Fernando did not direct his appeals to the Crown and indeed was extremely anti-British in his lobbying. He saw the British to be responsible for the treatment of his people, and this idea of British accountability and the King’s obligation to Indigenous Australians would be a matter drawn on by activists in the following decade.

Perhaps the most renowned Indigenous petition to a higher authority was that of William Cooper who, unlike Fernando, directed his 1937 campaign for Indigenous rights towards an imperial authority. Cooper, one of the founders of the Australian Aborigines’ League (AAL), had begun his petition in 1933 as an appeal to King George V, and by 1937 had acquired almost 2000 signatures.  Cooper saw the Indigenous population as “His Majesty’s subjects” who were protected “under the British Flag”, which in itself reveals a belief that the Crown would support the plight of its Indigenous ‘subjects’. Cooper further revealed his transnational engagement by appealing to the idea of British justice and accountability. The belief that the petition would be successful stems from Cooper’s understanding that Indigenous lands had in fact been “expropriated by your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth”. These appeals to both the King and the broader idea of British justice supports De Costa’s argument that Indigenous Australians felt they had a “direct relationship with the Crown.” Although Prime Minister Lyons refused to convey the petition to the King, Cooper’s attempt inspired later generations of activists, including his nephew Sir Doug Nicholls who would go on to become the first Indigenous Australian to receive knighthood. While Cooper’s petition is the most recognised, there have been a number of other appeals made to King, all of which further support the idea that there was a unique relationship between the Indigenous population and the British monarchy. Jane Duren, a member of the AAPA, petitioned directly to King George V in 1926 over land rights issues, and in 1933 Indigenous elder Joe Anderson, known as King Burraga, recorded a video calling upon the King to grant the Aboriginal population the “right to live”.  These petitioners also saw the Crown as having the power to assists the struggles of Indigenous Australians, revealing how Indigenous activists transcended national authority in favour of a higher, transnational power.

However, it was not only through appealing to an imperial authority that activists revealed themselves as transnational players in the 1930s. This decade also brought a gradual increase in women’s liberation movements around the globe, and there were a number of Indigenous Australian women who campaigned for both women’s and Indigenous rights, taking to the world stage in order to do so. Pearl Gibbs, who was an active member of the more-male dominated APA, consolidated the position of Indigenous women in Aboriginal activism through her letter to the League of Nations in which she appealed for support “in the interest of down-trodden natives”. The efforts of Fernando in appealing to non-Imperial sources of authority had inspired Gibbs, further highlighting the notion that Indigenous protests during the 1920s and 30s were never isolated instances, even on a local scale. Gibbs’ appeal to the League also reflected the actions of the non-Indigenous women with whom she was acquainted, for example Jessie Street and Mary Bennett, who saw Indigenous oppression as a “world problem” and frequently appealed to international organizations.  Yet, unlike Street and Bennett whose own struggles with women’s liberation meant their activism had more focus on the rights of Indigenous women, Gibbs worked to gain national and international support for all Indigenous Australians. She used her position as a female activist to appeal to her “white sisters” for support, showing an engagement in the transnational suffragette movement by using her connections with other subordinated women to make a global appeal for the Indigenous cause. Although the League had no jurisdiction over the fate of Indigenous Australians, nor were they inclined to intervene in any sense, the act of contacting an international organization shows her faith in this authoritative power, and helped subsequent Indigenous women understand their unique position in the struggle for rights.

Australia in the 1920s and 1930s was a clearly a nation intricated by a number of significant figures in Aboriginal activism. These two decades saw the revelation of Indigenous Australians as transnational players influenced by global politics as well as a trust in some higher authority.  The spread of political ideas was contingent on international travel which helped to broaden the views of Indigenous activists in the AAPA, allowing for their increased awareness of global progressions while still remaining conscious of Australia’s unique place in the world. Appeals to a higher authority, both imperial and otherwise, also reveal a belief in a unique relationship between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the world. The petition of William Cooper is one such revelation of this, but there were a number of other significant actors during this period, including Indigenous women, who took to the international arena to advocate for their rights. Although these petitions indicate an attempt to surpass local boundaries and gain the support of the international community, their successes lay more in their inspiration to other activists than any actual reaction from the international powers they beseeched. In 2014, William Cooper’s petition was finally delivered to Crown, and yet, as Mark McKenna so accurately questions, “it had taken eighty years to arrive. How long before it receives a response?”.


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Primary sources:

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