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Anthony Martin Fernando (1864–1949)

by Alison Holland and Fiona Paisley

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Anthony Martin Fernando (1864-1949), Aboriginal activist and toymaker, was by his own account born on 6 April 1864 at Woolloomooloo, Sydney, son of an Aboriginal woman. According to a document held in the Italian archives based on Fernando’s own testimony in the 1920s, his parents were Sarah and Mariano Silva, the surname suggesting that his father was South Asian. Separated from his clan as a child, Anthony worked as an engine driver in Sydney. By the time he returned to his people, his mother had died. The thought of her, he was to assert, was 'the guiding star' of his life. In 1887 he witnessed the murder of an Aborigine by two White men, but was refused the opportunity to give evidence; the murderers were acquitted.

Disgusted with Australia, from about 1890 he publicized the Aboriginal cause overseas. In the following decades he travelled through Asia to Europe, working as a welder, toymaker, jewellery-maker, trader and servant. He lived for a time in Italy where, out of respect for the Italian people, he adopted what he described as a plain, Italian workingman's name. By 1910 'Fernando' was in Austria. British authorities repeatedly denied his claims to be a British subject. Interned in Austria during World War I, in June 1916, stating that he had been born in Australia, he requested prison relief through the consul for the United States of America in Vienna. The British Foreign Office, describing him as 'a negro', referred the matter to the Australian government, which found no evidence of his birth, and his appeal was rejected.

After the war Fernando settled in Milan, Italy, where he worked in an engineering workshop. According to surveillance reports, he attempted to present a private petition to the Pope, interviewed members of the League of Nations in Geneva and protested in a German newspaper against Australian injustice towards Aborigines. Returning to Italy, he was arrested for distributing pamphlets declaring that the British race was exterminating his people. In 1923 he was deported to Britain.

Fernando became the servant of an English barrister who offered him a stipend to settle down and write his life story; but he preferred his independence and travelled again in Europe. By 1928 he was back in London where he continued his crusade by picketing Australia House, 'his long grey beard damp with mist, his frail elderly frame wrapped in a large overcoat'. Pinned to his coat were scores of small, white, toy skeletons and he wore a placard proclaiming: 'This is all Australia has left of my people'. He also spoke at Hyde Park. In January 1929, described as a toy hawker, he appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with drawing a revolver in response to a racial taunt. After some resistance on his part, Fernando spoke to Mary Bennett, who visited his cell while he was awaiting trial. She reported a small man with a gentle demeanour, self-educated, well spoken, with a command of many languages and a good knowledge of the Bible. Bennett found him to be sane, intelligent yet driven. The prison doctor agreed, reporting that 'although he held strong views about his race, there was no indication of any delusions', and no reason to commit him to an asylum. When Fernando appeared in court, he received a sympathetic hearing. He accused Whites of murdering and ill-treating Aborigines, adding, 'I have been boycotted everywhere . . . It is tommyrot to say that we are all savages. Whites have shot, slowly starved and hanged us'. Given a gaol sentence, suspended on two years probation, he briefly worked as a cook in the barrister's employment, then continued his agitations.

In January 1938 Fernando was back before the courts, accused of assaulting a fellow lodger. Unrepentant, once more he protested at the treatment of his people. He was sentenced to three months imprisonment. Later Fernando retired to an old men's home. He died on 9 January 1949 at Ilford, Essex.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Bennett, The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being (Lond, 1930)
  • M. Brown, ‘Fernando: the story of an Aboriginal Prophet’, Aboriginal Welfare Bulletin, vol 4, no 1, 1964, p 7
  • Aboriginal Law Bulletin, 2, no 33, 1988, p 4
  • F. Paisley, ‘An education in white brutality’, in A. Coombes (ed), Making History Memorable (Manchester, England, forthcoming)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Feb 1929, p 17, 21 Mar 1929, p 11, 7 Feb 1938, p 8
  • GRG 52/32/31 (State Records of South Australia)
  • A11803/1, 14/89/475 and D1915/0, SA608 (National Archives of Australia)
  • H. Goodall, Anthony Martin Fernando: Angry Ambassador (manuscript, 1989, privately held).

Citation details

Alison Holland and Fiona Paisley, 'Fernando, Anthony Martin (1864–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 April, 1864
Woolloomooloo, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


9 January, 1949 (aged 84)
Ilford, Essex, England

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