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A M Fernando Notebooks:

London 1929 - 1930

This exhibition concentrates on a very specific time in Fernando’s life by presenting digital copies of the London notebooks of A M Fernando 1929–30, and introduces you to the life of this remarkable man.

This is a digital art image titled The Lone Protestor, by Daryl Ciubal. It depicts A M Fernando writing in his notebook


Three days after the Wall Street stock market crash in 1929, an Aboriginal man — Anthony Martin Fernando – was living at the Salvation Army hostel for men in Middlesex Street, in the East End of London. It was in this setting that he documented his experiences as a toy trader.

Fernando was specifically documenting the treatment he received as a ’blackman’ in London for a previous employer of his, Douglas Jones. His notebooks also reflect his views on the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia.

"The thought of my mother is the guiding star of my life"

Anthony Martin Fernando

Important sensitivity statement

The A M Fernando notebooks contain terms which reflect the author’s attitudes or those of the period in which the notebooks were written and may be offensive to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples, Jewish peoples, and others.

The views expressed in these notebooks are those of A M Fernando and are not the views of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

When Anthony Martin Fernando was working as a street trader selling toys, the East End of London was home to many immigrants and the site of many different cultures.  In the early twentieth century, it was a poor area and the Jewish street traders resented the presence of a ’black man’ in their midst.

Fernando wrote often that the locals –  whether Jewish, Cockney or other —often harassed him to ’go back home’ and not to take away their business.  Fernando documented these taunts for his former employer, Douglas Jones.  He was frustrated with his inability to get good lodgings, his ill health, and the prejudice that he met and, although he tried to refrain from reacting to the taunts on the street, his notebooks contain his private thoughts on the various situations he found himself in.

notebook 1

Notebook 1

26 October to 30 November 1929

notebook 2

Notebook 2

3 December 1929 to 6 January 1930

notebook 3

Notebook 3

7 January to 26 January 1930

Anthony Martin Fernando was an Aboriginal man who spent the majority of his life in Europe in the early to mid-twentieth century, protesting the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. He must surely be the first Aboriginal person that we know of to protest his people’s treatment at an international level. Yet his life is somewhat of an enigma and it is only since the publication of Fiona Paisley’s book about him, The Lone Protestor: A M Fernando in Australia and Europe that the details of his life become clearer.

This short biography of Fernando’s life is based on what he has said or written about his personal life and the documentary evidence that Fiona’s research has uncovered.

Early life and family members

We know that Anthony Martin Fernando is the name he gave himself sometime before 1903. In 1925, Fernando recorded on a form that his father and mother were Mariano and Sarah Silva. He stated that he was born to an Aboriginal mother in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, on 6 April 1864. He was removed from his mother at an early age; however no records of his birth or removal have been located.

Throughout his life, Fernando thought of his mother as the ’guiding star of his life’. Judging from his surname – whether Fernando or Silva – it seems likely that Anthony Martin’s father was of South-Asian or perhaps even Sri Lankan background.

First appearance in official records

Anthony Martin Fernando first appears in the records in Western Australia, when on 10 October 1903, he wrote to H C Prinsep, the Chief Protector of Western Australia. He expressed his wish for mercy and justice for the Aboriginal people of Australia. Earlier he had written to Prinsep about witnessing traumatic practices carried out by the police at Peak Hill, Western Australia, but the letter was never acknowledged. Neither was his letter of 1903.

Leaving Australia and life in Europe

Fernando left Australia, although it is not known when, and turns up again in the archives in 1913 living and working in Vienna. He later found work as an acetylene welder with an Italian engineering company in Trieste. He was interned there in 1915 during World War I and was later moved to camps at Grossau and then Katzenau, Austria.

Fernando wrote his 1929–30 notebooks for Douglas Jones, an English lawyer, who was an important figure in Fernando’s life. Jones worked with the distribution of repatriation loans to former internees in European camps and first met Fernando after the war.

As Fernando could not get work in London, he obtained a loan through the repatriation system with the aim to work again for his former employers in Italy. Unfortunately, he could not regain work with his former employers and returned to London. He paid back the loan quickly. This impressed Douglas Jones, who employed him as his servant in his legal chambers at Hare Court in the legal district of Inner Temple, Central London. Frank Crawshaw who took over the rooms from Douglas Jones in about 1925–26 retained Fernando’s services. During his holidays Fernando would travel to Europe where he engaged in many political protests.

Political protests

In June 1921 Fernando was in Bern, Switzerland and secured an interview with the progressive newspaper Der Bund. At their request, he submitted an open letter to the Swiss people titled ‘A Call for Help from Australia’. Fernando proposed that an independent international commission should have a mandate over the Aboriginal reserves in Australia.

Another protest planned by Fernando occurred in 1925 in Rome outside the Vatican. Fernando was arrested for handing out printed flyers protesting the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia. He was eventually released after Douglas Jones from England intervened, and worked his way back to London.

Fernando's most well-known protest

In 1928, Fernando’s most well-known protest took place outside Australia House in London. He covered a cloak in small skeletons which he wore around his shoulders and paraded in the street outside Australia House, protesting ’This is all that Australia has left of my people’.

Fernando was arrested but no charges were laid. The Australian rector at the church on the Strand — opposite Australia House — wanted to have him committed to a lunatic asylum, but again Douglas Jones intervened.

Court appearances

Anthony Martin Fernando next appears in the records in January 1929 when he faced court on an assault charge.

Fernando was taunted by a stallholder at the Bethnall Green market, East London. He responded by threatening the stallholder with a pistol.

He appeared twice at the Old Bailey court and used his chance in the witness box to again protest the treatment of his people in Australia. He also denounced the racial vilification that he experienced in London. Douglas Jones and Frank Crawshaw came to the court and gave character references for him. However, he was held on remand in Brixton Prison for several months. Fernando was then released into the custody of Frank Crawshaw who, by this time, had set up a doctor’s practice in Epsom.

Fernando’s court case was reported in the English and Australian press. It also captured the attention of people interested in the situation of Aboriginal people in Australia — including Mary Bennett. Fernando reluctantly met her, and some of what we know about Fernando has been recorded in her letters and interviews.

Fernando's notebooks

While he probably kept notebooks throughout his life to record his treatment, it was not until 1929 —when Fernando was sixty-five – that he began writing in his notebooks. Four months of his life as a street trader was recorded. He described the abuse he received on the streets in the East End of London and in the Salvation Army Hostel in Middlesex Street where he lived. Fernando wrote down his many thoughts about the war and England as a colonial power.

We know that Fernando was a speaker in Hyde Park, London during 1929, as Mary Bennett wrote about Douglas Jones’ account of hearing him speak there. Fernando’s appearances at Speakers Corner seem to have continued into the 1930s.

In 1938, Fernando was charged with assaulting a fellow lodger and the proceedings of this court case were reported in the English and Australian press. The Sydney Morning Herald edition of 7 February 1938 reported that he often spoke in Hyde Park about the wrongs inflicted on ’Australian and other natives’.

We hear nothing of Fernando for the next ten years, but on 6 June 1948 he wrote to Douglas Jones from Claybury Hospital where he was admitted in 1942 suffering from senile dementia. In the hospital, he seems to have escaped the hardships of life on the streets and says:

I am much the same. Only for this God sent place what would be the suffering of the suffering poor? …. I am glad to say I am still working on the mats which is very helpful to the mind and body.

Just six months later on 6 January 1949, Fernando died at Claybury, aged eighty-four. It is not known where he is buried.

Anthony Martin Fernando’s story is a poignant but amazing story of courage and survival.

Finding the notebooks

by Fiona Paisley

The following is an excerpt from the award-winning book — The Lone Protestor: A M Fernando in Australia and Europe by historian, Fiona Paisley.

The story of his life?

Tantalisingly, at least one person who met A M Fernando in interwar London asked him to write down his life story. So far, however, no autobiographical account of his life has surfaced. Nor has a photograph. Nonetheless, it has been possible to locate a remarkable range of documents written by Fernando himself, some in his own hand and one a printed flyer. At their heart is three small notebooks kept while he was living in a men’s hostel in central London and working as a trader in its many markets.

A M Fernando’s worldview

While the pages of the notebook are not autobiographical in the sense of setting out his life, they do provide a unique insight into his older age: among other things, they give us an insight into his perspective on racism and the harsh world of poor London streets, his analysis of world politics, and his vision for the reform of relations between Europeans future of colonised people in Australia and elsewhere in the British empire.

And as objects in their own right, their small size and the pencilled words that fill them illustrate graphically that he was constantly on the move and used to literally thinking on his feet. They tell us something of his vibrant and sometimes confronting use of language and religious views. And, of course, they provide evidence of his handwriting.

Filling in some of the gaps

When I began researching the life of A M Fernando... we knew very little about this period of his later life working the city markets in London during the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, it seemed that nothing written by him had survived. Other than sketchy information contained in some brief newspaper reports of two trials in which he was involved, and a couple of eyewitness accounts and reminiscences left by those who met him at around the same time, we knew very little about most aspects of Fernando’s life. 

Hints and clues about his activist career appearing in those press reports were open to interpretation. For example, when Fernando declared that he had begun his life of protest in the 1890s, did he mean that he had left Australia for good at that time, or that he left but then returned, or simply that he protested then? While it is still not possible to answer these questions with confidence, I found archival evidence that Fernando was in Western Australia in 1903 from where he wrote letters to the Board protesting police violence. 

These are the first letters in Fernando’s hand and they are held in the State Archives of Western Australia. In another example, the wrong date provided in one of the same press reports confounded research in Italy until my researcher who could read Italian, working backwards from a separate report, was able to uncover a remarkable bundle of letters and documents relating to Fernando’s life and his arrest in Rome from 1925, two years later.

Among those documents is the flyer Fernando was handing out at the very moment he was taken into custody. Translation figured significantly also in finding out about Fernando’s years in Vienna and then internment from the Austrian archives, again thanks to a local research assistant, and a newspaper interview with him in Switzerland. Even more remarkably, one of the holdings in the library at AIATSIS deposited decades ago by a Swiss official in Australia who found material on Australia in his Austrian father’s archives, including what turned out to be newspaper cuttings of that same interview.

The notebooks survive

Another breakthrough came after contacting the descendants of lawyers who employed Fernando in London during the 1920s. Luckily one of them, Douglas Jones, identified in the London press reports of Fernando’s court cases, was interviewed in old age about his experiences as a civilian detainee during World War One. Thanks to another outstanding researcher, we were able to find his grandson still living at the same address listed on the recordings. He remembered stories of Fernando in their family, and a search of the family archives soon revealed the notebooks as well as another letter to Jones written by Fernando near the end of his life.

Their survival and the fact that Fernando sent his notebooks to Jones in the first place is testimony to the long-standing friendship between the two men. Thanks to the generous contribution of these sources by the Jones family to the book I wrote about Fernando, and hence to the Australian archive on his life, it has been possible to lodge these unique records at AIATSIS where they have been digitised for you to read.

Letter from A. M. Fernando to D. D. Jones, 6 June 1948

Fernando notebook 3 page 41
Fernando notebook 3 page 41
Fernando notebook
Fernando notebook

Australia Day 1930

On 26 January 1930, life for Fernando was pretty much the same as any other day. He was at the Hackney Marsh stall in Broadway Street and he received so much humbug from onlookers that he did not do much trade. It rained and he moved on to another location. He thought about his notebooks and wrote: ’I suppose my daily noats of sum of my momentry experience in London is worth repeating (reading)…’.

It is intriguing that Anthony Martin Fernando’s last entry in the three notebooks is on 26 January 1930 — Survival day — or officially Australia day and in 1930 known as Anniversary day.

East London Postcards

These postcards from the East End of London in the early 20th century depict some of the streets and markets that Fernando writes about in his notebooks. The owner of the East London Postcard website has given AIATSIS permission to reproduce the postcards. No further reproduction is permitted without the owner’s permission.

Chrisp St, Poplar
Chrisp St, Poplar
Market, Burdett Road
Market, Burdett Road
Mile End
Mile End
Watney Market
Watney Market
Watney Street
Watney Street

Artwork of Fernando

"This is all Australia has left of my people" (Penny Byrne, 2008) Photograph by Jeremy Dillon
"This is all Australia has left of my people" (Penny Byrne, 2008) Photograph by Jeremy Dillon

Although, there are no known photos of Anthony Martin Fernando, his story has inspired a number of artists to depict him in their artwork. One of these artists is Penny Byrne, who reconstructs ’manipulated figurines from damaged and antiquated ceramic objects into artworks that often wield a political message’.

With this figurine, Penny depicts Fernando’s protest outside Australia House in 1925.

Further reading

the lone protestor cover

The Lone Protestor: A M Fernando in Australia and Europe

Fiona Paisley

May, 2012

AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.

We pay our respects to elders past and present.