Return to the Old Bailey

An Epilogue to John Martin: The Self-Freed Slave

By Michaela Ann Cameron

While researching and writing the latest biography for my St. John’s First Fleeters collection for the brand new St. John’s Cemetery Project, I learnt some interesting things about two of my biographical subject’s descendants. Their life stories overlapped in surprising ways with Martin’s, so I thought I’d publish what is essentially an “epilogue” to the John Martin biography here.

(It is highly recommended, therefore, that you read John Martin: The Self-Freed Slave before reading this post).

On 30 January 1929 a 65-year-old ‘man of colour’ who ‘claimed to be an Australian aborigine’[1] appeared at the Old Bailey. By then, the Old Bailey had been relocated to the site previously occupied by Newgate; the prison that had once held another ‘man of colour’: John Martin. The man who stood before the court in 1929 was multilingual,[2] well read, and well travelled, having spent decades working his way through Asia and Europe where he adopted the Italian surname ‘Fernando.’ During World War I British authorities described Fernando as ‘a negro’ and denied his claims to being an Aboriginal Australian and a British subject after the Australian government failed to find evidence of his birth in Australia. British subject or not, Fernando was deported to Britain after being arrested in Italy for his political activities, which aimed to expose an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to exterminate Aboriginal Australians.[3] Fernando was seemingly not alone in harbouring such thoughts and decisively acting on them.

Seventeen years earlier, in 1912, police in the Snowy Mountains shot in the head a reportedly ‘part-Aboriginal’[4] man named Thomas Conquit when he communicated that it was his ‘mission’ to shoot the white people in his community. According to Conquit’s coronial inquest, he had been suffering from ‘religious mania.’[5] He had ‘imagined that the white people were fighting on the side of the devil…’ and he was on the side of Jesus Christ; he also believed that ‘the white race wanted to put the black race down.’[6] Subsequently, Conquit ‘had a deadly antipathy towards the police’[7] whom he believed to be part of the worldwide plot.

Fernando’s own run-in with the law in late-1920s London was likewise due to antisocial behaviour with a firearm. He had been arrested for brandishing a loaded pistol at a Bethnal Green market stallholder who had provoked him with racist remarks. In stark contrast to John Martin’s defenceless, indeed entirely speechless, appearance at his own trial at the Old Bailey almost 150 years earlier, the man of colour at the Old Bailey in 1929 was not only prepared to defend himself, but very likely orchestrated the entire incident to use the British court system and associated media to draw attention to the plight of Aboriginal Australians and Anglo-Saxon racism on the world stage.[8] Historian and biographer of Fernando, Fiona Paisley, notes ‘the lone protestor’ made the compelling arguments that

‘the Australian frontier had been a precipitating factor in his violent crime…that the Australian settler colony and racism in imperial metropolitan London were directly related. Their duality could be found in the working class people whose views he considered to be fundamentally shaped by British colonialism. As a survivor of both sides of the British imperial world in Australia and England, he argued that he had been given little option but to take action against his tormentor.’[9]

Fernando and Conquit were contemporaries who shared a strikingly similar conspiracy theory about whites annihilating ‘coloured’ people and both men believed it was their mission to resist that ‘extermination,’ with violence if necessary, albeit with very different outcomes. Both men were also reportedly aboriginal and experienced their racial identities being publicly debated due to simplistic assumptions made by Europeans based on visual characteristics and an ignorance of the complex histories captured in their DNA. For example, Fernando, a ‘coloured’ man in the British metropole, was identified as ‘a negro’ even when he, himself, ‘claimed’ he was an ‘Australian Aborigine’; whereas Conquit, a ‘coloured’ man with some clear European ancestry viewed in the context of the periphery (Australia), was automatically presumed to have ‘a strain of the aboriginal,’[10] until his own half-brother clarified that Conquit’s father had actually been ‘either Indian or African.’[11]

As it happens, both Fernando and Conquit belonged to the African diaspora, and only one of them was also aboriginal. Conquit’s non-European features were not due to any aboriginality but were entirely the result of him being the son of Frances Martin; the daughter and granddaughter of African American slaves John Martin and John Randall respectively. As for Fernando, historians consider his pre-Italianate name ‘Anthony Martin’ to be compelling evidence that he was also one of John Martin’s descendants, via a second African-Aboriginal line, as John Martin and a number of his descendants are believed or known to have had children with the Darug people. But in 1920s London, the British were unable to recognise Anthony Martin Fernando was their own creation.

Fernando literally, embodied the complex cross-cultural encounters the British people’s own forebears had facilitated through their widespread colonial endeavours in America, Africa, and Australia.

How much of Fernando and Conquit’s desire to resist and challenge the dominant culture was bequeathed to them over the generations through those distinct African-European and African-Aboriginal blood lines by the man who risked death to escape the Atlantic slave trade; endured convictism as punishment for his poverty-fuelled theft of some clothes; was flogged for attempting to supply himself with a basic human need for warmth; was denied his freedom in the British penal colony for two years; and watched his friend get flogged and chained for insisting on the liberty he had earnt by servitude? Though he might have been mute at his trial, this summary of John Martin’s actions proves he was just as willing as his descendants to adapt many methods of resisting and escaping systems that denied and degraded him as a human being. But in the brutal world that John Martin inhabited, where black men typically had no basic human rights at all, those actions had to be appropriate to the occasion; Martin survived because he knew precisely when to resist by fight or flight and he also knew when it was best to speak or remain quiet.

By the time John Martin’s descendants Conquit and Fernando came along, ‘men of colour’ were still denied many basic human rights. Fernando himself had ‘seen whites go unpunished for the murder and ill-treatment of aborigines’[12] in Australia and discovered firsthand that in England, ‘The black man…was the only foreigner…who was not treated well.’[13] Conquit’s violence was not the correct way to remedy those societal ills and he paid the ultimate price for his inability to choose the right method of resistance. The worldly, masterful orator Fernando, by contrast, recognised that while the threat of violence had a part to play and used it as a means to initially command attention, ultimately, in Fernando’s world the wordsmith’s voice was mightier than the gun in a way it could not have been in John Martin’s day. It is rather fitting that when Fernando raised his voice in the Old Bailey in 1929 and turned that criminal court into a platform for his political activism, he exploited the British legal system that had formerly exploited his own ancestor: the former white man’s slave and convict.

‘Stamping his feet and waving his arms,…Fernando exclaimed [in the Old Bailey]: “They say we are savages, but it is all tommy rot. The white man came and shot us down. If we were not shot we were exposed to slow starvation, or we were hanged. Since 1887 I have pleaded for the Australian natives. Do as you like with me, but the natives of Australia must be looked upon as human beings.”[14]

AM Fernando

CITE THIS

Michaela Ann Cameron, “Return to the Old Bailey: an Epilogue to “John Martin: The Self-Freed Slave,” The Old Parramattan, https://theoldparramattan.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/return-to-the-old-bailey/ accessed [insert current date]

REFERENCES

Michaela Ann Cameron, “John Martin: The Self-Freed Slave,” The St. John’s Cemetery Project, (2016) http://stjohnscemeteryproject.org/bio/john-martin/ accessed 18 March 2016

Alison Holland and Fiona Paisley, “Anthony Martin Fernando (1864-1949), Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fernando-anthony-martin-12918 accessed 17 March 2016

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2), July 1782, trial of JOHN MARTIN (t17820703-5) accessed 4 March 2016

Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor: A. M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012)

Cassandra Pybus, Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia’s First Black Settlers, (Sydney, NSW: University of New South Wales Press, 2006)

Trove

Notes

[1] Detective Sergeant Dean cited in Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor – A. M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012), p.119

[2] “Presumably Fernando spoke Italian and other European languages well enough to facilitate his working life abroad,’ writes historian and A. M. Fernando biographer Fiona Paisley. Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor – A. M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012), p.95.

[3] See Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor – A. M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012); Alison Holland and Fiona Paisley, “Anthony Martin Fernando (1864-1949), Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fernando-anthony-martin-12918 accessed 17 March 2016

[4] Cassandra Pybus, Black Founders: The unknown story of Australia’s first black settlers, (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2006), p.179

[5] “Tragic Encounter: Demented Man Shot. Police Sergeant Wounded,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), Monday 17 June 1912, p.9 http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/15343248/1292346 accessed 17 March 2016

[6] “The Adelong Shooting Tragedy: The Inquest,” Adelong and Tumut Express and Tumbarumba Post (NSW: 1900 – 1925) Friday 21 June 1912 p.2 http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/104352686/10764719 accessed 17 March 2016; “The Adelong Tragedy: Evidence at the Inquest: Simultaneous Shots,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW: 1869-1931) Wednesday 19 June 1912, p.4 http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/114812498/12332304 accessed 17 March 2016

[7] “Adelong Tragedy. Demented Man Shot Dead. Armed Encounter. Adelong. Tuesday,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954) Wednesday 19 June 1912, p.17 http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/15343997/1292384 accessed 17 March 2016

[8] “Far from denying that he had assaulted Limber, Fernando used his arrest to pursue his mission of speaking out against the Aboriginal situation in Australia. In this manner, his actions begin to look less like a random act and more like the deliberate protest of an ex-colonial with every intention of committing future crimes against British people in England…” Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor – A. M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012), p.119.

[9] Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor – A. M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012), pp.113-4

[10] “Adelong Shooting Case: Evidence at the Inquest: Sergeant Duprez’s Injury Not Serious,” Wagga Wagga Express (NSW: 1879-1917), Thursday 20 June 1912, p.5 http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/145398080/15878228 accessed 17 March 2016

[11] “The Adelong Tragedy: Evidence at the Inquest: Simultaneous Shots,” Evening News (Sydney, NSW: 1869-1931) Wednesday 19 June 1912, p.4 http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/114812498/12332304 accessed 17 March 2016

[12] Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor – A. M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012), p.119

[13] Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor – A. M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012), p.120

[14] Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor – A. M. Fernando in Australia and Europe, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012), p.120

© 2016 Michaela Ann Cameron

Advertisements