The $50 notable David Unaipon

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Almost 150 years after his birth, one of the great Australians has had a facelift. David Unaipon has long featured on the $50 note but an updated portrait of the Ngarrindjeri inventor features on the new note released into circulation last month. Muriel Van der Byl’s note’s design also includes Ngarrindjeri shields; a black swan, Unaipon’s totem animal and “miwi” and navel cord exchange, Ngarrindjeri cultural practices written about by Uniapon.

The note still contains an image of Unaipon’s South Australian church in Raukkan though the blueprints of the shearing mechanism he invented and a quote have been removed. The quote “As a full-blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first – but I hope not the last – to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings”, is proud but perhaps too jarring these days with its talk of race and blood.

Unaipon was a remarkable polymath, as the book Remembering Aboriginal Heroes by John Ramsland and Christopher Mooney points out, a man of many parts including philosopher, inventor and musician. He was Ngarrindjeri-born and raised on the Port Macleay Mission School in South Australia’s Coorong, where he was devoted to study many fields.

As a boy he learned how to track animals and learned the cultural ways of his forefathers. As an old man he recalled the first conflicts with white people and although spears were thrown the superior weaponry of the whites were used “with deadly effect”. He said neither side “had the grasp of language necessary for a proper understanding between them”. White settlers invaded the Lower Murray and blacks that survived massacres were corralled on a mission at Point Macleay on Lake Alexandrina. When missionary George Taplin arrived the blacks felt they had someone who understood them.

David’s father James was one of Taplin’s first converts at the mission and he became a deacon at the church. The Mission established vegetable gardens, fruit trees and vines, introduced cattle and sheep and workshops for blacksmiths, carpenters and shoemakers.

David loved hearing visiting lecturers talking about the wonders of science. At Taplin’s school he became interested in all things mechanical and read about “the wonderful progress of science” during the Industrial Revolution. Unaipon was self-taught registered nine patents for inventions, which earned him a reputation as Australia’s answer to Leonardo Da Vinci. He predicted the development of the helicopter based on the aerodynamics of the boomerang. One invention was a mechanical curvilinear device which was praised by engineers and had potential applications in the shearing industry. Another was to do away with the crank motion on steam and internal combustion engines. He had no capital to commercialise his ideas though many were picked up – including the basis for modern handheld shears – and implemented by later scientists.

Unaipon was also a musician of rare ability and interpreted Mendelssohn’s masterpieces on the organ of Adelaide churches to appreciative European audiences. He read and studied philosophers and scientists and was an accomplished public speaker. Unaipon was a Christian following his father and by 1917 he was well known across Australia appearing in newspapers and magazines.

Unaipon was proud of his Aboriginal upbringing but also believed in the power of his faith. “Do not despise the aborigine,” he told a Methodist audience. “He needs Christianity and the development of the Northern Territory may be accomplished through him, if prompt measures are taken to bring out the best that is in him through the influence of education and Christianity.”

Unaipon is recognised as one of the earliest Aboriginal writers published in English by virtue of a manuscript of traditional Aboriginal stories from South Australia; Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines published in 1925 and his pamphlets from 1927
onwards. However neither Legendary Tales nor the pamphlets were ever published under his name during his lifetime. They were published under the name of anthropologist and Chief Medical Officer for South Australia, W. Ramsay Smith by Angus and Robertson in 1930.

He believed in sympathetic cooperation between black and white and said the former needed “the inner power” to reconstruct their lives shattered by contact with the latter. He occasionally was the victim of racism but never became bitter and gave evidence to two Royal Commissions into the treatment of Aborigines. He lectured widely throughout his life well into his eighties. He received the Commonwealth Medal in 1953 and died aged 94 in 1967 at Tailem Bend. He was buried at Point McLeay.

In 1989 the University of Queensland Press inaugurated the inaugural David
Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous Writer. His own writing reputation was restored in 2001 when Unaipon’s descendants and scholars retrieved the original manuscripts from the State Library of New South Wales and finally published the work under Unaipon’s name. His overriding aim, he said in the Legendary Tales, was “to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings.”

In 1995 his portrait was included on the new $50 note. As John Alexander noted in Following David Unaipon’s Footsteps: “Unaipon is now close to our hearts in our pockets…After a hiatus of 50 years he had become a symbol of the quest for Aboriginal reconciliation.” The Aboriginal School at Raukkan is still going strong and will celebrate its 160th anniversary in 2020.

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