When recently undertaking some basic research into Aboriginal Australians at war I was, as usual, surprised at what Australian history threw back. Decades before the good intentions of segregated computer labs, and the advent of ‘black lives matter’, I came upon three examples of black Australians at war that would surprise many young people today.
The first was Douglas Grant – a north Queenslander rescued from a tribal fight in the early 1900s by chance from a Scottish immigrant surveyor. Educated in Sydney, and later training as a mechanical draughtsman, Douglas developed an early passion for Shakespeare, writing and drawing. ‘Though Aboriginal men were excluded from military service,’ reads his biography on the Australian War Memorial website, ‘Douglas managed to enlist with the 34th Battalion in January 1916.’ Yet prior to departing ‘the Aboriginies Protection Board intervened, noting that regulations prevented Aboriginals from leaving the country without Government approval.’ Undeterred, he enlisted again, and successfully deployed with the 13th Battalion for France.
The second example is another WW1 veteran – Frederick Prentice. In 1957 Prentice was found dead and alone next to a campfire near Katherine in the Northern Territory. After some confusion it was revealed he was one of a handful of black Territorian WW1 veterans. Joining the Australian Imperial Force in May 1915, Prentice served in France with both the 12th and the 1st Pioneer Battalions, receiving the Military Medal for actions in Poiziers that ‘showed great courage, resource and ability in bringing machine guns and ammunition through the enemy barrage in the dark and broken ground.’
The third black Australian, and perhaps the most well-known of the three, is Australia’s first aboriginal fighter pilot Len Waters. Volunteering for service in August 1942, Waters was accepted into the RAAF and studied hard for the De Havilland Tiger Moth and P-40 Kittyhawk. ‘I was terribly keen to prove myself in the elite,’ reflected Waters, ‘[and] the flying part of the Air Force was the elite.’ Famously, after arriving in Dutch New Guinea, Waters discovered the previous pilot had branded his assigned Kittyhawk ‘black magic’ but, amused by the coincidence, Waters chose to retain it.
These are only three of the many black Australians that have served over the past century. But why would they surprise many young people today? Unfortunately, I sense it’s now common for many young Australians to believe there was no prosperity or achievement within black Australia prior to the advent of civil rights, legislative change and the disobedience of the 1960s (a problem I sense that also disfigures thinking among younger people in the United States). While this period produced great social change, it’s the examples above that pull apart this assumption and emphasise individual advancement, especially at a time of clear difficulty.
Certainly, it’s in these men we can find towering examples of persistence, duty and grace from genuine and undignified institutional nuisance. Waters, for example, was arrested for not carrying an identity card while undertaking fighter pilot training in Moree, New South Wales. But he continued to serve. Douglas, as mentioned, was denied enlistment (to go and fight, no less) but also failed to be deterred. And, as one can imagine with the prospect of world war, this would’ve hardly been the most difficult of their encounters.
Adding some motivation for the next generation of black Australians, and any minority in fact, is that such institutional hurdles today are simply not there. ‘Whenever any young Indigenous person complained to my father that nothing had changed for Aboriginal people and life for them was unfair,’ reflects Warren Mundine, ‘he would produce his certificate and rightly tell them to pull their head in.’ Ironically, with the ascendance of victimhood and the constant desire of some to ‘explain away’ matters of personal responsibility, it has become much easier to cry foul at much less.
My view is that it’s sensible to avoid ensconcing people in their racial and ethnic identity at the expense of individual achievement. Pulling away from a constant need to see every minor issue involving skin colour through the lens of outrage is also much needed if social cohesion is to prosper, along with deferring to humble lessons of race relations wherever we can find them. Today men like Waters, Prentice and Douglas are heroes not only drowned out from public prominence but under siege as young black Australians, like everyone else, turn almost exclusively to where the noise is generated and the money flows – rappers, sports stars and actors. It’s rarely acknowledged, nor politically convenient, to pause and reflect toward the quieter parts of our history. But these men (and many others) are a good place to start.