News July 2011

The black Leonardo

It is interesting that history offers windows of opportunity. Times when apparently random events take place that completely change the lives of those caught up in them. In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell presents a case for “being in the right place at the right time.” A place where genius can grow and flourish under the right conditions.

It was such a window of opportunity that brought preacher, author and inventor David Unaipon to notoriety. Born on 28th September 1872 at Point McLeay Mission, South Australia, he attended the mission school from the age of 7. In 1885 he left to become a servant to C.B.Young who encouraged his interest in philosophy, science and music. He trained as a bootmaker, played the organ and read widely. His obsession with perpetual motion and the study of science led him to developing and patenting an improved handpiece for sheep shearing. Publishing work on the development of polarized light and helicopter flight led to his reputation as ‘black genius’ or ‘Australia’s Leonardo’. His concept of a helicopter came from applying the principles of the boomerang. He went on to apply for patents on other inventions including a centrifugal motor, a multi radial wheel and a mechanical propulsive device.

David Unaipon was the first Aboriginal writer to be published; with articles for the Sydney Daily Telegraph from 1924. His poetry and legends were influenced by the classics, his research into Egyptology and authors Milton and Bunyan; they pre-dated the work of other Aboriginal writers by over thirty years. Never straying from his roots he collected traditional Aboriginal stories from which he wrote a book entitled ‘Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals’ published by William Ramsay Smith, without acknowledgment to his authorship. His most known books are ‘Aboriginal Legends’ (1927), ‘Native Legends’ (1929) and ‘Leaves of memory’ (1953).

An eminent speaker, Unaipon believed that the Aborigines’ transition to European society should be facilitated through education. His genius and ability as an orator allowed him to herald the case for education within the Aboriginal community. While his ability allowed him more freedom to travel than others, relatively unhindered by the official restraints usually placed on Aborigines, he was often refused food or shelter due to his race. Undeterred by such contradiction, he was able to influence government Aboriginal policy and assist in an inquiry into Aboriginal welfare. By 1928 he was the best-known Aborigine in Australia and accepted as his people’s spokesman.

This is the story of a man born into the adversity that afflicted his race. Yet he was able to learn, grow and encourage his people to do the same. That his face is now seen on the fifty dollar note emphasizes the important role that he played in his life and gives strength to the argument that he went from Adversity to Victory, believing that if he could do it, anyone can do it.

‘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.” (David Unaipon)


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