Ingeborg van Teeseling

Aussie mavericks: Fred Maynard – Our first Aboriginal activist

Approx Reading Time-14Fred Maynard might not be a household name, but as the man formed the first organisation to fight for Indigenous rights, he absolutely should be.

 


In 1927, a 14-year old Aboriginal girl was raped by the white man who managed the mission she lived on. She got pregnant and was sent away, and the baby either died or was taken away. Then the girl was sent back to her rapist. In the 1920s in Australia, this was nothing new, and normally nobody took any notice. But this time was different. In Sydney, an Aboriginal man sat down to write the girl a letter. His heart, he said, was “filled with regret and disgust” and he offered to fight her case in court. The fact that cases like this were normal practice was “an insult to intelligent, right-thinking people” and should stop immediately. He advocated “liberty, freedom and the right to function in our own interests”, instead of being subjected to the rule of the Aboriginal Protection Board, who “aims to exterminate the noble and ancient race of Australia” with “so-called civilised methods” that amounted to “downright hypocrisy” and “tyranny”. The girl never got the letter. The Board, almost to prove the writer’s point, intercepted it before she could read it. But words are powerful tools and Fred Maynard was a master at using them. The Board had good reason to try and silence him, because in a few years, Maynard had managed to organise Aboriginal people for the first time. Of course, there had been Aboriginal resistance from the early days of white occupation, but Fred Maynard brought very different people together in the first official organisation, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA). For this, and for the amazing man he was, I nominate Fred Maynard as Australian Maverick number four, one of the people who show us that “no” can move mountains, even if the odds are against you.

Charles Frederick Maynard was born in 1879 in Hinton, in the Hunter. His mother had given birth to her first child after being raped by her white boss, who subsequently paid an Aboriginal man to marry her. Five children later, Mary died in childbirth and the family was thrown off the property. Fred and his brother were taken in by a Protestant minister in Dungog, who abused them and housed them in the stables. Inadvertently, what he also did was expose the young boy to the books in his library, something that would stand Fred in good stead later on. When Fred was thirteen, he and his brother escaped and fled to Sydney, where he started a life of lots of jobs and even more travel. He worked as a timber getter, drover, gold prospector, photographer and nurseryman, before finally stopping at the wharves in Sydney. There he became a member of the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia and an active unionist. He also met black sailors, from America, Jamaica and South Africa in particular, who told him about the “global black struggle” that was going on.

This fight was led by Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who had founded the United Negro Improvement Association in 1912, and advocated for social, political and economic freedom for black people everywhere. He also promoted pride in black history and culture and the establishment of a “spiritual homeland” in Africa. In 1920, Garvey’s organisation had 4 million members and managed to pack New York’s Madison Square Garden with 25,000 people, who had all come to hear the great man speak. Needless to say, the Americans were not happy when Garvey took up residence in Harlem, and J Edgar Hoover, the FBI Director, even went to the extreme of hiring the first black FBI agent, just so he could spy on Garvey, the “notorious negro agitator”, as he called him. Not long afterward, “accounting irregularities” were found and Garvey ended up with a five-year prison sentence, after which he was deported. Nevertheless, black people everywhere were inspired by the Jamaican, and Fred Maynard started a chapter of the UNIA in Sydney in 1920.

Maynard Wrote: “As it is the proud boast of Australia that every person born beneath the Southern Cross is born free irrespective of origin, race, colour, creed, religion… we demand we be afforded the same full right and privilege of citizenship that is enjoyed by all other sections of the community.”

This was twelve years after another important morale booster had taken place here. In 1908, Sydney had hosted one of the most celebrated boxing championships in the history of the sport, between Tommy Burns, a Canadian, and Jack Johnson, an American. 20,000 people flocked to Sydney Stadium, especially because Burns was white and Johnson was black, and this was the first time people of a different colour had ever fought each other in the ring. Of course, Burns, the “Great White Hope”, was supposed to win without breaking a sweat. But on the day, Johnson outclassed him without even trying and the fight was stopped when that became clear. A few days later, a farewell party was organised for Johnson, and everybody who was anybody in black Australia was there. Fred Maynard was one of them, and he would never forget it.

Early in the 1920s, all of these influences came together for Fred Maynard. Garvey, Johnson, his personal experiences of abuse, what he had seen on his travels. Then something happened that pushed him over the edge. Until the 1910s, 80% of Aboriginal people in NSW had been self-sufficient, working as farmers on Aboriginal reserves. Between 1913 and 1927, however, half of their land, and most of the productive land on the coast, was taken away from them and given to white farmers and white soldiers who had returned from WWI. It was a second dispossession and members of Maynard’s family, who were farming near Singleton, lost everything, like many other Aboriginal people. Instead of being able to take care of themselves, they were now at the mercy of the Aboriginal Protection Boards, which locked them up on missions and small reserves. The Boards had the right to break up families, remove children, decide where Aboriginal people lived, search them and their houses, read their mail and confiscate their property. Legislation said that Aboriginal children were neglected and had to be institutionalised, on the basis of their Aboriginality only. Once that was done, they were sent to work as child labourers and domestics.

In 1924, Fred Maynard had had enough. With a few friends he decided to set up the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association. Especially for the time, it was a revolutionary organisation. Its first demand was that Aboriginal people would be given inalienable grants of land within their traditional country, so they could be self-sufficient yet again. The AAPA also advocated for the abolishment of the Boards, to be replaced by Aboriginal self-rule. Of course, the taking of children had to stop, and they should be given entry to schools. Why, as Maynard argued, did Aboriginal people pay tax if they had no access to schooling, hospitals, swimming pools or most streets in the state? In short, the AAPA asked for – no, demanded – land rights and civil rights, and white Australia was aghast. At the time, the idea was that Aboriginal people were a “doomed race”, something that scientists like Darwin had come up with. So, smart and eloquent men like Fred Maynard were a bit of a kick in the guts. Apparently, Aboriginal people were not all “child-like”, as the Boards would have it, and neither were they looking for the Boards’ “benevolent protection (to) the remnants of the race”.


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The first action of the AAPA was to set up a home for “wayward” Aboriginal girls at Homebush. “Wayward” was a codeword for recalcitrant and was mainly given to girls who protested against being raped or abused. The home was able to exist for two years, but only because it was run by a white AAPA member, Elizabeth McKenzie-Hatton. That same year, Maynard also travelled to Stuart Island, to help Aboriginal people from Nambucca Heads rescue their children, who had been stolen by the Board. Between 1925 and 1927, the AAPA held four conferences. The first one was in Sydney and attracted 200 Aboriginal people, about half the members at the time. A few months later, the AAPA had 13 branches and the second conference, in Kempsey, managed to get 700 people together, over three days. This was remarkable, because Aboriginal people were severely restricted in their movements. At the end of the meeting, a resolution was sent to NSW Premier Jack Lang. In it, Maynard wrote: “As it is the proud boast of Australia that every person born beneath the Southern Cross is born free irrespective of origin, race, colour, creed, religion or any other impediment, we the representatives of the original people … demand that we shall be afforded the same full right and privilege of citizenship that is enjoyed by all other sections of the community.” This was fighting talk, which was made clear not long after, when the Board, asked for its opinion by Lang, told the Premier that Maynard was “a man of illogical views” and advised the Premier “not to occupy his time unduly with this radical viewpoint.”

1926 and 1927 saw two more conferences, in Grafton and Lismore. The AAPA also organised street marches and wrote hundreds of letters, to government representatives like the Premier, conservative Prime Minister Stanley Bruce and Governor-General Baron Stonehaven. Even King George V got a missive, pleading him to intervene on behalf of Aboriginal Australians. Maynard was prohibited by the Boards from visiting Aboriginal missions and reserves, because he was “inciting revolt”, but his words kept breathing fire. “I wish to make it perfectly clear on behalf of our people”, he wrote to Premier Lang in 1927, “that we accept no condition of inferiority”. Obviously, something had to be done to stop Maynard. The head of the NSW Police, who conveniently was also the Chair of the Aboriginal Protection Board, used everything in his power to crush Maynard and the AAPA. Threats were made against Maynard’s family, work at the docks dried up and in 1928 a large shipping container fell on him, breaking his leg in six places. It is still not clear whether this was an accident, but it did the trick. Fred Maynard spent a year in and out of hospitals, contracted diabetes first, then gangrene, after which his leg was amputated. He was very ill for years and died in 1946. The AAPA, robbed of its charismatic leader, first went underground, then lost faith and crumbled.

Nevertheless, the genie was out of the bottle. Inspired by Maynard and the AAPA, a new generation of Aboriginal leaders organised a Day of Mourning in 1938, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of European Settlement. The 1960s saw the Freedom Rides and the Referendum Movement, and since then Aboriginal people have been speaking up for their rights in all manner of ways. Fred Maynard was their forefather, the man who taught them how to fight. As such, he is an example to all Australians, regardless of colour; proof that anything is possible once you decide that “no” is the most powerful word on the planet. This makes Fred Maynard a deserving Australian maverick number four.

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website www.australia-explained.com.au, and runs www.lifebooks.com.au, telling people's life stories.

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