David Unaipon smiles out at us from the fifty dollar note, immortalised on our currency for his fierce intelligence and achievements. Who was David Unaipon, and why do we still know so little about him?
David Unaipon was born on the Murray River in Ngarrindjeri country in 1872, and brought up in his own culture. His lifetime spanned the first phase of colonial contact between his people and the Europeans. In fact he died only months before the 1967 referendum that would have afforded him citizenship.
Unaipon was a scientist, orator and singer, and the first published Aboriginal author. He was the most famous Aborigine of his time, nicknamed ‘Australia’s Leonardo da Vinci’ for his inventions: his improvements to the hand-held shearing comb are still in use today. At the turn of the century he spoke of aerodynamics, he foresaw the helicopter, and outlined the uses of polarised light to a rapt, if bemused, European audience. Unaipon spent his life trying to harness the secret of perpetual motion.
In an era where frontier conflict was still commonplace, and his own achievements were minimised by the scientific obsession with Social Darwinism, Unaipon’s intelligence, as well as his eccentricity, set him apart from black and white alike. He was very well educated in both cultures, and travelled between both with only his wits as a guide.
On the shore of a strange land is an extract from one of Unaipon’s most powerful poems, and can be heard in this program.
This program was first broadcast in 2008. It is being replayed to mark NAIDOC week 2010.