Jimmy Clements on the day of the opening of Old Parliament House, 9 May 1927. Source: National Library of Australia.
Life sentences: Neither beaten nor bowed
Dr Malcolm Allbrook looks back to the scene at the opening of Old Parliament House.
The campus of ANU has a rich Aboriginal heritage.
A recent ANU booklet, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Trail, describes a number of culturally significant places on or near the campus: South Oval, the Acton grassy woodlands, Sutton Creek, Black Mountain, the now-submerged banks of the Molonglo River and ancient scarred trees.
The campus also has contemporary cultural significance as the home of national centres for Indigenous studies and Indigenous genomics and as the place from which the early archaeological investigations of Lake Mungo originated. In 1968, this investigation provided scientific proof that Australia’s Aboriginal people had a history of over 40,000 years’ occupation and management of the country.
Students at ANU also have a lengthy history of involvement in support of Aboriginal rights.
Early in 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the lawns in front of the (then) Parliament House.
During the tumultuous months that followed, the campus became a locus of activism, with students providing food, accommodation, money and legal advice to the tent embassy. This activism helped it become an established part of the parliamentary precinct.
Forty-six years later, it is still there, an emblem of the vibrancy of Aboriginal protest and an uncomfortable symbol of the inequalities that still confront Aboriginal people in contemporary Australian life.
The tent embassy, as a site of protest, also reminds us of a moment in May 1927 when two Wiradjuri men, Jimmy Clements and John Noble, made a startling intervention at the opening of the provisional parliament house by the Duke and Duchess of York.
Not much is known about the early lives of these men, but their actions that day resonate through the decades as a potent reminder that sovereignty of this country has long been contested.
In her book, The Kamberri (2001), ANU historian Ann Jackson-Nakano records that both were prominent in the Canberra region.
Clements, widely known as ‘King Billy’, was respected as a ‘clever man’, moving throughout the southern highlands organising and leading traditional ceremonies. Noble or ‘Marvellous’ had periodically been employed as a shepherd on Limestone Plains stations and was famous for his skills with the boomerang.
Both were old men in 1927, Clements at least 80 years old. Thus, over their long lives, they had possibly witnessed the coming of white people, and certainly had lived through the early days of Limestone Plains and the nascent city of Canberra.
Having walked for three days from the Brungle Aboriginal Station near Tumut, on 9 May 1927 Clements and Noble were probably the only Aboriginal people amongst a gentile audience to witness the opening of Parliament House.
The Melbourne Argus (10 May 1927) recorded that an ‘ancient Aborigine … who claims sovereign rights to the Federal Capital Territory’, ‘old and grey and ruggedly picturesque’, attempted to join the festivities.
The police tried to move him along, but the crowd ‘instinctively … rallied to his side’ and a clergyman called out that “the Aborigine had a better right than any man present’ to be there.” Next day the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Marvellous gave the Duke ‘an approved military salute’ which the Duke ‘returned with a special wave’.
Just five months later Clements died at Queanbeyan while being transferred to hospital. A correspondent to the Herald (19 September 1927) called him ‘one of the most predominating personalities throughout the Commonwealth’, a man ‘of splendid physique and personality’ and a fine artist. Recommending that he should be memorialised by a statue, this would provide a ‘lasting memorial to a race that is rapidly … disappearing’.
The suggested statue never materialised, yet the memory of Clements and Noble, and their actions on that day in May 1927, have not died.
Neither beaten nor bowed, their visibility and determination to be present and prominent on that auspicious day is a powerful testament to the continuing strength of Aboriginal culture.Jimmy Clements on the day of the opening of Old Parliament House, 9 May 1927. Source: National Library of Australia.
Read more at the Australian Dictionary of Biography at adb.anu.edu.au