The Man on the $50 note
David Unaipon (Ngunaitponi) (1872 – 1967) preacher, author and inventor
Along with John Tebbutt ($100.00 note – 1834 -1916 astronomer), Edith Cowan ($50.00 note – 1861 – 1932 – social worker and first woman member of an Australian parliament) and Mary Reibey ($20.00 note – 1777 – 1855 – horse thief, convict, businesswoman and trader) Unaipon is among a list of people of faith that adorn our national currency.
The Congregational mission’s first Aboriginal convert from Raukkan (Point McLeay) under the ministry of George Taplin was James Unaipon. James and his wife Nymbulda, both Yaraldi speakers from the lower Murray River region, had nine children. Their fourth child was David, born on 28 September 1872 at the Raukkan Mission, South Australia (the same year the Australian Overland Telegraph Line is completed at Frew’s Ponds in the Northern Territory).
At school he was a standout. The former secretary of the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association stated in 1887, “I only wish the majority of white boys were as bright, intelligent, well-instructed and well-mannered, as the little fellow I am now taking charge of.”
According to writer Luke Briscoe, David Unaipon ‘contributed to Australian society and broke many prejudice Indigenous stereotypes along the way’. He would become known as the ‘Australian Leonardo da Vinci’ and came up with ideas for a centrifugal motor and a multi-radial wheel idea.
David is possibly best known for his invention of an improved mechanical hand piece for shearing sheep by changing the motion of the blades from circular to straight.
David was a polymath (someone with a wide or encyclopaedic knowledge) and an adviser to the government of the day. As Australia’s first published Indigenous author he was commissioned by the University of Adelaide to assemble a book on Indigenous legends and storytelling in the early 1920s. The David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Adelaide was subsequently named after him. He also studied and published articles on everything from perpetual motion to helicopter flight and was a passionate campaigner for indigenous rights.
He was also a Christian preacher. Having attended the mission school from the age of 7 and having parents who were people of faith, David was exposed to the Gospel at an early age. This was at a time when one of the questions occupying the minds of the Select Committee and others was ‘whether or not Aborigines were capable of apprehending religious principles at all.’
Unaipon publicly criticised William Cowper’s Australian Aborigines’ Leagues “Day of Mourning” held on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, arguing that the protest would only harm Australia’s reputation abroad and would cement a negative public opinion of Aboriginals.
For fifty years he travelled south-eastern Australia lecturing and preaching in churches and cathedrals of different denominations, contending that there were similarities between Christian and Aboriginal values. Even in his later year he continued to preach in Adelaide, despite being often refused accommodation because of his race. He said “…in Christ Jesus colour and racial distinctions disappear…” and that this thought helped him at such times of prejudice.
David Unaipon was a faithful servant of his God, and his people. Another legend.