David Unaipon Country

November 2, 2019
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AFTER a couple of days in Adelaide, I went down to Port Elliot, about 60 km south of downtown. Port Elliott’s next to the mouth of the mighty Murray River, Australia’s longest, a river that sustains a good part of the arid continent’s agriculture.

The river discharges itself into the sea via a sand-country region known as the Coorong, which comes from a local Aboriginal word meaning dune.

The Coorong begins at Port Elliot and extends eastward to include Lake Alexandrina and the Aboriginal settlement of Raukkan.

I’m going to write about my adventures around Port Elliot and the nearby Fleurieu Peninsula in another post.

Part of the Coorong and its environs, with the road between Port Elliot and Raukkan marked in red. The route includes a couple of ferry crossings, one near Wellington and one just before Raukkan itself. Adelaide is at top left and the eastern tip of Kangaroo Island is at bottom left. Map data ©2019 Google, north at top. The names of Kangaroo Island, the Fleurieu Peninsula, the Murray River, Raukkan and Port Elliot have also been added for this post, and the name of St Vincent Gulf (west of Adelaide) removed from the edge of the map. North at top.

In an earlier post, I mentioned how I came across a portrait of the Aboriginal genius David Unaipon on an Australian fifty dollar note, and resolved to visit his grave at Raukkan.

Australian fifty dollar banknote in current circulation (1995–2018 design, slightly altered from 2018). Source: Reserve Bank of Austraia via Wikimedia Commons.

In this post, I talk about how I finally got there, travelling through the Coorong on the route shown as red on the map above.

Here's another, better, portrait of Unaipon:

Unaipon in 1924, photograph taken for the intended frontispiece of his book Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Coorong is guarded from the open sea by sandspits on either side of the Murray River mouth. The sandspit east of the river mouth, which is near Mundoo Island, must be close to being the longest in the world, if not the longest. Only a part of its is shown in the map above.

I drove from Port Elliot around Lake Alexandrina. There were German vineyards in Langhorne Creek. This was something I’d seen closer to Adelaide as well.

Down in the delta of the Murray, I noticed that there was drilling and dirty water in the river.

The roads were slippery and wet and quite narrow. If you had an SUV or a trailer, anyone coming the other way would have had a risky time getting past in the wet.

I saw pelicans on the waterway, and took a ferry across the Murray at Wellington and another ferry at Narrung, just before Raukkan.

Pelican feeding at the Wellington Ferry Crossing

When I got to Raukkan, I didn’t realise that I needed a permit to go onto the Aboriginal reservation. Also, everything was closed including the local museum.

Raukkan township
The Museum at Raukkan

There was a noticeboard where I could dial a number (08 8574 0064) and get a guide, but it was the guide’s day off and I was only there for the day.

In the end I just drove up to the cemetery to pay my respects at David Unaipon’s grave. This may have been culturally insensitive. But a lot of people were driving through the township with campervans anyway, because there was a campsite further along.

Raukkan campsite and tour information
The Cemetery at Raukkan
David Unaipon's grave

Unaipon was born with the surname of Ngunaitponi at Raukkan in 1872, when it was known as Point McLeay Mission Station. He was of the Ngarrindjeri people, who inhabit this fertile coastal region. The surname by which he is better known, Unaipon, is a simplification of his real name that he invented in order to be more easily remembered by English-speakers.

Missionary-educated but otherwise self-taught, Unaipon was one of the first to challenge white stereotypes about Aboriginals and their ability to make it in the modern world. He wrote many articles and ultimately had three books published, all three on the topic of Australian Aboriginal folklore. Supposedly, he was the first ‘full-blooded’ Aboriginal to have a book of any kind published in Australia, in 1927, when his pamphlet Aboriginal Legends (Hungarrda) came out.

Unaipon was also a lay preacher, who preached at this church in Raukkan.

And he was an inventor as well.

In 1909, Unaipon came up with an idea that made mechanically-powered wool-shears and clippers, the kind that have a metal comb at the front, a more workable proposition than they had been up to that time.

A page from David Unaipon’s provisional patent application for the shears. Source: Australian official journal of patents, 1910, p.910, via the digital collection of the State Library of South Australia, URL

Unaipon devised a mechanism that made the cutters move from side to side in a linear fashion, rather than in a circular movement imparted by the drive system, which was a system of spinning rods or a spinning cable. Circular movement tended to push the wool away from the comb.

Sheep-shearing was probably Australia’s most important industry at the time. Unaipon’s breakthrough was a big deal. Yet he never had enough money to take his provisional patents to a full patent stage, and thus lost out on royalties from the shears.

Blueprints of Unaipon’s shears are shown on the $50 note, alongside his portrait and an image of the mission at Raukkan.

Unaipon invented lots of other things too, including a helicopter whose rotors were based on the same principle as the boomerang, two decades before the helicopter as we know it was developed by people such as Igor Sikorsky.

Unlike the shears, for which Unaipon received no money but for which he had the dubious honour of having his idea pirated, the helicopter and his other inventions and ideas, including work on polarised light that apparently foreshadowed the laser, were never put into production or investigated seriously by Australian financiers or government research laboratories.

Though he eventually became quite famous in his lifetime, Unaipon never made any significant amount of money out of his inventions. Nor, from his books. Indeed in what seems a truly bizarre case of literary theft, a full-length book mostly written and conceived of by Unaipon, called Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, was only ever published under the name of its white editor, William Ramsay Smith, during Unaipon’s lifetime.

Smith was a disreputable collector of a sort that had once been common on colonial frontiers. He was the sort of adventurer who, in an earlier generation, might have supplied European and American museums with a steady supply of mummies and preserved heads (shrunken or otherwise), stolen tribal heirlooms and corpses of rare birds. Indeed, he was once temporarily dismissed from a coronial job for keeping a few too many souvenirs. All the same, Smith seemed a friend to the Aborigines and gained the confidence of people such as Unaipon.

Unaipon was, by some accounts, paid 150 pounds for his efforts as a researcher; but wasn’t mentioned in the published work, to which Smith added some further legends he’d gathered from other sources while claiming all the credit. The frontal portrait of Unaipon above, intended to appear in the book as a depiction of the author, was never used. After Unaipon’s death an early manuscript of most of the book, partly in Unaipon’s own hand and including the portrait, turned up and was digitised for the world to see.

It all sounds a lot like what used to happen to American black musicians in those days. Their songs would be fronted by some white performer in order to gain a wider audience, while the original composer would drop out of the picture. And so Unaipon was ripped off at least twice, first materially for his shears and then in terms of his moral rights as the author of most of the content of Legendary Tales.

The fact is, Aborigines of Unaipon’s day laboured under social restrictions that we would find shocking today. Worse even in some ways than in places like the segregation-era American deep South.

For instance, the children of Aborigines were often legally wards of the state and not of their parents, and could thus be taken away at any time to be educated in white-run institutions or fostered to white families: whence the ‘stolen generations’ .

Those not taken away were often confined to their reservations, even as adults, under legislation similar to the pass laws of Apartheid-era South Africa.

Unaipon was allowed to travel freely. He’d had his papers stamped to that effect. All the same, he often had trouble finding accommodation outside the Raukkan or Point McLeay reservation, as it was known throughout his life, and was often treated patronisingly when he was off the reservation as well. According to one rather wry report from a 1930 issue of the Adelaide Advertiser,

David walked into one of the big stores in Adelaide, and as he entered one of the departments he was accosted by the manager in this fashion — ‘Well, Jacky, you wantem buy big fella shirt, eh?’ -’Will you kindly direct me to the manager’s office?’ was the polished reply in perfect English. It was worth going a long way to see the expression on the face of the manager, who afterwards admitted that he felt a perfect fool.

Among a majority that was fairly racist by today’s standards (those being the days of the White Australia policy after all), Unaipon would eventually gain respect, even to the point of becoming known as ‘the Australian Leonardo’.

Still, it seems likely that to people like the Adelaide counter-jumper, the highly assimilated Unaipon, who spoke English better than they did, probably also seemed to be an exceptional case.

Despairing of integration at one point, Unaipon came to advocate the cause of a homeland for Aboriginal people in the interior of Australia. Around that time he was arrested by the authorities on the improbable charge of vagrancy, which some say was really a form of harrassment. Almost at the same time, Unaipon caught flak in the other direction from younger and more radicalised Aborigines who organised a Day of Mourning against the 150th anniversary, in 1938, of the arrival of white Australia’s founding fleet. Unaipon thought that to rain on this parade would only get white people’s backs up.

Living on a reservation as he did, Unaipon wasn’t deeply embedded in any urban social network of scientists, people with the ear of government or people in business who could really have progressed his inventions further: especially the more complicated ones like the helicopter. That much seems clear, as well.

In fact, there’s a twist to the expression ‘Australian Leonardo’. For as we know, most of the original Leonardo’s inventions, including a helicopter of his own design, went unrealised in his lifetime. So, likewise, with Unaipon.

In Leonardo’s case, the technology of his day just wasn’t up to it. In Unaipon’s day, things like helicopters were feasible. But Australia wasn’t listening to one of its most prolific inventors. Or not hard enough.

It’s quite likely that if Unaipon had been white, or even if he had lived in an Australia where Aborigines were less severely marginalised— an Australia more like New Zealand perhaps, a country that has had Māori cabinet ministers since the 1890s — the ‘Australian Leonardo’ might have met with more success.

Success, even, to the point of helping Australia not just shear sheep with greater efficiency, but of helping Australia to actually get off the sheep’s back and onto a foundation of more advanced technologies such as helicopters and lasers.

Perhaps, as it’s also been said, an exhibition based on all of Unaipon’s ideas might be a more useful and instructive tribute than simply having his face and some indistinct drawings — of the mission and, predictably, of the shears — on the $50 note.

Postscript: There’s a great ABC broadcast about Unaipon called On The Shore of a Strange Land.


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