John Thomas Patten (28 March, 1905 - 12 October, 1957) was an Australian Aboriginal leader, professional boxer, journalist and civil rights activist.
John Thomas Patten was born March 28, 1905, at Cummeragunja, an Aboriginal reserve situated near Moama on the New South Wales side of the Murray River. He was born the eldest of six children to John James Patten, a blacksmith and noted police tracker from Coranderrk, Victoria and his wife Christina Mary (nee Middleton), a local farmer’s daughter.
At Cummeragunja, Jack was educated to a third grade level under the direction of schoolmaster Thomas Shadrach James and his assistant, Theresa Clements (nee Middleton), Jack’s aunt.
Despite school of any kind being a non-compulsory rarity for indigenous children during the early 1900’s, Jack and his siblings continued their primary education in Tumbarumba and would later go on to attend High School in West Wyalong. It was at this time, during WWI that Jack first demonstrated his organisational ability, in his voluntary efforts with the Junior Red Cross.
Making His Way
After three years of high school at West Wyalong, Jack won a scholarship, applying then to join the Australian Navy, hoping to build a career and further his education - the importance of which had been stressed by both Jack’s parents and maternal grandfather, George Middleton.
Following the setback of being rejected by the Australian Navy based on race, Jack turned to general labour, taking on jobs wherever he could find them including as a blacksmith’s striker for his father, and later working for Sydney City Council.
In 1927, Jack was part of a boxing troupe that had ventured to the Far North Coast of New South Wales. There, whilst boxing under the nickname of "Ironbark" at Casino, Jack met Selina Avery, an intelligent and educated Bundjalung woman who was from the nearby Clarence River Aboriginal settlement of Baryulgil. Jack and Selina would have the first of their seven children by 1929 and were married at Tabulam NSW in 1931.
Appalled by the living conditions experienced by the Bundjalung people at Baryulgil, where strip bark gunyah’s were still in use, and Aboriginal children were not allowed access to the local school, Jack went to work in changing matters for the better. Organising the local men, Jack had the local school house dismantled, re-located and re-built upon Baryulgil Square, a tract of land that was owned by and populated by the local Bundjalung people. The structure was shortly thereafter returned to its original location, only on the provision that the Baryulgil community’s children could join those of the local farmers.
Coinciding with the onset of the great depression in 1929, Jack and his growing family relocated from Northern NSW to Salt Pan Creek, an Aboriginal squatter’s camp in Sydney’s South-west. It was here that Jack joined an existing community of dispossessed Aboriginal people including Jack’s younger brother George and father Jack Patten Snr, already in the throes of forging a new political beginning.
Upon gaining work with Sydney City Council, Jack and his family moved to La Perouse. It was at this time during the 1930’s that Jack would come into contact with Michael Sawtell, who would encourage Jack’s already strong oratory ability, and help to further refine it. Speaking each Sunday at the Domain, Jack developed a natural flow of eloquence, and a powerful oratory ability that would come to be much remarked upon.
Using the System
Through Sawtell, Jack was exposed to the underbelly of White Australian politics, and came into contact with elements from across the political spectrum, including P.R Stephensen, and W.J Miles, who offered Jack an office in their publishing business, affording him the ability in 1938 to write and publish the first Aboriginal newspaper, The Abo Call. It was during this period that Jack also came to meet William Ferguson, with whom he would co found the Aborigines Progressive Association in 1937.
In his efforts to expose the living conditions of his people to the wider Australian populus, Jack hitch-hiked throughout Eastern Australia, ranging from Southern QLD to Western Victoria, taking note of local Aboriginal concerns and giving them publicity in his newspaper, which had subscribers and contributing voices from across the country.
Day of Mourning
Following on from an idea by William Cooper, Jack Patten and William Ferguson held a conference at Australia Hall in Sydney on 26 January 1938. The conference would mark the sesquicentenary of European settlement in Australia and the first Aboriginal Day of Mourning. Along with Cooper, Patten and Ferguson, some of the other noted activists and members in attendance were Pearl Gibbs, Doug Nicholls, Tom Foster, Jack Kinchela, Margaret Tucker and Geraldine Briggs, the latter two, Jack’s cousins.
At 1.30pm, Jack opened the proceedings for the day with the President’s address:
“On this day the white people are rejoicing, but we, as Aborigines, have no reason to rejoice on Australia's 150th birthday. Our purpose in meeting today is to bring home to the white people of Australia the frightful conditions in which the native Aborigines of this continent live. This land belonged to our forefathers 150 years ago, but today we are pushed further and further into the background.
The Aborigines Progressive Association has been formed to put before the white people the fact that Aborigines throughout Australia are literally being starved to death. We refuse to be pushed into the background. We have decided to make ourselves heard. White men pretend that the Australian Aboriginal is a low type, who cannot be bettered. Our reply to that is, "Give us the chance!"
We do not wish to be left behind in Australia's march to progress. We ask for full citizen rights, including old-age pensions, maternity bonus, relief work when unemployed, and the right to a full Australian education for our children. We do not wish to be herded like cattle and treated as a special class. As regards the Aborigines Protection Board of New South Wales, white people in the cities do not realise the terrible conditions of slavery under which our people live in the outback districts.
I have unanswerable evidence that women of our race are forced to work in the return for rations, without other payment. Is this not slavery? Do white Australians realise that there is actual slavery in this fair progressive Commonwealth? Yet such in this case. We are looking in vain to white people to help us by charity. We must do something ourselves to draw public attention to our plight. That is why this Conference is held, to discuss ways and means of arousing the conscience of White Australians, who have us in their power but have hitherto refused to help us.
Our children on the Government Stations are badly feed and poorly educated. The result is that when they go out into life they feel inferior to white people. This is not a matter of race it is a matter of education and opportunity. That is why we ask for a better education and better opportunity for our people.
We say that it is a disgrace to Australia's name that our people should be handicapped by under nourishment and poor education and then blamed for being backward.
We do not trust the present Aborigines Protection Board and that is why we ask for its abolition.
Incompetent teachers are provided on the Aboriginal Stations. That is the greatest handicap put on us. We have had 150 years of the white men looking after us and the result is our people are being exterminated.
The reason why this conference is called today is so that Aborigines themselves may discuss their problems and try to bring before the notice of the public and of parliament what our grievance is, and how it may be remedied.
We ask for ordinary citizen rights and full equality with other Australians.”
Less than a week after the Day of Mourning conference, Jack lead a deputation of twenty Aboriginal men and women to meet with Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, the Prime Minister’s wife Dame Enid, and the Minister for the Interior, Jack McEwan. Speaking at length about the delegations goals and the importance of the occasion, Jack then issued the Prime Minister a copy of the APA’s 10-point Plan for Citizens Rights.
TO THE RIGHT HON. THE PRIME MINISTER OF AUSTRALIA MR. J.A. LYONS, P.C., C.H., M.H.R.
In respectfully placing before you the following POLICY FOR ABORIGINES. We wish to state that this policy has been endorsed by a Conference of Aborigines, held in Sydney on 26th January of this year. This policy is the only policy which has the support of the Aborigines themselves.
URGENT INTERIM POLICY
Before placing before you a long-range policy for Aborigines, and while the long-range policy is under consideration, we ask as a matter of urgency:
That the Commonwealth Government should make a special financial grant to each of the State Governments, in proportion to the number of Aborigines in each State, to supplement existing grants for Aborigines. We ask that such aid should be applied to increasing the rations and improving the housing conditions of Aborigines at present under State control. We beg that this matter be treated urgently, as our people are being starved to death.
The following ten points embraces a LONG RANGE POLICY FOR ABORIGINES, endorsed by our Association.
A LONG RANGE POLICY FOR ABORIGINES
1.- We respectfully request that there should be a National Policy for Aborigines. We advocate Commonwealth Government control of all Aboriginal affairs.
2.- We suggest the appointment of a Commonwealth Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs, the Minister to have full Cabinet rank.
3.- We suggest the appointment of an Administrative Head of the proposed Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the Administrator to be advised by an Advisory Board, consisting of six persons, three of whom at least should be of Aboriginal blood, to be nominated by the Aborigines Progressive Association.
4.- The aim of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs should be to raise all Aborigines throughout the Commonwealth to full Citizen Status and civil equality
with the whites in Australia. In particular, and without delay, all Aborigines should be entitled:
(a) To receive the same educational opportunities as white people.
(b) To receive the benefits of labour legislation, including Arbitration Court Awards, on an equality with white workers.
(c) To receive the full benefits of workers’ compensation and insurance.
(d) To receive the benefits of old-age and invalid pensions, whether living in Aboriginal settlements or not.
(e) To own land and property, and to be allowed to save money in personal banking accounts, and to come under the same laws regarding intestacy and transmission of property as the white population.
(f) To receive wages in cash, and not by orders, issue of rations, or apprenticeship systems.
5.- We recommend that Aborigines and Halfcastes should come under the same marriage laws as white people, and should be free to marry partners of their choice, irrespective of colour.
6.- We recommend that Aborigines should be entitled to the same privileges regarding housing as are white workers.
7.- We recommend that a special policy of Land Settlement for Aborigines should be put into operation, whereby Aborigines who desire to settle on the land should be given the same encouragement as that given to Immigrants or Soldier Settlers, with expert tuition in agriculture, and financial assistance to enable such settlers to become ultimately self-supporting.
8.- In regard to uncivilised and semi-civilised Aborigines, we suggest that patrol officers, nurses, and teachers, both men and women, of Aboriginal blood, should be specially trained by the Commonwealth Government as Aboriginal Officers, to bring the wild people into contact with civilisation.
9.- We recommend that all Aboriginal and Halfcaste women should be entitled to maternity and free hospital treatment during confinement, and that there should be no discrimination against Aboriginal women, who should be entitled to clinical instruction on baby welfare, similar to that given to white women.
10.- While opposing a policy of segregation, we urge that, during a period of transition, the present Aboriginal Reserves should be retained as a sanctuary for aged or incompetent Aborigines who may be unfitted to take their place in the white community, owing to the past policy of neglect.
It was in the tail-end of 1938 that Jack’s influence as a speaker and organiser saw his relatives, including his brother George and family, send an urgent telegram, asking that Jack return south to Cummeragunja, to aid them in their ongoing battle with the station’s white overseer, Arthur McQuiggan. It was under McQuiggan’s stewardship that conditions had been allowed to deteriorate so greatly, that some residents had half heartedly raised the prospect of abandoning their homes.
Jack arrived at Cummeragunja in November 1938, and like William Cooper months earlier, was appalled at how the residents were being treated. Cooper however was a man of letters and diplomacy, and his appeals to the government were met at first with silence, and eventually a collective Parliamentary interest that was both fleeting and insincere. Jack Patten spoke to the residents and then demanded an inquiry via telegram to the NSW Premier before making an effort to persuade the Cummeragunja residents to publicly voice their concerns and issuing a report of their plight in a Sydney newspaper.
When intimidation tactics by McQuiggan quashed any further public motions by the residents, Jack returned to Cummeragunja in February 1939 and spoke out again, this time outlining impending Protection Board policy changes for the worse and encouraging the residents to leave and cross the Murray River for Victoria. For their actions, Jack and his brother George were arrested and charged with inciting Aborigines to leave a reserve and Jack was labelled a NAZI agent in the Sydney press. As he was bundled into a police car, Patten defiantly shouted: ‘Go to it boys, now is your chance to leave.’
Following the Cummeragunja walk-off, the Aborigines Progressive Association was split into two distinct bodies, with each maintaining the APA title. The split occurred due to William Ferguson’s opposition to both the Cummeragunja walk-off and to Jack Patten’s confrontational and sometimes non-conciliatory approach to politics.
World War II
As it was illegal for Aboriginal people to serve their country in WWII without lying about their heritage, Jack campaigned in early 1939 for the law to be amended, and when the change eventually came, Jack handed the Presidency of the APA to his brother in-law, William Onus. Jack then enlisted in the Australian Army on December 12, 1939, going on to serve in Palestine, Egypt and what would later become Israel.
In January 1940 at a conference held in Dubbo NSW, and only a few short weeks before embarking at Fremantle WA for the Middle-East, Jack called for unity and the APA regrouped under the new leadership of Ferguson and Onus.
Discharged from active military service in April 1942 with a shrapnel damaged knee, and seen medically unfit, Jack ventured north to serve with the Allied Works Council, building roads and other necessary infrastructure at Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory and Cape York in Far North Queensland.
After returning from working in Northern Australia, Jack settled in to family life and labouring in Northern NSW. It was at this time when Jack was clearing land, with his family camped on the Clarence River between Grafton and Baryulgil, that the six oldest Patten children were stolen by the Aborigines Protection Board, leaving only the youngest son Cecil, in the arms of his mother.
The eldest daughter Muriel was sent to Cootamundra in the NSW Riverina, and the younger five to Bombaderry on the NSW South Coast. The five girls were eventually re-united at Cootamundra where they like the many other inmates were trained as domestic serfs.
Jack’s eldest son John, still at Bombaderry and not old enough yet to be sent to the Kinchela Boys Home at Kempsey on the Mid-North Coast of NSW, was to find a different fate. Jack had learnt of his son’s location and ventured south to retrieve him despite Government efforts. The pair then fled to the safety of Cummeragunja, family and the Murray River.
Return to Victoria
By 1946, Jack had relocated to Victoria, was depressed by his wartime experiences and had separated from his wife, who remained at Redfern in Sydney with their two sons. Continuing to take on labouring positions where available, Jack found work at Jackson’s Track near Drouin VIC, working with his friend Bob Nelson, felling trees and labouring in saw mills.
Returning to Melbourne, Jack continued his work in the Aboriginal civil rights movement, working to ensure that Aboriginal people had adequate representation when appearing in court. His final years saw Jack serving as President of the Victorian Aboriginal Elders Council and reuniting a final time with William Ferguson in opposition to British atomic testing at Maralinga in South Australia.
Killed in a motor accident in Fitzroy in 1957 and buried at Fawkner Cemetery, Jack Patten was 52 years old. He was survived by wife Selina and their seven children.