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NEIGHBOUR'S ACTS OF BRAVERY AND HIS RARE MEDAL

 
By Permission of the National Library of Australia

A rare Albert Medal for Bravery - and the first awarded to an Aboriginal Australian-has been uncovered in Canberra.

In researching the history of the medal, authorities are unveiling a graphic picture of the days of early contact between European settlers and the Aboriginal people of the Roper River area of the Northern Territory.

The medal was awarded to a man known as Neighbour for his action in saving the life of Mounted Constable W F Johns in an incident on the flooded Wilton River on 1 February 1911. The policeman was crossing the river on his horse, holding the end of Neighbour's iron neck chains, when his horse turned over, kicking him in the face. With the chain released, Neighbour swam ashore, but, seeing the policeman clinging precariously to some pandanus palms in the middle of the fast-flowing water, he adjusted the heavy chains around his neck and swam back to his aid.

Neighbour's act of valour followed his arrest for allegedly raiding a fencer's hut on Hodgson Downs. He was being escorted overland to Darwin by Mounted Constable Johns, then posted at Leichhardts Bar. W F Johns records the incident in his memoirs:

'On one occasion Jack McPhee reported that a native had robbed his camp. I arrested an aborigine named "Neighbour" about 20 miles distant, and on returning to my station had to cross the Wilton River, which was in flood. Half way across the river, my horse floundered, and I was swept away in the flood. Neighbour, who had reached the opposite bank, immediately re-entered the flooded river, and swam to my assistance. He took a tremendous risk in an attempt to rescue a drowning man, and also took the risk of being attacked by a crocodile.

The charge against Neighbour was not laid, and a report was made to the Aborigines Department in Darwin, with the result that Neighbour received the Albert Medal for Bravery, presented by His Majesty King George V. I understand it was the first of such medals ever to be awarded to an aborigine; it may well be the only one.'

Queen Victoria established the Albert Medal in 1866 for gallantry in saving life. It was the highest civilian award for bravery, in many ways the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

Only around 25 Australians received the medal before it was discontinued in 1971. The award of the Albert Medal to Neighbour is thought to be the only one made to an Aboriginal Australian and possibly the first imperial honour received by an Aboriginal person.

It seems the award was in part the result of a representation on 20 March 1911 of a group of concerned Melbourne citizens to the Minister for External Affairs, the Hon E L Batchelor. The deputation, comprising Mrs A. F. Bonn, Archbishop Carr, Dr Maloney MP, Rev Canon Gason and Dr Macfarland, argued strongly for public recognition of Neighbour's deed, saying 'if he were a white man he would probably receive the King's Medal.'

On 19 December 1912 the Northern Territory Times reported that 'between 40 and 50 gentlemen, including all the heads and some of the subordinates in the various Government departments' witnessed the conferring of the medal on Neighbour by the Administrator, Dr J A Gilruth, in an investiture ceremony at Government House, Darwin. The now famous anthropologist, Sir Baldwin Spencer, (then Professor Spencer, Professor of Biology at Melbourne University and Chief Protector of Aborigines) 'graphically related the story of Neighbour's heroism'.

Professor Spencer reiterated the incident in his Preliminary Report on the Aboriginals of the Northern Territory to the Commonwealth Parliament of 1912:

'Neighbour, looking around, saw what had happened and without a moment's hesitation, went to the constable's assistance, winding his chains in some manner around his neck and assisted the former to land. Nothing would have been simpler than for him to have left the constable to his fate and to have cleared away into the bush.'

Three years afterwards apparently Neighbour had another brush with the law after a tribal dispute. This time he was arrested by W F John's brother, John L Johns, then a young mounted constable posted to the Roper River area. In the book Patrolling the 'Big Up' edited by Darrell Lewis, J L Johns describes this as 'one of the most distasteful jobs I had been called on to do in the Northern Territory'.


Photograph from Parliamentary Papers 1914

He writes:

'It was this same Neighbour that I had to go and arrest for the murder of the unfortunate native that he threw into the river. It had to be done. Neighbour was arrested accordingly. He was committed for trial and the Chief Protector of Aboriginals at Darwin stood Neighbour up in the dock at the Darwin Supreme Court, wearing the Royal Albert Medal awarded by the King. A very eloquent appeal by the defending lawyer resulted in Neighbour being acquitted. Hereturned to the Roper and as far as I am aware did not err again. It was an extremely difficult matter for me. But after all Duty is Duty, and it had to be done. It showed me what a mass of contradictions Neighbour's make-up really was.'

A footnote in the book says that the trial occurred in February 1915.

Subsequent accounts reveal that Neighbour went on to become a valued police tracker and, in 1940, saved another life in a flood on the Roper River. Some photographs, published in 1914, give his traditional name as 'Mallyalewga'. References in the mid-1950s say Neighbour had the Aboriginal name of 'Aya-i-ga' and spent the latter portion of his life at Nutwood Downs Station where his daughter Amy also resided.

William Francis Johns served as South Australian Commissioner of Police from 1944 to 1950 and was known as a just and fatherly man. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and was appointed an officer in the Order of St John (O St J) in recognition of his service.

Neighbour's Albert Medal came to Canberra through a sequence of events that began with it being deposited for safekeeping in the office of the Government Secretary in Darwin, with Neighbour being able to access it for special occasions. Sir Baldwin Spencer reported that Neighbour wore a 'little bit of the ribbon on ordinary occasions.'

In 1927 Mrs Bonn, one of the members of the deputation to the Minister in 1911 and a long serving member of the Aborigines Board of Victoria, again made representations to the minister calling for Neighbour's Medal to be 'given a place of honour in the Museum to be established at Canberra'. Subsequently it was put into the custody of the Department of Home Affairs and Territories. In the mid-1950s, it went into the temporary custody of the National Librarian and has been held in the National Library collections ever since.


Photograph from Parliamentary Papers 1914

The Australian Board of Missions, in a leaflet published in July 1912, emphasised another aspect of Neighbour's life and treatment:

'This blackfellow will be probably the only wearer of the King's medal who has ever suffered the indignity of being led in chains like a wild animal.

The question which now forces itself to our lips is just this: How much longer will be the people of Australia go on despising, and defrauding, and degrading the race which has produced this hero, and, we believe, many another besides?'

The Northern Territory Police has drawn this interesting story to the attention of the Awards and National Symbols Branch of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

 

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