Not just a face on our money

It started with a conversation about replacing Alexander Hamilton on the US ten dollar bill. It was a bit of a laugh, bit of a joke. I confused Alexander Hamilton, arguably one of the most intelligent and influential men in American history, with Andrew Jackson, the nutjob who occupies the twenty dollar bill, mistrusted paper currency and declared one of his great regrets was never shooting his Vice President. Yeah, not a hundred percent on my American history. Probably comes from not being from (or even living in) the land of the free, home of the brave. Or something. (This was also before Lin Manuel Miranda went and conquered a fair bit of social media with his Broadway hit). Where was I? Right, the ten dollar bill.

The yanks are currently in the midst of plans to put a woman on their tenner, replacing or sharing the spot with Hamilton. Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery then helped found the underground railway, seems the likely candidate with the most votes and public support in a Treasury survey. Seems like a good choice. It’d seem like a better choice if they ditched Jackson off the twenty and put Tubman, or a woman like her, on that. But it’s the ten that’s apparently due for change, so if that’s where she ends up that’s where she ends up. Not my choice. Not my problem.

Thing is it surprised me a bit that this was even an issue. I mean, it’s weird how scared yanks are of change, especially with regards to their currency. Seems like someone suggests getting rid of the penny, and they get accused of hating Lincoln or something. Fucked if I know why they’re still using paper while most proper nations have already made the switch to plastic notes (yeah, I know they technically use a cotton-composite or something, but it still won’t survive a trip through the washing machine, rain, or a particularly humid day). But, I mean, the USA has had at least a couple of great women in its history. You’d think they’d have put a few women on their money by now.

Maybe, though, I just can’t ever remember not having women on Aussie money. That was kinda where the above conversation ended for me, I began thinking of the people on our own colourful currency. Showing my own biases the names I thought of first were the old white men, but men worthy of respect for more than a few reasons. Banjo Patterson, obviously, on our ten. Sir John Monash, arguably Australia’s greatest general and also Jewish at a time when it was not good to be (though when has it ever?) on one side of the hundred. Reverend and Doctor John Flynn who established the Royal Flying Doctor service. I struggled a bit with the famous women on the notes. Dame Nellie Melba, the great soprano on the other side of the hundred, was easy enough to remember. Her name rolls out of the mind and off the tongue nicely. I have a lot more trouble remembering Mary Reibey’s name than her achievements, a convict turned extremely successful businesswoman with a role in establishing Aussie banking (making her an obvious choice to put on the twenty). I had to Google the others. Edith Cowan, philanthropist, Freemason and first woman in Parliament, her face now featured on the fifty. Mary Gilmore, a great far-left leaning poet and journalist, one who cared very much for her country.

I think I remember Flynn and Monash’s names first partly because they were amongst my heroes growing up. I wanted to join the RAAF for a long time and so great Australian pilots and military men occupied a lot of my attention. Mind you, given that I studied politics at Uni and worked in a bank for over four years I should probably have spent more time learning about Cowan and Reibey. And, hey, given my lousy attempts at writing I should have paid more attention to Patterson beyond the first verse of Waltzing Matilda and paid at least some attention to Gilmore. Fuckin’ hindsight, am I right?

Funny thing is the name that caught my attention the most as I read through the list of famous persons who have appeared on Aussie notes was none of the above notables. It was David Ngunaitponi, better known by the Anglicisation of his surname as David Unaipon. Now this guy, this guy, was one of my favourite people when I was a kid. I half remember making a poster and maybe giving a speech way back in the first half of primary school on his life and achievements. Intelligent and creative, he made a name for himself as a writer (the first Aboriginal to be published in English, including translating and writing down many indigenous stories and legends), a speaker and an inventor (most famous of which were his mechanical shears) at a time when he was often refused room and service because of his race. Shit, he made a name for himself as an intellectual at a time when the Australian Constitution considered him to be part of the native fauna. Unaipon was someone who believed in gradual assimilation into European-Australian society, but in balance with, rather than at the cost of, his own culture, people and heritage (at least that’s my reading of the guy, people who know him better please correct and educate me). The man drew designs for a helicopter (based on the flight of a boomerang) before World War One, back when aeroplanes were still made of sticks and paper held together with twine and hope, and spent much of his life trying to unlock the secrets of Perpetual Motion, Laws of Thermodynamics be damned. I fuckin’ love that. If he was born today I can imagine him trying to build faster-than-light propulsion, tinkering with an engine and muttering the highly articulate and classical-English equivalent of “Theory of Relativity my arse.”

It’s just, I dunno, good to be reading about his life. I mean, it’s like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years and both having a spare half-hour to catch up over a coffee. As you talk you begin to wonder why the hell you stopped talking, grew apart. Forgot how much you liked this person, how close you were, how important they were to you once upon a time.

Why did I forget about Mr Unaipon for so long? Institutional and personal racism most likely. I probably drifted away in high school, when it was pretty in vogue for young white males like myself to complain about all the ‘Abbo shit’ we were required to learn in the history curriculum. I got over it by the time the HSC rolled around, and complained about the heavily sanitised version of Aboriginal history and culture that we were taught instead (something that we as a people and a community need to demand is fixed). This isn’t helped by the level of anti-intellectualism that haunts Aussie society, our politics and media. A dislike of learning our own achievements outside of sports we play and the wars we’ve fought in. And that’s a shame, because Australians like Mr Unaipon have done things that have, without a doubt, made the world a better place. Will continue to do so, whether we care or not. It comes from how we view ourselves.

A hundred years ago Charles Bean, an otherwise excellent and apolitical war correspondent, lobbied against Sir John Monash (the guy I mentioned on the hundred) being given command of the Australian Imperial Force fighting in the closing years of the Great War. Monash was an urban, Jewish civil engineer who brought a keen scientific mind to making war, completely at odds with Bean’s view of the ideal Australian soldier being the hardy Anglo bushman, surviving on instinct, intuition and determination born from surviving the perilous outback.

We still have these views of ourselves, of what a proper Aussie should be. But maybe we need to expand this image a bit. A proper Aussie should be inventive. A proper Aussie should be educated. A proper Aussie should know how to translate this to the real world without sacrificing the creative dreamer within.

There was this commercial, years ago (I think it might have been on around the Centenary of Federation) where a kid goes up his dad and asks who the first President of the USA was. No problem, it was George Washington. Then the kid asks who the first Prime Minister of Australia was. Oh shit, dad flounders and tells the lad to go ask mum. Most of the rest of the commercial is scenes of senior Australians answering the question easily, (Sir) Edmund Barton. The point of the commercial, if I recall correctly, was to get people thinking about how much they knew about Australian history (beyond Don Bradman’s test average and the date the first ANZACs rushed onto the beaches of Gallipoli). In that same vein I’d like to ask us all to ask a few more questions.

Who’s the lady on the ten?

The guy on the hundred?

The lady on the twenty?

The bloke on the fifty?

Remember some of our national heroes.

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