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Nicholls, Sir Douglas Ralph (Doug) (1906–1988)

by Jack Waterford

Doug Nicholls, Fairfax photo, 1931

Doug Nicholls, Fairfax photo, 1931

National Library of Australia, 51773976

Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls, who died yesterday aged 81, was many things during a career of working with, fighting for, and representing Aboriginal Australians.

Although he was the longest and most constant standard-bearer of Aboriginal dignity and rights, most tributes are based on the simple and sincere Christian that he was.

A profile of Sir Douglas in The Canberra Times in 1971 by the late Rohan Rivett, who knew him for more than 40 years, summed up much of this. Talking of watching, listening to, talking with and hearing about Pastor Nicholls over all of that period, he wrote "if he has ever done a mean act, or uttered an uncharitable thought, even about those who have opposed his aims, it must have been while I was absent. . . first of all, he is a gentle, thoughtful, and intensely patriotic Australian, second he always thinks of Doug Nicholls last, while the people for whom he battles are always at the forefront of his mind and performance. Thirdly, he is just about the most modest man I know who is in fact — not in hackneyed cliche — a legend in his own life-time."

Six years after this, Sir Douglas, who had retired some years earlier, sick and worn out after more than 40 years as one of Victoria's and Australia's best-known Aborigines, was appointed Governor of South Australia. An Aboriginal formally held in his hands the sovereignty of a state for the first time for more than 200 years.

"I am an Aboriginal," he said at his swearing-in, "and I am aware that in holding this high office I have equal duties to every citizen of the state, irrespective of creed, colour, standing or age."

Only months later, however, he suffered a stroke and felt he should resign. He returned to Victoria to be with his family.

Sir Douglas was born at Cummeragunga, just on the NSW side of Victoria, in 1906. His early experiences were not atypical — a minimal education, a family harassed by welfare authorities, and early jobs labouring in the area.

What marked him out was out-standing sporting ability, first and foremost as a footballer, but also as a sprinter and boxer. He played football with Northcote, Fitzroy and Victoria during the 1920s and '30s, won a number of professional sprinting races, and boxed with Jimmy Sharman.

These made him a well-known man, but did not insulate him from the racism and degradation that was the lot of his people. His prominence, however, brought demand for him as a public speaker, and he took up the opportunities to ask for justice and for dignity for his people.

He also developed an interest in religion, although he did not take up a formal ministry, in the Church of Christ, until the early 1940s, having been recalled from army service in 1941 at the request of police to help bring some order into Fitzroy.

Particularly from then, Pastor Doug became one of the best-known spokesmen for Aborigines. He fought for his people, their culture and their independence, and regularly flayed those, high and low, who opposed or ignored Aboriginal interests.

By the end of the 1960s, he and those working with him had succeeded in bringing national attention to Aborigines and their causes. When that movement took off, particularly in the early 1970s, Sir Douglas, a moderate and a gradualist, if an insistent one, was somewhat out of it, though he certainly understood the impatience and growing militance of the new generation of Aboriginal leaders. They, for their part, revered the role he had played in putting their affairs on the national agenda.

In the '70s he talked of his life as a disappointment. "As a nation, we stand condemned," he said. "For years we have been crying out about the depressed situation and the poverty. . . we have built an empire, raised a kingdom, yet we have done nothing. There is so much more to be done.

"I have bellowed from Parliament House and the ashes of the camp fire. I have represented the state six times at football, dined with the Queen, walked with the highest in the land, yet what have we accomplished?

"What more can be done? What more can I do? Eventide has come. We have finished our course. We have kept faith. Now we press on to the higher calling."

Sir Douglas was then, as he always was, too modest. He had not even finished his course — knighthood — in 1972, governorship and many other opportunities were still in front of him. The opportunities these gave him to press the cause of his people were, as ever, well taken.

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Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'Nicholls, Sir Douglas Ralph (Doug) (1906–1988)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/nicholls-sir-douglas-ralph-doug-14920/text35481, accessed 19 June 2018.

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