Neville Thomas Bonner, born ‘under a lone palm tree’ on 28 March 1922, at Ukerebagh Island, Tweed Heads, New South Wales, was a stockman and Aboriginal activist who believed it was in the best interest of his people to work for the Aboriginal cause within the existing political institutions of Australian white society. He was the first Indigenous Australian to sit in federal Parliament. [1]

Neville was the second son of Henry Kenneth Bonner, an English migrant, and his wife Julia, the daughter of Ida, née Sandy, and Roger Bell. In 1983 he spoke of his family background on his mother’s side:

My grandfather was a fully initiated member of the Jagara [Yuggera] tribe, whose tribal land was from the mouth of the Brisbane River [Queensland] to the foot of the Dividing Range. His name, Aboriginal name, was Jung Jung. But as a small boy he was … sort of captured I suppose out of the tribe … and given the name of Roger Bell … My grandmother [Ida Sandy] came from the Logan and Albert Rivers and she was a member of the Ugarapul tribe … My mother [Julia] was of course the result of that marriage between Ida Sandy and Roger Bell … [Julia] went down into New South Wales to a place called Murwillumbah, where she met and married Henry Kenneth Bonner.

When Julia was pregnant with Neville, Henry Bonner deserted the family leaving Julia destitute. Julia moved to an Aboriginal reserve on the mosquito-infested Ukerebagh Island, where ‘white men of very low standing’ would come with ‘grog’. She remained there for another five years or so, after which she took her two sons to the banks of the Richmond River, outside Lismore, living again in makeshift circumstances, under lantana bushes, but close to Ida and Roger. Ida, a devout Christian, whose faith Neville inherited, was fluent in English and exercised a strong influence on her grandson: ‘She was a disciplinarian, but she never smacked us’, preferring to explain rules of conduct.

Julia then lived with Frank Randell, an Aboriginal man, with whom she had three children, Eva, Frankie (who died as a child) and Jim. During this time Neville witnessed frequent acts of violence by Randell against his mother. The police inspector who employed Frank tried to have Henry, Neville and Eva enrolled in South Lismore School, an act thwarted by local parents, who threatened to remove their children if the newcomers remained. Julia died in July 1932.[2]

In an effort to educate her daughter’s children, Ida moved back to Queensland, where Aboriginals could attend local state schools and where Neville was enrolled in the third grade at Beaudesert State Rural School between February and December 1935. This was the only formal education he ever received. Six months after Ida’s death in June 1935, Bonner returned to New South Wales until his mother’s brother Jack came in search of the family, taking Neville back to Woorabinda Aboriginal settlement in Queensland. At Woorabinda Bonner learnt ‘the full meaning of being an Aborigine’, witnessing tribal ceremonies for the first time and learning his cultural heritage from the elders. Bonner moved around Queensland and northern New South Wales, jumping trains, working as a dairy hand, station hand and stockman and occasionally picking vegetables, clearing, ringbarking and fencing. At Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement in 1940, he attempted, with other young Aboriginals, to enlist for service in World War II. They were rejected. No official explanation was provided, but army enlistment by Aboriginals was not encouraged at this time.[3]

On 14 June 1943 he married Mona Banfield, a domestic servant and station cook, in the Catholic Church at the Aboriginal settlement of Palm Island. The couple lived in Hughenden, where Neville found itinerant work and Mona was engaged as a domestic servant. One week Neville returned home to find his wife gone. In response to a racial insult Mona had slapped the face of her employer. Without trial and without informing Neville, the authorities had despatched Mona back to Palm Island for one year under supervision. Their first son, Patrick, was born there. Mona rejoined Neville on the mainland, where he had found work on an isolated cattle station. After Patrick became seriously ill, Mona believed that a return to Palm Island would be best for family life. Bonner reluctantly agreed. They would remain on Palm Island from 1945 until 1960, having four more sons and fostering three other children.

Though Neville was one of the few men allowed to take seasonal work on the mainland, as a canecutter around Ingham, it was on Palm Island that he was appointed a native policeman, advancing to the position of assistant works overseer with responsibility for about 300 people. Bonner was active in the Palm Island Social and Welfare Association of which he was a foundation member. On first arriving at Palm Island, Bonner had, by his own account, been ‘very rebellious’, but in order to get things done he became ‘quite expert’ in negotiating with the white authorities on the island. In 1957, convinced that discrimination could not be met by confrontation, he assisted striking Palm Island workers to draft a letter of grievance to the Director of Native Affairs in Brisbane, although some of the strikers physically attacked him for his association with the authorities. …

Continue reading Bonner, Neville Thomas (1992-199) Senator for Queensland, 1971-83 (Liberal Party Australia; Independent) in the Parliament of Australia – The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate Online Edition

[1] Ann Turner (ed.), Black Power in Australia, Heinemann Educational Australia, South Yarra, Vic., 1975, introductory page; CPD, 21 Nov. 1973, p. 2017, 12 Mar. 1974, p. 197.

[2] Neville Thomas Bonner, Transcript of oral history interview with Pat Shaw, 1983–85, POHP, TRC 4900/64, NLA, pp. 1:1–3; Angela Burger, Neville Bonner: A Biography, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1979, pp. 1–12; Robin Hughes, Australian Lives: Stories of Twentieth Century Australians, A & R, Pymble, NSW, 1996, pp. 77, 80–1.

[3] Bonner, Transcript, p. 1:4; Beaudesert State School, Admissions register, 1927–36, SRS 1747/1/12, QSA; Burger, Neville Bonner, pp. 13–20.


Neville Bonner Wikipedia

Neville Bonner  – Fact sheet 231 – National Archives of Australia

The Bulletin ‘The Real Black Economy – and Who Loses (Interview with Neville BONNER and Galawrruy YUNUPINGU) [The Killer Alchol – comments by Justice Jim Muirhead former Royal Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody] (2 pages)

Threats against Senator Neville Bonner and Aboriginal establishments in Queensland (12 pages) Prime Minister’s Department – Classification.

Senator the Honourable Dame Annabelle Rankin’s resignation from the Senate – N T Bonner [Neville Bonner] to fill vacancy (14 pages)


Burger, Angela Sutherland (1979) Neville Bonner : a biography South Melbourne : Macmillan, 1979. ISBN 9780333252369

Black power in Australia : Bobbi Sykes versus Senator Neville T. Bonner / edited by Ann Turner. Creator  Sykes, Roberta B., 1943-2010 Bonner, Neville Thomas, 1922-1999

Publication Info South Yarra, Vic. : Heinemann Educational Australia, 1975.

The review of the Aboriginal Lands Trust / Chairperson Neville T. Bonner ; members Patrick Green … [et al.]. Creator  Western Australia. Aboriginal Lands Trust Review Team Bonner, Neville Thomas, 1922-1999. Publication Info [Perth, W.A.] : Aboriginal Affairs Department, 1996. ISBN 9780730982005

Damien Freeman and Shireen Morris. The forgotten people : liberal and conservative approaches to recognising Indigenous peoples  Publication Info Carlton, Victoria : Melbourne University Press, 2016. ISBN 9780522869637

Mansell, Michael, Treaty and statehood : Aboriginal self-determination.  Publication Info Annandale, N.S.W.: The Federation Press, 2016. ISBN 9781760020835

Dodson, Michael, 1950- Stanley, Fiona J.  Reconciliation in society.   Reconciliation Australia (Organisation) Publication Info South Yarra, Vic. : Macmillan Education Australia, 2009. ISBN 9781420267327

Australian Biography, Series 1, Neville Bonner

directed by Frank Heimans, fl. 1973-1985; produced by Frank Heimans, fl. 1973-1985; interview byRobin Hughes, fl. 1977, in Australian Biography, Series 1 (Acton, Australian Capital Territory: Australia. National Film and Sound Archive, 1993), 27 mins

Miller, Glenn,  Backtrack : Australia’s twentieth.  Publication Info Frenchs Forest, N.S.W. : New Holland, 1999.  ISBN 9781864365689 9781864366082

Andrews, Kerrie E. Lindsay, Chris. Dispossessed Australians / by Kerrie E. Andrews and Chris Lindsay.  Publication Info Sydney : Bay Books, c1984. ISBN 9780858355514

John Basten, Mark Richardson, Chris Ronalds and George Zdenkowski  The criminal injustice system  Publication Info Sydney : Australian Legal Workers Group (NSW) and Legal Service Bulletin, 1982.

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Legal Service (Qld.) Beyond the act : Queensland aborigines and Islanders, what do we want?. Publication Info Brisbane : Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Action, 1979.

Electrolux Pty. Ltd. Australia 2025 : fifteen leading Australians examine the changed face of their country fifty years from now Publication Info [South Yarra, Vic.] 1975

Gilbert, Kevin Because a white man’ll never do it, Publication Info [Sydney]:Angus and Robertson 1973

National Archives of Australia – Photographs

TITLE: Bonner, Neville CATEGORY: photograph FORMAT: colour slide STATUS: preservation material
NAA: B582, B5/3/1976/D
TITLE: Victoria – Neville Bonner CATEGORY: slide FORMAT: 35mm colour mounted slide STATUS: preservation material
NAA: B582, 6/1983
TITLE: Victoria – Neville Bonner CATEGORY: slide FORMAT: 35mm colour mounted slide STATUS: preservation material
NAA: B582, 5/1980
Personalities – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – Senator Neville BONNER, 1976
NAA: A6180, 17/5/76/24
Personalities – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – Senator Neville T BONNER
NAA: A6180, 10/8/72/9
Personalities – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – Senator Neville T Bonner – Official photo, on steps of old Parliament House, Canberra, 1971
NAA: A6180, 23/7/71/47
Personalities – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – Senator Neville T Bonner, throwing boomerang, 1971
NAA: A6180, 17/9/71/12
Personalities – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – Senator Neville T Bonner in Canberra, 1971
NAA: A6180, 23/7/71/44

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