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The success of polymer technology saw the issuance of a new series of banknotes in the 1990s, and the portrayal on the $50 banknote (1995) of the first identified First Nations individual, David Unaipon. His portraiture continued with the new banknote of 2018, supported by enhanced representation of his Ngarrindjeri nation.

David Unaipon

The trial of the new polymer technology with the Commemorative $10 banknote was successful, and a complete series of polymer banknotes was planned for issuance. With the New Note Series (1992 – 1996), Australia became the first nation to convert successfully its paper-based currency to polymer banknotes. The launch of the series in 1992 happened to coincide with the rulings of the Mabo Case, whereby Australia’s High Court upheld the claim that the continent was not ‘terra nullius’ (land belonging to no-one) when it was colonised.

The Bank conferred with the board of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission for advice on its representation. The Commission’s suggestions of identities for the banknote comprised Sir Douglas Nicholls, former Governor of South Australia; the singer Harold Blair; the artist Albert Namatjira; and David Unaipon, a Ngarrindjeri writer, preacher, inventor and advocate for his people, who became the chosen candidate for the $50 banknote. Designed by Brian Sadgrove, the banknote coupled Unaipon’s portrait with pioneer politician, Edith Cowan, the first Australian woman to be elected to parliament.

Front of the $50 banknote, showing David Unaipon, offset and intaglio printing on polymer substrate, with a clear window depicting the Southern Cross; concept design by Brian Sadgrove, first issued in October 1995.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, D18/73810.

Born at Raukkan (Point McLeay Mission), South Australia, David Unaipon was especially interested in recording Aboriginal myths and legends and, in 1924 and 1925, he travelled through southern Australia collecting the stories. In the preface to his volume titled Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, Unaipon records, ‘as a full-blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first – but I hope, not the last – to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings’. The excerpt is reproduced in his hand-writing on the banknote. It was not until 2001, however, that David Unaipon’s name was identified with the publication as his manuscript had been plagiarised and published by William Ramsay Smith in 1930.

Photograph of David Unaipon from the manuscript of Legendary Tales of Australian Aborigines.

State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy Ms Judy Kropinyieri.

David Unaipon, manuscript of Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, 1924–1925.

State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy Ms Judy Kropinyieri.

David Unaipon combined his interest in the traditions of his people with eagerness to contribute new inventions. He studied aerodynamics and foresaw the eventuality of the helicopter, basing his experiments on the boomerang. His attention was also directed towards inventions for immediate practical use and, in 1909, he patented an improved mechanical hand-piece for shearing sheep, which is represented on the banknote.

David Unaipon, diagram of his 1909 improved mechanical handpiece for sheep shearing, drawn for Herbert Basedow in 1914.

State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy Ms Judy Kropinyieri.

James Ngunaitponi, Unaipon’s father, was the first convert to Christianity from the Lower Murray clans, and he became an evangelist. The mission’s church, built in 1869, is depicted on the banknote with Milerum (Clarence Long) and his wife Polly Beck, who are the great-grandparents of accomplished Australian Football League player, Michael O’Loughlin and great-uncle and aunt to his cousin, Adam Goodes. Like Unaipon, Milerum sought to preserve the legends and histories of his forebears, as well as recording their languages and songs.

Photograph of the church at Raukkan, used as reference material for the banknote.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, P15/1296.

Photograph of Polly Beck and Milerum (Clarence Long), circa 1915, provided for the banknote’s design by Jean and Henry Rankine.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-002583.


The Next Generation of Banknotes portrays the same identities on the banknotes as the previous New Note Series and so the $50 banknote, issued in 2018, again shows the two social and political pioneers, David Unaipon and Edith Cowan. The new banknote also features the unifying image of the Black Swan (Cygnus atratus), which is both Unaipon's ngaitji, or totem, and the bird of Edith Cowan's home state of Western Australia.

The signature side of the $50 banknote, offset and intaglio printing on polymer substrate; concept design by emerystudio, first issued in October 2018.

Reserve Bank of Australia, D18/41660.

The excerpt from David Unaipon’s Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, reproduced on the previous $50 banknote, reappears on the new banknote in the form of microprint, one its enhanced security features. Unlike the previous banknote, however, David Unaipon is identified more closely with his Ngarrindjeri nation in the new series, and the selection of imagery evolved in consultation with his people, including the use of their shields from the 1850s. The round shield was made from bark material to protect against spears, while its companion was constructed from harder wood to defend at closer range. Unlike the shields of the 1954 banknote – deployed more for decorative effect in the midst of European imagery – the implements on the new banknote retain their authenticity in relation to the specific community of the banknote’s subject.

The banknote also alludes to the cultural practices of miwi and the exchange of navel cords between clans to promote ‘fellowship’. The images are based on paintings by Yarraldi elder, Muriel Van Der Byl, and Unaipon’s reference to the custom appears in the banknote’s microprint:

‘As a mother and child is linked to each other before birth, so the nhung e umpie must be so linked as mother and child. The navel cord is a physical reality, so nhung e umpie should be so, true love, true fellowship, true pity.’

Detail of Ngarrindjeri shields and imagery related to Nhung e umpie, navel cord exchange, from the $50 banknote, 2018.

Muriel Van Der Byl (Yarraldi), painting portraying the practices of miwi and navel cord exchange.

During the century of the national banknotes’ issuance, the representation of Australia’s First Nations peoples and culture has charted increasing recognition of the country’s original owners and custodians. The imagery of the contemporary $50 banknote may interact with this process; its focus on the identity of David Unaipon may encourage further enquiry not only into this individual, but also into the multiplicity of First Nations leaders, languages, cultures and histories, each making valuable contributions to the nation. Indeed, the artist Ryan Presley (Marri Ngarr) has re-imagined Australian banknotes from a First Nations perspective in his series, Blood Money, a set of which is held by the Bank. Through his alternative series of banknotes, the artist asserts and celebrates Aboriginal history, and challenges the assumption of its passivity towards colonisation.

$50 ‘Blood Money’ banknote, 2018 by Ryan Presley featuring Pemulwuy (1750-1802). Artwork reproduced with permission of the artist.