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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fatnowna, Oliver Noel (Noel) (1929–1991)

by Clive R. Moore

This article was published online in 2020

Oliver Noel Fatnowna (1929–1991), ambulance officer, government adviser, historian, and community activist, was born on 16 May 1929 at Mackay, Queensland, fifth of ten surviving children of Harry Norman Fatnowna, labourer, and his wife Grace, née Kwasi, both Queensland born. A third generation Australian South Sea Islander whose ancestors were among the eighteen thousand Solomon Islanders who took part in the labour trade to Queensland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Noel grew up in a grass house at Eulberti farm on the road between Bucasia and Eimeo. He attended Eimeo Road State School until the age of fourteen. His more important learning occurred outside school, on the beaches fishing with and listening to old Islander men and women who educated him in the customs of the Solomon Islands. These original immigrants felt it was ‘especially important’ (Fatnowna 1989, 23) to teach the Fatnowna children about their ancestry and history, as their father was a Christian. Formerly a lay preacher in the Anglican Church, Harry Fatnowna had been the prime mover in the introduction of Seventh Day Adventism to the Mackay Islander community in the 1920s, and the faith was central to the lives of Noel and his family.

‘Growing up black in a white world’ (Fatnowna 1989, 33) presented numerous challenges, some of which Fatnowna resolved on the football field, because ‘if you wanted to thump someone you could do it quite legally’ (1989, 42). While playing Rugby League with the Pioneers, he commenced first aid training with the Mackay Ambulance Centre. Following the example of his brother Norman, in 1950 he joined the local ambulance service as a bearer. For many years they were the only black ambulance bearers in Queensland.

On 22 February 1951 at the Central Methodist Church, Mackay, Fatnowna married Queensland-born Minnie Choppy of Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, descent. He continued working for the ambulance service for the next forty years, eventually becoming senior bearer, and was involved in fund-raising and publicity for the service. This, together with his work within local South Sea Islander and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, made him well known in the district. He served as an advisor to the Queensland Government on Indigenous health, and was appointed special commissioner for Pacific Islanders (1977–83). For his community service, he was awarded the BEM in 1981.

During the 1970s Fatnowna had begun researching the Solomon Islander experience in the Mackay district, collecting oral histories, accounts of past events from local families, and local records, documents, and photographs. Following the lead of his cousins Willie and Henry Bobongie, in 1973 he visited Malaita, Solomon Islands, in search of his roots. He later forged stronger links between Malaita and Mackay, resulting in several marriages between islanders and Australian descendants. His book, Fragments of a Lost Heritage, edited by Roger Keesing, told the story of his childhood and journey to reunite with his Malaitan family.

Around five feet nine inches (175 cm) tall and heavy-set, Fatnowna was skilled in oratory and persuasion and always in his element in front of the public, never more so than in May 1988 when, as part of national bicentennial commemorations, twenty-two Solomon Islands-born Malaitans, watched by one thousand people, took part in a re-enactment of the arrival of Islanders at Mackay in 1867. Fatnowna masterminded the symbolic and emotional event that took place on the banks of the Pioneer River where his grandparents John Kwailiu Abelfai Fatnowna and Maggie Orrani first came ashore. The following year the re-enactment became part of a television documentary, Kidnapped.

Survived by his wife and their two sons and four daughters, Fatnowna died on 27 February 1991 at the Prince Charles Hospital, Chermside, Brisbane, after a heart operation, and was buried at Walkerston cemetery with Seventh Day Adventist forms. The descendants of the children of Kwailiu and Orrani include the Fatnowna, Bobongie, Mooney, and Fiukwandi families. By sheer numbers and prominence in the local community, the Fatnownas are the major South Sea Island family in the Mackay district and Queensland, and, through Noel Fatnowna, the nation.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Anthropology. ‘Noel Fatnowna 1929–1991.’ 14, no. 1 (1991): 125
  • Fatnowna, Noel. Fragments of a Lost Heritage. Edited by Roger Keesing. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1989
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Citation details

Clive R. Moore, 'Fatnowna, Oliver Noel (Noel) (1929–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 23 September 2020.

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