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Mansell, Morgan Alexander (1919–1981)

by Adam Thompson

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Morgan Alexander Mansell (1919–1981), Aboriginal activist, was born on 4 December 1919 on Cape Barren Island, Tasmania, second of three children of Alexander George ‘Ucky’ Mansell, labourer, and his wife Sophia ‘Emma’, née Thomas, both born locally. Morgan was raised and educated there and spent months every year muttonbirding with his family on the islands of Bass Strait.

As a young adult Mansell partnered with Jessie Elizabeth Troman; they had three children. Following his separation from Jessie, he moved to the Tasmanian mainland, where he travelled and worked on the hydroelectric scheme in the central highlands and for Port Huon Fruit Juices Pty Ltd in Hobart. He regularly returned to Cape Barren Island to visit his family and to collect kangaroo skins, which he would tan and then sell on the Tasmanian mainland.

An experienced boxer, for over twenty years Mansell worked for a travelling boxing troupe run by Harry Paulsen. Mansell was a tall, well-built man and he liked a drink—which often got him into trouble with the law. On one occasion when he appeared before the magistrate on a charge of being drunk and incapable, he successfully argued his own case and was let off. He studied the law and learned to use the legal system to his advantage. At times he set out to be jailed so he could get free transport to the doctor.

A community man, Mansell became known among the Tasmanian Aborigines as a person who would always stand up for his people. He regularly attended meetings convened by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Information Service (Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre from 1977). In 1973 he was elected to the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, established to advise the minister for Aboriginal affairs on the needs of Aboriginal people. Remaining a member until 1977—the term of its life—he served (1974-76) on its executive, with responsibility for housing and employment. He kept people informed of his activities through TAC-organised meetings.

Mansell visited schools and spoke to the children about Aborigines, using wry humour to convey his message. Michael Mansell recalled Morgan saying to the children, ‘You are the original Australians, but “Ab” comes before originals, so we were here first’. When asked how he could be Aboriginal when there were no Aborigines left in Tasmania, Morgan answered, ‘Until you find the real ones, I’ll have to do!’

In 1976-77, during the debate over the right of Tasmanian Aborigines to gain control over Truganini’s skeletal remains, Mansell was a passionate figure. He was chosen by the community to lay a remembrance wreath for her on the steps of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. A strong advocate of Aboriginal land rights, in 1973 he attended a conference on this subject in Darwin. In 1976 at a land-rights march at Launceston—in answer to the scoffing of some bystanders—he threw off his shirt, pounded his chest and yelled, ‘I’m a black man, and proud of it’.

Mansell died of respiratory complications on 22 May 1981 at Conara Junction and was buried at Launceston. After Aborigines occupied Oyster Cove in January 1984 for a week of cultural activities and discussions, the building located there was named the ‘Morgan Mansell hut’ in recognition of his strength as an Aboriginal man and his contribution to Aboriginal land rights in Tasmania.

Select Bibliography

  • Biographies of Candidates, 1973 National Aboriginal Consultative Committee Elections (1973)
  • L. R. Hiatt, National Aboriginal Consultative Committee: Report of Committee of Inquiry (1977)
  • information from Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Adam Thompson, 'Mansell, Morgan Alexander (1919–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mansell-morgan-alexander-15779/text26968, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012