How an Indigenous POW and his interrogator became friends

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Roland Carter was one of 1,000 Indigenous soldiers who fought in World War One. It was there he met ethnologist Leonhard Adam.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following article contains images of deceased persons.

It’s the rarest of tales: two men who found themselves on different sides of the war and formed a lasting friendship.

Indigenous soldier Roland Carter was captured by German forces during World War One (1914 – 1918) and held in a prison camp. It was there he met Jewish German ethnologist Leonhard Adam who was conducting an anthropological study of prisoners of war from different cultures.

Surviving documents show the men found deep mutual respect for each other and kept in contact for the rest of their lives.

Roland Carter and Leonhard Adam
Unlikely friendship: Roland Carter and Leonhard Adam.
Country Arts SA

Their story is now the subject of a play; MeWei 3027. Its title combines the Ngarrindjeri word for ‘soul’ and Mr Carter’s service number.

Making history

Mr Carter was the first Ngarrindjeri man, from the Coorong region of South Australia, to join the Australian Imperial Forces in World War One, at a time when Indigenous people weren't recognised as Australian citizens. It is estimated about 1,000 enlisted anyway.

Details of his friendship with Mr Adam came to light in a surviving letter he wrote to the ethnologist which reads, in part:

“Doctor, please send me a photo of yourself. I would like to show my people the Gentleman who is very good enough to call me friend.”

Roland Carter’s daughter, Lorraine Wilson told SBS News her father never spoke much about the war, but his experience in Europe was an unusual one.

“I remember him saying they were good to him in Germany,” she said. “Very good, because, they said, he shouldn’t be over there fighting, he should be back in Australia.”

“I’m very proud that he went over there. He did what he wanted to do … not what someone else told him to do.”

Lack of recognition

The playwright behind the new work, Glenn Shea, is also a Ngarrindjeri man.

“This story is quite extraordinary, and it’s extraordinary not only in regards to the relationship between the two men,” he told SBS News.

“Roland put up his hand to go and fight in World War One, to serve country, Australia, with the thought, from my understanding, of coming home, that he’d become a part of Australia, as he’s done his duty.”

“We understand that that doesn’t occur when he returns home.”

Auntie Lorraine Wilson and Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin
Roland Carter's daughter Lorraine Wilson and Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin from the South Australian Film Commission.
SBS News

Mr Carter returned to his home at Point McLeay, or Raukkan as it is now known, and became a respected member of the Ngarrindjeri community. But, Mr Shea said, he and many other Indigenous soldiers never quite got the recognition they'd hoped for after serving their country.

"It is a travesty that that recognition is not there for our people who have gone and fought, which I think is hugely important."

The bond between Mr Carter and Mr Adam lasted decades, and although they never met again in person, they kept in touch through writing. And, as World War Two approached, it was Mr Adam who found himself caught between country and culture.

“When the war finishes, the roles are reversed,” Shea said.

“Leonhard, being Jewish, got stripped of all his titles and escaped to Britain. In Britain, he became an enemy of the state, was put into a camp and sent to Australia"

"So, you know, parallel systems of oppression.”

'War didn’t see colour'

The play is part of the Aboriginal Diggers Project, which aims to bring more prominence to the role of Indigenous Australian soldiers.

Creative director of the project Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin said prejudices were often set-aside during battle.

“War didn’t see colour, war didn’t see race.”

“When you talk to service men and women, whether it was from World War One, through to World War Two, Vietnam and the present day, they are comrades; they are mates standing side by side.”

MeWei 3027 will be read at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre on Anzac Day, 25 April 2018. Country Arts SA is running a fundraising campaign to turn the story into a full-scale production in 2019.

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