THE LONE PROTESTOR - the first is "a colour portrait of Anthony Martin Fernando by Ray Nagi, National Museum of Australia (2007).

Legacy … Ray Nagi's 2007 portrait of the activist.

Few knew his real name. No photo has ever been discovered. Where he was born, why he fled Australia, even what shaped his political activism remains elusive.

Yet Anthony Martin Fernando was the first Aboriginal activist to campaign from overseas against racial discrimination in Australia.

Fernando is mostly recalled today, if at all, because of his one-man, three-year protest outside London's Australia House which culminated with his arrest in 1928, dressed like a biblical prophet in a cloak decorated with tiny toy skeletons.

Pages from AM Fernando's notebooks 1929.

Pages from Fernando's notebooks from 1929.

The following year, the man who claimed to have been born in Woolloomooloo in 1864 appeared in London's Old Bailey, charged with threatening a fellow market stall holder with a loaded pistol. He claimed he had been forced to take action because British law had failed to protect him from racial abuse.

Both protest and high-profile court case made headlines in Australia, inspiring artists - including a 2007 colour ''portrait'' of Fernando by Raj Nagi in the National Museum of Australia.

Now the historian Fiona Paisley, author of The Lone Protestor (Aboriginal Studies Press), has uncovered new archival information - including his handwritten notebooks - which shed fresh light on Australia's first international indigenous activist.

In 1925, three years before his most famous protest, Fernando was arrested in Rome. ''He'd been handing out leaflets to pilgrims at the Vatican,'' Ms Paisley explains. ''Fernando was a Catholic and had stood at the front of St Peter's Cathedral with a thousand flyers translated into Italian. There were another 9000 at his lodgings. The leaflets called for Catholics to do something about the plight of Aboriginal Australians.''

Four years earlier, he appeared at the offices of Der Bund newspaper in Berne, convincing editors to publish his ''open letter to the Swiss people''. It called for an independent international mandate over Aboriginal reserves in Australia.

''His letter is at the very cutting edge of the internationalism,'' says his biographer. ''He didn't believe the British had to leave Australia, just that international authorities should be directly involved in the Aboriginal reserves and the upholding of Aboriginal rights.''

As an adult, Fernando identified with his mother's Aboriginality, though he was probably raised in a Catholic mission in Western Australia. He never spoke about his father, Mariano Silva, possibly a sailor from India or Ceylon - only adopting ''Fernando'' after fleeing Australia.

This followed a protest he had initiated in Western Australia in 1903, against police brutality against indigenous people in goldmining towns. He never returned to Australia.

In the 1920s, he dressed in his cloak and stood outside Australia House, pointing to the skeletons and calling out, ''This is all that Australia has left of my people!''

His Old Bailey trial saw him place ''white injustice'' in the dock. ''I have been boycotted everywhere,'' he told the sympathetic judge. ''It is tommy rot to say that we are all savages. Whites have shot, slowly starved and hanged us.''

He was given a suspended jail sentence and died in 1949.

''Even though he was an individual voice, he confronts the assumption Aboriginal activism was confined to Australia until after World War II,'' Ms Paisley says.