by Michael Bell
While working at the Australian War Memorial to support and promote an interest in the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders servicemen and servicewomen, an exceptional story has come across my desk. While it contains the familiar themes of hidden heritage, and the difficulty of navigating of social norms and government policy within the young nation of Australia, the remarkable achievements of the protagonist and the questions posed by the story render it unique.
The curious epithet of "Black Prince" was given to Charles Melbourne Johnston at Gallipoli, according to the oral history passed down through two branches of the Johnston family: Rachel Hindle (née Johnston, Charles' sister), and Ian Wyllie Johnston, Charles' son, whose own nickname (bestowed on him by his uncle, the late Hon Hugh Stevenson Robertson) was "the Black".
According to Peter Wyllie Johnston, Ian referred to his father as "the Black Prince". At the time it was unclear whether the epithet was bestowed because of Charles' dark features, his strong leadership qualities and heroism on the field, or some other reason. “Uncle Ian sometimes conveyed a sense of something 'mysterious' in relation to his father's heritage, without ever explicitly stating that he believed there was Indigenous heritage in our family.”
This story has been written with the assistance of family members Andy Johnston and Peter Wyllie Johnston in the interests of furthering the knowledge and awareness of the wartime contribution of people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.