Burnum Burnum and Wave Hill: a personal reflection

Burnum Burnum plants the Aboriginal flag under the white cliffs of Dover, taking possession of England on behalf of the Aborigin

On January 26, 1988 - the bicentenary of the invasion of Australia - Burnum Burnum planted the Aboriginal flag under the white cliffs of Dover and took possession of England on behalf of the Aboriginal people.

As reported in the New York Times, "Gray beard flowing, brown eyes flashing, he made a speech full of barbed allusions to the treatment of the Aborigines by the English settlers of Australia. No harm, he promised, would come to England's 'native people' from his invasion. Nor would he poison their water, lace their flour with strychnine, or introduce them to alcohol and toxic drugs."

Almost fifty years ago, I knew Burnum Burnum as Harry Penrith, a fellow student at the University of Tasmania. Harry was unusual not just because he was a decade or so older than us, but because he was one of Australia's first Aboriginal law students.

It was the period of the Vietnam War. With many of my fellow students, I marched in the streets, occupied government buildings, argued and debated, and burned the midnight oil printing leaflets on antiquated Gestetners.
In his courteous way, Harry reminded us that racism was not just about the “Yellow Peril” or Apartheid, but that White Australia had a Black History and that the suffering of his people had never ended.

However, the Aboriginal people were never passive victims; they had fought back. Harry's own great-great grandfather was Burnum Burnum McCrae, a great warrior of the Wurundjeri people.

We learned of the struggle of the Gurindji people and the walk-off at Vestey's Wave Hill station. We printed information leaflets, raised funds, petitioned, held meetings, staged all-night vigils in Hobart in the winter cold, wondering what else we could do to dent the impervious consciences of our rulers.

We learned that Vestey's was a commercial octopus, with tentacles in many corporate pies, flogging a great array of merchandise in local shops. One Friday afternoon in 1968, equipped with a megaphone and stacks of leaflets, a few dozen of us descended on the old Purity supermarket in Sandy Bay Road.

We took it in turns to harangue the early evening shoppers, while others slipped into the store and filled shopping trolleys with tins of meat, balls of wool and other Vestey's brands. When the items were unloaded at the check-out, we would say, “Sorry, but we have just remembered that these are Vestey's products so we cannot in good conscience buy them”. The result was total chaos.

We were determined that business would not go on as usual that afternoon. Some shoppers abused us, but others took our leaflets and talked to us about what was going on at Wave Hill. It was a tactic that we would repeat a few more times until the managers woke up to the “threat”.

Burnum Burnum was instrumental in the campaign to remove Truganini's remains from the Tasmanian Museum for cremation at Oyster Cove. Sadly, on August 18, 1997, like so many Aboriginal people, he died too young, at just 61 years old, from complications arising from diabetes.