Aboriginal Tent Embassy marks the illegal 1788 occupation

January 28, 2022
First day of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra, January 27,1972. From left to right: Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey. Photo: National Library of Australia, Ken Middleton collectionti

Invasion Day in 1972, when the Tent Embassy was set up, dawned bright in Sydney, New South Wales.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, history doesn’t record what the day was like in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into what is now known, variously, as Port Phillip and Sydney Harbour with his flotilla of ships and their cargoes of hapless humans deemed little better than animals.

Behind that journey was Britain’s need by to find accommodation for their criminal elements, other than the rotting hulks, where they were kept in abject conditions.

By the time Phillip landed, he already knew that Cook had “taken possession of” the entire east coast of this continent in the name of King George III.

It was therefore not necessary, in the British book, to enjoin Phillip to ensure the sanctity of the lands of the local Indigenous people, although he did write that “[Aboriginal] lives and livelihoods were to be protected”.

To this day, that injunction has never been obeyed by any foreign ruler, nor any domestic government.

However, it does not appear from the historical records that Phillip had received, or sought to receive, advice from the President of the Royal Society, Earl Morton, that Indigenous people “[are]  the legal possessors of the several regions they inhabit … No European Nation has the right to occupy any part of their country without their voluntary consent.”

There is little or no public mention of Paul Coe of the Wiradjuri people, who had started law at University of NSW the same year as I, and who helped establish the Aboriginal Legal Centre in Redfern. Highly intelligent and committed to the struggle for land rights, equity and justice for Indigenous Australians, Coe framed the slogan that became the clarion call for those who participated in the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972: “We have never ceded our Sovereignty.”

It was powerful stuff. Concepts of an Aboriginal Embassy and the non-cession of our sovereignty triggered the imaginations of those who travelled to Canberra that day.

I joined a bus, in a fleet of buses, travelling from Sydney to Canberra.  My fellow travellers included students, wharfies, builders’ labourers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, housewives and husbands — people across society. The atmosphere on the buses was electric.

Months later, after he became Prime Minister on December 6, 1972, Gough Whitlam handed back their land to the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory. It was a poignant ceremony. For centuries, in Britain land, transfers were effected by one party taking a handful of soil from the grounds on which the parties stood, and pouring it into the hand of the party taking possession of the land. It was not only symbolic: it was a matter of fact: “I give you this land”.

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