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Burnum Burnum (1936–1997)

by John Ramsland

This article was published online in 2022

Burnumn Burnum, by John Ogden, 1984

Burnumn Burnum, by John Ogden, 1984

National Library of Australia, 66085862

Burnum Burnum (Henry James Penrith) (1936–1997), Aboriginal activist, actor, writer, and sportsman, was born on 10 January 1936 at the Aboriginal Station, Wallaga Lake, New South Wales, youngest of three surviving children of locally born Clement Charles Penrith, labourer, and his Victorian-born wife Jemima Ellen Lily, née McCrae. Harry’s father was of Woiwurrung, and his mother of Yorta Yorta descent; he identified as Wurundjeri. As his mother had tuberculosis, he was put in the care of Ruby, his father’s sister; his mother died not long after. All three children were removed by government welfare agents and placed in the United Aborigines Mission Children’s Home at Bomaderry. Harry attended Bomaderry Public School. He and his brother were moved to the State-controlled Kinchela Aboriginal Boys’ Training Home, near Kempsey, and his sister was placed in Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls’ Training Home. Consequently, he suffered a ‘threefold loss’: ‘his mother, his family, [and] his Aboriginal culture’ (Norst 1999, 14).

Unusually for a Kinchela boy, Penrith attended Kempsey High School, where he did well academically and excelled as an athlete, rugby player, cricketer, and swimmer. He was also a lifesaver with the South West Rocks Surf Life Saving Club. He became the model of a successful product of Kinchela. In 1954 he was appointed vice-captain of the school and completed the Leaving certificate. Nevertheless, he had experienced racism in his adolescence, having been beaten with a stockwhip by a warder at Kinchela for accidentally breaking a window, and he became aware of the segregation of Aboriginal people from the wider community in the local movie theatre, hospital, and swimming pool. At an early age he determined not to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol.

After completing the New South Wales public service examination, Penrith joined the State Department of Agriculture as a clerk in 1955. He boarded for a while at a Baptist hostel in Sydney. In 1956 he became registrar at Leeton experimental farm, and in 1960 he was appointed assistant registrar at Wagga Wagga Agricultural College. At the Church of Christ, Mooroopna, on 25 November that year he married Carmel Priscilla Nelson; her relative (Sir) Doug Nicholls officiated. His sporting career continued to prosper. He played in the President’s Cup for Balmain Rugby League Club, Sydney, as well as in reserve grade on several occasions, showing promise as a versatile back. He also played rugby union, including for Parramatta and while working at Leeton. In that sport he represented Riverina against the New Zealand All Blacks in 1957, and for several years he appeared for Riverina in the Caldwell Cup country week.

By 1965 Penrith appeared to have successfully attained the major aims that the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board had expected of him as a fully assimilated Aboriginal person. However, his marriage was breaking down and his personal life was beginning to come apart, and he started to question the public image pressed on him. The institutionalisation of his childhood and youth without any family support began to tell psychologically. Despite a serious gambling problem and recurring nightmares about Kinchela, he became a prominent advocate for Aboriginal rights as well as for broader social issues. Researching his family history, he sought to recover his lost Aboriginal identity. At first influenced by the Baptist faith, after leaving school he had also ‘look[ed] beyond the confines of orthodox Christian sectarianism’ (Norst 1999, 42). In 1970 in Hobart, Tasmania, he married Leonie Cecilia Smith, a divorcee, who had been brought up Catholic but had embraced the Baha’i religion; they would later divorce. In 1976 he would rename himself Burnum Burnum after an ancestor, and eventually he became a member of the Baha’i faith. He began to espouse Baha’i teachings: ‘We are all members of the world community and I want Aboriginals to feel this’ (Grace 1975, 7).

After working as a liaison officer for the Victorian Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs from 1968 to 1970, Penrith studied law at the University of Tasmania. There he was involved in the successful campaign to remove Truganini’s bones from the humiliating public display in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for reburial. In 1973 he was appointed executive officer for Aboriginal Hostels Ltd, which provided accommodation for Aboriginal people across the nation. The company had an eight-member board headed by the Aboriginal public servant Charles Perkins. Penrith was appointed deputy general manager in 1975. He travelled extensively to establish new hostels and achieved much in a short time.

In February 1975 Penrith took up a Churchill fellowship for thirteen weeks to study hostel provisions overseas, including in the United States of America, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, and Britain. Missing the deadline to return to his office, he was fired. In 1980 he was appointed liaison officer with the New South Wales parliamentary select committee investigating land rights. After a few months he was dismissed for attending protests against logging at Terania Creek in official time and with a government vehicle. He was a vocal detractor of the Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs under Perkins, which he referred to as the ‘Aboriginal Affairs mafia,’ and also clashed ideologically with the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, making enemies of well-known leaders. Later he would take legal action for defamation, without success.

Burnum Burnum stood unsuccessfully for the Senate as an Independent in March 1983 and December 1984. Some of his policies, such as those on education and land rights, seemed to anger Aboriginal communities. In 1987 he was awarded funding by the Australian Bicentennial Authority for his book Burnum Burnum’s Aboriginal Australia: A Traveller’s Guide (1988). It was lavish and impressive, but again some Aboriginal leaders who boycotted the bicentenary for political reasons were displeased with him. He ran for the Australian Democrats in a State by-election for the seat of North Sydney in 1988. On 25 September 1988 he married Marelle Fay Carroll, née Dixon, a naturopath and lecturer, at Balmoral Reserve, Sydney.

Earlier the same year, on Australia Day, Burnum Burnum staged in Britain his most spectacular media event. With a flowing white beard and holding a large Aboriginal flag that flapped in the breeze, he planted it dramatically into English soil beneath the White Cliffs of Dover in front of television cameras. He proclaimed a takeover of England, and a declaration offering the British ‘a Koompartoo – “a fresh start.”’ Continuing that ‘we are here to bring you good manners [and] refinement,’ he stated ‘we do not intend to souvenir, pickle and preserve the heads of 2000 of your people, nor to publicly display the skeletal remains of your Royal Highness, as was done to our Queen Truganinni for 80 years’ (Norst 1999, frontispiece). The stunt resonated in television news around the world, and highlighted issues of dispossession and colonisation.

A frequent guest at schools and colleges, Burnum Burnum performed as a spellbinding speaker and storyteller to large and small audiences. He played with flair a number of roles in Australian feature films. In Arch Nicholson’s Dark Age (1987), a horror thriller dealing with a massive saltwater crocodile, he played Oondabund, the father of the character Adjaral played by the actor and dancer David Gulpilil. He appeared as Yami Lester in Ground Zero (1987), a thriller set at Maralinga that was highly critical of the Australian and British governments’ nuclear testing policies and the treatment of local Aboriginal people. The same year he flamboyantly played a werewolf-type character in Philippe Mora’s satirical Marsupials: The Howling III. In 1992 he portrayed Uncle Albert in the television series Bony, based on Arthur Upfield’s crime novels.

Having briefly belonged to the Australian Labor Party during the mid-1980s, in 1996 Burnum Burnum joined the Liberal Party of Australia. After unsuccessfully seeking preselection as a candidate, he resigned, disturbed by the party’s policies on Indigenous affairs. Burnum Burnum was one of the most highly talented activists of his time. He died of coronary heart disease on 18 August 1997 at home at Woronora, Sydney, and was cremated. He had suffered diabetes for many years, which had aggravated his heart condition. His wife, the daughter and two sons of his first marriage, the daughter of his second marriage, the son of his third marriage, and the adopted daughter of his first marriage, survived him. A service took place at Jannali Uniting Church, and an Aboriginal funeral was held at Wallaga Lake. Portraits by Bruce Postle and Juno Gemes are held at the National Portrait Gallery, and a sanctuary at Woronora bears his name.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Farnsworth, Clyde H. ‘Burnum Burnum, 61, Fighter for Australia’s Aborigines.’ New York Times, 20 August 1997, D20
  • Grace, Brian. ‘Harry Penrith: “A Life’s Dream Emerges.”’ Aboriginal News 1, no. 11 (February 1975): 6–7
  • Norst, Marlene J. A Warrior for Peace: Burnum Burnum. East Roseville, NSW: Kangaroo Press, 1999
  • Ramsland, John. ‘Bringing Up Harry Penrith: Injustice and Becoming Burnum Burnum: The Formative Years of a Child of the Stolen Generation.’ Education Research and Perspectives 31, no. 2 (2004): 94–106
  • Ramsland, John, and Christopher Mooney. Remembering Aboriginal Heroes: Struggle, Identity and the Media. Melbourne: Brolga Publishing, 2006
  • Read, Peter. ‘Agent of Change, from the Outside.’ Australian, 20 August 1997, 15
  • Rintoul, Stuart, ‘Widespread Praise for Burnum Burnum.’ Australian, 19 August 1997, 2

Additional Resources

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Citation details

John Ramsland, 'Burnum Burnum (1936–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burnum-burnum-27064/text34539, published online 2022, accessed online 26 November 2022.

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