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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1970 - The Cook Bicentenary Protests
by Mark McKenna
Cook Bicentenary Protest at Kamay (Botany Bay), led by Doug Nicholls (SLNSW).

A pril 1970. The Bicentenary of Lieutenant James Cook’s so-called ‘discovery’ of Australia. To mark the occasion, a replica of the Endeavour retraced Cook’s journey from Plymouth to Botany Bay; commemorative events were held across the nation; and Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Anne visited Australia. Within the space of a few days, in what amounted to a symbolic reclaiming of the continent, the Queen presided over two re-enactments, one, on 22 April, in Cooktown, where Cook beached the ailing Endeavour in June 1770 and stayed for seven weeks; and another on 29 April, at Botany Bay (Kamay), where Cook had come ashore two hundred years earlier.

In Sydney, fifty thousand spectators made their way to Kurnell on the shores of Botany Bay. Hundreds of thousands more watched the celebrations on television. As well as Queen Elizabeth II, guests of honour included Prime Minister John Gorton and NSW Premier Robert Askin. On the beach, professional actors and Aboriginal performers re-enacted Cook’s landing. As he came ashore, he proclaimed British sovereignty over the entire east coast of Australia and its offshore islands: a declaration that never took place at Botany Bay, but at Possession Island, off the north-western tip of the Cape York Peninsula on 22 August 1770.

Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, by E. Phillips Fox, 1902 (National Gallery of Victoria).
In the weeks prior, and in the wake of the celebrations, politicians eager to downplay British Australia’s penal origins exalted Cook as the ‘discoverer’ and ‘founder’ of ‘modern Australia,’ a man of the enlightenment who brought civilisation to a land inhabited by a people who ‘inevitably lost,’ as Premier Askin remarked, ‘from moving out of the Stone Age and into the machine age.’

On 28 April 1970, the evening before the Cook celebrations at Kurnell, Aboriginal leaders from across Australia, and their supporters, gathered at Sydney Town Hall to hear speeches and discuss their protest, which had been planned by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and its affiliates. Speakers were outraged by what they saw as white Australia’s inability to understand the significance of the Cook bicentenary for Aboriginal people. Faith Bandler labelled the event as ‘the 200th anniversary of the taking of the country.’ One of the most passionate speeches was delivered by the poet and author Oodgeroo Noonuccal, then known as Kath Walker, who in 1969 had first suggested the idea of a ‘Day of Mourning’.

Walker—wearing a breast plate that bore the inscription ‘discarded government property’—told the audience how she had been contacted by a newspaper editor who argued that the protest she and her supporters were planning ‘in front of the Queen was in very bad taste.’ Her response, which she called to tell him in person, was defiant and indignant. ‘I also consider what the people of Australia are doing in the form of genocide to a race of people in Australia was also in very bad taste. Now print that in your editorial.’

The next day, protesters—both black and white—met in Hyde Park before marching through Sydney and joining a motorcade to La Perouse, situated directly across the bay from where the Cook re-enactment was taking place. There, in a manner that clearly echoed the 1938 Day of Mourning protests, pastors Frank Roberts and Doug Nicholls led the ceremony. Many of the Aboriginal protesters wore red headbands to symbolise the spilling of their people’s blood. They lined the beach holding placards that carried the names of Aboriginal clans. They demanded ‘land rights’ and they chanted ‘Australian history did not begin in 1770.’ As Walker read her poem, Oration—‘We, who are strangers now, Come with sorrow in our hearts’—they threw wreaths into the sea. Later, protesters ‘walked to the high ground at the entrance to Botany Bay,’ turning their backs as the Royal Yacht, Britannia, sailed away.

Margaret Jones, the Sydney Morning Herald reporter who attended the ceremony, described it as ‘easily the biggest national protest in Australian history.’ Similar protests took place in Melbourne and Brisbane. The following day, in what can now be seen as a precursor to Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech in 1992, the editorial in the Australian reflected on the history of dispossession that the protests against the Cook bicentenary had forced into the light:

We brought rum and smallpox; revolvers and Martini-Henry carbines to slaughter men, women and children who speared the cattle we released on their land. And when we couldn’t kill them, we smothered them … They were easy victories, and we are still winning them—every time we shut our eyes, turn our backs, comfort ourselves with the myth that we are the world’s most egalitarian (white) people.


left arrow 1967: The Gurindji Petition
1972: The Aboriginal Tent Embassy right arrow