Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1933 - Joe Anderson's Speech
by Heather Goodall
Still image from Joe Anderson’s 1933 speech (Australian Screen, 1983. “Lousy Little Sixpence, 1933.”).

J oe Anderson was a Dharawal man, whose speech demanding respect, representation, and justice for Aboriginal people was filmed by Cinesound Review in the winter of 1933 near his home at Salt Pan Creek, on the Georges River in Sydney. His speech was shown in theatres around Australia.

Insisting that Aboriginal authorities should be respected just as any English royalty, Joe Anderson named himself King Burraga, after his maternal grandfather, Paddy Burragalang, a southern Dharawal man from Five Islands, near Wollongong, where his mother, Ellen (c. 1855–1931), had grown up. She returned to her mother Biddy’s northern Dharawal Country on the Georges River, but in 1881 was forced by the new Aborigines Protection Board to move to the Murray River. There Ellen married Hugh Anderson, a young Yorta Yorta man, with whom she returned after some years, becoming owner of the Salt Pan Creek block in 1925.

Both Ellen and Hugh Anderson were well informed and active, like Hugh’s countryman William Cooper. Ellen held extensive traditional environmental and cultural knowledge, teaching her children and grandchildren about Georges River as her granddaughter (Joe’s niece) has remembered; non-Indigenous people, such as author C. W. Peck in his widely circulated Aboriginal Legends (1933 edition), have recognised Ellen’s knowledge too. The Anderson family were likely to have been well aware of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, which, led by Aboriginal men Fred Maynard, Tom Lacey, Sid Ridgeway, and others, gained much publicity in Sydney from 1925. Maynard was reported speaking at Chatswood in February 1929, calling for representation for Aboriginal people in Federal parliament before the Depression ended political activity.

Newcastle Sun, 28 August 1936: 2.
Joe Anderson was remembered warmly in 1981 by leading land rights activists Jack Campbell (of Roseby Park) and Gubboo Ted Thomas (of Wallaga Lake), both of whom had lived at the Anderson’s block in the 1930s when working in Sydney. They recalled Joe Anderson speaking up round the family’s evening campfires, condemning the mistreatment his community suffered at the hands of the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board. Joe had often made trips into the Haymarket on Friday nights when, as others did in the Domain, he would make speeches to the crowds there (‘spruiking,’ they recalled), protesting discrimination against his people.

In the Cinesound Review, Joe Anderson speaks straight to camera—determined, resolute, and demanding justice. The river behind him, he stands wrapped against the winter cold in a long overcoat. He points out the failure of white people to follow Christian teaching to ‘love thy neighbour,’ and quips sardonically:

It quite amuses me to hear people say they don’t like the Black man, but he’s damn glad to live in a Black man’s country all the same!

Then he continues in deadly earnest:

I am calling a corroborree of all the Natives in New South Wales to send a petition to the King, in an endeavour to improve our conditions. All the Black man wants is representation in Federal Parliament. There is also plenty fish in the river for us all, and land to grow all we want.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Aboriginal owned Australia, and today, he demands more than the white man’s charity. He wants the right to live!

Just days before, William Cooper had been reported to have begun gathering signatures for a petition to the King, calling for representation for Aboriginal people in Federal parliament. A specific plan may have been communicated through Yorta Yorta countryman, Hugh Anderson, but Jack Campbell and Ted Thomas made no mention of Joe Anderson organising an actual petition. They remembered Joe as a ‘spruiker’ rather than an organiser. There had certainly been other petitions, some of which Cooper had signed, so this was not an uncommon strategy for appealing to imperial authorities against local abuses. It is most likely that petitions were just one way to convey the widespread anger that people in many Aboriginal communities were feeling. Nevertheless, Anderson was a particularly courageous spokesman, so he caught the attention of the very new ‘talkies’ film industry, with dramatic effect.


left arrow 1928: Mary Alice Harris and Protest in Western Australia
1937: William Cooper's Petition right arrow