Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1972 - The Larrakia Petition
by Samantha Wells
Larrakia petition, 1972 (National Archives of Australia).

I n October 1972 Aboriginal people in Darwin transcended Australian politics and took their claims for colonial redress all the way to Buckingham Palace. Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden were visiting the Northern Territory on the final leg of their national tour when their evening entertainment at Government House was interrupted by more than three hundred protesters chanting, ‘we want Margaret’ and ‘land rights now.’

The protesters were peaceful but determined to present their petition, months in the making and carrying the signatures and thumbprints of more than one thousand supporters to the princess. Failing to elicit any response, protesters camped overnight in their own ‘Aboriginal Government House,’ playing didgeridoos and singing.

The following morning, as a procession of black limousines drove the royal couple away, a young Aboriginal stockman, Johnny Maler, tucked the petition under his arm and tried to break through the police lines. The petition was torn and a section lost in the scuffle. Undeterred, the three-metres-long petition was repaired and mailed to Buckingham Palace from ‘Aboriginal Government House PO Box 4751 Darwin,’ with an apology for its poor condition.

Beginning with words from the Larrakia language, the petition read:

Larrakia Petition, Darwin (Northern Territory News, 16 October 1972).
Gwalwa Daraniki!

This is our Land!

The British settlers took our land. No treaties were signed with the tribes. Today we are REFUGEES. Refugees in the country of our ancestors. We live in REFUGEE CAMPS—without land, without employment, without justice.

The British Crown signed TREATIES with the Maoris in New Zealand and the Indians in North America.

We appeal to the Queen to help us, the Aboriginal people of Australia.

We need land rights and political representation now.

While it became known as the ‘Larrakia Petition’ and the first signatory was Larrakia leader, Bob Secretary, the petition was intended as a national effort.

The petition to the Queen was also a response to an earlier rejection by the prime minister, William McMahon, of the Larrakia’s demand that his government appoint a commission to negotiate treaties with individual Aboriginal groups. Once the treaties were deemed to be fair, they would be co-signed by ‘the tribes,’ the prime minister, his cabinet and the governor-general, and ‘made good for all time.’ The petition to the prime minister concluded:

We shall not stop until the treaties are signed. We invite all people of Aboriginal descent to join the tribe of their ancestors. These are the demands of the Gwalwa Daraniki, and we shall not stop until the treaties are signed.

But what of the petition to the Queen? It arrived at Buckingham Palace in November 1972, was duly stamped in the Queen’s office and returned to Australia, via the governor-general’s office. The following month, a new Labor government headed by Gough Whitlam was elected on a pledge to recognise Aboriginal land rights.

While the political action of the Larrakia and their supporters has not received the attention afforded the Yolngu’s bark petitions or the Gurindji walk-off from Wave Hill station, their persistent, vocal, and at times militant campaigning maintained intense pressure on the Whitlam government and, when his government was dismissed in 1975, the incoming Liberal–National Country Party government to pass Northern Territory Aboriginal land rights legislation into law.

The Larrakia petition remains one of the most significant documents created by Aboriginal activists and their supporters in the early 1970s. Their repeated call for a treaty resonates strongly today.


left arrow 1972: The Aboriginal Tent Embassy
1988: Bicentenary Protest right arrow