Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1988 - Bicentenary Protest
by Steve Kinnane
Bicentenary Protest, Sydney (National Indigenous Television).

O n 26 January 1988 Australia marked the bicentenary of the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip and the eleven ships of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove. This was the beginning of the British convict settlement and the European invasion of Australia.

Both in the years preceding the bicentenary and throughout 1988, Indigenous Australians protested vigorously. They pointed out continually that ‘white Australia has a black history.’ They called for land rights, and they insisted that the officially declared ‘celebration of a nation’ was, for them, a time to mourn the loss of their countrymen and women who had died defending the unlawful dispossession of their lands over the previous two centuries.

On that same day, 26 January 1988, beneath the white cliffs of Dover, Woiworrung and Yorta Yorta man, Burnum Burnum, planted the Aboriginal flag and claimed England on behalf of Aboriginal Australia. In Australia’s capital cities and towns, Aboriginal protesters marched in their thousands to demonstrate their opposition to the bicentenary and defiantly celebrated their peoples’ survival in the face of colonisation. In Sydney, Aboriginal protesters set up an ‘embassy’ at lady Macquarie’s Chair in the Botanic Gardens.

Badge - White Australia has a Black History, Australia, 1988 (Museums Victoria).
Steve Kinnane, a Marda Marda man from Mirriwoong Country in the East Kimberley, was there.

I was at the Tent Embassy in Sydney in 88. Aged twenty, I bussed across the Nullarbor from Perth, heading to fruit picking fields along the Barka (Murray River). Landing in Adelaide, a chance encounter at an anti-bicentenary rally with The Long March (national convoy of protesters) heading to Sydney, saw me button-holed by my travelling Aunty Myrtle Mullaley: ‘get y’self to Sydney and make y’self useful.’

Dutifully landing at Larpa (La Perouse) at Botany Bay along with hundreds of Blackfellas from across the continent, the scene was electric. It was on these shores in 1970 that Oodgeroo Noonuccal, previously known as Kath Walker, declared a ‘Day of Mourning,’ as she ritually tossed wreaths of flowers into briny Pacific Ocean at Kamay (Botany Bay). This declaration linked the 1970 boycott of the bicentenary of ‘Cook’ to the seminal ‘Day of Mourning’ protest at Australia Hall in Sydney on the 150th anniversary of the landing of the first fleet on 26 January 1938—a day the historic Aborigines Conference referred to as ‘the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country.’

Larpa was full, but the Tent Embassy, established on the banks of Sydney Harbour near Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, was looking for support. Created to make a statement of enduring Aboriginal sovereignty, the embassy was a direct link to the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected on the lawns of old Parliament House, Canberra, that consolidated the land rights movement and energised a generation of leadership. I set up camp on the harbour and made myself useful. Journalists from all over the world held interviews with our leaders with the Harbour Bridge and Aboriginal flag in the backdrop.

Blackfellas from all over shared a sense of common purpose: to reinforce the land rights movement; make visible what was being attempted to be made invisible; and declare ‘We Have Survived’, ‘White Australia has a Black History; Don’t Celebrate 1988,’ or question ‘Captain Who?’

On Survival Day in 88, as Princess Di and Prince Charles welcomed the ‘Parade of Sail’ at the Opera House, our Long March ended in Hyde Park. Thousands of us gathered to hear from inspirational leaders from across our nations. Black and white, Indigenous and other Australians, spoke, listened and learned, taking those lessons back to our own communities to carry on the ‘Long March’ to self-determination.


left arrow 1972: The Larrakia Petition
1988: The Barunga Statement right arrow