Time to mention the war

Towards a new settlement


The Queen? The Queen never been fuggin walk around here!
Uncle Jimmy Pike, Walmajarri artist[i]

IN 2002, BUNDJALUNG songman Archie Roach released ‘Move It On’, a jaunty twelve-bar blues number about his childhood in Victoria. He sang:

Well I was born in Mooroopna, we lived by the river bend.
Well I was born in Mooroopna, we lived by the river bend,
Then the Queen come and visit us!
We had to move it on again.[ii]

A royal ‘visit’ sounds innocuous. But Roach’s song is about how, like innumerable Aboriginal clans before and since, his family were reminded the hard way that their traditional law, custom and land tenure meant nothing should the Queen ‘visit’. ‘Moving it on again’ is Koori shorthand for becoming a refugee in your own country. The song goes on to tell of the Roach family’s displacement onto the Framlingham mission, and of Uncle Archie’s subsequent forced removal from his family and Aboriginal society. This child removal, an act that Roach sings ‘hurts me to this very day’, saw the singer slide into homelessness and alcoholism. Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 visit, in short, precipitated events that badly damaged Roach’s family and very nearly destroyed his life.

There is an interesting contrast between the mood of the song and its grim content. ‘Move It On’ has terrific energy and swing, and comes complete with slide guitar and tambourine flourishes. Upbeat and even humorous, the song embodies a classic Aboriginal cultural strategy of relentlessly mocking both fate and white authority. As the old saying has it, you have to laugh, because if you start crying there’s a danger you might never stop.


ABORIGINAL PEOPLE’S EXPERIENCES with the British Crown predate 1954 by a long way, of course, and range from the genocidal to the mundane. On Bundjalung land in northern New South Wales, immediately south of where the 2018 Commonwealth Games will be held on the Gold Coast, a trickle of escaped convicts, sailors and cedar-cutters invaded prior to the so-called ‘opening up’ of lands by government decree. These early Europeans were opportunists and sometimes killers, operating on the frontier where Aboriginal law ruled black lives and the Crown still had no meaningful presence. For all of Lieutenant Cook’s 1770 declaration of British sovereignty, nobody had thought to tell Bundjalung lawmakers that their authority had summarily ceased and that they were now British subjects. Six decades later, when Europeans arrived in earnest, the Bundjalung were more than prepared to defend their territory and sovereignty. Following the Robertson Land Act of 1861, the invasion gained pace. Aboriginal land became increasingly valuable in the eyes of squatters, and the rivers of northern New South Wales ran red with native blood.

The invasion of the mid-nineteenth century achieved its ends. Known Bundjalung massacres[iii] occurred at Wardell, at the Broadwater, at Seven Mile Beach, at Whites Beach, at Black Head, at South Ballina, at The Pass near Byron Bay, at Kingscliff, at Mount Witherin and at Mudgeeraba (which means ‘place of lies’, following an invitation to feast on poisoned flour[iv]). There were likely other massacres that went unrecorded. When violence wiped out initial Aboriginal resistance, a minority of surviving Bundjalung men and youths were press-ganged and used as shock troops under white officers, killing other Aboriginal people in the service of the Crown as the frontier shifted further north. Some escaped, fleeing south for months until they climbed a gum tree, saw the distinctive shape of Wollumbin (Mount Warning) and knew they were home.

The vast majority of Bundjalung never left the ‘many rivers’ region, though, remaining on their ancestral country, where their descendants live today. Regardless of particular family histories, the incursions under the protection of the British monarch have never been forgotten. As Aunty Lois Cook, Bundjalung elder and oral historian, says of the massacres:

Occasionally we can put up a plaque – but hardly anyone knows that they’re there, or what happened to them… It’s like the soldiers who went to Gallipoli and perished…those beaches are sacred…and so should these places be to everyone. They are to us.[v]

To non-Aboriginal people, all this might seem distant, and nothing to do with the Commonwealth. To Aboriginal people, whose oral histories are treasured, it does not. With few exceptions, events of the frontier still shape Aboriginal attitudes towards mainstream society and its institutions. History might be written by the winners, but the past is recalled and discussed and analysed by the other side too, for whom it is barely past at all. Aboriginal thinking about the Queen and the Commonwealth today is still seen on a continuum from first contact, just as an increasing number of white Australians trace their national identity back to a battle that happened on a beach on the other side of the world in 1915. If Aboriginal Australia had a motto about our shared past it might be: Do Mention The War.


FAMOUSLY, THE FIRST Aboriginal person to meet a British monarch was the Sydney man Bennelong, who was either an early Aboriginal diplomat or a lackey of Governor Phillip, depending on your perspective. Other prominent Aboriginal figures across colonial Australia normally stayed home, but some allowed themselves to be incorporated into the invading society through accepting European-bestowed titles – ‘Queen Polly’, ‘King George’ – and the wearing of metal breastplates denoting their status.

Aboriginal governing structures are flat, not hierarchical, and it’s hard to think of a more alien concept to classical Aboriginal culture than that of a ‘monarch’ (although ‘capitalist’ comes close). Still, in the turbulence and horror of the frontier and its aftermath, it’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to safeguard their life and the lives of their countrymen by becoming a ‘king’ or ‘queen’ in white eyes. For many, the choice may have been that or be killed, or be removed to the ignominy of a mission.

One such Aboriginal king was Bilin Bilin (‘many parrots’), a Yugambeh leader from South-East Queensland. Born in the early 1800s, Bilin Bilin lived his life strategically, outwardly compliant but resistant in subtle ways. He had several names; in adulthood, Bilin Bilin wore a breastplate proclaiming him King Jackey of the Logan and Pimpama, and from all accounts believed in its message, that he had been recognised as an authority figure in his own land. He is reputed to have been a keen negotiator, who in a fascinating inversion charged the local Lutheran missionary several shillings a week to preach religion to the tribe.[vi] Wages were demanded and at times received by his clan:

The tribe cleared 10 acres of land at the rate of 1 pound per acre. Surveyor Roberts had to plead for additional funding because he had to pay our people to ‘hump’ his supplies over Tamborine Mtn.[vii]

No incarceration for Bilin Bilin then, but rather a set of difficult relationships negotiated from a position of nominal sovereignty. In truth, the relationship was far from equal. Bilin Bilin’s daughter, Emily, taught school to children within the orbit of the German mission at Bethania on the northern end of the Gold Coast, but poverty and dispossession were nevertheless very real, even for Aboriginal royalty. As J Holzheimer remembered in 1922:

Although some of the more intelligent often and emphatically challenged the white man’s right to encroach on their lands and destroy their forests, and with them, their means of livelihood, we were never molested by them other than by begging.[viii]

Bilin Bilin never visited King George III. Exactly like that reclusive English king, during his life he travelled no further than about one hundred miles from the epicentre of his lands – but he lived long, had at least three wives and left many descendants. These descendants have written of Bilin Bilin as a man who survived the invasion and stayed relatively free, when scores of other Aboriginal people were being killed or displaced. As JG Steele puts it in Aboriginal Pathways (UQP, 1983):

Bilin Bilin moved about in his own country, set up strategies to protect his family, negotiated work contracts, and refused to pay to travel on the new train, which by 1887 was traversing his country. He officiated at ceremonies, presided at burials, and kept such ‘sacred’ locations a secret… When Bilin Bilin considered that his life’s work was done…he ‘sat’ down at the Deebing Creek Industrial Mission with members of his extended family group…he and his friend Billy were too old to travel and Mr Meston had at last caught them to go to Deebin.[ix]

As an old man, Bilin Bilin finally succumbed to pressure from white officialdom and went to live on the mission near Ipswich. Photographs show him with white hair, seated among a group of other Aboriginal inmates, still wearing his kingplate. Bilin Bilin died in 1901, and is buried on a mountainside in his own country – a country where Yugambeh people today are once again learning to speak his tongue in the schools and homes of Logan and the Gold Coast.


MAINSTREAM AUSTRALIAN ATTITUDES to the Royal Family and the British monarchy have softened since the republic referendum in 1999. Australians are now about evenly divided between those who are happy to keep the Queen as head of state and those who would prefer to ditch the monarchy for an independent republic. But what about First Nations people?

There are no available statistics on Aboriginal attitudes to either the Commonwealth or to First Nations sovereignty. The Aboriginal response to the Recognise campaign to include Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution – lukewarm, for the most part – gives some indication of likely attitudes. The Aboriginal social media site IndigenousX polled readers in 2017 and discovered that more than half were hostile to constitutional inclusion.[x] The Uluru Statement from the Heart on Aboriginal affairs was issued by a majority of two hundred and fifty Aboriginal delegates later the same year, and argued for a two-pronged approach – an ‘Indigenous voice’ or advisory body enshrined in the Australian Constitution, and a Treaty Commission to look at agreement-making between Indigenous people and the Australian government. Both these suggestions imply that Aboriginal people see themselves as not only effectively distinct from the Australian populace, but also ill-served by its mainstream institutions. The most cursory glance at Indigenous health, housing, education or incarceration statistics tells us that both of these things are true. Yet seeking a voice in the Australian Parliament surely implies some acceptance of Australian, not Aboriginal, sovereignty, while treaty-making, at least to lay people, implies the opposite. (As Prime Minister John Howard argued in the ’90s, a nation can’t make a treaty with itself). What’s going on?

In the century following Bennelong and Bilin Bilin, Aboriginal responses to the British Empire, the Commonwealth and our own sovereignty have been complicated by the processes of forced assimilation and accommodation. There is no ‘one’ Aboriginal response to anything, far less to an institution that represents the dispossession which began in 1770 and is still not settled. Given the brutality of contact history, though, and the myriad injustices that followed, it’s fair to say that Aboriginal fans of the Commonwealth are not thick on the ground.

The Commonwealth? It’s all about the Queen, isn’t it, and the Australian flag and the national anthem. I don’t know too many blackfellas who like the Queen, do you?
Dr Michael Aird, Aboriginal curator and researcher[xi]

She not my queen!
Steven Oliver, Murri writer and comedian[xii]

It’s widely seen as a given among First Nations that only the most brazen of hypocrites would invade someone else’s country, exterminate a lot of the inhabitants, try to culturally annihilate the rest, and then extend the hand of ‘friendship’ in the form of political inclusion. Opinion divides, though, on how much responsibility the Crown should bear, and how much lies with the colonial society that did the invading and exterminating.

I blame the London Missionary Society, not the Queen. They’re the ones who came in and did the damage.
Rhianna Patrick, First Nations journalist and broadcaster [xiii]

I have mixed feelings…do I be a black activist and deny this honour…or do I…really celebrate the great strength that the First Nations people have?
Uncle Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Company upon receipt of an AO in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Awards[xiv]

THE CHANGE OF name from British Empire to Commonwealth of Nations means little to those Indigenous people who still regard themselves first and foremost as the invaded members of First Nations rather than as Australians. In the absence of formal treaties, some First Peoples remain utterly contemptuous of the claims of the Commonwealth to either represent or include Aboriginal populations. Radical voices today – especially those who say that Aboriginal sovereignty has never been ceded – are raised in outright refusal of what they view not as the Commonwealth, but the ‘Stolenwealth’:

Did we consent to this colonial occupation, to the unyielding assaults on our lands, lives and liberties… This is not a question of Civil Rights. The coloniser has never been civil and they’ve never been right. This is a question of human rights and human responsibilities. Fighting the ongoing colonisation of our lands and lives – this is the manifestation of our nationalism. Because we refuse to be treated as aliens in our own lands, and because the only justice we will get is the justice we take.
Manifesto of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance[xv]

Such activists follow early resistance fighters, including Pemulwuy and Jandamarra, and outspoken men such as Anthony Martin Fernando, a Dharug who left Australia in disgust in the late 1800s after witnessing the unpunished murder of a fellow Aboriginal, and began agitating in Europe for a separate Aboriginal territory:

…Anthony Martin, an Australian aboriginal, [who] had arrived at Berne seeking support for his suggestion that a certain district in North Australia should be reserved for Aborigines under the supervision of a neutral mandatory power, which would be responsible to Great Britain. The officials of the Home and Territories Department declare that it is an absurd suggestion… Nothing is known of the man Fernando, but the Department is inclined to regard his mission as a joke.[xvi]

Fernando was arrested in Italy in 1923 for distributing pamphlets stating that Britain was killing his people. Ironically, Fernando was deported to London, where he went on to protest for decades outside Australia House, wearing a long overcoat with small white toy skeletons sewn to it, representing the genocide being perpetrated on his people. Fernando never returned to Australia, dying in obscurity in Essex in 1949, his protests barely registering with officialdom.

Fernando was one in a long line of Aboriginal people who sought justice beyond Australian shores during the twentieth century. In Victoria, around the same time, Yorta Yorta statesman William Cooper had failed to persuade the governor to allocate one hundred acres of land for each dispossessed Aboriginal family. Cooper subsequently looked to the English monarch, petitioning George V in 1933 for Aboriginal representation in the Australian parliament.

…humbly pray that your Majesty will intervene in our behalf and through the instrument of your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth grant to our people representation in the Federal Parliament…[xvii]

When this hard-fought petition was deliberately blocked by the Lyons federal government, Cooper turned to direct action, participating in the seminal Day of Mourning in Sydney in 1938. Along with fellow black agitators Jack Patten and William Ferguson, Cooper told the crowd:

Now is our chance to have things altered. We must fight our very hardest in this cause. I know we could proudly hold our own with others if given the chance. We should all work in cooperation for the progress of Aborigines throughout the Commonwealth.[xviii]

The language Cooper used at the sesquicentenary of British colonisation was that of inclusion and co-operation, of tacit recognition that the British rule was and would remain dominant in Australia. A long personal history of having his petitions refused did not defeat Cooper. In 1939, following Kristallnacht, Cooper led a delegation from the Australian Aboriginal League to the German consulate in Melbourne, condemning the ‘cruel persecution’ of the Jewish people by the Nazis. In doing so, he led the only private protest on the planet against incipient German fascism – but alas, this was simply another in a long line of Aboriginal petitions that fell upon deaf ears. The petition he had raised against his own people’s oppression, with its hundreds of signatures, never reached the desk of the British monarch.

The Empire failed Cooper, as it had failed Fernando and went on to fail the myriad Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders still languishing in poverty on the fringes of towns and cities all across Australia. Though usually British subjects, these First Nations people only enjoy the status and rights of other citizens when white Australians choose to bestow them. When the decision was made after World War II to rebrand the Empire as the Commonwealth, neither wealth nor commons were made available to Aboriginal people. Instead, we continue to suffer a rare poverty in our own land, with our life expectancy a decade lower than that of white people, and incarceration rates higher than in apartheid-era South Africa.


DESPITE THE FAILURE of the Empire to deliver equality, or land, or justice, World War II saw a hiatus in Aboriginal protest. Black servicemen and women joined with mainstream Australia to defeat the Axis forces in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific. But freedom rides and street marches in the late 1960s and ’70s led to the establishment of Aboriginal health and legal centres, and to partial desegregation. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside Old Parliament House shamed white governments into delivering land rights in the Northern Territory. By the time of the bicentenary of British settlement in 1988, activism was again strong, and hopes for land justice were raised. Koori man Burnum Burnum was sufficiently incensed to travel to England and claim it for Aboriginal people:

I, Burnum Burnum, being a nobleman of ancient Australia do hereby take possession of England on behalf of the Aboriginal people. In claiming this colonial outpost, we wish no harm to you natives… Henceforth an Aboriginal face shall appear on your coins and stamps to signify our sovereignty over this domain… We do not intend to souvenir, pickle and preserve the heads of…your people... Neither do we intend to poison your waterholes, lace your flour with strychnine or introduce you to highly toxic drugs… We pledge not to sterilise your women, nor to separate your children from their families… At the end of two hundred years, we will make a treaty to validate occupation by peaceful means…[xix]

Burnum Burnum anticipated a treaty. Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised and then quickly reneged on one in the form of a Makkarata. In the 1990s, young Australians danced as Yothu Yindi sang ‘Treaty Now’. This year, two hundred and forty-eight years since Cook claimed the east coast for his foreign king at Possession Island, the Australian Labor Party is making tentative steps in that direction. Australian state governments are beginning to use the language of treaty and negotiated agreements. The Aboriginal response has been one of guarded interest: we’ll wait and see.


A STRAW POLL of Aboriginal friends and family revealed general scepticism about the concept of Commonwealth. Some replies were unprintable, and some hostile – ‘Liars’ – but just as many were indifferent. ‘I don’t think about the Commonwealth at all.’ Or, ‘It’s irrelevant.’

In mid-September 2017, the Brisbane Aboriginal radio station 98.9 FM’s afternoon news bulletin reported a proposed state memorial for the late Aboriginal musician, Dr G Yunupingu. The Queen, announced the young Aboriginal presenter, had sent official condolences upon hearing of the death of Dr Yunupingu. The royal message, the reporter went on to say with no apparent irony, had been sent from ‘Birmingham Palace’.

Despite the general hostility or indifference, though, some Aboriginal people alive today do ‘like the Queen’. Some have even sipped tea with her.

At ninety, Pat O’Connor, who refuses the Aboriginal honorific ‘Aunty’, still lives at home in a modest timber house set back from the road on a couple of quiet Brisbane acres. Driving in, I discover a large flag adorning the porch – but it is the Australian flag on display, not the red, black and yellow you might expect an Aboriginal elder to fly. This is only the second Aboriginal home where I’ve seen the Australian flag so prominent.

Over coffee I probe Pat – small and frail, but bright with energy despite her great age – about her views on the Commonwealth. She is uniquely placed to answer: Pat is one of two Gold Coast Aboriginal elders who recently flew to Buckingham Palace to meet the monarch in the lead up to the 2018 Commonwealth Games. She and Uncle Ted Williams, a relative, took with them an artefact carved by a Mununjali Yugambeh artist, symbolic of welcome to the other Indigenous people of the Commonwealth to her Yugambeh country, and to the Games themselves. It was a visit interpreted by some in the Brisbane Aboriginal community as a meeting between sovereigns, though it seems doubtful that the elders themselves viewed it that way. (Ted Williams describes himself as ‘a very proud member of the Commonwealth family’ and speaks of ‘reconciliation being seen to be done’.)

At her kitchen table, Pat tells me that being in the presence of the Queen ‘felt like meeting an old friend. Or maybe my older sister.’ What would her elders have thought of this event?

My aunt would have been thrilled, she would have told me to curtsy! Granny though – well, let’s say Granny would have been respectful of the Queen. We lived very different lives to the people on the missions. Granny got the old age pension, and Mayor Joe Proud used to send a car to pick her up to vote in the 1930s. Mind you, Granny certainly wasn’t too impressed with all these white people turning up and taking all the best land.

Old friend or not, the royal encounter was a very formal occasion:

We had three minutes for this, ninety seconds for that. And you’re told not to engage in much conversation, it’s all very strictly controlled. We had a cup of tea first, [Gold Coast Commonwealth Games chairman] Peter Beattie was there, and Prince Philip. We chatted about the artefact. Then the Queen came in and Ted had ninety seconds to say what he had to say. I was told I couldn’t talk too much. My older sister used to do that, too, tell me to be quiet…

I ask Pat what she would have said, growing up in Southport, if someone had told her she would one day meet the Queen in London. Pat laughs at me. Royalty was only dreamed about in an era when England was six weeks away by boat. A journey then between the Gold Coast hinterland towns of Beaudesert and Boonah – half an hour by car today – meant leaving in a buggy while the roosters were crowing, and arriving as night fell. England was as far away as Mars.

There was discrimination in her childhood – ‘ropes in the cinemas at Beaudesert and Southport, separating us from the white people’. Her older, darker sister wasn’t allowed to swim in the public pool at Mount Gravatt. And at a time when all Queensland Aborigines were technically state wards:

We were aware of the risks of being taken. We’d see the cops driving down the street, and Mum was always worrying. ‘I wish Theresa would send those kids to school.’ At that time lot of white professionals from Brisbane had holiday houses on the coast. They’d turn up for a weekend and have an Aboriginal servant with them, you know, a girl from Cherbourg or somewhere, and so of course they’d come to our house and just dump the Aboriginal girl with us to mind. No asking, they’d just arrive. Mum got quite fed up with that.

Nevertheless, her Aboriginal family felt very much a part of the wider community:

But Cyril Williams would coach sport, you know, and my parents would do volunteer work. We felt very Australian. And everything at that time turned back to England. As kids, England was where the King lived, there were connections with the war, with loyalty. We saw ourselves as British citizens, oh yes.

Probed about Aboriginal sovereignty and the historic theft of land, Pat reflects that ‘we had a very elementary view of history, growing up’, and that her family always saw Governor Arthur Phillip, not the King, as responsible for the ills of history. They grew up regarding the royal family as ‘figureheads, not the real power’.

Like some other Yugambeh people involved in the Commonwealth Games preparations, Pat sees herself as a willing host to the seventy-one nations that will visit her ancestral lands. Her job as a responsible elder is to welcome the visitors, and ensure their safety while on her country.

Not everyone welcomes the Queen and her envoys though. There will be protests against the games, I remind her, by more radical Aboriginal groups who have sought formal permission from the Yugambeh traditional owners to proceed, offering red ochre as a sign of good faith. Some of those intending to protest have burned the very same flag that hangs so prominently outside her front door. Pat tells me that she worries about young people who believe they have to seek vengeance for past wrongs.

I remind her of the Walmajarri artist Uncle Jimmy Pike, who also went to Buckingham Palace, and of his ultimate conclusion. ‘As long as she gives us our country, we can keep the Queen.’[xx] Pat pauses, before reflecting:

Somebody took a group of us elders on a cruise not long ago, a boat cruise on the canals recently down the coast there, and you know, it wasn’t enjoyable in the end. It was so sad, really. All those big houses, Stefan [a celebrity hairdresser] and the rest, you know, built on the riverbanks where we grew up and played and fished. But what can you do? You can’t look back.

‘We have to look forward. We need to see ourselves as the equals of white people in society, or if not as equals,’ urges this great-great-granddaughter of the king, Bilin Bilin, ‘then we have to lead.’



[i]Jimmy and Pat Meet The Queen, Pat Lowe and Jimmy Pike, Backroom Press, Broome 1997

[ii] Roach, Archie, ‘Move It On’ from Sensual Being, X records

[iii] ‘Living on the frontier’, accessed 3/10/17

[iv] Best, Ysola. Personal communication

[v] Babe in the Reeds: A Story of Massacres and Resilience, Aunty Lois Cook and family, broadcast 24 October 2014, ABC Radio North Coast,, accessed 26/09/17

[vi] O’Connor, Rory. Personal communication.

[vii]Holzheimer, J. ‘Reminiscences of the pioneering days on the Logan’, 1922, p4–5

[viii] Steele, JG. Aboriginal Pathways, UQP St Lucia 1983, p81

[ix] Best, Ysola, ‘An Uneasy Coexistence: An Aboriginal Perspective of “Contact History” in Southeast Queensland, in Aboriginal History’, 1994, 18:2

[x] Liddle, C. ‘87% of Indigenous People Don’t Agree on Recognition. You’d Know if You Listened’, The Guardian, 19/06/17, accessed 2/10/17. Available at:

[xi] Personal communication

[xii] Personal communication

[xiii] Personal communication

[xiv] SBS News. ‘“Mixed Feelings” as Indigenous Elders, artists and causes recognised with Queen’s Birthday honours’, NITV News, 13/06/17, accessed 1/10/17. Available at:

[xv] Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance. Manifesto. Available at:

[xvi] ‘A Joke’, The Brisbane Courier, 20/06/21, accessed at on 1/10/17

[xvii]Holland, Alison and Fiona Paisley. ‘Fernando, Anthony Martin, 1864-1949’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, supplementary volume, MUP 2005

[xviii] National Museum of Australia, William Cooper: Collaborating for Indigenous Rights, at accessed 2/10/17

[xix] Norst, Marlene. ‘The Burnum Burnum Declaration’, Burnum Burnum: A Warrior for Peace. Roseville NSW: Simon & Schuster, 1999 / Kangaroo Press.

[xx] Laurie, Victoria. ‘Two of a kind: Indigenous artist Jimmy Pike and his wife, Pat Lowe’, The Australian, 16/06/12. Available at:

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