"There would be no law degree or international travel for the Aboriginal born Gandhi."

“There would be no law degree or international travel for the Aboriginal born Gandhi.”

By Dr Woolombi Waters

(Last week in The National Indigenous Times) we mentioned how John Koowarta, Vincent Lingiari and many others who have contributed to the civil rights movement in Australia such as William Cooper should be house hold names.

Should be … but they are not.

John Koowarta, become the plaintiff in a legal challenge won against the Queensland Government for discrimination in the 1970’s. The Queensland Government brought a separate action against the Government of Australia, and as such, the case was moved to the High Court.

Vincent Lingiari was a member of the Gurindji people who lead the The Wave Hill strike of the 1960’s. The protest soon became a major federal issue when the Gurindji people demanded the return of their traditional lands.

The strike lasted 8 years. The protest eventually led to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. This act gave indigenous Australians freehold title to traditional lands in the Northern Territory and, significantly, the power to negotiate over mining and development on those lands.

William Cooper spent his life protesting against oppression. He presented the Maloga petition in 1887 addressing prior traditional land ownership and self-reliance to the Governor of Victoria. His protests were relentless and he never stopped campaigning for human rights throughout his life.

By 1935 Cooper had helped establish the Australian Aborigines League. Seeing the failure of using democratic means, Cooper’s Australian Aborigines League joined forces with Jack Patten and William Ferguson from the Aborigines Progressive Association to shame white Australia.

They arranged a Day of Mourning to commemorate the 150-year anniversary of colonisation on Australia Day 1938. The protest was watched by journalists and police, and was held in Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street Sydney. This was the first combined, interstate protest by Blackfella’s in Australia.

Cooper also led a delegation of the Australian Aboriginal League to the German Consulate in Melbourne to deliver a petition, which condemned the “cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany.

On 6 December 2008, the 70th anniversary of the protest against the NAZI’s Cooper’s grandson, Alfred “Boydie” Turner, was presented with a certificate from the Israeli Ambassador stating that 70 Australian trees were to be planted in Israel in honour of William Cooper.

In August 2010, the Yad VaShem Holocaust museum in Israel announced they would honour Cooper for his protests against the Nazi’s towards the Jews. Cooper’s rally was the only private protest against Germany for its treatment of the Jews before WWII.

He is better known and respected overseas than he is here in Australia.

As stated last week, racism goes far beyond calling someone out because of their colour – it goes to the very heart of our education system and deciding who is retained in our histories consciousness and who is not.

These men were freedom fighters of the same status of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and yet most Australians have no idea who they are.

This week myself and the editor of The National Indigenous Times – Mr John Rowsthorne discussed this idea further which has lead to this weeks article questioning what would happen if world leaders who created history in fighting for civil rights and social justice were born in Australia?

To write the article I looked at the lives of Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

I also looked up significant data & analysis focusing on different periods of age development and history for Indigenous Australians taken from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, historical records, oral histories and health records.

If born as Aboriginal Australians today our three civil rights leaders would have made up 2.3% of the Australian population. Their family would have consisted of 3.5 people, compared to a non-Indigenous family, which averages about 2.6 people.

Chances are that 1 of the 3 of these newborns would be of low birth weight, this low birth weight would determine many health factors for this child in later life.

But this is if the child was born today, what say as in the case of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi the child was born on the 2nd October 1869 and lived until the 30th of January 1948. This means Gandhi was 79 years old when he was killed making his life 21 years longer than the current life expectancy of contemporary Indigenous Australians living in remote communities.

If he was born in Brisbane 1869 it has been just over a decade earlier that the Aboriginal frontier warrior Dundalli was executed and hung from the windmill at Wickham Tce, Brisbane. Who is left of our people live sporadically as fringe dwellers up to the north coast while others have moved down south looking for food.

In 1861 there was a massacre at Breakfast Creek, which is when the last of the local Brisbane blacks were moved on due to European settlement.

Born and raised in a Hindu family in coastal Gujarat, western India, and trained in law at the Inner Temple, London, Gandhi became famous for nonviolent civil disobedience first used as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa.

After his return to India in 1915, he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination.

Taking leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic relationships, but above all he achieved self-rule for his Indian people.

Gandhi’s vision of a free India was challenged in the early 1940s by a new Muslim nationalism, which demanded a separate Muslim homeland carved out of India. In August 1947, Britain granted independence, but its people were divided into two separate countries, a Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan. Many Indians believed Gandhi was too accommodating to Pakistan and on The 30th of January 1948 he was assassinated.

There would be no law degree or international travel for the Aboriginal born Gandhi.

By the time of his 10th birthday his people have been almost wiped out, their drinking water had been poisoned and many others had been shot and executed by killing raids throughout the East Coast of Australia.

Their hunting grounds and the biodiversity and ecosystems that have supported their way of life for thousands upon thousands of years have gone and there is no escape.

Those who are left alive are starving to death and there is nowhere to go.

The greatest killer of his people though, is not the gun, poisoned water or starvation  – tens of thousands of Gandhi’s people have perished through the infamous smallpox, epidemics, that spread as a wave of disease in the late 1820s and early 30s and again in the 1860s and 70s.

His people with no immune system have no defence against the deadly disease.

In 1788, there had been over 300,000 Aboriginal people in mainland Australia … by 1888, approximately 100 years later there are only an estimated 80,000 of our people left.

Those who have managed to survive have turned to the missionaries to stay alive.

The missionaries though, like the settlers are losing patience with the Blackfella’s realising that Blackfella’s interest in religious teaching had nothing to do with faith – the mobs would only come if the missionaries were willing to share food and tobacco.

Also, when the ‘church bell’ was rung for prayers, the Blackfella’s knew that no one would be there to guard the gardens, and would often make raids on the food supply.

Under these pressures, the once optimistic missionaries soon became frustrated – not with a government which had given them an impossible task – but with the Blackfella’s and even they have now turned their guns on the Mobs to protect their crops.

By this time Gandhi’s mob who were once in the tens of thousands have become only hundreds surviving in groups of no more than 30. Any more than this and they are hunted down and shot.

Not only starving to death, syphilis has been introduced as a form of biological warfare with Aboriginal woman raped to spread the disease. Together with the earlier introduced smallpox running rampant and with no immune system to protect them Gandhi is watching his people die.

Rev. Eipper of the Lutheran Mission states “the intellectual faculties of the Aborigines are by no means to be despised”, but within a short while he saw them as “the living embodiment of Philippians 3:19 – whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.”

Eipper observed that almost all the Aboriginal children were to some degree affected by syphilis interpreting the widespread venereal diseases as ‘a judgement upon the Aborigines’.

It is here that Gandhi’s Aboriginal people are labelled as a dying race with no hope of survival.

With over two-thirds of our people killed through a process of colonisation in the first 100 years the Aboriginal Gandhi is dead before his 20th birthday. His name, language and culture, as are the crimes of the white invaders lost in the history of Australian written textbooks that teach an alternative history.

Colonial Governments not wanting to be responsible for genocide which would attract negative attention from the international courts of the world decide the best way to help Aboriginal people was a policy of Protection.

This policy lasted from the 1880s to the 1930s by which time both Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm Little have both been born.

Martin Luther King Jnr (1929 –1968) was an American pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs.

King also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. There, he established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.

In 1968 King was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Malcolm X (1925 –1965), born Malcolm Little was an African-American Muslim minister and a human rights activist. He was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks, a man who accused white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans.

He has been called one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history. Malcolm X was effectively orphaned early in life. His father was killed when he was six and his mother was placed in a mental hospital when he was thirteen, after which he lived in a series of foster homes.

At the age of 20, he went to prison for larceny and breaking and entering. While in prison he became a member of the Nation of Islam, and after his parole in 1952 quickly rose to become one of its leaders.

By 1964 after a period of travel in Africa and the Middle East, he returned to the United States to preach Afro-American Unity and though continuing to emphasize Pan-Africanism, black self-determination, and black self-defence, he recanted racism, on both sides declaring himself free of the mental slavery of hatred.

In February 1964 he was assassinated.

"(In Australia), young Malcolm is not so lucky and becomes victim to predatory sexual abuse from the male missionaries and escapes to become used as cheap labour offered accommodation and food to work as a slave by pastoralists."

“(In Australia), young Malcolm is not so lucky and becomes victim to predatory sexual abuse from the male missionaries and escapes to become used as cheap labour offered accommodation and food to work as a slave by pastoralists.”

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published shortly after his death, is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

The Aboriginal Martin and Malcolm who are instead born in Australia have become refugees in their own land. The only way to survive is to return to the government reserves and church missions as part of the protection act moving Aboriginals away from other Australians.

It is legislation that South Africa will adopt on developing its own Apartheid system.

They are given food, clothes, blankets and young Martin is lucky in receiving a very basic education. Young Malcolm is not so lucky and becomes victim to predatory sexual abuse from the male missionaries and escapes to become used as cheap labour offered accommodation and food to work as a slave by pastoralists.

World War II begins. Although Aboriginal people are not recognised as citizens, two Aboriginal military units are established and some Aboriginal people serve in other sections of the armed forces as formally enlisted soldiers, sailors or airmen. Aboriginal people serve in Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific and New Guinea.

Both boys try to enlist to escape their treatment in Australia and see the world but are too young and are turned away.

Martin takes on a position as an assistant within the Aborigines Inland Mission, an Evangelical movement based upon Baptist values with Christian Endeavour.

He becomes prominent and well known as a passionate and enthusiastic speaker and after its national convention he begins to work for the publication.

It in is this capacity that he travels to almost every Aboriginal settlement in NSW, as well as to Cherbourg, Woorabinda and Palm Island in Queensland.

The Aboriginal Welfare Conference of Commonwealth and State Authorities established by the federal government, decides that the official policy for Aboriginal people of mixed race is assimilation.

The minutes of the meeting say:

“The destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption… with a view to their taking their place in the white community on an equal footing with the whites.”

A.O. Neville, Western Australian Chief Aboriginal Protector declares “In 50 years we should forget that there were any Aborigines in this country”.

Malcolm has found happiness living with extended family in a Blacks camp just outside of Moree NSW. His happiness does not last long as he is forced to move to Sydney due his being of mixed race.

Segregationist practices continue until 1960s with separate sections in theatres, separate wards in hospitals, hotels refusing drinks and schools able to refuse enrollment to Aboriginal children.

White Australia policy has been a great success with 99% of Australia’s 7 million population being white.

An Exemption Certificate is introduced, exempting certain Aboriginal people from restrictive legislation and entitling them to vote, drink alcohol and move freely but prohibiting them from consorting with others who are not exempt.

Thousands of our people leave the communities to take advantage of the exemption certificate only for their grandchildren to return some two or three generations later utilising opportunities for equity scholarships and special entry into universities.

Many of these returning grandchildren take significant positions in parliament and government services that deal with policy and legislation to the Aboriginal people who remained in these communities and chose not to leave.

The Aboriginal people who have decided to stay use the derogatory terms ‘dog tags’ or ‘dog licences’ to refer to the certificates.

Martin comes into conflict with his Aboriginal Inland Mission teaching which supports the exemption certificate promoting them as an opportunity to overcome poverty, gain work and access to education and social welfare benefits.

He breaks from the movement and starts to attend meetings in Brisbane in setting up the Aboriginal legal service and health centre along with Don Davidson, Alice James, Eunice Watson, Bowman Johnson and others…

He then joins the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. This group brings together a number of civil rights and Aboriginal welfare organisations. Its work plays a large part in bringing about the 1967 referendum.

Malcolm, unable to find work or accommodation in Sydney makes his living as a petty thief and drug dealer and is transferred to Palm Island in Queensland.

While in Palm Island he is part of a workforce that demonstrates and strikes against unfair wages and apartheid. In response, the Queensland government dispatches 20 police to put the rebellion down.

At gunpoint, 7 men, including Malcolm and their families are shipped off the island in leg irons and transported to settlements on the mainland.

Martin speaks at the Native Welfare Conference.

Ministers agree to strategies to assist assimilation of Aboriginal people. These include the removal of discriminatory legislation and restrictive practices, the incorporation of Aboriginal people into the economy through welfare measures and education and training and the education of non-Aboriginal Australians about Aboriginal culture and history.

After the conference, all states and territories amend their legislation.

The conference marks the beginning of a modern land rights movement and widespread awakening by non-Aboriginal Australians to claims for justice by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Martin arranges to meet with South Australian Premier Sir Thomas Playford and convinces him to argue for integration rather than assimilation of Aboriginal people.

In 1962 The Commonwealth Electoral Act is amended to give franchise to all Aboriginal people, extending the right to vote to Aboriginal people in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The Yolngu people of Yirrkala in Australia’s Northern Territory (about 700 kms east of Darwin) send a bark petition to the House of Representatives to protest against mining on the Gove Peninsula.

Although it is signed, by senior clan members the federal government fails to recognise Aboriginal political structure and rejects the petition.

Police evict residents at Mapoon, an Aboriginal community in far north Queensland. The people are forcibly taken to other reserves and their settlement is burned down, to allow Comalco mine the biggest bauxite deposit in the world.

New Mapoon is established with families having to move over 500 kilometres away by gunpoint and in chains.

It is now 1965 and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ Affairs Act, passed in Queensland, gives the Director of Aboriginal Affairs considerable power over ‘assisted Aborigines’.

For example, an assisted Aboriginal person could be detained for up to a year for behaving in an ‘offensive, threatening, insolent, insulting, disorderly, obscene or indecent manner’ or ‘leaving, escaping or attempting to leave or escape from the reserve’.

Lyall Munro Snr leads a protest in Moree against racism and oppression that explodes into conflict when Blackfella’s are not allowed to use the Moree public swimming pool.

It is highly emotive as many of the Blackfella’s pick cotton for the local pastoralists in a multi million-dollar industry. It is hard hot gruelling work and the Blackfella’s are paid loose change.

Being denied entry to the swimming pool is the last straw.

Charles Perkins a leading university educated public servant is brought to Moree to resolve the conflict and is convinced to instead lead a freedom ride by Aboriginal people and students through North-Western New South Wales in support of Aboriginal rights.

Participating in the freedom rides is Martin Luther King and Malcolm Little, it is the first time they have seen each other since attending mission school as kids. Their meeting does not go well as both men realise just how different their lives have become – for Malcolm it brings back his childhood trauma and he has a relapse turning to drugs and alcohol.

The meeting also has a profound effect on Martin as he looks to reunite with family and rather than continue his struggle for integration decides to go through ceremony and re-learn his language and culture.

The freedom marches did not lead to the political life change Malcolm was hoping for and he finds himself in Redfern Sydney and has become addicted to heroin.

He is arrested for armed robbery – unlike the American Malcolm there is no Nation of Islam or predominant Indigenous group that he can join to begin a life of re-education.

Alone and once again in despair Malcolm commits suicide and is found hanging in his cell only 9 months before the 1967 Commonwealth Referendum. More than 90% vote to empower the Commonwealth to legislate for all Aboriginal people and open means for them to be counted in the census.

All states except Queensland abandon laws and policies that discriminate against Aboriginal people. The first census fully including Aboriginal people is in 1971.

Martin has become disillusioned with the struggle. Many of the children of the families who took exemption certificates are coming back into the communities.

"Martin’s health further deteriorates having developed type 2 diabetes and dies 6 months before his 50th birthday."

“Martin’s health further deteriorates having developed type 2 diabetes and dies 6 months before his 50th birthday.”

When asked about their family histories and ties to communities they hide behind the stolen generation claiming they don’t know – it is an emotional card to play.

But Martin like many others of his generation remembers the families, which escaped persecution through the certificates. He watches as they take opportunities afforded to them in universities and become leaders within the public service sector outside of the community run organisations.

Values move from land rights, sovereignty, Black Deaths in Custody and Treaty, towards education participation and access which to Martin and others who fought the fight is just more labels for assimilation.

He brands this new middle class as gate keepers and hearing of Malcolm’s own death in custody chooses to retreat from public life. He returns to his traditional homelands with his priorities becoming his wife and children.

He passes time teaching his culture, language and ceremony to the next generation of Blackfella’s.

Now 40 years old Martin’s health outlook is bleak: There’s a 50% chance that he is a smoker and he is three times more likely to develop heart disease.

He does go to hospital, but having returned to the remoteness of his traditional homelands he doesn’t receive the diagnostic procedures he needs. He is admitted to hospital for his coronary problems and never fully recovers.

Martin’s health further deteriorates having developed type 2 diabetes and he dies 6 months before his 50th birthday.


Dr Woolombi Waters is a Kamilaroi language speaker and writer and is a lecturer at Griffith University. He writes a weekly column for the National Indigenous Times. woolombi.waters@nit.com.au