Mobutu, Authenticité and the Dark Heart of the Uluru Statement

‘History is calling’, or so the leaders of the Uluru campaign to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Constitution tell us. The slogan is calculated to exploit the ignorance of Australian history so diligently cultivated by our schools and universities in recent decades.

Ironically, in drafting the ‘Statement from the Heart’ in 2017, the Uluru delegates fell victim to their own ignorance of history in ways that fatally undermine the document’s moral force.

The Statement quotes or paraphrases four men the Uluru delegates considered to have made a significant contribution to the Aboriginal rights movement: anthropologist Bill Stanner, Gough Whitlam during his days as opposition leader, Yolngu activist Galarrwuy Yunupingu and jurist Fouad Ammoun. The references are not provided in the text, appearing instead in the Final Report of the Referendum Council. Whatever one may think of their politics, all four have or had a certain way with words. The delegates’ original work is a tasteless melange of straw men (‘We are not an innately criminal people’), gift-shop mysticism (‘They will walk in two worlds’) and clunking nonsense (‘These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem’). Understandably, they sought the razzle-dazzle of a few choice phrases from the past.

Three of the quotes are uncontroversial choices. Paragraph 7 adapts Stanner’s powerful 1959 phrase, ‘the torment of powerlessness’. Paragraph 9 borrows Whitlam’s 1972 form of words ‘their rightful place’, though Gough was not talking about Aboriginal rights at that point in his speech. And paragraph 11 contains a dubious translation of makarrata, ‘coming together after a struggle’, which the Final Report wrongly attributes to a 2016 essay by Yunupingu, Rom watangu: the law of the land”.

Clearly, one can quibble with all of these. Makarrata (or magarada) is a term used in Arnhem Land for a type of ceremony once practiced all over Aboriginal Australia, the ‘juridical fight’. These were highly structured and regulated outlets for retributive group violence that typically ended, or were at least adjourned, once a serious enough injury had been inflicted. The anodyne translation ‘coming together after a struggle’ appears to have emerged around 1979 when the National Aboriginal Conference — the Voice of its day — proposed using the term as an alternative to the politically toxic ‘treaty’. The 2016 essay mentions a last makarrata occurring on a beach in Eastern Arnhem Land some time in the early 1930s:

On the sand at Birany Birany the peace was made, grievances were settled and a better future was created.

One can only imagine how powerful the Uluru Statement might have been had Yunupingu been asked to write it.

Interestingly, Stanner’s essay is also partly concerned with the demise of the juridical fight. He tells the story of a man he first met in the aftermath of such a ceremony on the Daly River in 1932. Durmugam had made every effort to honour his traditional legal obligations throughout his life only to see, in old age, respect for that law evaporate among young Aborigines. By 1958, the reach of Australian law was sufficient to shield Durmugam’s Aboriginal tormentors from customary payback, while affording him no alternative form of redress. The ‘torment’ of any criminal serving a prison sentence today is doubtless acute, but it bears no comparison to that of Durmugam’s generation, whose fate it was to experience 12,000 years of social and technological change in a single lifetime.

For present purposes, however, we can be generous and say the quotations attributed to Stanner, Whitlam and Yunupingu were less about the historical context and more about honouring significant individuals. The same cannot be said of the other quote, which forms most of Uluru’s paragraph 3. It says:

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.

It comes from Fouad Ammoun, Vice-President of International Court of Justice (ICJ) from 1970–6. Those words, with a minor modification, are taken from his ‘separate opinion’ in the ICJ’s Western Sahara Case of 1975, though the Referendum Council’s Final Report (again) wrongly attributes them to the full court. In place of the ‘materialistic’ doctrine of terra nullius, Ammoun had commended an alternative ‘spiritual notion’:

…the ancestral tie between the land, or “mother nature”, and the man who was born therefrom, remains attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with his ancestors.

Ammoun and his brother judges were not addressing Australia or the status of her indigenous peoples. But within a few years Western Sahara and terra nullius were firmly established within the local discourse on Aboriginal rights. The case offered a tantalising prospect that Aboriginal grievances could some day be ventilated in a sympathetic international forum. It may have inspired the concept of Aboriginal sovereignty that found its first public expression in Paul Coe’s protest at Kurnell in April 1977. More circumspect activists, such as Henry Reynolds and Judith Wright, confined themselves to quoting from the advisory opinion. The angrier ones, such as Kevin Gilbert, preferred Ammoun’s version.


AMMOUN enters Uluru by way of the judgments in Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2), where he is quoted twice. Why Eddie Mabo’s lawyers, let alone justices Brennan and Toohey, sought to draw attention to Western Sahara is a mystery. That colony was acquired by treaty, not occupation. And it is now widely — if quietly– accepted in academic circles that Their Honours blundered in bringing terra nullius into the case at all. Not only was the term unknown to the men who led the colonisation of Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries, Mabo himself was not challenging the Crown’s sovereignty over Murray Island/Mer. It’s also unclear why Ammoun’s commentary was given such prominence relative to the actual opinion of the ICJ. (All questions, perhaps, for the threatened ‘Truth’ Commission to consider at a future date.)

But however unhelpful they are as guides to the law as it relates to indigenous sovereignty, it is clear both terra nullius and Mabo have taken on a totemic significance for the Aboriginal rights movement. Perhaps the drafting committee at Uluru had been told to quote from Mabo, and naturally lit upon one of the judgment’s most poetic passages? If this was the case, it’s unsurprising that an obscure Lebanese diplomat ended up getting 48 words into the Statement when local big guns like Stanner, Whitlam and Yunupingu had to make do with just 14 between them (with the latter apparently misquoted). But it does not appear to have occurred to anyone—not Justices Brennan and Toohey, nor the Uluru delegates—to ask themselves what Ammoun was actually trying to say.

In 1974, Spain was already preparing to exit her Saharan province, under pressure from the international community and the Frente Polisario, putative liberation army of the indigenous Sahrawi. Applying the usual template, the UN expected that a referendum would be held at which the Sahrawi would choose between independence, free association with another state, or incorporation into a neighbour. The Kingdom of Morocco saw her chance to seize the province’s lucrative phosphate deposits and fisheries. At Moroccan urging, the General Assembly cancelled the referendum and asked the ICJ to issue an ‘advisory opinion’ on the Kingdom’s claims to the land. The Court concluded that despite historical links between Sahrawi tribesmen and the Sultan of Morocco, these did not establish Moroccan sovereignty over the province and could not now be used as a basis to deny the Sahrawi self-determination.

But unlike his brother judges, Ammoun wanted to back Morocco’s colonial ambitions and forestall the possibility of indigenous self-determination in Western Sahara. Though he signed the advisory opinion of the Court, he published his own ‘additional opinion’ in which he argued (among other things) that there could be no legitimate Spanish title to the province because Spaniards were the wrong race. It is this line of argument, stripped of Ammoun’s own anti-indigenous intent, that was to later enthuse so many Aboriginal rights activists. Drawing on the ‘penetrating views which compel our attention’ from ‘Mr Bayona-Ba-Meya, Senior President of the Supreme Court of Zaire’, Ammoun wrote:

Anyone familiar with the philosophy of Zeno of Sidon or Citium and his Stoic school cannot but be struck by the similarity between the ideas of that philosopher and the views of Mr Bayona-Ba-Meya as to the links between human beings and nature, between man and the cosmos.

Further, the spirituality of the thinking of the representative of Zaire echoes the spirituality of the African Bantu revealed to us by Father Placide Tempels, a Belgian Franciscan, in his work Philosophie bantoue. The author sees therein a “striking analogy” with “that intense spiritual doctrine which quickens and nourishes souls within the Catholic Church”.

Mr Bayona-Ba-Meya goes on to dismiss the materialistic concept of terra nullius, which led to this dismemberment of Africa following the Berlin Conference of 1885. Mr Bayona-Ba-Meya substitutes for this a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or “mother nature”, and the man who was born therefrom, remains attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with his ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. This amounts to a denial of the very concept of terra nullius in the sense of a land which is capable of being appropriated by someone who is not born therefrom. It is a condemnation of the modern concept, as defined by Pasquale Fiore, which regards as terrae nullius territories inhabited by populations whose civilization, in the sense of the public law of Europe, is backward, and whose political organization is not conceived according to Western norms.

One might go still further in analysing the statement of the representative of Zaire so as to say that he would exclude from the concept of terra nullius any inhabited territory. His view thus agrees with that of Vattel, who defined terra nullius as a land empty of inhabitants.

Ammoun recognised that much European colonisation and seizure of land occurred on the basis that, in some parts of the world, indigenous political and land tenure systems had been rudimentary or non-existent. In the passage above, rather than try to exaggerate the political sophistication of pre-contact peoples, he instead argued that there is some kind of unbreakable supernatural connection between a man and the land of his ancestors. Though supernatural, this connection finds concrete expression in both Western-style property rights and Western-style political sovereignty. Not only were indigenous Africans intimately connected to the land, the ‘spiritual’ nature of this connection precluded any non-indigenous person from acquiring title to it by any process.

The Uluru delegates, if they read Ammoun’s opinion, were wise to exclude this, and not just because the Statement was already threatening to go over their single A4 page limit. The implication that non-indigenous Australians are not entitled to own land here would have been electoral poison, enough to get Uluru memory-holed even by Nine Entertainment and the ABC.

Though the delegates had little interest in probing the origins of their own paragraph 3, there is no reason for us to stop at Ammoun. Who was Nicolas Bayona-Ba-Meya? From the date, it is obvious he must have been a key henchman of Zaire’s then dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. What was that regime’s interest in the Maghreb, more than 4,000 kilometres away? And what made the former’s views so compelling to Ammoun? In a sense it is a pity the poetry-hungry Uluru delegates did not seek out the source of Ammoun’s words. Whatever his crimes before or after, on one spring morning in the Hague in 1975, Bayona-Ba-Meya beautifully articulated what Aborigines call ‘connection to country’. It is this passage that would ultimately inspire Uluru paragraph 3:

The African shares the profound conviction that man is never born by chance in one or other part of the universe. The birth of a being in a given territory on Earth constitutes a peremptory directive from Nature which requires man to forge his destiny from the elements of his environment; hence the vital obligation for man to seek to situate himself in relation to this environment; and also the ever-urgent need to establish contact with his environment and particularly with the soil. Authenticité is nothing more than this. It is also simple and natural; it is a fundamental law of the universe that applies to all beings.

Given the influence of these words in Australia—they may yet bring about constitutional change—we should also understand what Bayona-Ba-Meya was trying to do.

After six years in power and anxious to shed his regional reputation as a Franco-American stooge, Mobutu had embarked on a series of ever-more audacious campaigns against the legacy of colonialism. Indigenous Authenticité, the cornerstone of his ideology, was launched in 1971, targeting inauthentic phenomena such as Catholic schools, business suits, French prénoms, the Christmas public holiday and even the names of Congo and her principal cities. Then came the economic programme of ‘Zairianisation’, under which rural land was seized and parcelled out to connected officials.

In 1974, state visits to China and North Korea and a collapse in rural production convinced Mobutu of the need for ‘a revolution within the revolution’, including a massive expansion in the landholdings of state enterprises. Individuals’ spiritual connection to land was of no consequence. When the General Assembly referred the decolonisation of Western Sahara to the ICJ in December of that year, the dictator presumably grasped the potential for Authenticité to gain a wider audience. Ironically, by the time Ammoun handed down his Mobutu-inspired opinion in 1975, the dictator’s global influence had suffered an abrupt reverse, sundered by a halving of the copper price, the venality of state economic management and his new status as a supplicant to Western lenders.

I WAS was surprised to learn I am not the first to look into the roles of Bayona-Ba-Meya and Ammoun in the Uluru Statement. Andrew Bolt wrote a somewhat muddled article on the subject in 2019, incorrectly describing Ammoun as Algerian. Uluru supporter Frank Brennan has referred directly to both Bayona-Ba-Meya and Ammoun on occasion, though without showing any interest in their background or motivations. In 2017 he remarked:

How extraordinary that the inheritors of the longest living culture on earth would quote a Lebanese judge quoting a lawyer from Zaire to express the depths of their spiritual relationship with the land. This is a profound lesson for those of us seeking an inclusive Australia.

Last year, Brennan told an Australian Catholic University audience that ‘great changes’ had been ‘wrought by the imaginations, dreams, hard thinking, and basic decency of a line of individuals’ that included both men. Brennan’s lack of intellectual curiosity is all the more galling considering Mobutu’s persecution of Zaire’s Catholics.

Stripped of its flummery, the text of the Uluru Statement offers no serious case for constitutional change. It observes that a lot of indigenous people are in prison, out-of-home care or juvenile detention. It promises that an advisory committee of the type that has existed in various forms since 1968 will shortly discover a hitherto-unimagined means to reduce these numbers. (Never mind that criminal justice and child protection are the domain of the states and territories, and fewer than one per cent of indigenous prisoners are serving time for federal offences.) There is only one catch: the sinecures associated with this new committee require the security of constitutional entrenchment.

All Uluru has going for it is a dash of poetry in paragraph 3. And if that poetry is merely the echo of a dead dictator justifying a ruinous policy of expropriation and repression, what response can we offer but ‘No’?

Joe Stella is a PhD candidate at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations. For reasons unrelated to this article, the university recently opened a preliminary investigation into whether or not he is a racist

33 thoughts on “Mobutu, Authenticité and the Dark Heart of the Uluru Statement

  • Paul W says:

    Thanks for the information.

    I would love to hear more about this preliminary investigation, although the university has probably muzzled you. I for one have serious doubts about the constitutionality of university tribunals as they seem to fall short of the standards of the High Court.

  • Daffy says:

    Universities have struggled hard with their internal para-judicial processes and have now reached the exulted levels of a kangaroo court.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    I am not aware of any country which has two judicial systems running side by side, though of course I may be wrong. But at a guess, it would be a can of worms sufficient to dwarf the Great Pyramid in Egypt.

  • rosross says:

    Whoever came up with ‘longest continuous culture’ has provided a curse for Australians. The fact that all cultures are as old as each other since all humans are descended from the same ancestors, makes the statement ridiculous.

    The fact that no-one alive a century ago was living the sort of lives stone-age Aborigines lived prior to 1788, let alone today makes it insanity.

    All cultures evolve, nothing remains original and that is the entire raison d’etre of culture – to evolve.

  • Katzenjammer says:

    The world’s most long lasting stagnant culture, suffering from a half century of self inflicted misunderstood opportunities. Yes, there’s no argument that they were disrupted and harshly repressed for too long. But catch up – everything has changed,. Figure how to fit in and retain what you need, don’t set yourself apart.

    The Irish diasporar is Irish. Jews lost their Temple but figured how to retain their essence. Many peoples have retained what’s significant for themselves across cataclysmic changes in opportunity for expression. Aboriginal Australians aren’t the first that have had to contend with this process. They’re possibly among the most recent. and if they dropped their “worst treatment eva” view they could learn from many others that have had to undergo a re-evaluation of themselves.

  • padraic says:

    First of all, the claim that only Aborigines have a special relationship with the land in which they were born is pathetic, to say the least- I have just as much a relationship with the land of my birth and that of my ancestors here, despite my skin colour. In passing through New York in 1965 I picked up a book – The Washing of the Spears, by Donald R Morris – which was on the Time Magazine best-seller list at the time. It was about the rise and fall of the Zulu nation, one element of which was when Shaka died, a dispute arose over over who would succeed him. Those that missed out decided to take off and form their own kingdoms in parts of what is modern Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and southern Tanzania by taking over land from the locals, usually through force. On another occasion I met someone from that part of the world who told me that there were caves and overhangs in southern Africa which had “Bushmen” paintings, much like similar Aboriginal paintings seen in Australia but there were no longer any Bushmen in the vicinity – only what are called “Bantus” – a much taller people who are settled farmers and whose land tenure systems are similar to earlier feudal systems in Europe, and in the case of the Zulus, possessing a competent military machine. These “Bantus” who were born there and had been there for many generations had the same relationship to the land as did the former occupiers – the Bushmen. So the activists here in Oz should stop living in the past and focus on the present and sort out its issues with a view to strengthening the future of our democratic nation state.

  • Dave Carter says:

    “highly structured and regulated outlets for retributive group violence”
    You must realize that this does not pass the sniff test, at least without explaining the high structure and regulation which is dominant enough to control what looks like a group brawl in potential.
    To me, it reads like a way of sugar-coating the common law assault “payback”, which regional police (and hospitals) struggle to mitigate, even with 21stC weapons and communications.

  • whitelaughter says:

    Good article, good comments.
    But again – how to make this better known?

  • Searcher says:

    Dear Joe Stella, your writing style is convoluted, seeming to be damaged by respect for academic and political activist fashion. You would do better to be more direct.

  • john.singer says:

    A most interesting article the thrust of which is not racist and should be given the widest possible audience if the subject is to proceed to a referendum.

    Many proponents of the “Voice” claim they lived their early years in New South Wales uncounted, and disadvantaged. Humiliated because Australian Law put them under the “Flora and Fauna Act”. This is NOT TRUE.

    A clue to this much publicised untruth can be found in the Uluru Statement itself.
    Uluru’s paragraph 3. It says:
    “This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.”

    The spiritual sovereignty deep within the beliefs of the Aboriginal people is to a creator entity and not to one of humanity. Their belief of attachment to the land and its soil from which they were born and must return, means they should under their Customary Lore, believe they are themselves a species of Fauna with a totemic kinship to other fauna.

    There is no such concept within the Australian Laws that have developed since 1788.

  • pmprociv says:

    Aha, so this is the African connection that might explain Albo’s recruitment of that retired American basketball celebrity to push for The Voice: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/why-labor-has-recruited-retired-nba-star-shaquille-oneal-amid-indigenous-voice-to-parliament-push/o38kkzfnp
    Otherwise, what do ATSI folk have in common with an American citizen whose African ancestry would entitle him to self-identify as indigenous to Africa, where he clearly chooses not to live? Maybe doesn’t even have a voice there? And being exceptionally affluent, of course he’d fully understand the plight of residents in our remote communities.
    Or is it merely skin colour? But then again, we’re constantly being told it has nothing to do with the colour of your skin, otherwise all those pale-skinned indigenous Australians would have to explain themselves a little better.
    This is getting curiouser and curiouser . . . and doesn’t speak much for our PM’s intellectual capacity, sadly. Unless this is an intentional own goal, and he really doesn’t want to run the referendum. Wouldn’t it be simpler, and far less disruptive to our social cohesion and even economy, if we all simply thought of ourselves as Australian citizens, with equal rights to political representation?

  • rosross says:

    It is bizarre indeed that anyone would think that connection to land was particular to certain groups of humans. Connection to the land is a human quality and has been noted throughout recorded history. In fact, ask anyone who lives on the land today how connected they feel to the land. We humans are hardwired to connect to the land and it has always been so.

    Yes, primitive hunter-gatherer and stone-age cultures were probably even more ‘connected’ because they were totally dependent on the land and nature for their survival. Fear is a powerful connection. However, as humans learned to work the land and develop agriculture, while their fear may have lessened, their connection to and respect for the land certainly did not.

    The issue never addressed by those dribbling about Aboriginal connection to the land and the importance of the land, etc. etc. etc. is why where Australians with Aboriginal ancestry live on ‘their land’ do they create such cesspits of total disrespect, ecological and environmental vandalism, and demonstrate a total disconnection from the land and respect for the natural world.

  • NarelleG says:

    My thoughts exactly – that Albo wasn’t so silly ;eventhough it looked so bizarre and the greatest adver6t for “NO”

    “In a bizarre press conference stunt, Anthony Albanese enlists Shaquille O’Neal to convince voters on an Indigenous voice.”

    Video here for those who missed it.

    @Joe Stellar – thank you for risking your career and speaking the facts.
    You are very brave.

    How can your work be distributed to the general public?
    Maybe Andrew Bolt to follow up again with your collaboration?

  • rosross says:

    Every human alive today is descended from the same relatively small group of distant ancestors. We share our humanity and our ancestry regardless of our nationality, religion, race or gender.

    Every human alive today is descended from the persecuted and the traumatised and all are descended from the colonised and the colonisers including those with Aboriginal ancestry.

    Religions have risen and fallen throughout history with most being persecuted by someone at some point and some did not survive. Some religions like Judaism, turned the common human history of persecution and suffering into their own particular theology, and set a dogma of suffering in concrete which was and is, psychologically unhealthy. Victimhood never makes for optimal function. And no doubt in this age where Muslims are the new focus for religious discrimination, Islam will find ways to ‘write’ victimhood into their dogma. It has ever been thus.

    Some nationalities have done the same thing like the Irish and the Armenians, again, turning a common human history of persecution into their own particular mythology. No doubt there are cultural traits which enable such an exceptional approach to suffering, which, we can assume, do not exist in Gypsies/Romanies to the same degree that they do in the Irish and Armenians. History is littered with suffering.

    So, there is nothing about the movement to turn Aboriginal experiences into a new form of religion, creating dogma and ‘theology’ to sustain the edifice which is exceptional in human terms. However, none of it is psychologically healthy. While some truly great creative art can arise from the pit of suffering, again, none of that is particular to any group. Suffering is uniquely human and historically generic, despite attempts by some to claim it as their own.

    In an age when we have greater understanding of the psyche and mental illness, it is even more ironic to see trauma eulogized and sanctified in the name of anything. We consider someone who fails to process trauma and move to a healthy place beyond it to be demonstrating inferior and destructive psychological function. How much more dysfunctional is it to be picking the scabs off trauma, real and imagined, which is centuries old, let alone believing you are doomed because of the experiences of your parents, grandparents and as many greats back as you would like to list?

    While the Judaic religion can encourage Jews to stand at the Wailing Wall, aptly named, reciting a litany of wrongs done to followers of Judaism over thousands of years, both real and imagined, and the Irish can glorify their suffering at the hands of the evil English, both real and imagined, trudging back through muddy and bloody fields of history for many centuries, there is little harm done except to those involved, in the main.

    To encourage the tiny minority of Australians with Aboriginal ancestry to develop the same sorts of dysfunction – an eternal and mindless, we was wronged – carries a far greater price. For unlike religious beliefs or the Irish wallowing in victimhood, creating a class of Australians victimised by those long dead, does have the power to tear our nation apart. It is not a simple matter of religious dogma, as it is with Jews, or universal national identity as it is with the Irish, but a matter of brittle and brutal division of the Australian nation.

    The failure to process trauma is dysfunctional, no matter where it happens but to actually encourage such failure is the act of fools and we seem to be surrounded by fools intent on doing exactly that.

  • rosross says:


    Clearly to Prime Minister Albanese – THEY ALL LOOK THE SAME. Bleck is bleck.

    Except of course ours are generally very pale with no African ancestry to be seen.

  • rosross says:

    @ John Singer,

    They really do make it up as they go along. Then again, the lies told to sell the 67 Referendum have become set in concrete.

    “Flora and fauna”
    The myth that the Constitution included a reference to the Aboriginal people under a “flora and fauna” section is entirely erroneous. The words “flora and fauna” do not appear anywhere in the Constitution, nor did they prior to 1967. There was no “Flora and Fauna Act” either. No legislation referred to or classified the Aboriginal people in such terms.

    • Helen Irving was appointed Professor Emerita at Sydney Law School in 2021. Her research includes Australian and United States constitutional law and history; constitutional citizenship; comparative constitutional design and gender; the use of history in constitutional interpretation, and models of judicial review. She has just completed a three-year ARC Discovery Grant project on constitutional citizenship and allegiance, and in 2020 was awarded a three-year ARC Special Research Initiative grant, with Associate Professor Elisa Arcioni and Dr Rayner Thwaites, on Citizenship and Claims of Belonging in Australian Law and History.

  • cbattle1 says:

    Paul W and Daffy: Within private institutions and organisations, their quasi-judicial procedures, know as a Domestic Tribunal, comes under Common Law, and complaints regarding denial of natural justice/procedural fairness can be appealed to the State or Territory Supreme Court. While that might sound fair and reasonable, in fact the Courts are biased towards the institution and/or the party with the deepest pockets. State or Territory owned institutions are somewhat different.

    padraic: The only places where the “Bushmen” survived was on land that was too inhospitable for “Bantu” agriculturalists, such as the Kalahari desert. Agriculturists will always displace hunter-gatherer cultures, just as the industrial revolution cultures of the 18th and 19th century displaced or colonised the agriculturists. With Australia, it was a matter of hunter-gatherers encountering the most advanced and industrialised culture on the planet.

  • Blair says:

    “This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the …. Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors.”
    “Coming of the Light – Torres Strait Islands
    The Coming of the Light is a holiday celebrated by Torres Strait Islanders on 1 July each year. It recognises the adoption of Christianity through island communities during the late nineteenth century..
    The acceptance of missionaries and Christianity into Torres Strait led to profound changes that affected every aspect of life from that time onwards”
    Queensland Museum.

  • Paul W says:

    The connection between African-Americans and Aborigines is entirely based on colour and not a proper comparison. A proper comparison would conclude that the convicts and their children are the best counterpart.

    Like slaves from Africa, convicts were deported using military force from their original ethnic homeland, taken away from their families and friends, and used as labour for the building of a new homeland on another continent. The difference is that African-Americans did not get freedom for much later and remain a minority. The descendants of convicts were absorbed into the mass of white Australian natives.

  • rosross says:


    It is not appropriate to compare convicts to slaves. Convicts had been convicted of crimes in courts of law and their transportation was their punishment, as the years they served as labour. Whatever we may think of the legal system at the time where you could hang for stealing a sheep as my ancestor nearly did before having it commuted to transporation and a seven year sentence, they had been charged and convicted of a crime.They were not sold into slavery as Africans were on their home ground.

    A better analogy is the practice of kidnapping men and boys to serve in the British Navy in centuries past. That was a form of slavery.

  • Paul W says:

    While what you say is technically true, it largely misses the point which concerns the nature of their suffering. I’m not saying convicts were slaves, only that what their transportation (a euphemism!) entailed is comparable. Convicts were deported from their homeland against their wishes to another continent and pressed into servile labour. This was the origin myth of the Australians. So African-Americans are more similar to Australians by this measure than they are to Aborigines.

  • rosross says:

    @Paul W,

    Perhaps the point needs to be clarified.

    However, since no doubt one can safely assume the transportees preferred their punishment to death, I am not sure that the experience would or could carry the same level of trauma or suffering.

    Convicts were transported as punishment. It was the alternative to being executed for many. They would have been pressed into servile labour regardless of whether or not they ended up in Australia.

    So, I still see no comparisons with African Americans who were not enslaved as punishment for crime; nor transported instead of being executed; or indeed labouring in the same way that convicts did.

  • Paul W says:

    The closest comparison in Australian history to the experience of African-Americans is the experience of the convicts. Convicts were taken from their homeland, their town, their families, and their friends to another continent. That absolutely involves significant trauma. “Transportation” is a euphemism that conceals this.
    No analogy is perfect and the differences you describe are perfectly correct, but there is no other group in Australia that is even partially comparable. This at least is partially comparable.
    When I read your comment about the “level of trauma” I was very surprised. This isn’t about ranking of suffering!
    Accordingly, it is silly for NBA stars to support a voice for Aborigines simply because they are a black minority but not a voice for you and me despite our clear intergenerational trauma. You yourself state that our ancestors were “given a choice between transportation or execution” and were inevitably “pressed into servile labour”. That sounds pretty traumatic, don’t you think? But I would like to get an official apology and have NBA stars lobby for Our Voice. We can also demand reparations, a dedicated legal service, special education programs, various museums, and special land rights.

  • RobyH says:

    This is more a response to the prior comments rather than the article.

    The oldest and longest slave culture is the Aboriginal culture on what is now mainland Australia. If Aboriginal culture is 50,000 years old …. slavery has existed here for 50,000 years.

    Women, young girls, were bestowed to old men. They were taken into servitude often through brutal rape. They became the beasts of burden and had to serve their owner and provide sexual service to any person he wished. Disobedience resulted in a brutal beating or death. This was the elders right as owner.

    When Europeans arrived the Elders traded their women throughout the colonies for the benefit of food but more importantly alcohol. Whether it was the sealers on Bass Strait, the miners in the gold fields or the settlers in every colony …. a trade in women under the control and direction of aboriginal Elders began.

    50,000 years a slave. And we pay respect to Elders.

  • lbloveday says:

    Yesterday Albanese used Shaquille O’Neal to promote The Voice YES vote.
    Apart from his Basketball prowess, O’Neal is a rapper of some renown – his 1993 debut album, Shaq Diesel, received platinum certification from the RIAA.
    Some lyrics from his songs (courtesy of The Australian – I’ve never listen to him).
    O’Neal’s most played song has the line: “Taxiderm your bitch head, mount it on a wall.” He sings in another lyric about punching a girl in the stomach because “yo, she breathed on my neck”. In his “hit” song, You Can’t Stop the Reign – “we want the exotic, erotic ladies, not them toxic ladies that burn a lot”.
    Other gems “Kobe, nigga, tell me how my ass taste” and “To tell niggas to suck c–k, run and get a gun”.
    Even Lidia Thorpe is offside:
    From Sky News: Senator Lidia Thorpe has slammed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for using Shaquille O’Neal to promote the Indigenous Voice to Parliament saying it is an “insult to blackfellas”.

  • NarelleG says:


    [We can also demand reparations, a dedicated legal service, special education programs, various museums, and special land rights.]

    How nice it would be to NOT have our museums taken over by the Aborigines – sufficient that our items would fit in a storerooms in the National Museum in Canberra and the Sydney Museum.

    I would be happy to have our anthem back.
    Our flag.
    Get rid of the ubiquitous AoC and W2C; names of roads and streets not changed etc etc etc

    Good grief – my new local hospital is labeled in English and an unwritten re-invented language.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    I recall a meeting that I hosted as President of the NT Chamber of Mines, just before Christmas in IIRC 1991. The guest speaker was Galarrwuy Yunupingu, though the spelling of his names has evolved with European influence, as have changes like Gagadju to Kakadu. What I recall most was the lack of intellectual depth the man displayed, for one in his several positions of influence. Maybe he was simply reluctant to get in too deep, but no way could I discern how he came to be top of the locals. It follows that the words in the recent aboriginal activist documents are unlikely to be his alone. But, I stand corrected if I am wrong.
    Then again, we entertained PM Whitlam at Jabiru some years earlier and much the same could be said about intellectual depth. Geoff S

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    On this repeated assertion of a connection to the land that is sacred. There is a simple reason for it. The aborigines that the first settlers onwards encountered had no possessions of any worth. Land was the sole tangible object to which they could lay claim. Even that seems to have changed as groups shifted from place to place. Claims of tradition, legend, tribal wisdom and similar non-tangibles have doubts about authenticity since many seem to date back to the era of anthropological research by (mainly) academics from about the 1940s.
    Geoff S

  • rosross says:

    @Paul W.

    I don’t think on this count close is good enough although perhaps some Africans sold into slavery had committed crimes. But the link is tenuous.

    And neither did I mean to suggest that convicts had a choice of death or transportation. Such decisions were not in their hands. If their death sentence was commuted they got transportation and that was a decision for the law.

    I am sure all of it involved trauma but then the lives of ordinary people were pretty traumatic as it was. Perhaps some shepherd’s hut on the Yass Plains, where my convict ancestor ended up, before moving on to South Australia, was a taste of heaven compared to the Gloucestershire poverty he left behind. Who can say? He did not steal the Teg for the fun of it? Then again, who can say?

    I think people experienced so much trauma in centuries past that they were much more resilient and therefore less traumatised than people today. I think we need to be careful about retrofitting modern attitudes to the past.

    And there are ‘levels of trauma’ for humans since people are different. The same experience, being convicted and sentenced to transportation, will not have exactly the same effect on everyone. It does not work like that.

    The reality is that if the theories regarding intergenerational trauma were true then every single Australian with Aboriginal ancestry would suffer in this way and most do not, and indeed, so would every human, and they do not.

    I have done enough family ancestry to appreciate past traumas, i.e. my maternal great-grandfather, at the age of three, was sent to the Poplar Workhouse with his three siblings, one a baby, when his father died. His mother took him out with the remaining siblings four years later after two of the other children had died. That is trauma. He and his wife then went on to lose four children at young ages and one as an adult in the First World War. My grandfather was a reserved but generally well adjusted individual, who appeared to suffer little inter-generational trauma.

    For someone else it might have been different. I do not dispute the potential for inter-generational trauma and do actually believe we have levels of cellular memory, which flavour us from the past. However, I also believe that inter-generational ‘trauma’ where it is said to exist, has more to do with culture and belief than with anything our ancestors have experienced enduring physiologically.

    Given the erratic nature of genetics and the impossibility of knowing which bits get through and which do not, I think any concept of inter-generational trauma is dysfunctional and destructive. Deal with your own life and experiences and in that way, heal past and future.

    Victimhood guarantees only one thing – VICTIMS.

  • Paul W says:

    I agree with all that, but I still maintain that a forced deportation to an alien continent is something convict-Australians share with African-Americans. So he is arguing for an Aboriginal voice simply because they are both black.
    “Victim guarantees only one thing”
    Not true – it also guarantees money and sympathy from the government 🙂
    Remember when everyone wanted to be a winner rather than a victim? The good ol’ days!

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Thanks for this article Joe. Very valuable.

  • rosross says:

    @Paul W,

    Appreciate your point but don’t think it holds.

    Yes, agree victimhood can be profitable but that is also the point, it ensures eternal victimhood.

    The good ol’ days when people were encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and their lives. Not everyone could of course, but it was a better system because most did.

  • cbattle1 says:

    I for one have no trouble accepting the possibility of inter-generational trauma, but was British settlement of the Australian continent the origin of inter-generational trauma among Aboriginals? I think in many cultures, intergenerational trauma has always been there. Consider the shocking violence that young Aboriginals would traditionally experience, seeing their mother beaten, sold or killed by the father, the insecurity of continual intra and inter tribal violence, the exposure to the harshness of the elements and the general struggle to survive. That perpetual cycle of violence and insecurity was diminished by seeking the shelter of missions and stations.
    The psychiatrist R. D. Lang was a believer in the continuum of intergenerational trauma, and if I recall rightly, grew up as a victim of domestic violence in the slums of Glasgow. He described an arc or band of alcoholism in Northern Europe that started in Ireland and passed through Scotland and Scandinavia, ending in Russia, which he put down to lack of sunlight and poor diet, but once the cycle of violence and trauma is established, it is very hard to stop. The abused grow up to be the next generation of abusers.
    Many cultures inflicted violence on boys in order to toughen them up to be warriors, the Spartans being a classic example.

Leave a Reply