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In 1970, celebrations and commemorations were held across the nation for the 200th anniversary of the Endeavour’s visit to Australia’s east coast. The culmination was a grand, dramatic re-enactment on 29 April, the day the ship had entered Kamay (Botany Bay) and sent a landing party ashore at Kurnell. Many dignitaries were present at the nationally televised event and speeches were delivered by Queen Elizabeth and NSW Premier Robert Askin.
But for Indigenous Australians, the anniversary was not cause for celebration. Indigenous leaders urged their communities to boycott all bicentenary events and declared 29 April a ‘Day of Mourning’. Their protest was led by the Federal Council for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), the national organisation founded in 1958 to fight for civil rights and increased political representation.
FCAATSI was the driving force behind the successful 1967 Referendum campaign for Aboriginal rights where 90.77% of Australians voted YES. Powerful and experienced advocates from FCAATSI included Doug Nicholls, Kath Walker (later known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal), John Newfong, Faith Bandler, Frank Roberts, Bruce McGuinness, Len Watson and Bert Groves.
Wearing red headbands to symbolise the blood shed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since the arrival of the British in 1770, they rallied at Sydney’s lower Town Hall the evening before the official re-enactment ceremony and spent the night in silent vigil in the city centre accompanied by a photographer from the Tribune newspaper, the paper of the Communist Party of Australia. Their supporters included students from the University of Sydney.
The following morning, more than 300 Aboriginal protesters gathered at Hyde Park then marched in silence (a funeral procession) along Oxford and Flinders Streets, wearing badges stating, ‘I support Aboriginal Land Rights’. They stopped at the Captain Cook Hotel before making their way to La Perouse.
During the re-enactment of Cook’s landing at Kurnell, the protesters gathered to lay wreaths on the opposite side of the bay at La Perouse. Pastor Frank Roberts and Doug Nicholls presided over the solemn ceremony. Oodgeroo Noonuccal recited her poem lamenting Cook’s arrival. Protesters lined the beach holding signs with names of Indigenous groups from across Australia who had endured incredible loss since Cook’s visit. Camera crews from various media filmed as wreaths were strewn into the bay by protesters. In a final act of resistance protesters gathered at La Perouse Point and turned their backs as the Royal Yacht Britannia left Kamay.
Many well-known and emerging Indigenous activists were involved in the protest. The Sydney Morning Herald declared it the largest Aboriginal protest ever seen in Sydney. Together with protests in other state capital cities, it brought considerable attention to the burgeoning Aboriginal land rights movement and the campaign for improved conditions for First Nations people and their communities. It also compelled a re-examination of Australian history and the continuing legacy of colonisation.
Curator, Research and Discovery