Fifty years ago, 200 Gurindji stock workers, domestic servants and their families withdrew their labour and walked off Baron Vesteys’ Wave Hill cattle station 800km south of Darwin. Their heroic 9-year struggle began the modern land rights movement.
According to Aboriginal activist and historian Gary Foley it was the start “of a decade of [Aboriginal] uprising” that saw the Aboriginal tent embassy established, the foundation of Aboriginal legal and health services, and numerous demonstrations and actions. It also forged bonds of solidarity and support with the organised trade union movement, facilitated largely by Communist Party activists.
Gurindji people lived on their land for tens of thousands of years before European explorers arrived on it in the 1850s. Large scale cattle grazing began in the 1880s and Wave Hill station was established in 1883. This marked the dispossession of the Gurindji people as the pastoralists – big land owners – took control.
Baron Vestey, an English lord and multinational beef capitalist, bought Wave Hill in 1914. Vestey and the pastoralists before him had water sources fenced and dingoes and kangaroos shot. Their cattle ate and trampled plants and food. When the Gurindji and others such as the Warlpiri hunted and ate cattle to survive the devastation of their land, they were met with deadly reprisals from police, like the 1928 Coniston massacre.
These were the actions and conditions that forced Gurindji people to accept “employment” by the English Baron Vestey on the Wave Hill cattle station. Really they were treated like slaves. The Gurindji were housed in tin humpys, equivalent to kennels. They only received weekly rations of flour, sugar, tea and the worst scrappy cuts of salted beef for their labour. They rarely received wages. It was illegal to pay them wages equal to non-Aboriginal workers. The Gurindji felt they were treated like dogs.
On August 23 1966 a band of 200 odd stock workers, domestic servants and their families went to the office of Vesteys’ station manager. Mick Rangiari, one Gurindji leader, described the scene in an interview with supporter Jack Doolan. Vincent Lingiari and other elders asked the manager, Mr Fisher, to come out of his office, where he stood surprised in the middle of the 200. Vincent announced that all the workers were walking off the station because they were treated like animals, not human beings. “Oh you’re joking!” replied Fisher. But Vincent and his people weren’t. They walked off and made their first camp at Victoria River, sending a telegram to Darwin for support.
As with any struggle, the Wave Hill walk off didn’t develop in isolation, nor without leaders, ideas or support. Lingiari led the walk off soon after returning from a trip to hospital in Darwin where he met Davis Daniels, an Aboriginal man working as an orderly. Davis was the secretary of the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights (NTCAR). His brother Dexter Daniels was the Aboriginal organiser for the North Australian Workers Union (NAWU) and NTCAR President. Both brothers were central leaders in the struggle, mobilising their organisations.
Unique for its time, NTCAR rules ensured that 75% of the executive must be made up of Aboriginal people. All general meetings needed a majority of Aboriginal people in attendance. Many other similar organisations of the time were run by concerned non-Indigenous people.
Previous struggle, especially the strike of Aboriginal workers from the government Department of Native Affairs in 1950-51, provided a foundation of experience and support for NTCAR. The group challenged discrimination and segregation with publicity and direct action. They arranged legal defence for Aboriginal people, investigated underpayment of wages and worked against racist police violence. In 1964 NTCAR organised a delegation to the Darwin May Day rally of 400 Aboriginal workers and their families, carrying placards that read “Equal work, equal rights, equal pay.”
But NTCAR was initially organised by a young white Communist Party activist, Brian Manning. Manning had arrived in Darwin in 1956, working as a wharfie. He befriended an Aboriginal man who taught him about their oppression. In 1959 he joined the Communist Party because he was impressed by its progressive policies on Aboriginal issues. He attended the Communist Party national conference in 1961, spoke of the situation facing Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, and was encouraged by Victorian communists to set up NTCAR.
Manning organised the foundation meeting of NTCAR. There were 26 Aboriginal people and two white people in attendance. Manning was elected to NTCAR council as Assistant Secretary. He was also secretary of the Darwin Communist Party branch. George Gibbs, another white communist activist, was also central in NTCAR. He was secretary of the NAWU waterside workers section. It had a Communist Party majority on its executive, although the left hadn’t led the NAWU as a whole since 1952.
Vice President of NTCAR, Terry Robinson, was another Communist Party member. ASIO documents from the 1960s comment on all three. They went on to give key support to the Gurindji walk off, regularly delivering food, supplies and material by truck from Darwin and facilitating support from the Darwin communists and wharfies.
In 1965 the NAWU won a case at the Federal Arbitration Commission for Aboriginal pastoral workers to be paid equal award wages. They had been pressured into action partially by communist union organisers winning a progressive policy on Aboriginal workers at the Australian Council of Trade Unions. But a lawyer for the pastoralists, John Kerr QC – later to be an infamous Governor General – successfully argued for a racist “slow worker” loophole and a three year implementation delay until 1968.
Dexter Daniels and his comrades in NTCAR were unhappy with the way the NAWU had handled the case. They were not prepared to wait for 3 years for equal wages. The pastoralists planned to use the time to develop new techniques, like helicopter mustering, to end their reliance on Aboriginal labour.
Without full support from right-wing NAWU leader Paddy Carroll, Dexter Daniels organised a strike of the pastoralists’ Aboriginal workforce. Carroll only wanted a one station protest strike. Daniels wanted to go much further. Workers from the Newcastle Waters station, led by Gurindji man Lupna Giari, went out first in June 1966. These were the events that prepared the way for the Wave Hill walk-off that became the centre of the struggle. Soon after Lingiari led the withdrawal of labour from Wave Hill, famous author and Communist Party activist Frank Hardy was to join the Gurindji. Hardy became an important ally, and went on to write a book detailing their struggle, The Unlucky Australians.
The Gurindji escalated their campaign dramatically in March 1967. They rejected attempts to buy them off with small wage increases. Then they moved to a sacred place called Daguragu, known to the pastoralists as Wattie Creek, to set up a permanent settlement. There they decided to demand rights to their land which Baron Vestey was occupying. Lingiari was adamant that the Gurindji would never work for Vestey again. Hardy helped them write a petition to the Governor General on the basis of an obscure legal concept, native land rights. The Gurindji proposed to set up their own communal cattle station. Predictably, they were rejected, and the struggle moved onto the political plane.
Outreach work to the broader working class via the trade union movement was essential to build support for the Gurindji struggle and provide attention that protected them from violence and intimidation. The Communist Party organised Lupna Giari and Dexter Daniels to go on speaking tours of the east coast in October 1967. They spent 5 weeks speaking to meetings of workers to raise support.
More tours were to follow throughout the struggle, financed by the Building Workers Industrial Union and Actors Equity. The celebrated NSW Builders Labourers Federation also funded speakers to visit their members. Their leader Jack Mundey said that although racism existed in the membership, the tours were important to fight against it. Frank Hardy spoke at mass meetings too, for example to 500 people on National Aboriginal Day in 1970 at the Sydney Teachers Federation Auditorium. Hardy and Manning wrote regular reports in the Communist Party newspaper, Tribune.
Money from the trade union movement flowed. In June 1968, Tribune reported workers from a Brisbane meatworks donated $800 from their strike fund. Carpenters in Sydney raised a levy of $6 a week per member for the Gurindji. Miners in Wollongong also raised a weekly levy. Manning was elected by Darwin wharfies to attend an all ports conference in Sydney where he solicited a levy of $1 per member. This raised $17,000. The Meat Industry Employees Union banned handling of meat from Newcastle Waters and Wave Hill stations. Significant support demonstrations were held in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and even London in 1968. NTCAR provided the Gurindji building materials and machinery. A truck was donated by unions in the south.
Over 9 years the campaign ebbed and flowed as the Gurindji held firm in their struggle for land rights. In 1972 the McMahon Liberal government was replaced by the Whitlam Labor government, ending 27 years of Liberal rule. The national Aboriginal movement, with the Gurindji front and centre, played a vital role in destabilising the Liberals. Whitlam reflected overwhelming public pressure by promising land rights.
In 1975, the Wave Hill lease was split in two. Vestey kept one half and the Gurindji were given leasehold of the other. In 1985 they were finally granted inalienable freehold title.
Despite their important victory, Gurindji efforts to run their own cattle station have been hampered. The hostile capitalist class and their state apparatus continue to interfere. They will never willingly allow them to succeed and set an example.
The Gurindji’s victory was an historic step forward, full of lessons that can act as a reference point. It continues to give confidence to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike that if we fight together against Australia’s racist ruling class, we can win. But the struggle is far from over today, as mining companies in particular fight to wind back past gains and undermine new attempts to organise. The fight for Aboriginal self determination and for socialism go hand in hand, as Australian capitalism’s very foundation is the dispossession and exploitation of all Aboriginal people.
By Kirk Leonard