Australian Aboriginal and African Fights for Liberation

Introduction

This year’s African Liberation Day is celebrated under the slogan “Same Struggle: Smash Settler-Colonialism in Occupied Palestine, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania!”. While many Africans are aware of the subjugation of the indigenous of the Americas and the Zionist project with its ever-escalating oppression of the Palestinian natives, most of us are ignorant of the history of the biggest European colonization project in Oceania – the colonization of Australia that started in 1770 and, is considered by some to be still ongoing. 

While our consciousness as colonized people are often limited by colonial borders and identities, global white supremacy is well connected. The forces of western imperialism have spun a world-wide network ranging from the US to Israel to Europe to Australia using organizations like NATO to coordinate their global domination. Australia fulfills an important function in this network. For example, in 2021 Australia, the United Kingdom and the US signed the so-called AUKUS treaty, a trilateral “security partnership” aimed at enhancing the Western powers control over the Indo-Pacific area as part of the Wests effort to encircle their new main rival, China.  As Clinton Fernandes, Professor of International and Political Studies at the University of New South Wales put it:

“Australia is […] an active, eager participant in the US-led order. Like that other subimperial power, Israel, Australia has a capable, technologically advanced military and a number of intelligence agencies that operate in the region and far afield to uphold the US-led order. Australia’s trade and investment agreements are organised with a similar goal in mind.” (Fernandes, 2022) 

The similarity between the two settler-colonial states as well as their status as agents of white supremacy was once even openly acknowledged by Israel’s former Ambassador to Australia Naftali Tamir:

“Israel and Australia are like sisters in Asia. We are in Asia without the characteristics of Asians. We don’t have yellow skin and slanty eyes. Asia is basically the yellow race. Australia and Israel are not—we are basically the white race.” (Hallé, 2006)

Faced with an internationally operating system of imperialism, we must build an even stronger network of international solidarity– a daunting task for us as we still struggle to organize the people within our own community. To guide our current efforts, I want to recollect some of the past successes of African-Aboriginal solidarity and lessons we can derive from them. I owe this knowledge primarily to the Aboriginal activists and their comrades that I met during a short stay “down under” – thank you for your great camaraderie during our encounters!

Aboriginal Garveyism

Originally founded as a British colony in 1788, Australia became an independent settler-colonial state in 1901. In contrast to the 250 years of European settlement, the original nations of Australia have inhabited the continent for around 65,000 years before they were brutally subjugated by the European settlers (Maynard, 2019). What followed was the trauma of enslavement, genocide, forced child removal, and assimilation into European culture. Up until this day, the native population lives a life of second-class citizens. Nevertheless, the history of Aboriginal-European contact is not a history of willful subjugation. From the day the Europeans embarked on their destructive endeavor, the Aboriginal peoples resisted. It wasn’t until I was able to spend time in Australia that I learned how this history has been intertwined with the liberation struggle of Africans during the last century. 

In its formative years, the Australian colony functioned as a penal settlement for Britain’s surplus population—primarily the poor—whom Britain was no longer willing or able to exploit domestically. The first Africans recorded “down under” were both sailors and exiled convicts. For example, William Cuffay, son of white British woman and an African man from Saint Kitts, was banned to Australia in 1848. The tailor and leader of the Chartists movement (one of Britain’s earliest working-class movements) was sent to Tasmania for “levying war on the queen” (Fryer, 2018).Though it is known that Cuffay continued his political activism during his exile, I have found no records of him or any other of the early convicts engaging with the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia in the 19th century.

However, Africans and indigenous Australians must have come into contact early on. Many Africans, whether from the US, the Caribbean, or West Africa, arrived in Sydney as seamen and inevitably encountered the plight of the Aboriginal Australians, often employed as dock workers. The similarities between the two groups were striking: both were victims of European colonization, both were subjected to harsh working conditions, and both suffered from the dual oppression of racism and capitalist exploitation. It was only natural that they would unite to address these issues. In 1902, the Coloured Progressive Association (CPA) was established by African sailors, Aboriginal wharf workers, and other members of “the darker races” who found themselves laboring in Australia. They were united in their struggle against the overt racism of white Australia and the racist legislation enacted by the colonial government aimed at maintaining—or rather, turning—Australia “white”. (Maynard, 2019)

The CPA ceased operations in 1912 for reasons that remain unclear. However, by that time, a much more radical black ideology, Garveyism, began to take root in Australia. I discovered traces of this movement quite unexpectedly during a short visit to Canberra, Australia’s fairly unspectacular capital. Across from the former Australian Parliament, in a park, I noticed the Pan-African flag introduced by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The flag was printed on a canopy over what seemed to be a semi-permanent protest camp, composed of several tents and containers. Banners in front of the camp read “Stop Black Deaths in Custody” and displayed the faces of Aboriginal individuals who had fallen victim to police violence. Surprised to encounter a Pan-African flag in the heart of Australia, I approached the camp and was warmly greeted first by a dog and then by an Aboriginal man wearing a sweater emblazoned with the famous red, black, and yellow flag of Australia’s native inhabitants.

The comrade introduced me to the history of what I now recognize as the “Aboriginal Tent Embassy,” the world’s longest ongoing protest, initiated in 1972. He himself was the son of someone actively involved in those early days. Located directly across from the old Australian Parliament, the Embassy stands as a stark reminder that Aboriginal people do not consider themselves part of the settler colony forcefully established on their land. The catalyst for the Embassy’s establishment was a speech by then-Prime Minister William McMahon, in which he declared the Australian government’s refusal to grant Aboriginal people unrestricted rights to their land. This betrayal prompted indigenous activists to establish a protest camp right in front of the Parliament (Robinson, 2013).

When I expressed my surprise at seeing the red-green-black flag at the Embassy, the comrade began to educate me on the extensive history of Garveyism in Australia. The interactions between Aboriginal dock workers and African seamen not only led to shared organizing efforts but also to the introduction of radical Black ideas in Australia:

“Through their contacts with African American seamen on the docks and waterfront of Sydney it is likely that the Aboriginal leaders of the 1920s […] had acquired knowledge of the works of Fredrick Douglas, Booker T Washington, WEB Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, amongst others. Therefore, international black movements and ideologies would form the core of the political directives and rhetoric of the 1920s Aboriginal leadership.” (Maynard, 2005)

Instrumental in establishing a local branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Sydney in 1920 were Robert Usher, originally from the West Indies, and Fred Maynard and Tom Lacey, two Aboriginal men, all of whom had previously been active in the Coloured Progressive Association (CPA). In the same year an Australian delegation also attended the first international convention of the UNIA in New York in 1920 (Martin, 1986). As Tom Lacey expressed in a letter from June 1924 to Amy Garvey (an organizer with the UNIA and wife of Marcus Garvey), the Aboriginal militants felt a deep connection with the movement: “God is calling us [the Aboriginal organizers of the UNIA] now as He has chosen your husband Mr. Garvey as a great leader of His people” (Lacey, 1924).

It seems only logical that Aboriginal workers were particularly drawn to Garveyism, a movement that represented a “revolt against the West” and promised a “new world [to] be born out of the ashes of global white supremacy” (Erwing & Stephens, 2019). Marcus himself had not only called for an “Africa for Africans,” but also for an “Australia for Australians.”

The slogan “Australia for Australians” was adopted by the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA), the first pan-Aboriginal movement, founded in Sydney in 1924 by Fred Maynard, Tom Lacey, and others (Maynard, 2005). Aboriginal scholar John Maynard, the grandson of Fred Maynard, notes that Garveyism was a significant influence, inspiring “the rise of a vibrant pan-Aboriginal political movement intent on demanding Aboriginal rights to land, protecting their children from government removal policies, defending an Indigenous cultural identity, demanding citizenship rights and self-determination in their own country, and requiring that Aboriginal people be placed in charge of Aboriginal affairs” (Maynard, 2019).

Like their counterparts in the Garvey movement in the Americas, the “Aboriginal Garveyites” (Maynard, 2019) faced severe repression from the settler colonial state they were challenging. Continued attempts and efforts to block the AAPA’s movement contributed to their eventual disbandment after only four years of activity. However, the decline of Garveyism—globally and in Australia—did not mark the end of the story of Aboriginal-African camaraderie.

Black Power comes to Australia

During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a significant rise in the colonized world’s struggle for self-determination, with the first major victory being the independence of Ghana under the leadership of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the father of revolutionary Pan-Africanism.

The victories of continental Africans and other colonized peoples inspired the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. One of the key organizations during this time was the multi-racial Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960. The SNCC focused on non-violent activism aimed at integrating Black Americans into white society. Despite its important contributions to uplifting African Americans, the SNCC’s shortcomings quickly became apparent: it did not challenge the cultural, economic, and political ideas of white society—its tactics were solely focused on integrating so-called African-Americans into the Euro-American mainstream. It soon became clear that despite the activists’ emphasis on peaceful activism, the American state did not reciprocate with peaceful responses but with brute force. It was Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), a leader in the SNCC and later a member of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, who began to popularize the slogan ‘Black Power’ in his speeches, reflecting on six years with SNCC. Ture expressed the frustrations of many:

“If one listens to some of our “moderate” Negro leaders, it appears that the American Negro is the first race that ever wished to abolish itself. The fact is that what must be abolished is not the black community, but the dependent colonial status that has been inflicted upon it. The racial and cultural personality of the black community must be preserved, and the community must win its freedom while preserving its cultural integrity. This is the essential difference between integration as it is currently practiced and the concept of Black Power.” (Carmichael, 2007)

Ture directly linked Black Power to “a call for Black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community [… to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations” (Carmichael & Hamilton, 1992). The founding of the Black Panther Party in the same year (1966) embodied this ideological shift, signaling an important evolution in the fight for African liberation in the imperialist core.

To some extent, the events in Australia mirrored those in the US. Inspired by the SNCC and other American civil rights organizations, a group of mixed-race students from the University of Sydney formed the ‘Student Action For Aborigines’ in 1965. They began conducting ‘Freedom Rides,’ which, like their US counterparts, aimed at entering the most racially segregated areas of Australia to expose and confront the structures of white supremacy, akin to an open apartheid system. As Gary Foley, Aboriginal ‘intellectual-activist’ and participant in the Australian Black Power Movement, recounts:

“[The „Freedom Ride‟] had the […] important effect of radicalizing a new generation of activists who were teenagers when the „Freedom Ride‟ passed through their towns and they saw the local white racist establishment exposed and challenged in the most powerful way.” (Foley, 2010)

However, similar to the experiences of Africans living in the United States, Aboriginal activists in Australia soon grew frustrated with the integrationist approach. Despite superficial commitments by the Australian government, the situation for many Aboriginal people only deteriorated. Following a 1967 referendum, which ironically had aimed to uplift Aboriginal people, the government closed down the so-called ‘Aboriginal reserves’ (which were akin to those set up for Indigenous peoples in the USA). Though, according to the referendum this move should improve the living conditions, the closure left thousands of Aboriginal men and women without government services or work opportunities. This forced them to relocate to urban areas, with around 20,000 alone moving to Sydney’s Redfern neighborhood, which became the largest Aboriginal community. The neighborhood quickly experienced ‘ghettoization,’ bringing with it all the associated hardships (Foley, 2010).

As the false promises of the settler government became apparent, the youth of Redfern began searching for new solutions to their problems. They found inspiration in the American Black Power movement. Five decades earlier, Garveyism had spread to Australia via hyper-exploited African sailors. In a similar way, the ideas of the Black Power movement reached the Aboriginal population through African-American soldiers that were stationed in Australia during the vicious war against the Vietnamese liberation movement. These soldiers brought to Sydney their experiences as a colonized and racialized people in the US, along with central texts of the Black Power movement such as “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, “Soledad Brother” by George Jackson, and “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation” by Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton.

In 1969, Aboriginal activists actively engaged with members of the American and Caribbean Black Power movements. That year, Bermudian scholar and Pan-African organizer Dr. Roosevelt Brown, later known as Pauulu Kamarakafego, was invited to Melbourne by an organization called “Victorian Aborigines Advancement League” (led by the two Aboriginal activist Bob Maza and Bruce McGuiness)  to discuss self-determination for colonized peoples. During his presentation, Dr. Brown used the term ‘Black Power,’ which the white Australian media quickly picked up and inadvertently popularized. Headlines like ‘Black Power Comes to Australia’ were crafted to instill fear of militant Aboriginal activism among the white settler population (Foley, 2010). For Indigenous Australians, however, “Black Power” developed into a vision and a call to action not just for Africans in the US or the Caribbean, but for all oppressed peoples. They understood what Kwame Nkrumah had early expressed in his “Message to Black People in Britain” – that Black Power was “the power of the four-fifths of the world population which has been systematically damned into a state of undevelopment by colonialism and neo-colonialism.” (Nkrumah, 1968 as cited in Nkrumah, 2003)

Headline of the magazine “The Australian” from 1971 (Source: Foley, 2010)

Just one year later, Bob Maza and a delegation of Aboriginal activists traveled to the ‘Congress of African People’ in Atlanta, Georgia, following an invitation from Pauulu Kamarakafego. Their goal was to deepen exchanges with the African diaspora in the United States and to draw inspiration for the Australian Black Power movement. Patsy Kruger, a member of the delegation, reflected that the experiences gained during their stay transformed her into a “sister in the struggle for the liberation of black people, wherever they are and whoever they are”. (Piccini, 2016)

Part of the trip included a short visit to New York’s National Black Theater. It was there that Bob Maza recognized the opportunity theaters offered to colonized and marginalized communities to express themselves. Inspired by this, Bob Maza returned to Australia and assisted a group of young Aboriginal activists, including Gary Foley and Paul Coe, in establishing the “National Black Theater” (NBT) in Redfern. The group utilized street theater performances to raise awareness of their demands, such as the return of their Aboriginal lands, and to highlight the daily struggles of Aboriginal people in white-dominated Australia. Once the NBT acquired its own property, it quickly turned into a community hub and a meeting point for local Aboriginal activists, who came to be known as the “Black Caucus”. (Johnson, 2014)

Like many “Third World” peoples around the world—be it in India, Polynesia, or Palestine—Aboriginal militants such as the “Black Caucus” were particularly drawn to the Black Panther Party, with its militant stance, heavy emphasis on self-determination, and internationalism. In an interview, Gary Foley explained why the Aboriginal youth felt so drawn to the Panthers:

“When we looked at the police harassment we faced, we realized that the Black Panther Party was talking about the same kind of harassment in Oakland. We regarded our situation as almost identical to theirs: impoverished black communities were being intimidated and harassed by police forces. So we looked at what the Black Panthers had done. We adopted and adapted some of their tactics and strategies into our movement.” (Vate, 2020)

Among the programs inspired by the Black Panthers were the “community survival programs,” such as community patrols against police violence (“pig patrols”), free breakfast programs for children, medical services, and free legal aid. These programs were operated in Redfern in the early 1970s. Some of these Aboriginal men and women active in the Black Caucus, including Gary Foley, Paul Coe, and Sam Watson, also became involved in Australia’s own version of the “Panthers.”

In Brisbane, 450 miles north of Sydney, an Aboriginal man named Denis Walker formed the “Australian Black Panther Party,” which heavily drew on their American counterpart in both ideology and action. The American Black Panther Party had actively assisted their Australian comrades by providing them with party literature, which later served as a blueprint for the organization (Trometter, 2021). In their own version of the Panther’s 10-point program, they demanded “restitution for the armed robbery of our land, which is the social, cultural, and economic base of any people” (Black Panther Party of Australia, 1972 as cited in Trometter, 2021), adapting their demands to the local situation, which differed from that of African-Americans.

The Australian Panthers showed a courage similar to their role model. In a clear adaptation of the determination and language of the Black Panther Party, they declared:

“If the pigs are not forced to respect our legal rights, then we advocate that we be allowed to arm ourselves to defend ourselves and the Black Community against the naked undisguised aggressive violence of the exploitative system and the fascist pigs who are armed and paid to protect it.” (Black Panther Party of Australia, 1972 as cited in (Trometter, 2021)

Though small in number, the Panthers in Brisbane initiated Pig Patrols, established community services similar to those in Redfern, and held regular lectures in their “Black Studies Program,” which dealt with Marxism, police brutality, and the state of Aboriginal people in the Australian colony. Despite these accomplishments, their inability to organize the masses within their ranks—partly due to state repression against the party’s militants and partly due to the government’s appetite for integrating the less radical elements of the Aboriginal activist sphere—restricted the party to a fringe movement that eventually dissolved within a few years (Trometter, 2021).

Aboriginal Solidarity with the Anti-Colonial Resistance in Africa

Aboriginal activists’ awareness of political movements extended beyond the Western world, partly due to keen observations of world politics and partly due to interactions with exchange students from other colonized countries. Last year, I had the opportunity to speak with Gary Foley, who remains a vibrant force in the movement after more than 50 years. He shared memories with me of meeting students from various African countries, such as Zimbabwe. These interactions sparked lively exchanges between Aboriginal students and the African exchange students, mutual education, and collectively organized protests in Australia supporting anti-colonial struggles in Africa. 

One event that made it to the history books were the so-called “Springbok tour” protests of 1971. The background of the protest was a tour of Apartheid South Africa’s rugby team (nicknamed to this day as Springboks) to Australia. As it is the case nowadays with the Israeli Apartheid state (Fahy, 2024), Australia in the 70s did support South African Apartheid regime despite a global campaign to boycott, divest and sanction the criminal state. To quote Gary Foley another time: “Two of the biggest racist countries, they stick together.” (Garnham, 2021) The tour ultimately turned into a disaster due to massive protests the team was met with wherever they showed up. Though Aboriginal radicals like the “Black Caucus” were instrumental in the demonstrations, a large number of white people had also joined the demonstrations – many of whom had been at best indifferent to the struggle against racism in the very country they were living in as part of the settler population. The members of the Australian Black Power movement criticized this hypocrisy in the most principled way: Instead of engaging in the envious bargaining for white people’s attention we are too often witnessing today, Aboriginal Australians were at the core of the protests for a liberated South Africa. At the same time, they consistently exposed white Australians who protested against overseas atrocities while ignoring those occurring at home. Ultimately, this strategy helped engage more white Australians than ever in the indigenous struggle for land rights (Foley, 2010).

Looking at this account, one starts to understand why the Aboriginal protestors that set out to erect their own embassy in 1972 decided to pick the red-black-green flag. They did not choose the flag as a symbol of a foreign, distinct struggle – on the contrary, they understood themselves to be part of the very struggle the RBG stood (and still stands) for:

“[T]he Embassy activists, in part to emphasize the sense of alienation [from white Australia] the Embassy represented, as well as underlining their assertions of Aboriginal sovereignty, set about designing and flying their own flag. The first flag that flew on the tents was a black, green and red pennant which was the flag developed fifty years earlier by Marcus Garvey as the symbol of his international black consciousness movement.” (Foley, 2014)

A couple of months later, a second black-red and yellow flag was added to the Embassy, representing specifically the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. 

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, 1972 (Source: Foley, 2010)

Another clear expression of the ‘international black consciousness’ among many Aboriginal activists at the time was the participation of an Australian delegation in the 6th Pan-African Congress, held in 1974 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Proposed by Kwame Nkrumah in 1970, this event was a continuation of the legendary 5th Pan-African Congress (1945). It was organized under the guidance of the renowned Afro-Caribbean communist C.L.R. James and the previously mentioned scholar-activist Dr. Pauulu Kamarakafego, with support from notable figures like Julius Nyerere (President of Tanzania), Amy Jacques Garvey, Shirley Graham Du Bois (political organizer and wife of W.E.B. Du Bois), and Ahmed Sekou Toure (revolutionary Pan-African and President of Guinea). (Swan, 2021)

At Kamarakafego’s behest, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Sykes, who grew up in Queensland, Australia, became involved in organizing the 6th PAC. Previously active in the Aboriginal Black Power movement and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Sykes was instrumental in broadening the scope of the African liberation movement. (Swan, 2021) In an open letter, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American soldier who had been stationed in Australia in the 1940s, spoke from the perspective of her indigenous Australian comrades who despite having no “African origins in their past, yet who wished to be recognized as part of the struggle.” She expressed their desire for an “international black brotherhood” in order to unite “our struggle against our common enemies: racism, oppression, colonialism, with fortified determination”. (Sykes, 1973 as cited in Piccini, 2016)

In its closing declaration the 6th Pan-African congress reaffirmed not only its commitment to anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism but also its support for “the unity between the peoples of Africa and of African descent and all peoples“ and “liberation movements in Africa and outside Africa”. (Said, 1974)

Roberta Sykes, third from the left, at an event promoting the 6th PAC in Jamaica, 1973 (Source: Adebajo, 2020)

The universality of the anti-imperialist struggle

50 years later, the links between Africans and Aboriginals are still strong. When the Black Lives Matter protests erupted after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, a new generation of Aboriginal activists took to the streets across the whole continent of Australia. On the one hand these activists showed their unwavering support for and solidarity with Africans in the US. On the other hand, these protests were also used to highlight the situation of the Aboriginal population of Australia – extremely high incarceration rates, police harassment and the ever-growing amount of Aboriginal people that died in custody (see for example Allam et al., 2021 and Knaus, 2023). 

New Aboriginal-led organizations like the ‘Black Peoples Union’ are diligently studying movements such as the Garvey movement, the Black Panther Party, and the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, alongside their own ancestral histories, to draw lessons for today. Like their predecessors in the 1920s and 1970s, they position themselves within a global struggle of (neo-)colonized people against white supremacy. This perspective helps our comrades to overcome a significant challenge—after centuries of genocide they are a minority on their own continent. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2021), less than 5% of Australia’s population traces their ancestry back to the continent’s original inhabitants. However, by connecting their fight against settler-colonialism in Australia with global struggles—such as those in Africa against colonialism and the Palestinian resistance against Zionism—it becomes clear, in the words of Kwame Ture, that as colonized people “we are not outnumbered, we are outorganized”.

In this spirit, I want to conclude this text with two calls to action for fellow (Pan-)African: First, get organized and join an organization. Contrary to what social media might suggest, history is not shaped by prominent individuals or ‘activist influencers,’ but by the organized masses. Our ancestors (be they African, Aboriginal Australian, etc.) have made their mark on history not through individual actions, but by working collectively within their communities. Second, while our primary goal should always be to unify and liberate Africa, we must not limit our political scope to just the African world. Throughout the world, wherever the forces of capitalism and imperialism are found, there are also forces of resistance. As Pan-Africanists, we should reach out to other colonized peoples, organize with them, share our experiences, and learn from theirs—not as an act of charity or mere ‘allyship,’ but because our struggles are mutually dependent. As the great revolutionary Ahmed Sekou Toure emphasized: 

“Modern imperialism, which has grown from capitalism, affects the entire world. To effectively destroy imperialism, and thus liberate the Peoples, the effort must be universal. So long as other Peoples suffer oppression, exploitation, and indignity, any victory against imperialism in Africa will remain precarious.” (Sekou Toure, 1978)

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