Vincent ‘Tommy’ Lingiari’s leadership of the Gurindji people at the time of the Wave Hill Station walk-off in 1966 was a major contribution to the Australian Aborigines struggle for justice and land rights.
For some 60,000 years these people had successfully managed themselves and their land, an area in the upper reaches of what is now called the Victoria River, some 600 kilometers south of Darwin. Then the first white settlers arrived in the 1880s with huge numbers of cattle. The lives of the Gurindji people would never be the same again.
Prior to the 1880s encounters with Europeans had been few and far between for Aborigines in this part of Australia’s north.
The first European to explore the Victoria River was John Wickham, Captain of HMS Beagle, in 1839. He and his crew went more than 200 km upstream. Sixteen years later, the explorer and surveyor Augustus Gregory led a scientific expedition across the top end of Australia, starting at the mouth of the Victoria River in October 1855 and ending in Brisbane in December 1856.
In 1879 another explorer, Alexander Forrest, crossed the Victoria River on his journey from the Western Australian coast to the Overland Telegraph Line in the Northern Territory. It was on this expedition that good pasture land was discovered which would lead to a land grab by pastoralists.
Nat ‘Bluey’ Buchanan and his family were given a pastoral lease in 1893 to take over Gurindji land. Buchanan was a very experienced bushman and pastoral owner already as well as being famous for his long-distance cattle drives. For example, in 1881 he had been responsible for the movement of 20,000 head of cattle from Southern Queensland across to Glencoe – a distance of 3,200 km.
The initial stock for Buchanan’s Wave Hill Station was a modest 1,000 head of cattle. These four-legged beasts were something new to the Gurindji people who soon realised they were another source of food. The pastoralists didn’t appreciate the interest of the Aborigines in their operations and it wasn’t long before the killings and massacres started which would go on for more than 80 years.
Historical research by Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins suggests the first murder recorded by pastoralists occurred at Wave Hill Station:
Gordon Buchanan, Nat Buchanan’s son, reports that Sam ‘Greenhidc’ Croker, one of the men accompanying his father, shot an Aboriginal man for stealing a bucket and a couple of billies from the station. He was shot in the back while trying to escape.
Croker continued his aggressive ways but was eventually murdered by an Aboriginal. Nat Buchanan had a different reputation to Crocker and was said to have had a good working relationship with Aboriginals and engaged them to work for him.
One of the conditions for leaseholders of land in the Northern Territory stated that:
. . . Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Province and their descendants, during the continuance of this demise, full and free right of ingress, egress and regress into, upon and over the said Waste Lands of the Crown . . . and in and to the springs and surface water thereon . . . and to take and use for food birds and animals ferae naturae in such manner as they would have been entitled to do if this demise had not been made . . .
The South Australian Government, responsible for administering the Northern Territory from 1863 to 1910, inserted this clause to protect the Aboriginal community from starvation as a result of the loss of their tribal land. However it was ignored by the Government and by pastoralists.
Author Josephine Flood, quoting research on the depopulation of Central Australian Aboriginals undertaken by historian Dick Kimber, observes it wasn’t just guns that accounted for deaths:
It emerged that between 1860 and 1895 punitive patrols avenging the murder of whites and spearing of cattle shot 650–850 Aborigines—almost all men. This is a horrifyingly high casualty rate, averaging 18–24 murders per year, but introduced diseases, especially influenza and typhoid, accounted for even more deaths. Kimber estimates another 900 of an estimated original population of 4500 in the early 1860s died from the new germs.
Justice John Toohey, the first Aboriginal Land Commissioner, summed up the situation in 1981 with a brief and incomplete record of this period:
Although there had been relatively little violence between Aboriginals and white explorers, the 1880s and 1890s saw an increase in violence with attacks by Aboriginals upon cattle and some retaliation from pastoralists. Pressure for police protection for the pastoralists and their cattle led to the stationing of Mounted Constable W. H. Willshire at Gordon Creek [in 1894]. He led groups in reprisals against Aboriginals for cattle killing. This period of cattle killing and reprisals seems to have continued until well into the 1920s.
Willshire had previously spent a decade of raping and murdering Aboriginals in Central Australia. He was the only white person to be charged of murder in 1891 and, after a sham trial, was acquitted. By being sent to Gordon Creek he was to continue his mayhem at will.
Toohey’s statement of “some retaliation from pastoralists” doesn’t tell the full story as, for some whites, killing aboriginals was a sport. For others, Aboriginals were simply “vermin” to be eradicated, with senior Government members turning a blind eye to the slaughter. Overall, it is estimated there were over 3,000 deaths of Aboriginals during the period of South Australia’s administration of the Northern Territory from 1863 to 1910.
It seems the real intention was to protect the pastoralist’s interests, not the Aboriginals.
The World of Vincent Lingiari
This was the environment that Vincent Lingiari was born into. Both his parents were Gurindji and had worked at Wave Hill Station, for no wages but for food and lodging. The conditions were appalling. It was only in 1913 that legislation was introduced requiring that in return for their work, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory should receive food, clothes, tea and tobacco.
There is some dispute as to Vincent’s actual birth date. Some give it as 1908 while others, including some Government records, say 1919. According to folk singer and former Northern Territory Administrator, Ted Egan, Vincent Lingiari was born in 1919 at Victoria River Gorge, NT.
In writing a brief biography of Lingiari, Egan states:
Vincent Lingiari started working on stations at approximately 12 years of age. He never received a formal education and was apparently called ‘Tommy Vincent’ by his employers.
Although Lingiari became a head stockman at Wave Hill, he initially received no cash payment. The first time that he handled money was in about 1953 when he lined up with the other stockmen at the Negri River races and was given £5 pocket-money.
Vestey takes over Wave Hill Station
In 1913 the Buchanan family sold their property to one of the Vestey brothers’ companies. By this time Wave Hill Station had grown to occupy an area of 27,000 square km and was stocked with 75,000 cattle and 1,400 horses.
Born in 1859, William Vestey came from an old Liverpool family of traders. They already had global operations and during World War One he and his younger brother, Edmonde, were supplying meat from Argentina to England using refrigerated ships. For this service to the British nation William would later be given a life peerage and become known as Lord Vestey.
The Vestey operation at Wave Hill was very profitable as they paid very little in lease payments to the Government and they had cheap Aboriginal labour available as stockmen. Indigenous women and children also worked in the homestead attending to cooking, cleaning and gardening duties.
A 1946 report by anthropologists R.M. and C.H. Berndt showed that:
Aboriginals were doing a wide range of tasks on the stations, that children under twelve were working illegally, that accommodation and rations were inadequate, that there was sexual abuse of Aboriginal women and prostitution for rations and clothing. No sanitation or garbage facilities were provided nor was there safe drinking water; the Berndts attributed the death of mothers and children at birth partly to the poor rations.
After WW2 wages were required to be paid to Aboriginals but governments failed to enforce the payments. The 1949 regulations set the payment for station workers at £1 per week, and increasing to £3 30s by 1965. This payment was approximately 25 percent of the Award for whites. One way station managers got around the system was to convert wages to credits at the station store and then inflate store prices as much 300 percent of town prices.
The station workers asked for wages to be increased but were continually refused. And so the unfair system continued into the 1960s leaving station workers very unhappy, but powerless, with the situation.
In 1965 the North Australian Workers Union brought forth a wages claim and the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission began hearing evidence – mostly from pastoralists. In March 1966 it delivered its findings that equal pay for station workers would apply but would be delayed by two-and-a-half years before coming into effect at the end of 1968.
This delay in implementing the decision was viewed as being unsatisfactory and Dexter Daniels, an Aboriginal organiser employed by the North Australian Workers Union, went calling on cattle station workers to go on strike. This is not the first time strikes had taken place but previously they had little effect.
Lingiari Leads the Wave Hill Station Walk-off
Gurindji man, Sandy Moray, had been saying for years that they should be running their own cattle stations on their land.
Vincent Lingiari, by now a Gurindji elder and head stockman at Wave Hill, agreed that getting their land back was the long-term aim but after meeting with Daniels and others felt they should go on strike for more wages and better conditions. This way they would have support of members of the union movement with links to the Communist Party of Australia.
On 22 August 1966 Lingiari again asked the Wave Hill manager, Tom Fisher, to pay stockmen $25 pay per week.[Decimal currency was introduced into Australia on 14 February 1966] Fisher said it couldn’t be done. Lingiari replied, “All right, if I won’t get it I’m walking off today.” And he did.
Brian Manning, an activist and trade unionist in support of the struggle by Aboriginals, describes what happened next:
Vincent went down to the Aboriginal’s camp and called the people together. He told them that proper wages had been refused so he had said they were walking off. There was no dissention. The stockmen agreed they should walk off. The people collected their belongings and quietly walked away from Wave Hill Station to the dry bed of the Victoria River near the Police Station and Welfare settlement about ten miles away.
It wasn’t long before Peter Morris, the Vestey Pastoral Manager responsible for the 15 pastoral properties in Australia, flew to Wave Hill to try to convince Lingiari and his people to return to work. Lingiari refused; they were not going back to the appalling conditions.
The Gurindjis couldn’t survive without the support of members of the North Australian Workers Union. Brian Manning, with others, made many trips in his Bedford truck over the rough roads from Darwin bringing supplies. But it would require support from unionists and others around Australia if the strike was to continue. In this regard the Sydney-based author and journalist Frank Hardy was able to achieve national coverage of the strike. He would soon be on his way to the Northern Territory to see for himself what was happening. These meetings with the Gurindjis would later be described in his 1968 book, The Unlucky Australians.[11}
With the wet season approaching the Gurindjis had to move from the dry river bed to near the Police Station and Welfare Branch.
In March 1967, Lingiari led his people on an audacious move to create a new settlement at Wattie Creek called Daguragu about 13km away on land leased to the Vesteys. They were now illegal squatters on what was once their own land. As Vincent Lingiari had said in August 2006, “We want to live on our land, our way”
In order to gain support from unionists on the southern states, Guringji people – including Lingiari – toured the country. Japanese researcher Minoru Horari, who later spent time living with the Gurindji people, explains their strategy:
The Gurindji people knew that unionists were keen about the issue of equal wages. They knew that ‘equal wages’ was the key term for gaining support from outsiders. After the walk-off leaders confirmed these people’s support, the Gurindji people gradually started to educate them to understand the real purpose of their action.
‘Our Land’ – Vincent Lingiari
Frank Hardy was now understanding what they were trying to do and helped prepare a petition to the Governor-General seeking ‘to regain tenure of our tribal lands in the Wave Hill-Limbunya area of the Northern Territory’.
This was the start of a protracted battle for land rights that would go on for another eight years and more. Without the financial, material and political support of the white population in the southern states, driven initially by the Communist Party and later by the Australian Labor Party, trade unions and student bodies, the strike would have failed.
From around 1967 the government of the day commenced reforms. Liberal M.P., W.C. Wentworth, was particularly keen to support the Gurindji claims but was stymied by members from the Country Party coalition. Real change came about when Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister in 1972 with a platform to promote Aboriginal land rights.
Eventually the existing Wave Hill lease by the Vesteys was surrendered and two new leases issued: one for Vesteys and the other, a 3,250 square kilometer lease, was for the Murramulla Gurindji Company.
The official handover ceremony took place on 16 August 1975 in Daguragu when Prime Minister Whitlam handed over the lease documents and pour sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand, saying:
Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands part of the earth as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.
On 12 June 1976 Vincent (Tommy) Lingiari of Dagaragu, N.T. was appointed a Member of the Order Of Australia (A.M.) for services to the Aboriginal community.
In 1986 the Daguragu leasehold was converted to freehold title. It was finally their own land again.
Two years later, on 21 January 1988, he died at Daguragu and was given a traditional burial.
The story of Vincent Lingiari and the Wave Hill walk-off was put to music by Kevin Carmody and Paul Kelly. On 5 November 2014 their classic ballad was sung at the Sydney memorial service for Gough Whitlam who had died on 21 October 2014, aged 98.
Vincent Lingiari’s Leadership
Vincent Lingiari is described by Brian Manning as being “a quietly spoken, dignified man who spoke with the confidence of a leader.”
He had an unstopable passion for his people’s rights to their land. He would never give up the struggle which would become the longest strike in Australia’s history.
He had principles. It was not just about the money. The poor pay they received was simply one example of ongoing injustice. As he said after Vesteys tried offering more money for him to return, “You can keep your gold. We just want our land back.”
Jeff McMullen, the Australian journalist, author and television presenter was asked by the Gurindji elders to present the Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture for 2015. Among the points raised by McMullen were these which sumarises Lingiari’s contributions:
With patience, humility and extraordinary dignity, Vincent Lingiari’s fight for genuine Land Rights shows us how it is possible to unite and inspire enough Australians to move the country towards a legal settlement that is fair in the eyes of most reasonable people.
He simply wanted recognition of the truth and legal acknowledgment that Australia’s First Nations had been dispossessed unreasonably and unlawfully for two centuries.
Vincent Lingiari measured his response to this oppression calmly and carefully. Forever peaceful and patient, he knew that some day justice would come and he made it clear throughout almost nine years of stoic resistance and tireless campaigning, that the real struggle was for Land Rights, the cultural connection to country.
The Gurindji campaign influenced the passing the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) by the Federal Government in December 1976. This was the first legislation in Australia that enabled Indigenous people to claim land rights for country where traditional ownership could be proven.
Overall, Vincent Lingiari’s victory is one of the most outstanding achievements in the history of the struggle for the recognition of the rights of indigenous people.
The sad irony is that Lingiari’s vision for Daguragu didn’t last long after his death. Today the settlement is almost dead itself. Where descendants of the Gurindjis who staged the walk-off should now be working their land, it is now left to donkeys to inhabit buildings that were supposed to be industrial enterprises.
The reasons are complex and varied and have been explored in depth by Charlie Ward in his book, A Handful of Sand, and by others.
However, one cannot take away the gift that Vincent Lingiari gave to the First People and to all Australians.
- The exact birth date of Vincent Lingiari is not certain other than to say it is likely to have been in 1908. Photos of Vincent Lingiari shown here are taken from the documentary film The Unlucky Australians made in 1973 by British filmmaker John Goldschmidt. Although banned for showing in Australia at the time it is currently available on ABC iView until 1 Aug 2018.
- Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins, ed., Yijarni: true stories from Gurindji country (Canberra, A.C.T.: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016), 67.
- Tony Roberts, “The Brutal Truth: What Happened in the Gulf Country”, The Monthly, accessed September 22 2017. https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2009/november/1330478364/tony-roberts/brutal-truth.
- Josephine Flood, The Original Australians: Story of the Aboriginal People (Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2006), 115.
- Office of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Gurindji Land Claim to Daguragu Station: report by the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Mr Justice Toohey, to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and to the Administrator of the Northern Territory (Canberra, 1982), 4.
- Roberts, “The Brutal Truth.”
- Australian Dictionary of Biography, Lingiari, Vincent (1919–1988), accessed September 22, 2017, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lingiari-vincent-14178.
- Office of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Gurindji Land Claim, 4.
- Parliament of Australia, Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee Inquiry into Stolen Wages by Dr Thalia Anthony, accessed October 22, 2017. https://www.aph.gov.au/~/media/wopapub/senate/committee/legcon_ctte/completed_inquiries/2004_07/stolen_wages/submissions/sub17_pdf.ashx, 5.
- Brian Manning, “6th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture 2002,” Collaborating for Indigenous Rights, accessed September 19, 2017. http://indigenousrights.net.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/384149/f81.pdf.
- Frank Hardy, The Unlucky Australians (Camberwell East, VIC: One Day Hill, 2006).
- Minoru Hokari, Gurindji Journey: A Japanese Historian in the Outback (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2011), 218.
- Hardy, The Unlucky Australians, 109.
- Chris Martin, “The Gurindji Strike and Land Claim,” Green Left Weekly, accessed September 22, 2017. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/gurindji-strike-and-land-claim.
- “Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory,” Art Gallery NSW, accessed October 22, 2017. https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/58.2000/.
- Manning, “6th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture.”
- Jeff McMullen, “15th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture 2015,” Charles Darwin University, accessed August 21, 2017. http://www.cdu.edu.au/indigenous-leadership/vincent-lingiari/2015.
- McMullen, “15th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture.”
- Zach Hope, “Vincent Lingiari’s vision left to rot and die,” NT News, accessed October 25, 2017. http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/northern-territory/vincent-lingiaris-vision-left-to-rot-and-die/news-story/18c14695b559b4128b69e9c50ce09135
- Charlie Ward, A Handful of Sand: The Gurindji Struggle, After the Walk-off (Melbourne, Australia: Monash University Publishing, 2016.
- Flood, The Original Australians.