by Don Longo


Truth-telling starts not with truth but with memory. Memory throws light on the unseen demons that lurk in unsuspected shadows. It overcomes victimhood, affirms resistance, resets our models of experience and gives form to cultural and political identities. It creates collective solidarity.

Why, then, have we all so readily forgotten about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy that was established in Adelaide in July 1972?

A book on this important event was self-published in 2014: The 1972 Adelaide Aboriginal Tent Embassy, compiled by Sr Michele Madigan of the Sisters of St Joseph, who has a history of assisting Aboriginal communities in South Australia. The book includes photographs, reports from newspapers, archival documents from the Adelaide City Council and interviews with Aboriginal persons connected with the event. It rescued the Embassy from historical obscurity and was a welcome reminder of an important episode in SA’s history and race relations, and of new ways of continuing Aboriginal struggles for social recognition and land rights. It is now a fitting tribute for this, the 50th anniversary year of the event.


The events surrounding the initial Canberra Embassy, from 26 January to July 1972, are familiar to most Australians, white and black. What is less known is that three other cities had similar movements.

One was Perth where, at 2 am on 17 June, 15 Aborigines erected a blue ‘Consulate’ tent, first in King’s Park, then on the Parliament House lawns, to draw attention to the dire state of Aboriginal housing. It lasted barely two months: the ‘Consulate’ was bulldozed by the conservative government on 15 August.[1]

Another was in London where, on 12 July, a group of Australians tried to erect an Aboriginal ‘humpy’ in front of Australia House in solidarity with the Canberra’s Tent Embassy and to promote Aboriginal rights in the UK. They faced robust opposition by British police.[2]

And there was Adelaide. The city was no stranger to Aboriginal activism. Its Aboriginal Women’s Council included fervent militants like Ruby Hammond. It had been the site where the Aboriginal flag was first raised, in July 1971. On 19 January 1972 it had seen a protest march supported by the radical Redfern group and trade unions with the aim of getting ‘a better deal for Aborigines.’

Indeed, the leader of Adelaide’s Embassy, Colin ‘Black Mac’ McDonald (b.1943, probably at Hermannsberg, but raised in SA), was influenced by the ideas of the Redfern Group of activists regarding, notes Madigan, ‘self-determination’, ‘land rights’ and ‘the methods of direct confrontation’. Madigan’s interviewees describe him as a ‘determined, ‘extraordinary fellow’ and ‘a born diplomat’, who ‘lived dispossession […] not as a victim but as a person who was free’ and able to see ‘the good things in all people’. He combined political astuteness with personal warmth. It is not difficult to see why he became the Ambassador. [3]

Unlike Perth’s, Adelaide’s Tent Embassy was erected in broad daylight when four Aborigines, McDonald, Lenny Campbell, Gilbert Hunter and Alan Campbell erected three draughty tents in Brougham Gardens, on the eastern side of King William Road opposite the Federation villa at 58 Brougham Place. The site was not accidental since the area was a sacred site to the Kaurna people; but it was also a strategically astute location alongside the busy road connecting Adelaide’s CBD to the well-to-do residential district of North Adelaide. They flew the Aboriginal flag from the first day and a sign boldly declared their aims: ‘We Demand Land & Social Rights For Our People.’ So began a three-month saga rarely remembered and even less celebrated.[4]

PM Billy McMahon with Iris Hunter at the
Adelaide Town Hall (source Advertiser, 26/7/1972)

The Embassy soon asserted itself on the Adelaide political landscape. The 1972 NADOC march that took place the following day with a thousand marchers chanting ‘More Black Rights!’ departed, significantly, from the Embassy site. When PM McMahon was at the Adelaide Town Hall, on 25 July, he was met by an argumentative crowd of Embassy Aborigines who refused to be placated by his frantic hand-shaking, patronising references (‘my people’, he called them) and crass observations (‘My, you’re a healthy one!’, he said to one Aborigine) while engineering a publicity photo with a young Aboriginal woman.[5]

Over the following weeks it organised itself as best it could. Students, local residents and the passing curious gave advice and praise, and the occasional rebuke. Many homeless in the area seeking shelter, white and black, found hospitality and companionship in Embassy tents. On 3 September the Embassy ran an art exhibition for Aboriginal artists, with the proceeds going towards ‘the establishment of a holiday home for children.’ All this activity meant that some 30 people were at the Embassy at any one time so discipline had to be established, living facilities arranged, sleeping provisions organised. Benevolent supports gave assistance, with Lincoln College providing bathroom facilities and Flinders and Adelaide universities donating a large tent for the kitchen. But there were opponents as well: some Councillors searched for by-laws to close the Embassy down and hostile locals complained of ‘drunken carousals’, bongo drums and ‘unhygienic habits’, even though police investigations found no reason for action.

Newspaper and television journalists were often anxious to find fault or belittle the Embassy’s significance, but Ambassador McDonald remained steadfast in asserting it value and declaring that ‘It is not a failure.’ Moreover, he would add, any faults of the Embassy’s staff and its residents were ephemeral trifles compared to the two centuries of colonial oppression and bloodshed![6] The Embassy’s success was in its very presence, and in the confidence of its staff and the enthusiasm of its supporters.

The Embassy came to an end when David Wassa, a self-styled ‘true Aboriginal’ from the bush, burned down the kitchen tent on 3 October citing the ‘shame’ the ‘city Aboriginals’ had brought on the Aboriginal community. The Embassy and its Ambassador remained for another week but the experiment was plainly over. It was demolished on 10 October by members of the Aboriginal Women’s Council of SA while McDonald, clearly resigned and in a plaintive mood, played ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ on his mouth-organ.[7]


Settler societies like Australia have yet to deal with Indigenous demands for decolonisation, and this is reflected in the Embassy’s story. In both black and white communities, some saw it as a symbol of protest against racism while to others it represented a denigration of Australian institutions by professional agitators. McDonald’s stated aims in setting up the Embassy were ‘to make people aware that we native Australians don’t own any land in Australia, and that horses, cattle and sheep have more and rights than us’; it certainly did that; but inevitably it divided, and still divides, the Aboriginal community. The president of the Aboriginal Women’s Council, Aunty Gladys Elphick, claimed that some Aborigines ‘disapproved of it and were shamed by it.’ But, interviewed by Madigan in 2014, the Ngarrindjeri Elder Laura Winslow remembered the ‘Tent Embassy people at North Adelaide’ as ‘Ground Breakers!’ because ‘They set the stage for political awareness. They were the original radicals – and from off the streets!’ Ruby Hammond, one of the nine Aborigines in the delegation to China in October 1972 organised by the Australia-China Friendship Society, firmly believed, says her biographer, that ‘Aborigines would be nowhere without visible, audible protest,’ and considered the Embassy ‘a dramatically successful statement’ that told (white) Australians ‘they had reduced the original inhabitants to squatters in their own land [and] foreigners in their own country.’[8]

The Embassy also had a broader historical significance: it redrew the post-colonial landscape. It rejected geographical segregation. It recaptured white urban spaces. It questioned the administrative domination and repressive controls that accompany colonisation. Most of all it was a rare and early public exercise in truth-telling through recaptured memories of ‘the white man’s injustice […] over 200 years’.[9]

The Adelaide City Council has a brief reference to the Embassy on a sign in Brougham Gardens. This is not enough. There should be a permanent monument erected in recognition of the event as a belated but necessary tribute to SA’s Aboriginal activists for post-colonial restitution, collective land rights and personal dignity.

[1] Canberra Times, 17/6/72, 10; Tribune, 20/6/72, 11 and 25/7/72, 7; Advertiser, 16/8/72, 9.

[2] Advertiser, 15/7/72, 3.

[3] Madigan, 14-15; Southern Cross, 14/7/72, 2. On McDonald, see Madigan, 59-66.

[4] Madigan, 11; Advertiser, 14/7/72, 1; Southern Cross, 14/7/72, 2.

[5] Madigan, 31; Sunday Mail, 16/7/72, 3; Advertiser, 26/7/72, 1.

[6] Madigan, 14-15, 27-35, 39, 43, 51; Advertiser, 14/7/72, 1; Sunday Mail, 16/7/72, 1, 3.

[7] Madigan, 54-56; Advertiser, 10/10/72, 3.

[8] Madigan, 55-56; Advertiser, 30/10/72.

[9] Madigan, 51. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell, 1974/1991).

Load More Related Articles
Load More In Latest News
Comments are closed.