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“We pay our respects and dedicate the Unsettled exhibition to the people and other Beings who keep the law of this land; to the Elders and Traditional Owners of all the knowledges, places, and stories in this exhibition; and to the Ancestors and Old People for their resilience and guidance.
We advise that there are some confronting topics addressed in this exhibition, including massacres and genocide. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be advised that there may be images of people who have passed away.”
Laura McBride and Dr Mariko Smith, 2021.
Terra nullius is today used as a catch-all phrase to explain how Australia was founded; to justify and legitimise the dispossession, dispersal, and inhumane treatment of First Nations peoples. This Latin term means “land belonging to no one”, which has been interpreted as a complete absence of people and additionally the absence of “civilised” people capable of land ownership.
The Proclamation of NSW Governor Richard Bourke in 1835 implemented the legal principle of terra nullius in Australian law as the basis for British settlement. This was 47 years after the arrival of the First Fleet. Terra nullius was overturned in the High Court of Australia’s Mabo decision in 1992, which recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ continuing connection and rights to land through Native Title.
Did you know?
A treaty is a binding agreement between two or more states or sovereign powers. It is usually reached after a period of negotiation. Australia is the only major Commonwealth country (referring to British settler colonial countries) in the world that does not have a treaty with its First Nations peoples.
Made by Ancestor
Torres Strait Pigeon feathers, bamboo frame, fibre, wool, kolap (goa nut).
Australian Museum Collection
The dhari is a traditional headdress from Mer (also known as Murray Island in Queensland). This was the homeland which Eddie Koiki Mabo fought court cases to establish that First Nations peoples had legal rights to their traditional lands in the form of Native Title. The High Court of Australia’s decision in Mabo v Queensland (No. 2) was handed down on 3rd June 1992, following many years in the Australian legal system. Sadly, the verdict was passed after the death of Mabo. However, his legacy continues to live on strong through the setting of legal precedent. We celebrate the High Court of Australia overturning terra nullius in this important court decision on Mabo Day every year on 3rd June, as part of National Reconciliation Week.
The dhari is a significant object for Torres Strait Islander people. It is worn by men in dance and ceremony and is the central symbol on the Torres Strait Islander Flag. The flag was designed by the late Bernard Namok of Thursday Island.
Invasion Day 2011, 2018
Invasion Day 2011
Invasion Day 2011
Invasion Day 2018
Uncle Gordon Syron, Worimi, Birpai
Oil on canvas.
Australian Museum Collection Acquisition.
The invasion of Sydney by the First Fleet in 1788 has meaning for all Aboriginal peoples. The event marks the beginning of dispossession and genocidal practices that continue to have devastating effects on First Nations peoples today. Uncle Gordon Syron has painted the First Fleet coming through the heads of Sydney Harbour over 600 times. Although it was 153 years before Uncle Gordon’s birth, and many hundreds of kilometres from his traditional Country, he knows that this event is connected to his lived experience as an Aboriginal person today.
I want to show the negative “feelings of the Aboriginal people, the truth is the way it was. The white master race came and took our land and did not even have the courtesy to ask us or buy it. They said we weren’t even human beings when they claimed our land as ‘terra nullius’. British law is alright for the British but Aboriginal law, customs, language … have been around a lot longer than ‘British law’. Uncle Gordon Syron, Worimi, Birpai, 2009.
Glen Mackie, Yam Island Man
Wood, glue, nails, ochre, thin steel wire, bamboo, nylon, raw cotton muslin, vinyl cut.
Australian Museum Collection.
Glen Mackie made this series of boats to tell the story about his great, great grandfather “Yankee” Ned Mosby, an American who came to the Torres Strait region in the mid-1800s. Ned married a Kulkalgal woman and worked in local pearling lugger boats. He lived with Torres Strait Islander people, entering Country the right way and respecting local culture. Later as Australia grew and colonists entered the Torres Strait, Ned Mosby helped his community by protecting them through his negotiation powers and navigating the impacts of colonisation.
- Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The White possessive: Property, power, and indigenous sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press; Connor, M. (2005). The invention of Terra Nullius: Historical and legal fictions on the foundation of Australia. Macleay Press; Watson, I. (2014). Re-centring First Nations knowledge and places in a Terra Nullius space. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 10(5), 508-520.
- Marshallsea, T. (2017). Why doesn’t Australia have an Indigenous treaty? BBC News. From https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-40024622; Shaw, M. (2019). Treaty. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/treaty.
- McBride, L. and Smith, M. (2019). The 2020 Project. First Nations Community Consultation Report. Sydney, NSW, Australian Museum. https://australian.museum/learn/cultures/the- 2020-project/.