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Bart's boat

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Bart Sansbury's white, blue and brown cabin cruiser, which the Museum acquired in 1993, may seem an unlikely addition to the National Historical Collection. However, like all Museum objects, Bart’s weathered fishing vessel and protest banner provide us with visible evidence by which we can discover, and give new life and meaning to, the stories that lie behind them.

This story begins around 1846 when pastoralists settled the ancestral homelands of the Narungga people of Yorke Peninsula in South Australia. Following the discovery of copper in 1880, and the subsequent establishment of large copper mines on the peninsula at Moonta and Wallaroo, the population of settlers swelled. In contrast, the Narungga, whose original population was estimated to be around 500, succumbed to disease, poverty and conflict with settlers and declined to around a hundred people. By 1900, only a handful of fulldescent Narungga people remained.1

Established as an Aboriginal mission in 1867 by Moravian missionary, W Julius Kuhn, in an area abundant in shellfish, game and freshwater soaks, Point Pearce (Bookooyana) became, and remains, a sanctuary for Narungga people. According to Narungga Elders, Point Pearce, controlled by Aboriginal people since 1972, has been fundamental to the survival of their people and their culture.

Narungga man Bart Sansbury was born in 1948 at Wallaroo and spent 18 years as a foster child before being conscripted into the Australian army for three years of service, which included a tour of duty in Vietnam. On his return to Australia, Bart spent several years travelling around the country. In the early 1970s, when Aboriginal people were asking for sovereignty, land rights and self-determination, Bart joined in protest with others at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. Returning to Point Pearce in 1974, Bart spent the next 15 years working on Point Pearce Station and fishing in local waters, usually sharing his big catches, especially abalone, with the Point Pearce community. For Bart, fishing became his life and he used and developed his skills, which had been handed down from his father and from countless generations of fathers to sons.

Although the traditional lands and fishing grounds of Narungga people are located on and around the Yorke Peninsula, there are currently no exemptions for traditional fisheries under fisheries legislation in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. Under the South Australian Fisheries Act, 1971, Aboriginal people are subject to the ordinary restrictions on numbers and size of fish caught, as well as catching methods, and require a permit to catch fish for sale. In the 1980s, commercial fishing license fees ranged from $20,000 to $50,000 and fishing without a license incurred fines of at least $5000, or a jail sentence. Jailed for fishing without a license and for catching 'too many fish', and unable to pay the cost of the fine, Bart beached his boat permanently in protest and later spent many years working voluntarily with Aboriginal organisations in South Australia.

With the assistance of members of the Point Pearce community, Doreen Kartinyeri, Kerry Kerwingie Giles and Tom Adams, Bart painted a protest banner bearing the slogan 'Point Pearce has no fishing rights for their waters!' which was featured with his boat in the exhibition Nyoongah Nunga Yura Koorie at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide, in 1991. Through his painting, Bart's fishing boat has become a powerful symbol of protest for the rights of Narungga people to fish in their traditional waters without a license. As a way of thinking about and understanding the past, Bart’s boat and banner also allow us to glimpse deeper histories of dispossession and survival.

Judith Hickson, Assistant Curator, Collections Development Unit

1 R Amery, 'It's ours to keep and call our own: reclamation of the Nunga languages in the Adelaide region, South Australia', International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol. 113, 1995, 63–82.