Skip to content
  • 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission
  • Shop

Nomads and nuclear testing

When 40 or more Aboriginal nomads were found sick and malnourished in the Central Desert in 1956 questions were raised in the Western Australian parliament.

As a part of its nuclear testing partnership with the British Government, the Commonwealth government had established a weather station and was testing nuclear weapons and firing rockets over the desert.

When the Western Australian Government voiced concern about the people who were living nomadically in the vicinity, the Commonwealth reminded it that Aboriginal welfare was a state matter.

The Australian public expressed its sense of shock at the conditions of life experienced by these nomadic people. The Commonwealth's defence that it was a matter for the states was roundly rejected by the public.

The argument for Commonwealth responsibility was put in numerous letters to the Prime Minister and other parliamentarians. Activists were able to build support for their campaigns as a result of a community conscience being pricked by events in the Warburton Ranges.

This case study illustrates the working of democracy as pressure on politicians and effective use of the media slowly built the case for social and legislative change. It reached its zenith ten years later in the 1967 Referendum result.

In December 1956 the report of a select committee which inquired into the state of Aborigines, was tabled in the Western Australian parliament.

For a month it attracted no attention, but on 9 January 1957 the Sydney Communist Party newspaper, Tribune, described the report as ripping aside 'the screen that has veiled the cruel plight to which our Governments condemn Australian Aborigines'.

According to this report, malnutrition, blindness and disease, abortion, infanticide, burns and other injuries were all commonplace among the Wongi people of the Warburton Ranges region.

The mainstream newspapers across the country took up the story with headlines such as 'We Can't Let them Die' and 'Aboriginals Starve and Nothing's Being Done'. The Age editorialised: 'Get the facts on the Aborigines.'

Letters flooded in to newspaper editors.

In response to this publicity three separate parties visited the area bounded by the Rawlinson Ranges to the north, Laverton to the west and the transcontinental railway to the south.

Rockets were launched at the Woomera Rocket Range in a north-westerly direction towards the Monte Bello Islands.
Map showing areas affected by the British–Australian testing program

The first was a group of journalists led by Rupert Murdoch, proprietor and editor of the Adelaide News. The second was a Western Australian Department of Health official party. The third group was made up of anthropologists, Ronald and Catherine Berndt and Ruth Fink. All were critical, to differing degrees, of the Select Committee Report.

The anthropological survey team found the report to be exaggerated. They disputed the finding that malnutrition and disease was widespread. However, they argued that the status of Aboriginal reserves should be examined, and that mining rights should not be granted in reserves.

Land, they argued, was the Aborigines' most valuable tangible asset and it had never received the same attention in Australia as it had in the case of indigenous populations in the United States or New Zealand.

Rupert Murdoch was vehement in his rejection of the findings. After flying over Central Australia he commented: 'These fine native people have never enjoyed better conditions.'

In addition, he observed that 'great companies like International Nickel of Canada are watching for and have prospects of finding some of the world's most valuable mineral deposits in this very area'. Murdoch's article was supported with a deceptive photograph of a plump, happy family group.

What readers were not told was that the photograph had been taken four years earlier, by Bill Grayden, chairman of the Select Committee, rather than recently, as Murdoch claimed.

The proposal to use the Australian desert to test British nuclear weapons became public in 1946–47. President of the South Australian Aborigines Advancement League, Charles Duguid, and anthropologist Donald Thomson led a protest movement against the use of tribal land for these purposes.

Both men argued publicly that the Australian Government was unprepared to consider their objections because they were based on expert understanding of the likely impact of the rocket range on the desert dwelling people.

Doris Blackburn, Independent Labor Member for Bourke, was the only federal parliamentarian who spoke in opposition to the joint atomic testing proposal.

Despite active and vocal community protest from both peace groups and Aboriginal rights groups, the project went ahead. The Commonwealth Government assured protesters that no roads would be constructed.

Broken promises

Ten years later prospectors from the South West Mining Company and staff from the Giles meteorological station (which supported the atomic weapons trials at Maralinga and Woomera) sped along graded roads built to support these ventures.

In his 1957 Advancement League presidential address, Charles Duguid spoke of the responsibility that rested with the British, Australian, South Australian and Western Australian Governments towards desert nomads whose territory they had invaded.

All that the federal government had done was appoint two welfare officers to inform nomadic peoples about the nuclear tests.

When we consider cultural differences, the fact that only one of these men spoke an Aboriginal language, the vast distances (thousands of square kilometres from Woomera, north-west of Adelaide, to the north-western coast of Australia), and few roads, it's hard to imagine how they could have achieved this.

The 1956 Report of the Select Committee appointed to Enquire into Native Welfare Conditions in the Laverton-Warburton Range Area, to give it its full name, was presented by William Grayden, chairman of the committee and member for South Perth. The report was unanimously accepted by the Western Australian Parliament.

View of meteorological station buildings on right edge, most of the image is desert landscape. - click to view larger image
Giles Meteorological Station

Much of the area under investigation was a part of the Central Aboriginal Reserve, but violations of this reserve, both to establish a meteorological station for the British-Australian joint atomic testing program and for mining, had nevertheless taken place.

In this arid desert region, where temperatures reached 50 degrees celsius, some Aboriginal people still followed their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Roads, mining exploration and the fenced-off weather station at Giles, however, upset the age-old movements of animals and the hunters who pursued them from one waterhole to the next.

This mission, and the Mount Margaret Mission to the south-west, were the only two Western Australian missions in the Central Aboriginal Reserve. - click to view larger image
United Aborigines Mission, Warburton 1957

Missions at Mount Margaret, Cosmo Newbery and Warburton provided emergency treatment and supplies, often too late, to their starving, dehydrated visitors.

The Select Committee made recommendations such as the development of a cattle station. Given the effect of the nuclear testing program on those still living traditionally, the Western Australian Government held that a case could be made for the Commonwealth to fund some of the recommendations.

The federal government, however, reminded Western Australia that, under clause 51 (xxvi) of the Australian Constitution, responsibility for Aboriginal welfare was a state matter.

Rupert Murdoch's assertion in response to the Select Committee's report that the people he met in the desert were all happy and well fed prompted William Grayden to organise a return party to the Warburton Ranges area, this time with a movie camera.

Pastor Doug Nicholls from Victoria was invited to join the group which set out in February 1957 to film these desert nomads.

Black and white photo of a man talking to a large group of people.
Pastor Doug Nicholls distributes food to a malnourished group, February 1957

The film, later called Manslaughter when it was shown on television, was hastily processed in Perth and shown to horrified audiences. It showed stick-limbed children with the swollen bellies of malnutrition, babies sucking frantically at empty breasts and toddlers too weak or lethargic to brush away the hundreds of flies feeding at their eyes.

The film was screened in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney as well as in country towns. It was shown to politicians in Parliament House, to community groups such as the Kings Cross Film Club, and in the Sydney Town Hall.

Many white Australians were shocked by what they saw. Outraged, they wrote to the Prime Minister, insisting that the Commonwealth Government take action.


Responses from the Prime Minister's Department emphasised state governments' responsibility for Aboriginal welfare.

Members of the public, however, rejected this response from the federal government. The Women's Christian Temperance Union put out a pamphlet, Analysis of Mr Rupert Murdoch's Article on the West Australian Natives, which refuted the statements made by Murdoch. This was widely distributed.

Meetings were held to discuss community action, a Save the Aborigines Committee was established in Melbourne, and 800 pounds were raised in Melbourne alone to assist West Australian natives.

Throughout 1957 publicity about the Western Australian report was kept alive by activists who exploited the film, and the sense of public outrage it generated, for specific ends.

The London-based Anti-Slavery Society had informed the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights in 1956 of its intention to bring the issue of Australia's treatment of its Aboriginal people before the United Nations.

The Victorian Council and the New South Wales Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, which formed that year, were in contact with Lady Jessie Street, a committee member of the Anti-Slavery Society. She urged activists to form a federal body which could assist in the preparation of the Anti-Slavery Society's case to the United Nations.

Shirley Andrews, Secretary of the Council for Aboriginal Rights wrote to Jessie Street about this matter.

Underlying the Warburton Ranges controversy was the question of whether the state or the Commonwealth governments (or both) were morally and financially responsible for impoverished and dispossessed Aboriginal people.

Anna Vroland, Secretary of the Melbourne branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, kept in contact with her London counterparts. She urged cooperation and pointed out that the establishment of the British atomic testing project in the Australian desert was at the expense of those still living as hunter-gatherers.

The responsibility for the disruption to people's lives, she argued, lay with all of the governments involved. The Western Australian Government requested federal funds to implement the recommendations of the Grayden Report, but the federal government refused, maintaining that the matter was a state responsibility.

Referendum petition launched

On 29 April 1957 the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship showed the Warburton Ranges film to a packed Sydney Town Hall meeting and a petition was launched for a referendum to make Aboriginal affairs a federal responsibility.

More than 1500 attended the meeting at which Aboriginal spokesmen Bill Onus, President of the Australian Aborigines League, Bert Groves, president of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, and Harold Blair, a famous singer, all spoke.

In Melbourne the hastily formed Save the Aborigines body was wound up, and the Victorian Aborigines' Advancement League was formed with Doug Nicholls, Gordon Bryant, Stan Davey and Doris Blackburn at the helm.

Lady Jessie Street, an experienced international activist, wrote of the 'psychological moment' having come, a time when, if activists were skilful, they could build upon community response and maintain momentum in the work for what was called 'Aboriginal advancement'.

In the past, community concern about reported injustices to Aboriginal Australians had flared up and then died down again. In contrast, at this time activists could capitalise on these Warburton Ranges pictures to keep a community conscience alive and suggest remedies that concerned citizens could present to governments.

Newspaper clipping of three men in business suits in discussion. The text above reads: Discuss Native Affairs. - click to view larger image
Aboriginal delegates Jeff Barnes, Doug Nicholls and Bert Groves

Jessie Street's judgement that the time was right for building a national movement for Aboriginal rights was heeded by Shirley Andrews, the Secretary of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights, Dr Charles Duguid, the President of the South Australian Aborigines' Advancement League, and Stan Davey, Secretary of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League.

After Street's fact-finding tour of Australia and return to England in 1957, they began planning a national meeting to bring together representatives from like-minded bodies working to change discriminatory laws and attitudes concerning Aboriginal people.

In February 1958, at a meeting in Adelaide, activists from all mainland states formed a national pressure group, the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA).

Its goal was the achievement of 'equal citizens' rights' for Aboriginal Australians. The first two goals of this new body were:

  1. Repeal of all legislation, federal and state, which discriminated against the Aborigines.
  2. Amendment to the Commonwealth Constitution to give the Commonwealth Government power to legislate for Aborigines as with all other citizens ...

A new national movement was born. Over the next 15 years it would campaign for constitutional change, equal wages, access to social service benefits, and rights to land. In 1964 it would recognise Torres Strait Islanders as a distinct people and become the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, or FCAATSI.

Return to Top