ABORIGINES - MABO STAMP
|The images on our postage
stamps have rarely strayed beyond John Howard’s “mainstream”. The
boundaries of philatelic correctness in the representation of Aborigines
are being surveyed in “Postmark Post Mabo”, an exhibition at the
Post Master Gallery (La Trobe and Exhibition streets).
Terra nullius need not mean that there had been no one here before
the British. Rather the legal doctrine that the High Court overturned in
1992 had depended on the absence in Aboriginal society of structures of
government and property compatible with English practices. Yet the
impression given by our stamps remains closer to the narrowest
interpretation of terra nullius because Aborigines have been few and far between. Only
four named individuals – Albert Namatjira, Truganini, fighter pilot
Len Walters and Kathy Freeman – have been honoured in the ninety years
during which the Commonwealth has issued its own stamps.
That quartet, along with David Unaipon on
our fifty dollar note, does not exhaust the Aborigines who should be
commemorated. Guerilla fighters up to the 1930s, writers, and recent
activists merit recognition. For instance, the Bicentenary stamps in
1988 should have included the organisers of the “Day of Mourning and
Protest” fifty years earlier.
Rather than just count heads, the tenth
anniversary of Mabo calls for consideration of the philatelic treatment
of the relations between traditional possession and settler land use.
Labor’s erstwhile postmaster-general
[or Minister for Posts] told house of representatives in 1913 that the
almost blank map behind the kangaroo on the initial definitive series
expressed the national ideal of “a purely White Australia”.
The first commemorative stamp came in
1927 on the transfer of the parliament to Canberra. Despite the
Aboriginal-derived name for our national capital, that stamp, as with so
many other issues, gave no hint of the Ngunawal owners.
The earliest recognition on a stamp of
Aboriginal presence came in 1930 when artifacts framed a portrait of
Charles Sturt who had encountered warriors using similar weapons in
defence of their country. Although the prime cause of dispossession was
the spread of sheep, no Aborigine trespassed onto the 1934 commemorative
for John Macarthur. Equally, the stamp for Major Mitchell’s
exploration of Queensland in 1846 gave no sign of the locals who
alternatively guided and harassed his progress.
The centenary of Victoria issue (1934)
took up the cliché of a dying race by making the Yarra impersonate the
river of life separating a dignified old black man from the civilization
of Melbourne’s CBD. The stamps for South Australia (1936) and New
South Wales (1938) depicted whites arriving into a land devoid of
The 1970 Cook Centenary series was unique
for showing, albeit in miniature, Aborigines brandishing spears in an
effort at border protection. That vignette contrasted with the refusal
shortly afterwards to attach a plaque to the Brisbane GPO to mark the
execution of black patriots there in the 1850s.
The generic Aboriginal male head depicted
in 1950 was based on a 1935 photograph from Walkabout
Magazine of Gwoya Jungarai
(“One-pound Jimmy”), whose relatives the police had massacred at
Coniston in 1928.
No more Aborigines appeared until 1961
when a black stockman represented the Northern Territory cattle
industry. Would a Country Party Minister have endorsed that choice after
1966 when the Gurindji walked off the Lord Vestey’s Wave Hill station,
bringing land rights to the center of debate?
Gough Whitlam, in his book, The
Whitlam Government (1985), alleges that the Fraser government
scotched the proposal for a stamp with one hand pouring earth into
another, as he had done with Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari, at
Daguragu (Wattie Creek) in August 1975.
A 1989 series illustrated five aspects of
the Pastoral Era: immigrants, pioneers, squatters, shepherds and
explorers. Missing was one essential for pastoral expansion, namely,
“dispersals”, also known as massacres. [DELETE??? In
The Squatter’s Dream (1890), police magistrate and novelist
“Rolf Bolderwood” had spelt out the stages that “pioneer
civilization had followed. One of the stockmen had been speared: a score
or two of blacks, to speak well within bounds, had been shot”.]
In 1998, another stamp for the cattle
industry included a black stockman, in a stereotypical red shirt, but
this time trailing behind his white boss. By then, the probability was
that the boss would have been on a motor bike or in a chopper while the
black stockmen would be working on a station owned by their own
From 1982, indigenous art and crafts
replaced Aborigines as people on Australian stamps. Our governments have
found it easier to promote the paintings of Aborigines overseas than to
meet claims for land at home.
Yet the division between art and land is
never clear-cut. In 1963, the Yolngu pasted their land rights petition
onto bark paintings. The seemingly abstract works selected for postage
stamps, and included in the “Post Mabo” exhibition, could be
tendered before land rights tribunals as maps of disputed country.
Although reconciliation is proceeding
beyond commercial designs, Australia Post has yet to produce a Christmas
stamp with an Aboriginal Madonna nursing a black infant Jesus, the image
that the Vatican put on a stamp for the 1970 Papal Tour.