Archaeological research has uncovered the remains of a 19th-century Irish community beneath an otherwise ordinary paddock in rural South Australia. Fitting the clustered form of settlement known as a “clachan”, it’s the first to be identified in Australia. Even more remarkably, this community thrived many years after this traditional way of living died out in Ireland.
The story of this discovery began in November 2012 when I walked for the first time on Baker’s Flat near Kapunda, about an hour’s drive north of Adelaide. I was an Irish-Australian archaeologist in search of an Irish colonial settlement.
In 1842, the discovery of copper at Kapunda led to the development of Australia’s first successful metal mine. The Irish arrived in 1854, seeking work as mine workers. They settled on an unused section of land close to the mine known as Baker’s Flat.
The histories are not kind to the Irish of Baker’s Flat. A 1929 collection of Kapunda stories established a narrative about the settlement as haphazard and chaotic, full of squalid hovels and unrestrained animals, and which essentially operated as a closed Irish community set apart from the rest of the town. Along with newspaper accounts of fights, public drunkenness and land disputes, the scene was set for these Irish to be perceived in stereotypical fashion as dirty, drunk, rebellious and lawless.
Years later, in the 1950s, the remains of any houses were demolished so the land could be farmed. Baker’s Flat was effectively erased from the landscape. The Irish were forgotten.
When I began researching the archives, trawling through the records of court cases and land disputes, I was really just trying to understand that community better.
The Irish had occupied Baker’s Flat from 1854 until at least the 1920s. At its peak in the 1860s and 1870s, 500 people were living there. Surely they couldn’t all be drunk and rebellious, or as one-dimensional as the dominant narrative implied.
I was looking for more depth and balance, but what I found turned out to be even more interesting. A surveyor’s plan from 1893 is the only historic map of the site. It shows a cluster of buildings in the north-west quadrant.
A series of photographs from 1906 depicts Irish-style cottages nestled into the landscape.
Affidavits from a court case disputing ownership and control of the land describe shared decisions, collective action and communal animal management. These facts hinted that this community might have operated as a clachan.
This traditional Irish way of living was characterised by clusters of farm dwellings and outbuildings built in the Irish style. In a clachan, the inhabitants managed the farming land communally. Unlike a classic village, clachans did not have services like shops or pubs.
Until the mid-19th century, clachans were widespread in Ireland. They died out, however, in the social upheaval following the Great Famine of 1845–1850. My research at this point indicated that, while the clachan was vanishing in Ireland, a vibrant one was flourishing in the heart of South Australia. Significantly, the only other clachan outside of Ireland to be hinted at so far is a cluster of houses built by 19th-century Irish migrants on Beaver Island, Lake Michigan.
Bringing in the archaeology
The next step was to test my theory using archaeological methods. First was a surface survey in 2013. Teams of archaeology students walked along a set route, observing and recording what they could see on the surface.
This survey identified the remains of 13 buildings (now just small heaps of rubble) and scattered broken glass and ceramics, mainly in the north-west quadrant.
These were clustered together and fit the pattern of rectangular structures about 10m long and 5m wide. There were also indications of paths and enclosures.
We tested these findings by excavation over two summer field seasons in 2016 and 2017. The excavations uncovered the walls of a long rectangular house, dug into the bedrock. It was one room deep, shaped like a traditional Irish dwelling, and matched the design of the photographed houses from 1906.
There was a cobbled path to the east. A small rubbish dump contained many 19th-century glass and ceramic fragments and butchered bones.
When all the evidence is combined, it confirms the presence of a clachan, the first to be identified in Australia. Analysis of the glass, ceramic and bone artefacts is ongoing but indicates so far that the Irish were generally drinking, eating and using the same things as other members of the broader colonial Australian community.
What is different here is the way they chose to live, building houses in the Irish tradition, living close together and making decisions jointly.
We do not know if the Baker’s Flat Irish deliberately set out to establish a clachan in a small corner of South Australia. It was such a common style of living at the time they left Ireland it may well be they just continued doing what they had always done and that it emerged organically. But they left enough behind to build a picture that challenges the stereotypes.
The archaeology is revealing that it wasn’t all chaos and lawlessness at Baker’s Flat. There was order. And this order took the particular form of the clachan.
As well as looking at the ancient past, archaeology is also about the recent past and what might lie beneath an unassuming paddock. It focuses on people and the things they discard or leave behind. For me, it’s about ordinary people, whose stories get forgotten as time goes by, but who leave traces in the landscape and the archives for archaeologists to uncover.
The Flinders Ranges covers a vast area spanning over 400 kilometres. The nearest capital city is Adelaide which, like all of Australia, exists on Aboriginal land. Adelaide is in Kaurna Country, about 200 kilometres from the southern end of the Flinders Ranges, one of the world’s most interesting and beautiful locations. This is a short drive, relative to most travel in Australia.
It is impossible to describe the Flinders Ranges as just one environment. The landscape changes as you travel from south to north and there is no way you could see its entirety in the span of a lifetime. But to give you an idea of how this land varies, lets start at its most southern end with its flowing green hills, near the small city of Port Pirie. This part of the Flinders Ranges is Nukunu Country. The land here is beautiful and your experience of it is very different, depending on whether you choose to drive on the eastern or the western side of the Ranges.
If you continue driving on the western side you will witness the place where the Ranges meet the ocean. You don’t need to pass through many towns, but you definitely should do so as they all sit on the beautiful coast of the Spencer Gulf. Port Germein, one of the stops, is a lovely seaside town and home to what was once the longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. One and a half kilometres long, it lets you experience what it would be like to stand in the middle of the sea looking across to the Ranges. An amazing view indeed.
The eastern side will take you through farmland and small towns. Gum trees, creeks, gorges and green grass surround you and it is one of the first times you will find yourself up close to the Flinders Ranges. Here, you will be travelling through Nukunu Country, or if you veer further east, possibly Ngadjuri or Adnyamathanha Country. There is a stronger colonial history in the towns here, which you can see in the monuments and buildings that now seem tattered and old. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there is one more stop I want to show you on the western side.
As you continue to travel you see the hills gradually turn into shades of dark green and brown. Their shape begins to change too, their soft edges turn to sharper points. The green grass transforms into red sand and you notice that the dark green and brown on the hills are the colours of the shrubs embedded into this sand. You eventually reach the small city of Port Augusta which sits at the top of the Spencer Gulf. This area is a meeting place for a number of Aboriginal groups that are separated on each side of the gulf, however, it is specifically connected to Barngarla and Nukunu. It is no surprise that this place is of great interest to so many Aboriginal Nations. It is the one place where the desert truly meets the sea. It is also the town where I grew up.
The beauty of home
Growing up in Port Augusta, I never realised just how beautiful this place was or how fortunate I was to experience such stunning views. It is not until you have lived in a city and travelled the world that you start to see the beauty in the place you call home. I spent many days during summer down at the beach during high-tide. But I was more concerned with opening my eyes under water than opening my eyes to the beauty of the Ranges.
My house was not far from an amazing view. If I took a short stroll to the end of my street I could look over a large white salt-lake to the Flinders Ranges. In this area the Ranges become more textured, their edges rougher, the creases highlighted by the shadows cast during sunset. The vegetation here is overflowing.
But even this is not the best part of the Flinders Ranges. To reach the highlight, you must travel from Port Augusta along a small gorge until you reach the point of intersection with the eastern side of the Ranges at the tiny town of Quorn. Continue through this town and the land begins to flatten out. There are fewer hills and you see horizontal red ground for miles around. You are now in a much drier area of the country. Dust. Fewer trees. But shrubbery everywhere. In the distance small hills are rising. As you reach these hills you are exiting Nukunu country and merging into Barngarla and Adnyamathanha country.
When you arrive at the small town of Hawker, you are presented with the option of two roads, and two different adventures. You must ask yourself which side of Ikara (Wilpena Pound) you want to see – the east or the west? If you choose the eastern side, you get to travel at a higher elevation. This section of road brings stunning views that you cannot see anywhere else unless you climb a hill. You feel engulfed by the Ranges, seeing their true magnitude. As you travel north you begin to really enter Adnyamathanha Yarta (Country). You are fortunate to see open plains alongside the beautiful ridges of the Flinders Ranges. Despite the perception that this region is dry, there are flecks of green everywhere. The ground is not just red: it varies between orange, yellow, white and black. These are the same colours that are present in the malka, markings and rock art that exists throughout our Yarta.
If you travel further north-east you will continue to see small hills in the distance that transform into mountains. You might even be able to glimpse a line of white on the horizon – the salt lake, Lake Frome. The further north you drive, the closer you get to Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park. Here you can see creeks and high gorges and you begin to realise this area is not so dry.
Travel further west and you eventually arrive in Nepabunna, a central hub for Adnyamathanha people. During the 1930s, our people decided they needed assistance from missionaries because our land had essentially been destroyed by the influence of pastoralism. When farm animals were introduced to our country, the land began to change, our waters changed, and parts of our country were no longer open to us. It was decided that we needed to turn the place known as Nipapanha into a mission. Today, Nipapanha is known as Nepabunna and is home to a small number of Adnyamathanha people. Despite most of us living outside of this area, we still feel connected and call this area our home.
If you continue driving west, you will end up in the small mining town of Copley or Leigh Creek. This place is home to even more of us. The mine is located not too far outside of the town and operated for over 70 years. Coal was being mined here for use at the power stations in Port Augusta. When the power stations shut down, so too did the mine.
Travelling south out of Leigh Creek and Copley, you see even more amazing views. The hills around this area seem unreal. They create a strange illusion because they are close enough for you to see what is on them, but far enough away to look artificial. These hills are curvy and shapely; they look smooth. They look like what sand looks like when a snake slithers across it.
The views from this entire road are gorgeous. On one side you have a flat plain with no hills, because past this is the salt lake, Lake Torrens. On the other side the hills transform from smooth and curvy to the textured, ridged, multi-coloured ranges that circle Ikara. About half-way along this road, you will see the sign for Nilpena, the location of the Ediacaran fossils.
Ediacara is just one small location in the vast area known as the Flinders Ranges. Geologically, the fossils that are found here have transformed discussions about time periods and how the earth, and everything on it, came to be. Even the Ranges themselves are examples of this geological conundrum. They are not only scientifically amazing, they are incredibly breathtaking to witness. This region is truly an amazing place.
Despite the Flinders Ranges being so large, my ancestors and the ancestors of our neighbouring groups have explored it all. They mapped the entire country thousands of years before our colonisers had even thought of maps. Our people set borders between each other and formed customs that controlled how we entered each other’s country. They named every hill; every rock formation, big and small; every creek and every stream running off that creek. If you see something here, you can bet that we have given it a name.
The name of the Ediacaran fossils comes from their location in the Ediacara hills. But talking about the Aboriginal origins of this name is not as simple as you might think and it stems back to the colonial naming of all Australian places. Back in the time when the settlers were naming and claiming as many places as possible, some given names were original, some paid tribute to colonial figures and some were named after towns in other parts of the world. What is interesting is that many places were also named using Aboriginal words.
Some Aboriginal words that are used for places are not actually place names. In fact, there are many records of humorous words being given to settlers instead of the real name of a place. Due to the complexity of our naming, settlers often mistook words that referred to a specific spot rather than to the broader landscape that they were enquiring about. It was like using the name for a street as the name of a town. This adoption of names also led to the mispronunciation of words. Settlers were in no way linguists, and many Aboriginal words used as placenames have been altered and pronounced very differently to the way they were initially used.
Documentation of the word Ediacara does not clearly indicate which Aboriginal language it comes from, but there is some information about its meaning. One understanding is that this word is linked to a place where water is present. It is also believed that it could be a mispronunciation of the words “Yata Takarra” meaning hard or stony ground. Speaking to Adnyamathanha people about the meaning of the word Ediacara presents difficulties because of the linguistic history of Aboriginal place names. It is most likely that Ediacara was once pronounced very differently and it is possible that it may not be the name of the place where the Ediacaran fossils are located. Either way, the name that exists today in no way diminishes the Adnyamathanha history of the region.
Indigenous knowledge systems
From an archaeological perspective my ancestors have been in this area for over 45,000 years. Our histories are written in the land and passed down from generation to generation through talking and by marking rock walls. If you had traversed the land via the roads I took you on earlier, you would have passed many stories. But in order to tell you one of the main stories about the formation of our country today, I must return to the coalfields of Leigh Creek.
Although the closing of Leigh Creek mine caused distress amongst miners and power station workers, for me it felt like the land had finally won. It was no longer being attacked. Leigh Creek is not the only mine that exists on our country: we have had a long history of mining extending back to early colonisation. Up north uranium is extracted and down south, where the Ediacaran fossils are, copper and silver were once mined. I remember standing next to the Leigh Creek mine and looking inside the incredibly deep hole in the ground. You don’t feel well when you witness scenes like this because they are not pretty and you know that they are the direct result of human conflict. When I looked into that hole I saw a battle lost by my ancestors against developers. I saw my people’s fight and I saw their hurt. Mining coal may have been used to power parts of the state, but in terms of my Adnyamathanha community, it was a form of disempowerment.
The coal in Leigh Creek mine is connected to the story of Yurlu’s coal. Yurlu is a Kingfisher, but more importantly, he is the Master of Ceremonies. He came down from Kakarlpunha to Leigh Creek where he made a big fire out of mallee sticks. The fire was created to alert everyone to go south with him to Ikara where there would be a ceremony. Along the route of his travels he made several fires and these became the coal deposits you can find on the way down to Ikara. While doing this he was being followed by the two big snakes known as Akurras. These snakes pursued him all the way down to Ikara and you can see their travels represented in the shape of the hills and the ranges as they slithered south. They slid into the pound where they watched the ceremony, their bodies forming each side of the shape of the pound. There is more to this story, but this is enough to illustrate the breadth of our wisdom about our country. We never had any large animals to use as transport, we developed strong knowledge of place by traversing this land on foot.
Aboriginal stories are often viewed as mythology or folk tales, but they are much more than that. This is true of stories about Aboriginal places across the entire continent. Our stories come in many forms and provide various types of knowledge. In some instances they are used as maps. The places travelled to by the beings (they can be human, animal, plant or object) in these stories can be remembered over many generations. Even when these lands were no longer accessible during periods of environmental change, our people could recall them thousands of years later.
Our stories can be used as lessons, indicators of places or things that are dangerous. And I mean real danger, not “taboo”. Places where you can easily become disorientated and lost are in these stories as well as plants or other substances that are chemically dangerous to touch or consume. Our lesson stories can also lead us to places that can help us. They may describe natural springs in land where fresh water is uncommon, or they may map out the locations of rare food sources. They might relate to aspects of our culture such as the origin of certain ceremonies or the ways we identify ourselves in relation to each other.
Our stories are extensive and full of purpose, but because they are boxed into the category of mythology, the knowledge they contain is not seen as scientifically reliable. Western science has always prided itself on being objective and quantifiable and there is no doubt that it has presented some of the most important discoveries across the world. However, it has also been responsible for the oppression of my people. Western scientists developed ideas that enabled them to see Aboriginal people as lesser beings, that suggested “Western civilisation” was more intelligent than us. Western science is behind the forced removal of Aboriginal children, known more commonly in Australia as “The Stolen Generation”. Western science is the reason my people are seen as nomadic: it claimed we had no understanding of the land we existed on and that we were aimlessly wandering the country. Ultimately, Western science is the reason our land was originally taken away from us.
45,000 years of connecting to heritage
Western science and Indigenous knowledge clash because of their histories. In western society, science will always be placed on a higher pedestal, it will always be seen as more trustworthy. But Indigenous knowledge is the result of many thousands of years of observation. You cannot compare that to the past thousand or so years that western science has existed.
Scientific understanding of the Ediacaran period seems to be completely beyond the scope of Indigenous knowledge systems. It is unknown whether my ancestors had seen or even understood what the fossils were. However, the extent of our knowledge of the land and its creatures cannot be denied.
A similarity can be found between these fossils and our cultural heritage. Both are significant and vulnerable, and both need to be protected. When geologists and paleontologists started going to Ediacara the station owner made an admirable decision to restrict the removal of fossils for research. Therefore, all documentation of the fossils is completed on site. Additionally, their location is kept private due to the fear of vandalism and looting.
Adnyamathanha people have similar fears about our heritage. Our rock art is routinely destroyed and artefacts are removed from their original place. They are taken as souvenirs or vandalised out of disrespect for our culture. Unfortunately, we do not have the comfort of owning private land. Our heritage is used for tourism and whilst it is great that this shines a light on our history and culture, you have to wonder whether it is all worth it when our cultural heritage is in danger of destruction. Adnyamathanha heritage deserves as much consideration as the Ediacaran fossils.
Prior to Reginald Sprigg announcing his discovery of the fossils in 1946 they were of no interest to anyone, but we have continually been connected to our heritage for 45,000 years.
In 1866, Adelaide colonist George Hamilton published An Appeal for the Horse, arguing against the harsh treatment of animals. He claimed that in “treating [the horse] as a machine, [people] have forgotten the higher attributes of his nature, and considered only his bone and muscle”.
Hamilton was a trailblazer in challenging the cruel treatment of animals by humans. He loved horses better than many people, and frequently likened them to children, wives, or friends. Although Australian anti-cruelty laws were passed as early as 1837, more specific prohibitions against cruelty to animals were not introduced until the 1860s. Hamilton’s challenge to the boundary we have constructed between humans and animals anticipated considerable recent research that questions this divide.
In contrast, Hamilton’s compassion for Aboriginal people was conspicuously lacking. Empathy is always politicised, and emotional narratives such as Hamilton’s tell us whose lives are worthy of compassion and therefore valuable.
In 1839, on a journey droving 350 head of cattle from Port Philip to Adelaide, Hamilton had a tense confrontation with two Aboriginal men, in which he drew and cocked his pistol, ready to fire. The moment passed, and as he later explained:
Although it was my intention to fire upon my black relations, it was with no desire to kill them. No … they would have been merely winged, shot through the leg or arm, or in some place not vital.
Hamilton contrasted his willingness to harm, if not kill, Aboriginal people with what he saw as the hypocrisy of those “pious persons” who cared more about “ignorant pagan black monsters” than “their white brethren who are, from poverty, neglect and vicious teaching, fast falling into a savagedom far more frightful”. Like many at this time, he pitted the rights of Indigenous people against those of poor whites, whether in Britain or in the colonies.
Picturing colonial violence
As an “overlander” who helped “open up” land routes between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide during the years from 1836 to 1845, Hamilton was a veteran of frontier conflict. His fine-grained narratives and carefully observed drawings and prints provide a valuable insight into the story of white settlement in South Australia.
In 1845 Hamilton wrote:
The black man who roams over these wilds their lord and master is little elevated by nature from the beasts that inhabit his native forests, so far beneath the rest of his species that he seems to be standing on the line of demarcation between instinct and reason.
It seems that humans have always needed to elevate ourselves in contrast to those who are radically different – the “other” – whether that be animals, non-white races or women. This process was fundamental to imperialism and, more often than not, it was violent.
There is a shift in Hamilton’s views from his first forays into the bush around 1836 to his late-19th-century reminiscences. Some of his early drawings, such as “Meeting natives on the Campaspi plains, Victoria, June 1836”, express a friendly curiosity, offering many details of material culture and exchange between white travellers and local Aboriginal people.
But after the Myall Creek Massacre of June 1838 in north-western New South Wales, colonists became more circumspect regarding frontier clashes with Aboriginal people. Following this massacre, seven white men were hanged for the murder of 28 Wererai people, outraging white colonists and increasing racial tensions over subsequent decades. Recent research by Lyndall Ryan documents the sites where thousands of Aboriginal people and tens of settlers were killed in south-east Australia.
During the 1840s, Hamilton began to produce less sympathetic images, including many drawings and prints depicting frontier violence. These sometimes showed conflict in relatively objective terms, such as his ink drawing “Overlanders Attacking the Natives”.
Even “Natives Spearing the Overlanders’ Cattle”, while showing Aboriginal people as aggressors, remains relatively neutral.
But a series of lithographs from the late 1840s have a nastier edge, losing their quality of realist observation and descending into caricature. These show Aboriginal people attacking white colonists, with ironic titles such as “The Harmless Natives”, or “The Persecuting White Men”. Here Hamilton directs our sympathy from black to white.
As Hamilton’s legacy shows us, emotional narratives and images are a powerful way of defining our relations with others.
This process is also fundamental to modern global warfare, as Judith Butler argues in her analysis of war journalism. It can be seen at work wherever interests compete. For Hamilton, Aboriginal people’s defence of kin and country challenged his own right to colonise and posed a personal threat. This made it easy for him to demonise Aboriginal people.
On the violent frontier, Hamilton was typical in defining the white colonist as victim and Indigenous Australian as persecutor, declaring in 1845:
We may soon look forward to the time when murders perpetrated by the savage on the settler will be considered something more than a peccadillo, and we may hope to see the settler at liberty to protect his life and property without the fear of escaping the blacks’ tomahawk only to run his neck in the hangman’s noose.
Here we see the emotional logic of Hamilton’s imperial cultural hierarchy and his political deployment of compassion. Suddenly, the seeming incongruity of Hamilton’s scorn for threatening Aboriginal people alongside his sympathy for the faithful horse makes perfect sense.
It is September 27, 1956. At a dusty site called One Tree, in the northern reaches of the 3,200-square-kilometre Maralinga atomic weapons test range in outback South Australia, the winds have finally died down and the countdown begins.
The site has been on alert for more than two weeks, but the weather has constantly interfered with the plans. Finally, Professor Sir William Penney, head of the UK Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, can wait no longer. He gives the final, definitive go-ahead.
The military personnel, scientists, technicians and media – as well as the “indoctrinee force” of officers positioned close to the blast zone and required to report back on the effects of an atomic bomb up close – tense in readiness.
And so, at 5pm, Operation Buffalo begins. The 15-kilotonne atomic device, the same explosive strength as the weapon dropped on Hiroshima 11 years earlier (although totally different in design), is bolted to a 30-metre steel tower. The device is a plutonium warhead that will test Britain’s “Red Beard” tactical nuclear weapon.
The count reaches its finale – three… two… one… FLASH! – and all present turn their backs. When given the order to turn back again, they see an awesome, rising fireball. Then Maralinga’s first mushroom cloud begins to bloom over the plain – by October the following year, there will have been six more.
RAF and RAAF aircraft prepare to fly through the billowing cloud to gather samples. The cloud rises much higher than predicted and, despite the delay, the winds are still unsuitable for atmospheric nuclear testing. The radioactive cloud heads due east, towards populated areas on Australia’s east coast.
So began the most damaging chapter in the history of British nuclear weapons testing in Australia. The UK had carried out atomic tests in 1952 and 1956 at the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia, and in 1953 at Emu Field north of Maralinga.
The British had requested and were granted a huge chunk of South Australia to create a “permanent” atomic weapons test site, after finding the conditions at Monte Bello and Emu Field too remote and unworkable. Australia’s then prime minister, Robert Menzies, was all too happy to oblige. Back in September 1950 in a phone call with his British counterpart, Clement Attlee, he had said yes to nuclear testing without even referring the issue to his cabinet.
Menzies was not entirely blinded by his well-known anglophilia; he also saw advantages for Australia in granting Britain’s request. He was seeking assurances of security in a post-Hiroshima, nuclear-armed world and he believed that working with the UK would provide guarantees of at least British protection, and probably US protection as well.
He was also exploring ways to power civilian Australia with atomic energy and – whisper it – even to buy an atomic bomb with an Australian flag on it (for more background, see here). While Australia had not been involved in developing either atomic weaponry or nuclear energy, she wanted in now. Menzies’ ambitions were such that he authorised offering more to the British than they requested.
While Australia was preparing to sign the Maralinga agreement, the supply minister, Howard Beale, wrote in a top-secret 1954 cabinet document:
Although [the] UK had intimated that she was prepared to meet the full costs, Australia proposed that the principles of apportioning the expenses of the trial should be agreed whereby the cost of Australian personnel engaged on the preparation of the site, and of materials and equipment which could be recovered after the tests, should fall to Australia’s account.
Beale said that he did not want Australia to be a mere “hewer of wood and drawer of water” for the British, but a respected partner of high (though maybe not equal) standing with access to the knowledge generated from the atomic tests.
That hope was forlorn and unrealised. Australia duly hewed the wood and drew the water at Maralinga, and stood by while Britain’s nuclear and military elite trashed a swathe of Australia’s landscape and then, in the mid-1960s, promptly left. Britain carried out a total of 12 major weapons tests in Australia: three at Monte Bello, two at Emu Field and seven at Maralinga. The British also conducted hundreds of so-called “minor trials”, including the highly damaging Vixen B radiological experiments, which scattered long-lived plutonium over a large area at Maralinga.
The British carried out two clean-up operations – Operation Hercules in 1964 and Operation Brumby in 1967 – both of which made the contamination problems worse.
Legacy of damage
The damage done to Indigenous people in the vicinity of all three test sites is immeasurable and included displacement, injury and death. Service personnel from several countries, but particularly Britain and Australia, also suffered – not least because of their continuing fight for the slightest recognition of the dangers they faced. Many of the injuries and deaths allegedly caused by the British tests have not been formally linked to the operation, a source of ongoing distress for those involved.
The cost of the clean-up exceeded A$100 million in the late 1990s. Britain paid less than half, and only after protracted pressure and negotiations.
Decades later, we still don’t know the full extent of the effects suffered by service personnel and local communities. Despite years of legal wrangling, those communities’ suffering has never been properly recognised or compensated.
Why did Australia allow it to happen? The answer is that Britain asserted its nuclear colonialism just as an anglophile prime minister took power in Australia, and after the United States made nuclear weapons research collaboration with other nations illegal, barring further joint weapons development with the UK.
Menzies’ political agenda emphasised national security and tapped into Cold War fears. While acting in what he thought were Australia’s interests (as well as allegiance to the mother country), he displayed a reckless disregard for the risks of letting loose huge quantities of radioactive material without adequate safeguards.
Six decades later, those atomic weapons tests still cast their shadow across Australia’s landscape. They stand as testament to the dangers of government decisions made without close scrutiny, and as a reminder – at a time when leaders are once again preoccupied with international security – not to let it happen again.