Remembering Maralinga

Touring art exhibition Black Mist Burnt Country has shone a spotlight on the devastating nuclear weapons tests carried out on Aboriginal land more than 60 years ago. The exhibition, produced by the Burrinja Dandenong Ranges Cultural Centre and now in its third year on tour, documents the traumatic legacy left by the British-led trials at Emu Junction and Maralinga in South Australia and the Montebello Islands in Western Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. The contributing artists deserve applause for their harrowing portrayals of these crimes and their aftermath.

The range of work exhibited is astonishing. Hugh Ramage’s painting stares into dark mushroom clouds, direct and transfixing. In Blak Douglas’ epic modernist landscapes, Aboriginal society and its resistance to British invasion confront the violent radiation of the atomic age. And there is everything in between. Of note is Sidney Nolan, famed for his portrayal of Ned Kelly, who in the 1970s stylised the nuclear explosions.

Many Indigenous artists, such as Tjariya Stanley, combine traditional dot painting techniques with horrific intrusions into the landscape, signifying the nuclear toxification of a millennia-old home. Especially disturbing are Jonathan Kumintjarra Brown’s paintings, in which bleak mists invade the canvas and erase environments and camp sites. 

The exhibition also fittingly features work on Hiroshima. There is a vicious strategic continuity between Australia’s contribution of uranium to war crimes in Japan and its provision of nuclear testing grounds to an imperial ally looking to develop atomic bombs for future wars. This history is worth remembering.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ATOMIC BOMB

Australia’s very first uranium mine was established in 1906 at Radium Hill in eastern South Australia, across the border from Broken Hill. At this time, uranium had little strategic importance, finding use mainly as a colourful glaze in ceramics, an effective poison, and for research in the expanding area of nuclear physics. However, after scientific breakthroughs in the late 1930s, the rulers of Australia began to conceive a dark role for their early uranium mines.

The federal and South Australian governments – and some mining companies and well-placed individuals – had become aware of the significance of uranium by 1941. At the time, Australian physicist Mark Oliphant was involved in the MAUD Committee, a British working group looking into the feasibility of atomic weapons and later lobbying the US government to establish the Manhattan Project. He broke secrecy, communicating to Curtin’s Labor government the need for military control over uranium supplies because of their potential use in nuclear weapons. 

In 1944, the British approached Curtin to brief him on the atomic bomb effort and the pressing need for uranium for “Empire and war purposes”. The Australian government rushed to explore and seize control of Mount Painter’s deposits and prospect for further deposits in uranium-rich South Australia. These were exploited for the US and UK’s combined nuclear weapons program.

Thus South Australia made its little-recognised but keen contribution to the development of the atomic bomb. The immediate result was more than 100,000 Japanese civilians murdered by just two bombs. The long-term result, heralded by the Soviet Union’s successful atomic tests in 1949, was to lock the planet into a seemingly endless nightmare of nuclear arms development. 

As a new era of bipolar imperialist competition emerged after the war, ruling classes around the world embarked on their own nuclear programs. Some, such as France, aspired to develop the bomb for themselves. The major powers behind the bomb, the US and UK, sought to increase the destructive capacity of their existing technology, determined always to keep ahead of their competitors. This required test sites. Other smaller powers, such as Australia, simply wanted their allies to have the most bombs, and were willing to support these efforts however they could. This brings us to perhaps the most sinister episode in South Australian history: the atomic tests in the state’s northern deserts.

BLACK MIST

Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies concocted the myth of uninhabited desert in 1953. Responding to a parliamentary question, he declared that the tests would “produce no conceivable injury to life, limb or property”, stating they were essential for the “defence of the free world”. 

Senior British scientists had communicated the same to Menzies in 1952, arguing, “We are able to assure you that no habitations or living beings will suffer injury to health from the effects of the atomic explosions proposed for the trial”.

Many of the traditional owners, the Anangu Pitjantjatjara people, were forcibly displaced from their traditional lands to make way for the tests. The Yalata mission became a de facto prison for many of them. 

The majority of the Great Victoria Desert was declared a prohibited zone in 1955. Without consultation, warning or even a simple explanation, the Indigenous inhabitants were banned from their land. The 1985 McClelland royal commission found that “ignorance, incompetence and cynicism” characterised the attitudes of the authorities to the fate of the Aboriginal inhabitants.

Of course, some Anangu remained in the desert, having evaded contact with the whites. As Yalata community members have explained, “They doused their fires and hid when they heard planes approaching. They hid from soldiers in trucks. They knew nothing of the devastation that was happening on their lands. How could people who perhaps had never seen whitefellas read the whitefella signs saying they must not enter their own country?” 

Even as late as 1959 there were official reports of people still living deep in the prohibited zone. The whites had seen hunting fires close to a road leading to the test site.

It followed that the immediate victims of the great crime were those Aboriginal people devastated by the long years of bombing and fallout on their land. 

The first explosions at Emu Field were severe. At Wallatinna to the north-east, a black mist enveloped camp sites, filling the air with metallic smell and taste. As an account in Maralinga: The Anangu Story described, “It caused stomach pains, vomiting, choking, coughing, diarrhoea, rashes, peeling skin, headaches, and sore and running eyes”. Judy Mayawara recalled “people getting sick from the smoke. Vomiting green vomit. Passing green faeces. My son Kelly went blind for a while from the smoke. Got his sight back but developed a squint. Had to wear glasses. My sister died”. Within days, the older members of the group had died. Over the next year, another score camping in the same region also died. Given the lack of official reports, it is hard to be sure how much higher the number was. 

The late Yami Lester, an awareness campaigner who at 10 years old was blinded by the black mist, wrote in his autobiography:

“When I was a young boy living in the desert, the ground shook and a black mist came up from the south and covered our camp. The older people said they’d never seen anything like it before, and in the months that followed many people were sick and many died. I don’t like to think about it now, but one of those people was my uncle, and he was very sick before he died. There were sores all over his body and they looked full of pus.”

Kukika from Wallatina remembers:

“Smoke came from the south, brought up by light wind. The sun became bad. People got sore eyes. We were weak in arms and legs, couldn’t get up and dig for rabbits. Blood came from people’s noses and mouths. My two grandmothers died, and my father and mother. I was burying people. Shifted camp again and again.”

People kept traversing the lands, in at least one case camping near a highly radioactive nuclear bomb crater. The royal commission examined the case of Edie Milpuddie, whose family had spent a mere 12 hours camping on the edge of a large crater. Edie told the commission that she had been pregnant, but soon had a miscarriage. The family’s four hunting dogs, contaminated, were shot in front of them by the military patrol. The Milpuddie family continued to suffer severe health problems for decades.

Such horrors have generated profound hatred of and resistance to the nuclear industry amongst Indigenous people in South Australia that continue to this day. Myra, who campaigned against the nuclear waste dump proposed for Coober Pedy in 2003-4, expresses it clearly: 

“The people who have done the damage should take it away. They should please clean up the place properly. My birthplace got bombed down. The bomb ruined my country, they spoiled all my country. People died north side and west side. Fell down and died.”

BURNT COUNTRY

Maralinga revealed how postwar Australian governments were as willing to brutalise Aboriginal people as were the earliest white invaders. New generations have been traumatised by the calculations made in the air-conditioned offices of imperial pragmatism. 

Running parallel is Maralinga’s very physical legacy. For decades the sites retained dangerous plutonium contamination, which meant displaced people were barred from returning. 

A clean-up in the late 1990s was compromised by cost-cutting, with the end result the dumping of hazardous radioactive debris into shallow holes in the ground. It is said that this was about as effective as shovelling dirt and flipping it upside down. A nuclear engineer sacked from the clean-up effort, Alan Parkinson, wrote a detailed account in his book Maralinga: Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up. He concluded: “What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn’t be adopted on white-fellas land”.

As the anti-uranium movement grew in the 1970s, spurred on by public outrage at French nuclear testing in the Pacific, protests begun to demand investigation into the secretive history of Maralinga. Whistleblowers such as Avon Hudson emerged, telling the world how even white servicemen were used as guinea pigs during the experiment: veterans are known for high rates of cancer, and for having children with deformities. Hudson, a long-time campaigner for compensation for Indigenous survivors, still to this day appears at anti-nuclear gatherings in Adelaide.

New generations of anti-uranium and anti-nuclear campaigners must keep the image of Maralinga’s mushroom cloud in the forefront of our minds. The global nuclear industry is inextricably intertwined with the build-up of deadly nuclear weapons. 

The ambition of those who master the nuclear fuel cycle is ultimately weapons of mass destruction. Japan’s former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba put this most explicitly in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear reactor catastrophe when he commented, “It’s important to maintain our commercial reactors because it would allow us to produce a nuclear warhead in a short amount of time”.

A new arms race has emerged, centred on competition between the US and China. The world is thus threatened with more Maralingas and more Hiroshimas. Black Mist Burnt Country highlights the importance of the task anti-nuclear campaigners must set themselves: to disarm all nuclear powers, and to replace imperialist competition with a collaborative world socialist system.

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Black Mist Burnt Country will be showing until 10 February 2019 at the Burrinja Dandenong Ranges Cultural Centre.