Only 8 years after the world recoiled in horror at the devastation of the atomic bombs dropped in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the British government commenced 12 years of atomic testing in the beautiful desert country of outback South Australia.
For over 12 years 1953-1965 – twice as long as World War Two – 12 large atomic bombs and over 600 so called “minor tests” contaminated the South Australian lands of the Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Spinifex people.
The Australian Prime Minister granted permission for the tests without even consulting cabinet. Tapping in to the deep set fear and disregard for the vast interior of Australia and allowing an ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality to justify the toxic bombing of Australian citizens, most of Australia didn’t even know it was going on and still don’t.
The stories from Emu Field and Maralinga border on the absurd – leaflets written in English dropped from planes to warn nomadic indigenous people the tests were coming, Australian service men topless in shorts playing cricket on the testing fields while the Brits and American wore protective clothing, a pregnant indigenous woman found camped in a crater who lost her baby…..
What is perhaps most confronting of all is that this history is still largely unknown in Australia. Maralinga has been immortalised by our folk hero musician Paul Kelly, there was a royal commission into the tests in 1984/5, servicemen are still campaigning for compensation and huge tracts of the desert will be uninhabitable for ever more – and yet somehow it is still a hidden part of Australia’s history.
In the early 2000s I became aware of an inspiring campaign led by the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – the Senior Women of Coober Pedy – against a proposed nuclear waste dump in South Australia. These women remembered the bombs from the 1950s and they didn’t want that poison on their country – they initiated the inspiring and victorious Irati Wanti – The Poison, Leave It campaign and prevented that waste dump.
Hearing their stories from Emu Field and Maralinga I was inspired to learn more about the story, and together with Scott Rankin and Trevor Jamieson established the Big hART Ngapartji Ngapartji project.
Ngapartji Ngapartji was based on Arrernte country in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) from early 2005 to mid 2010. Ngapartji Ngapartji had many layers involving language learning, teaching and maintenance, community development, crime prevention, cross cultural collaboration, and creating new literacy training models as well as film, art, policy and theatre making.
The stage production explored Trevor’s family’s experience with the atomic tests – many of them were moved west off their country in cattle trucks before the tests took place. This dislocation – becoming refugees in their own country – and its impact across subsequent generations was told beautifully in this award winning play.
As well as the touring theatre productions the project produced a documentary film for ABC TV in 2010, Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji, which followed Trevor and the team taking the play back to country in Ernabella community, South Australia. For many people this was the first time they had talked publicly about the bombs – as Anangu culture reveres the deceased with silence – and many of the stories had not been passed down to younger generations. Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji can be watched in full online.
It remains clear that the stories of Maralinga still need to be shared and acknowledged, and plays, music and storytelling play a critical role in drawing attention to Australia’s atomic history and shameful indifference to the desert and its people.
Ruthless Jabiru and Lara St. John perform Maralinga Lament at the Union Chapel, London at 19:30 on Monday 14 October. Tickets are £16 advance from the Union Chapel online store or £18 at the door.