Kevin Gilbert Courtesy Fairfax Press
In early September 1991 Kevin Gilbert was photographed by Richard Briggs against the background of the Australian War Memorial. He carries a cross in almost Christ like manner as he walks towards Anzac Parade. However it is unlikely that this symbolism was Christian. Gilbert’s creation spirit was Baiame. Rather the cross was generally symbolic of the sacrifice of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia during more than 200 years of undeclared war against invasion and of the ongoing suffering of his people. Gilbert himself said at the time
I represent Aboriginal people who have fought with honour and given their lives for justice and for the land – as none have done for so long as my people. This is a memorial to those who have fought and died and continue to die in the continuing massacre against us. Interview with Amanda Uhlmann, Canberra Times 3 September 1991.
In seeking recognition of Australia’s first and unfinished war, and commemoration of the sacrifice of its participants he brought his plea and protest to the hub of remembrance of the war service of Australians and linked it with the phrase used to encapsulate the act of remembering war: LEST WE FORGET. The wayside memorial he constructed in a then vacant space on Anzac parade – already lined with officially sanctioned memorials – bears the sign THIS SITE IS A MEMORIAL TO ALL ABORIGINAL PEOPLE WHO HAVE DIED IN DEFENSE OF OUR LAND LEST WE FORGET.
The use of the phrase ‘Lest we forget’ of biblical origin was boosted by Rudyard Kipling’s poem known as the Recessional which was adopted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission after World War One. The poem, which cautioned against the hubris of power was written for Queen Victoria, whose Empire was responsible for the dispossession of Aboriginal people. It reads in part ‘… we hold Dominion over palm and pine. Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget – lest we forget!’ Despite the later official and general use of this phrase the war of invasion has been largely forgotten or is ignored by non-Aboriginal people.
Members of Kevin Gilbert’s immediate family served in World War Two and others of his extended Wiradjuri family volunteered for World War One. However in 1991 the story of Australia’s war participation was predominantly a white one which excluded Aboriginal war service. Although the movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service in Australia’s overseas wars was growing, it was still in its infancy. In 2014 to a large extent this battle for recognition has been won. Not so the battle waged by Gilbert and others to achieve recognition of the ongoing war which began with invasion, in which Aboriginal people fought for their country, their land. Recognition by some historians has been forthcoming but this is only half the battle. The next step is for this long and bloody war to be officially remembered by the Australian nation and the Australian War Memorial.
Philippa Scarlett 24 April 2014
Thank you to Ellie Gilbert for permission to use her photograph and for additional information. More about the extent of the war and its casualties and the attitude of the Australian War Memorial can be found at