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produced by sydney festival & queensland theatre company in association with the balnaves foundation

“I am very excited by The Black Diggers Project. For many years, the stories of our Indigenous servicemen and women have largely been untold and unheralded. The Anzac Centenary will be a unique opportunity for all Australians to recognise the contribution of Indigenous Australians and honour their service and sacrifice. This project will highlight individual stories and foster greater community awareness of the loyal and dedicated service of Indigenous Australians. I know it will resonate with audiences across Australia.” Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, AC, AFC (Ret’d)

the project

France, c. 1916. Non Commissioned Officers and Gunners who served at Gallipoli Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial – P01242.002

A compelling story of Australia’s Indigenous Anzacs

Between 2014 and 2018 Australia will commemorate the Anzac Centenary, marking 100 years since the country’s involvement in WWI.

The Black Diggers Project (working title) is a new theatre/music performance work to be directed by award – winning Australian playwright and director, Wesley Enoch. Produced by Sydney Festival and Queensland Theatre Company, The Black Diggers Project will premiere at Sydney Festival in January 2014. It tells the compelling story of the Indigenous Australians who enlisted to fight for the British Commonwealth during WWI, 1914 – 1918. It is a story of honour and sacrifice offering a richer understanding of Australian identity and history.


Harelbeke New British Cemetery, Belgium

Sydney Festival Director Lieven Bertels, originally from Belgium, describes his first encounter with Aboriginal Australia, in Flanders’ Fields. The area in which I live in Belgium is known throughout the Commonwealth as Flanders’ Fields, WWI’s central battlefield. This conflict stands out as one of the darkest pages in the history of humanity, and had an impact upon millions of people across the globe at a scale never seen before.

The silent, humble white headstones of the thousands of soldiers who died in my part of the world remain as powerful an image today as they were so many years ago. In the town next to mine, a lone Aboriginal Anzac digger lays buried, Private Rufus Rigney – Service No. 3872, a brave Ngarrindjeri boy from the shores of Lake Alexandrina, South Australia. He chose to fight for a country that wasn’t even his, according to the government of that time. Later I discovered over 800 Aboriginal diggers had fought in WWI.

the project

The Last Post, Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium.

Every single night of the year – summer, winter, sunshine or rain – The Last Post is played by local volunteer buglers under the Menin Gate in the nearby town of Ypres, sometimes large groups gather to listen, sometimes the buglers stand rather lonely under the gate. Since the end of WWI The Last Post has sounded approximately 28,000 times, representing not even a fraction of the number of lives lost in this conflict. 28,000 is actually closer to how many Anzac diggers alone are buried in those fields. 

The Black Diggers Project will commemorate the 800 Aboriginal soldiers who lost their lives serving their country. Lieven Bertels, February 2012


Portrait of Australian soldiers after a snow fight at a training camp in England. Back row, second from left is Private William ‘Bill’ Martin Walsh, 57th Battalion and the Indigenous serviceman, centre front row, is most likely Private Albert Jackson Coombs, 59th Battalion. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial – PO3906.001

When WWI broke out in 1914, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not considered citizens of Australia, but were rather the wards of the local Protector of Aborigines. They were paid low wages, forced to live on reserves and mission stations, could not enter a public bar, vote, marry non-Aboriginal partners or buy property. And yet when war was declared, many Aboriginal men wanted to join up and fight for Australia. The Defence Act of 1903 prevented those who were not of ‘substantially European descent’ from enlisting in the armed forces. Many Aborigines who tried to enlist were rejected on the grounds of race, but others managed somehow to slip through. In October 1917, following the defeat of a second conscription referendum, a new order was issued: “Half-castes may be enlisted

in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.” Despite the difficulties, it seems that at least 800 Aboriginal men managed to join the AIF. As civilians they had to tolerate constant racist slurs. But in the trenches, negative attitudes from non-Aboriginal diggers quickly disappeared. Once enlisted, these black diggers were fully integrated into the AIF. They were all soldiers, fighting the same fight against the same enemy. Whilst almost exclusively lowly ranked, these black diggers were paid the same as other soldiers, underwent the same training, and endured the same hardships. As Gary Oakley of the Australian War Memorial has noted, “The Army was Australia’s first equalopportunity employer.”

HISTORY OF THE WWI ABORIGINAL DIGGER Aboriginal diggers fought in every significant engagement of the war – from Gallipoli to Palestine to the Western Front. They won the respect of their fellow soldiers, and also many bravery awards. Many were wounded, some were captured, and dozens were killed. But the most tragic aspect of their service came after they returned to Australia. When they came home their sacrifices were ignored and their families oppressed even further by the government. Very few Aboriginal diggers were allowed the land grants offered to returned soldiers, and often the land for these grants was taken away from Aboriginal communities. War pensions and back pay were frequently denied, and few Aboriginal diggers were welcomed at their local RSL – except sometimes on ANZAC Day.

Private George Combo and Aboriginal serviceman from Mogil Mogil, near Collarenebri, NSW, who enlisted on 21 may 1916. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial – P00889.002

Due to the efforts and enthusiasm of researchers such as Rod Pratt, David Huggonson, Phillipa Scarlett, Doreen Kartinyeri and Garth O’Connell among others, the long-forgotten service of these black diggers is being celebrated. A welcome example is the recent re-burial in Ipswich of Trooper Horace Dalton, 11th Lighthorse Regiment, with full military honours and traditional ceremony. Today the bodies of Indigenous Australians who fell in the battlefields of France, Belgium, Turkey and Palestine remain buried thousands of miles away from their ancestral homes. Their brave spirits deserve the honour of remembrance – lest we forget, again. Dr David Williams Researcher, The Black Diggers Project

Trooper Horace Dalton, 11th Light Horse Regiment. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial – P00889.003

wesley enoch biography Director and playwright, Wesley Enoch is one of the most dynamic and influential people in Australian theatre today.

Wesley is Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company and is also a well-known writer. Originally from Stradbroke Island (Minjeribah) he is a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man. Wesley has directed for Queensland Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Adelaide Festival of the Arts, State Theatre Company South Australia, Company B Belvoir, Sydney Theatre Company, Bell Shakespeare, Malthouse Theatre, Windmill, Melbourne Workers Theatre, Alphaville, ERTH and Sydney Festival. As a playwright he has written The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table (awarded the 2005 Patrick White Playwright’s Award), The Sunshine Club, Life of Grace and Piety and Black Medea and he collaborated with Deborah Mailman on The 7 Stages of Grieving.

Wesley has been Artistic Director of Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts and Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre, Associate Artist with Queensland Theatre Company, Resident Director at Sydney Theatre Company, Director of the Indigenous section of the opening ceremony of the 2006 Commonwealth Games, a Sydney Opera House trustee, a NSW Government Arts Advisory Council member and sits on numerous other committees. In 2012, Wesley developed and directed the World Premiere of the critically acclaimed theatre work, I Am Eora, an epic and provocative story of Aboriginal Sydney which involved an Indigenous cast and crew of over 50 individuals. I Am Eora played to full and enthusiastic houses and emerged as one of Sydney Festival’s most ambitious theatre productions ever – in scale, scope and in its transformative potential and momentum.


The Black Diggers Project is an opportunity to put these spirits to rest. The chance to tell the stories of these men is a true opportunity to celebrate their lives and conjure their spirits. I was amazed when I was told their story and the effect their sacrifice has had on the small town in Flanders. We often find ways to remember the wars that have happened in our own country and the sacrifice of our forefathers to make a better world for Aboriginal people today. To be reminded of a time when Indigenous soldiers gave their lives fighting wars in other countries is incredibly humbling. Their story tells us of a time when we acted as a country, black and white together, a time when we thought beyond self interest and the internal world of our families, clans and race and believed there was a need to fight for more. Wesley Enoch, April 2012

“I can see the ghosts of these men speaking to us today. There are lessons to learn and their voices will lead us to them.”

partnerships As one of Australia’s most popular and globally recognised international arts festivals, Sydney Festival is positioned to showcase contemporary Indigenous Australian artists and their work to mainstream audiences, while connecting Indigenous artists with colleagues, trends and new ideas from around the world. To bring theatrical works of significance to the stage, Sydney Festival requires the support of generous individuals and key arts, community and funding bodies. Sydney Festival is proud to announce The Balnaves Foundation as the major sponsor of The Black Diggers Project. The foundation has come on board with a generous commitment towards creative development and production – a philanthropic gesture that will ensure this important work reaches a broad and diverse audience in 2014 and beyond. The Australian Government’s Major Festivals Initiative, in association with the Confederation of Australian International Arts Festivals, has provided seed funding towards a research position. Early discussions with Australia’s major arts festivals and performing arts organisations have commenced, revealing keen interest from presenters in other capital cities. It is envisaged The Black Diggers Project will tour nationally throughout 2014 and 2015. With plans in Europe to commemorate the Centenary of WWI, discussions with international organisations are also underway. Potential commissioning and presenting partners include

Private Douglas Grant, 13th Battalion, Private Harry Avery, 45th Battalion, and unidentified British soldier. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial – PO1692.001

Southbank Centre London, theatre group NTGent and music theatre collective Muziek Lod – both from Ghent, Flanders. The Australian War Memorial, The Anzac Centenary Advisory Board, Department of Veterans’ Affairs and The University of Sydney History Department have been enthusiastic and supportive throughout the preliminary planning stages and we look forward to working with these organisations as the project develops. Sydney Festival and Queensland Theatre Company will co-produce The Black Diggers Project in association with The Balnaves Foundation.

TIMELINE July 2012 Research commences Mar 2013 Creative Development 1 Sept 2013 Creative Development 2 Dec 2013 Rehearsal Period Jan 2014 World Premiere, Sydney Festival Feb 2014 Queensland premiere

queensland theatre company

Group portrait of members of the 66th Training Battalion. Image couresy of the Australian War Memorial – PO4948.001


Why does Sydney Festival need your support? Sydney Festival invites you to become an associate producer of the festival and in doing so support its latest working development, The Black Diggers Project. The development of this project is a massive undertaking for the Festival, and we need substantial financial support to make it happen. We aim to raise funds from a number of sources - a third from Government (including the Major Festivals Initiative, Arts NSW and the ANZAC Centenary Advisory Board), a third through the private sector (including generous support from The Balnaves Foundation) and a third through our regular income streams, including box office. The estimated budget to develop and stage The Black Diggers Project is more than $1 million.

How you can be part of this important Event I Am Eora – a highlight of Sydney Festival 2012 - was made possible due to the great support of our Associate Producers, who contributed over $200,000 to the festival. Now, Sydney Festival is inviting individuals to become Associate Producers of Sydney Festival to enable it to produce this new landmark production, The Black Diggers Project. Associate Producers each donate at least $5,000 and are acknowledged for this generous investment in various ways, including regular updates on the research and development of the work. We welcome you to join us as we work together to bring this important Australian story to life. The Festival has DGR status, so all contributions are fully tax deductible.

Malcolm Moir Head of External Affairs and Philanthropy 0419 751770Â

The Black Diggers Project  
The Black Diggers Project  

Sydney Festival 2013