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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Gordon Briscoe (1938–2023)

by Malcolm Brown

If anyone could be held up as an inspiration for The Voice for Australia’s Indigenous people, it would be Gordon Briscoe, born in the most inauspicious circumstances in Alice Springs in 1938.

His father, a white man, Ron Price, who was a telegraph station manager, died shortly after his birth. When his mother went to work at a station, the boy was mostly left in the care of two teenage girls at the Old Telegraph Station. Briscoe was picked up in a cattle truck and evacuated to the south with other Aboriginal people during World War II. In his words, it was the “evacuation of the half-castes from the half-caste institutions in and around the Northern Territory”.

For a time, he was placed in a South Australian internment camp for “aliens”. He failed to make progress at school and left barely able to read and write, and was obliged to make his way in a racially bigoted society. From those beginnings, he moved on to become a leading light for his people, helping them to organise, establish services to cater for basic needs, and he led the fight for recognition.

Briscoe eventually resumed his education, went to university and became the first Indigenous Australian to become a PhD, stood as a candidate for federal parliament and otherwise devoted himself to the advancement of his people.

Gordon Briscoe was born at the Old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs, in 1938, a descendant of the Mardudjara and Pitjantjatjara nations, and grandson of white rouseabout, Billy Briscoe, who was involved in the 1928 Coniston massacre in central Australia, in which some of Briscoe’s forebears died.

Briscoe’s mother, Eileen, had been a desert wanderer before being snapped up by police at the age of nine, taken from her family and resettled in Alice Springs. Briscoe and his mother lived at the Old Telegraph Station until he was four. Then he was evacuated. “I can distinctly remember leaving Alice Springs by truck … I remember the army trucking us out … We had to travel by cattle truck,” he said. “I distinctly remember the smells of the cattle truck.”

He and his mother settled first in Sydney’s Kirribilli, where he attended Kirribilli Primary School. They then moved to Mulgoa at the foot of the Blue Mountains. He stayed at the Mulgoa Children’s Home dormitories, attended a one-teacher school and survived pneumonia. When his mother gave birth to another son, Bill, apparently fathered by a visiting American serviceman, Eileen Briscoe was identified as one of the “problem” mixed-race women, who were not desired by employers because they had multiple children, and was sent to an internment camp in the South Australian town of Balaklava. In 1945, an Anglican missionary, Father Percy Smith, secured her release. She left Gordon with him and went to work in a laundry. Smith placed Briscoe in St Francis House, a mix-race institution in Adelaide.

Briscoe struggled with institutional life and made little progress in his schooling, but identified with Charlie Perkins, born two years before him at the Old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs, and John Moriarty, who had also been evacuated from the Northern Territory, and were adept soccer players.

Briscoe developed a love of Australian rules football, cricket and boxing. In 1947, when St Francis House was moved, the boys had to change schools as well, to Ethelton Primary in Adelaide’s western suburbs. There was resistance from white parents to the admission of Aboriginal boys to the school. Briscoe was enthralled by Perkins’ sporting success, but also noted that after being so successful on the field, Perkins resumed the status of being “just another unwanted Aborigine”. When Smith left St Francis House, Briscoe also felt abandoned. He left school and started work driving trucks in Port Adelaide Harbour, but remained close to Perkins and Moriarty and played soccer alongside them for Adelaide Croatia. 

Briscoe joined the Exeter Football Club in suburban Adelaide and was selected to play for South Australia in the National Amateur Australian Rules Carnival in Perth. He switched to soccer and joined Adelaide’s OFK Beograd soccer club, followed by signing up with Adelaide’s Croatia Club and the Polonia Adelaide Sports Club.

In October 1961, following Perkins’ footsteps, he went to England, starting with the Hemel Hempstead soccer club, then with Preston North End, and working in a factory. He met an English academic, Norma, whom he married. Their first child, Aaron, was born in 1963.

Briscoe and his family returned to Australia and settled in Gladesville in Sydney, where he worked for the Canterbury Council and became involved with the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs and the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Conscious of his lack of education, Briscoe was most receptive when offered a scholarship by the NSW Aboriginal Education Council to attend Sydney Technical College. He matriculated and won a scholarship for an arts degree at the Australian National University.

In 1970, as leader of the so-called “Brown Power” movement, he was defeated narrowly for a position on the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs. He protested when seven Aboriginal men were refused service in the Great Southern Hotel in George Street, Sydney, saying it was “racial discrimination”.

In 1971 he joined a group of activists who formed the National Tribal Council, and became the council’s inaugural minister for health. Briscoe failed university that year and had to attend the Canberra College of Advanced Education, earning money as a liaison officer for the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs.

He got into trouble, joining a protest by Aboriginal staff members about pay and conditions and getting himself sacked. Briscoe continued in his role at the National Tribal Council, and also began volunteering for the Aboriginal Legal Service Committee and was given a paid position as a liaison officer.

Briscoe was having some run-ins with the law. In 1972, he and other Indigenous people patronised the Empress Hotel in Redfern but, in their words, they were harassed by the police. After a riot in Redfern, he was charged with resisting arrest and using unseemly words, and allegedly assaulted while in custody.

As chairman of the NSW Tribal Council, he supported Indigenous parents from the Walhallow settlement near Quirindi in the state’s north, who did not want their children transferred from an all-Aboriginal school.

In 1972, Perkins announced he would be running in the federal seat of the Northern Territory for the Australia Party, and when withdrew for health reasons, he asked Briscoe to take his place. Briscoe moved back to Alice Springs and became the first Indigenous person to stand for federal parliament. He campaigned across the territory and although he lost, he received enough votes to retain his deposit. He stayed in Alice Springs and worked as a researcher for the National Population Inquiry.

When ophthalmologist Fred Hollows established the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program in 1975, he asked Briscoe to be the assistant director. In this role, he advised on cultural protocols for approaching Indigenous communities and oversaw extensive field surveys. He became Hollows’ close friend, best man and godfather to Hollows’ daughter Rosa.

In 1981, he returned to academia at the ANU, focusing on Indigenous stories. He was involved in the production of the SBS documentary First Australians. He studied for a master’s of arts, and became a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

In 1992, Briscoe returned to the ANU as a doctoral candidate and in 1997 he became the first Indigenous Australian to be awarded a PhD from an Australian university, his thesis being: Aspects of Indigenous Health in Western Australia and Queensland, 1900-1940. In 2002 was awarded membership of the Order of Australia.

He was inspired to write a personal history, Racial Folly, and was a keynote speaker at the launch of Strangers in a Strange Land, an exhibition detailing the history of the Anglican Church and Aboriginal people from 1847-1997. He said: “The churches were expected to deal with the Aboriginal problem, which was seen by the state as the job of Christian charity … I can say now that much of the success of St Francis House and Father Percy Smith’s dream was because he allowed and encouraged us to be Aborigines and made every effort to keep our ties with our families.”

In 2004, Briscoe joined the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, with great benefit to the organisation. That year, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).

Gordon Briscoe died on June 30 at the home of his son, Aaron, on the NSW North Coast. He is survived by his wife, his half-brother Samuel Wickman, other half-siblings, his three children and three grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Batemans Bay on the south coast in August at a date to be fixed.

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Briscoe, Gordon (1938–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/briscoe-gordon-17784/text42100, accessed 28 May 2024.

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