2018 - 2019 Modern Volume 9

The Lesser-known Atomic Bomb Testing: The tragedy of Maralinga

The nuclear testing of Maralinga was, and remains to a lesser articulated example of the nuclear atrocities conducted by the Western superpowers of the 20th Century. Coordinated by the British Royal Commissioners in Nuclear Testing, with the permission from the Australian Government, the British tested their nuclear weapons on the Anangu County and discarded the toxic chemicals around the surrounding areas in the 1950s. There were a total of 12 bombs experiments in the Emu Island, Montebello Island and Maralinga from 1955 to 1963. Perhaps the reasoning for its often historical absence can be situated in the consequences that resulted from the testing, as it was mostly aboriginal tribes of the southern region in Australia who were sadly caught in the nuclear radiations of the testing. The testing fallout continues to affect their descendants to this day, and shows how strong nuclear chemicals are. The history of the Cold War continues to avoid addressing responsibilities as doing so with examples like this may present a challenge to the dialogue and representation of indigenous people.

Located 800 kilometres north-west of Adelaide, Maralinga was a homeland of the Maralinga Tjarutja, an Australian south Pitjantjatjara indigenous group. This testing was deemed necessary for Great Britain to achieve nuclear hegemony status at the height of the Cold War. In order to conduct this experiment, the local Australian government forced the natives to relocate. They made Maralinga part of Woomera Prohibited Area. The authorities did not bother to explain the risk and side effects to the landowners in Maralinga. Many of the bombing survivors remembered that they were forced to walk through the desert without water to prevent radiation exposure. In defence of their actions, there are even claims of the British authorities stating that “a dying race couldn’t influence the defence of Western Civilisation”. This event was dubbed “Puyu” – Black mist, by the native Southern Australians. Nonetheless, 1,200 Aboriginal people were contaminated with radiation from the tests. But importantly, according to nuclear engineer and whisteblower of Maralinga: Australia’s Nuclear Waste Cover-up Alan Parkinson declared that this terrible incident was “despicable and horrendous”, and most poignantly, that “it would NOT happen in white people’s lands”.

Although the natives were compensated with $618,000 for land contamination in 1991-1992 and $13.5 million for the loss of their land in 1995 by the local government, the biological damage was already done and cannot be erased. Victims of the radiation often suffer from fever and vomiting. Cases of skin rashes, diarrhoea, eyesores, permanent blindness and cancer were reported and recorded. Moreover, the radiation is hereditary and is passed on to newer generations; early death in these families were common symptoms of the exposure. The descendants of the victims tried to fight for compensation on exposure – to which 14 were rejected and 5 people were only given $200,000.

The aftermath undoubtedly left a huge scar on the native people and communities. Many became vocal about the outrage committed in Maralinga and became activists. In early April, the British Royal Navy planned to hold a thanksgiving ceremony for national service at Westminster Abbey which sparked criticism from anti-nuclear activist groups that urged the British government to apologise instead for the Maralinga incident with decent reparation. A touring art exhibition, known as Black Mist: Burnt Country, also helped shed light on the Maralinga tragedy. Indigenous artists like Tjariya Stanley and Jonathan Kumintjara highlighted the cultural legacies and impact of the testing in Maralinga on the natives with artwork in mixed mediums.

On the report of Christobel Mattingley, an Australian author, in Australia, only “4 out of 400 students in one particular school has knowledge about the Maralinga tragedy.” She also claimed that it is a chapter of native history that is widely forgotten. While the Australian authorities are willing to admit the devastating event in Maralinga, the British are less inclined to reconcile the horrors of this event. This is evident as currently, the British and the Scottish governments are ‘supporting’ the Australian government in their consideration of dumping nuclear waste in three different sites on Aboriginal lands. As of now, there is no sign of refusal or rejection of this proposal.

The tragedy of Maralinga is vital in understanding the way nuclear weapons have and continue to be used all over the world. The tragedy highlights how the arguable ‘victors’ of history will allow their absence in history’s often uncomfortable narratives, but it is in these nuances that responsibility and underrepresented stories can be heard to hold up a mirror. The fact that this event is not widely known is very disheartening as it shows how far European discourse dominates the discipline of history. However, there has been, and continues to be, resistance against grand narratives of imperialism. In the aftermath of this tragedy, new voices are being born- activists and artists use unique and effective ways to present the Maralinga tragedy which has resulted in more people being aware of this dark history.


Korff, J., “Maralinga: How British nuclear tests changed history forever”, CREATIVE SPIRITS (20 November 2018), https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/maralinga-how-british-nuclear-tests-changed-history-forever

Pearson, L., “Linda Pearson: Trident celebrations ignore Aboriginal victims of British nuclear weapons testing”, COMMONSPACE (9 April 2019), https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/14084/linda-pearson-trident-celebrations-ignore-aboriginal-victims-british-nuclear-weapons

Lysaght, G.J., “Living and working at Maralinga, the legacy of Britain’s atomic bomb testing on Australian soil”, ABC (12 August 2018) https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-12/what-it-is-like-living-maralinga-atomic-testing-site/10111212

Crawford, J., “Remembering Maralinga: History and Theory”, Red Flag: The Voice of Resistance (29 January 2019), https://redflag.org.au/node/6667

Interest in the Black Mist Burnt Country Art exhibition: Black Mist Burnt Country, https://blackmistburntcountry.com.au/