Able seaman Kaylin Coleman (pictured), a Kaparn woman from WA and a boatswain’s mate in the Royal Australian Navy

A new exhibition honouring the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ Naval legacy has opened in Sydney. 

‘Serving Country’ is a free photographic exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) which features six portraits of Indigenous families and individuals who have served or are currently serving in the Australian Defence Force. 

ANMM Manager of Indigenous Programmes, Matt Poll says it’s only a small sample of the Indigenous people who’ve served and continue to serve this country during times of conflict.

“Serving Country is an on-going project of Human Rights Photographer, Belinda Mason. She’s been working across the Army, Navy, the Airforce and is up to around 600 portraits. These portraits tell the individual stories of those who’ve been in the armed forces. 

The component that we put together for this first iteration (of the exhibition) in the Naval Galleries of ANMM, concentrates on six Elder community members and their stories which ties in to this year’s NAIDOC theme of ‘For Our Elders’.

The exhibition includes 18 portraits of Naval Servicemen and women, which will be shown in three sets in the lead up to Remembrance Day in November and ANZAC Day next year. 

With unreliable records of Indigenous national service, the exact number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who served their country in all conflicts and peacekeeping operations is still unknown despite government policy which excluded them from enlisting in Australia’s armed forces. 

However, the legacy of Indigenous servicemen and women can be seen in historic photographs which bring these stories to light for the wider community to learn about. 

Mr Poll says the exhibition has sparked some interesting conversations about Indigenous people and the Navy. 

“Do we count Bungaree as the first Aboriginal person to join Matthew Flinders on the circumnavigation of Australia in 1802. That was a Royal Navy ship. Is he a Navy recruit?. And the dance troupe of the Royal Australian Navy these days is named ‘Bungaree’. So, there’s so much recognition that needs to be held about Aboriginal people dating back to 1802 who willing got on these ships and acted as interlocuters and protectors.  I mean, it’s pretty obvious that Flinders wouldn’t have safely made that journey back without the help of people like Bungaree on the boat, helping him on shore. 

So, the deeper research of telling the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s involvement in the Navy, all of a sudden just blew out right back to the first days of the First Fleet and different things like that so there’s some really special stories to capture there. “

‘Serving Country’ is on at the Australian National Maritime Museum Naval Galleries until November 2024. 

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