Commonwealth Indigenous leaders demand apology from the king for effects of colonisation

Exclusive: Aboriginal Olympian Nova Peris says ‘change begins with listening’ as campaigners from 12 countries ask for ‘process of reparatory justice to commence’

Josh Butler Thu 4 May 2023 –

Nova Peris
Aboriginal athlete Nova Peris, former Australian Labor party senator and Olympian, is among campaigners to ask the King for a formal apology for colonisation. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

    Australians have joined Indigenous leaders and politicians across the Commonwealth to demand King Charles III make a formal apology for the effects of British colonisation, make reparations by redistributing the wealth of the British crown, and return artefacts and human remains.

    Days out from Charles’s coronation in London, campaigners for republic and reparations movements in 12 countries have written a letter asking the new monarch to start a process towards “a formal apology and for a process of reparatory justice to commence”.

    “We know this may be a tough conversation for the royal family, but change begins with listening,” said Nova Peris, an Aboriginal athlete, former Australian Labor party senator and Olympian. Fellow Indigenous Australian Lidia Thorpe, who is an independent senator, also signed the letter.

    The letter, titled “apology, reparation, and repatriation of artefacts and remains”, has been signed by representatives of Antigua and Barbuda, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

    “We, the undersigned, call on the British Monarch, King Charles III, on the date of his coronation being May 6, 2023, to acknowledge the horrific impacts on and legacy of genocide and colonisation of the Indigenous and enslaved peoples,” the letter reads.

    The letter notes that Charles told the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in June 2022 that acknowledging wrongs of the past was a “conversation whose time has come”. The letter asks that the king “immediately start the conversation about slavery’s enduring impact”.

    Signatories are asking the king for an immediate commitment to discussions about reparations for “the oppression of our peoples, plundering of our resources, denigration of our culture and to redistribute the wealth that underpins the crown back to the peoples from whom it was stolen”.

    Charles is also asked to immediately commit to repatriating human remains in British museums and institutions, and the return of cultural treasures and artefacts.

    The letter says the taking of such artefacts came through “hundreds of years of genocide, enslavement, discrimination, massacre, and racial discrimination by the authorities empowered by the protection of the British crown”.

    Thorpe again expressed her desire for an Australian head of state.

    “This country has a new king,” she said. “The parliament and the prime minister are subjugated to someone we didn’t elect.

    “Australia must move towards cutting ties with the crown and becoming a republic, but we have unfinished business to settle before this can happen.”

    Thorpe reiterated calls for the federal government to move towards a treaty with Indigenous Australians as part of the republic conversation, saying: “a republic that hasn’t resolved the injustices of terra nullius continues the violent legacy of colonisation.”

    The Australian Republic Movement has strongly criticised some facets of the coronation, including branding as “absurd” the request for Commonwealth subjects to pledge fealty to Charles. Peris, ARM’s co-chair, called it “an affront to all Australians”, saying in a statement: “To think that any self-respecting nation would bow before a foreign king is astounding.”

    “We are calling on [Charles] to also acknowledge the horrific and enduring impacts of the legacy of genocide and colonisation on Indigenous and enslaved peoples,” she said. “We hope this petition begins a process towards justice.”

    The leadership of New Zealand’s Te Pāti Māori or Māori party, including members of parliament Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi, called for Indigenous members of the Commonwealth to gain further rights to “self-management, self-determination, and self-governance over all our domains”.

    “The British crown deliberately engineered our displacement for many generations to come, but they have not succeeded,” they said. “It is time to dismantle this system so we can rebuild one that works for everybody.”

    The letter also asks the royal family to acknowledge the renunciation of the “doctrine of discovery” by Pope Francis last month, and to adopt the same stance in order to “start the process of consultation and reparations for the First Peoples who suffered the consequences of native genocide in fulfilment of that doctrine in the name of God”.

    The doctrine of discovery refers to a disputed feature of international law which aimed to justify colonialism, traced back to decrees issued by the Vatican in the 1400s to European kings to authorise their travel and possession of new lands.

    In April the Vatican issued a statement saying that doctrine “is not part of the teaching of the Catholic church”, but that papal bulls issued at that time “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples”.