On November 2nd 1976, two young Aboriginal men - Wiradjuri man Paul Coe and Bundjalung man Cecil Patten along with an Australian solicitor, Bruce Miles rowed ashore to Dover harbour in a small and rapidly sinking boat. Escaping the freezing English winter waters they swam to shore, climbing up onto the pebbled beach beneath the symbolic white cliffs. Armed with boomerangs and the Aboriginal flag they took hold and claimed the United Kingdom as Aboriginal Land, on behalf of all Aboriginal people. In front of a group of onlookers, (some of whom by chance happened to be Australian tourists) they announced their Sovereignty by planting the Aboriginal flag into the ground. They peacefully handed out gifts for the English which included beads and pieces of red cloth. The English watched the invasion unfold, amused by the events, they happily accepted these gifts whereby ultimately and unknowingly accepting their new Sovereign leadership.
Accompanying this dramatic invasion was a letter to James Callaghan, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Written by Bob Merritt on behalf of the Aboriginal Legal Service, they laid out their terms of conquest and were quick to point out the historical paralleled events 200 years earlier.
The Dover Beach flag planting was a symbolic event for Aboriginal people. A paradox and a reverse reminder of the invasion that happened 200 years earlier on the shores of Botany Bay. The more amused the British were by watching this peaceful invasion unfold on Dover beach, the more effortless was the highlighting of the underlying farcical untruths of the terra nullius claim, stating Australia was uninhabited land when the British arrived in 1770.
After 'conquering Britain', and on returning to Australia, Paul Coe went onto challenge and sue the High Court of Australia and the Government of the United Kingdom in a case more commonly known as Coe vs Commonwealth. Presenting a case for the unlawful occupation of what is now known to be Australia and for the dispossession of Aboriginal people. Arguing the continent was not empty land as history presents but instead, a continent of more than 500 different Nations dating back to time immemorial and of which whose peoples have never ceded their sovereignty. Ultimately the case was dismissed but paved the way and laid a foundation for the successful Mabo case 10 years later.
In August 2020 my mum and I went to Dover to find the plaque that marked these events of the Aboriginal flag being planted on English soil. However we found the beach front had been redesigned and the plaque was sadly no longer there. Having grown up in England this day provided the opportunity to continue my connection to my Aboriginal heritage here on English soil. It allowed me to begin to understand the depth of the recent history between both cultures I embody. It also gave me the chance to connect personally, standing where my father stood and pay tribute to his and Cecil Patten's determination, bravery and their pioneering pursuit in decolonising history by providing the British with an alternative perspective.
Paul Coe (Dad) and Cecil Patten, Dover Beach Plaque, 1991
Where the Plaque once was
Dover Beach, 2020