Archie Barton: Aboriginal leader who campaigned for the clean-up of the Maralinga nuclear test sites

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In the 1950s, the Maralinga Tjarutja people of the remote western area of South Australia were forced off their tribal lands to make way for British nuclear tests. One of their number, Archie Barton, later spearheaded a 20-year campaign for Tjarutja Aborigines to regain ownership of the land, see the test sites cleaned up, and be compensated for the historical wrongs they had suffered.

It was at Maralinga, on the dusty red plains dotted with saltbush and spinifex grass, that Britain joined the nuclear club, exploding seven large bombs and carrying out dozens of smaller trials between 1955 and 1963. The area was supposedly uninhabited when it was declared a "first-class site" by the British atomic scientist Sir William Penney. In fact, the nomadic Tjarutja had been criss-crossing the land for tens of th ousands of years.

Barton was a young man when the first mushroom cloud rose above Maralinga, from a 12.9-kiloton weapon. But his personal tragedy had begun years earlier. At the age of five, he was removed from his family and taken to a Christian mission in Port Augusta, on the coast of South Australia. He was a member of the "Stolen Generations" – to whom the Australian government finally apologised this year – and he never saw his mother again.

She was a full-blood Aboriginal woman; his father, whom he may never have known, was a white man, probably a railway worker. Archie was born in March 1936 (the exact date is unknown) at Barton, a railway siding on the east-west transcontinental line, and spent time at Ooldea, a nearby Aboriginal reserve in the Maralinga area.

At the Port Augusta mission, run by the Christian Brethren, he was educated until he was 12. Then, like many Aboriginal boys, he was dispatched to work on agricultural properties. (Girls were sent into domestic service.) A gifted Australian Rules footballer, Barton played for indigenous teams in Port Augusta and Ceduna, another coastal town.

In his twenties, Barton moved to Adelaide and worked as a labourer. He contracted tuberculosis and spent a year in a sanitorium. An alcoholic, he stopped drinking when a doctor warned him that if he carried on he would soon be dead. In the 1970s, he worked for an Aboriginal alcohol-rehabilitation service.

Like others among the Stolen Generations, Barton had, paradoxically, lost his family, his home and, to some degree, his culture, but had gained an education he would not otherwise have received. That made him better equipped than most to fight the Tjarutja's long battle against the British and Australian governments.

Back in the 1950s, Britain's loyal ally Australia was only too happy to accommodate the mother country's nuclear ambitions. Tens of thousands of British, Australian and New Zealand servicemen were exposed to radiation during the tests. Aborigines were herded into trains and trucks and expelled from the Maralinga area. But some continued to wander across contaminated lands, and on one occasion, a family was found camping in a radioactive crater.

In 1981, the Maralinga people, then based at Yalata, near the coast, appointed Barton as their adviser. Four years later, after the state government agreed to hand back 30,000 square miles of desert, he became administrator of the newly created land council. The Tjarutja returned to the area and re-established a settlement at Oak Valley, about 75 miles from the test sites.

Barton assisted his people at an Australian royal commisison into the nuclear tests, which resulted in individual compensation pay-outs. A decade later, in 1994, the community received A$13.5m for the poisoning of its lands. In the early 1990s, Barton led two delegations of traditional Aboriginal owners to London to lobby the Government to contribute to a $100m clean-up of the test sites, memorably presenting Parliament with a lump of plutonium-laced earth from Maralinga. Britain eventually agreed to pay about half, and the clean-up was completed in 2000.

The Maralinga administrator for 20 years, Barton – who had no children himself, but looked after the children and grandchildren of his long-term partner, Mary Harrison – also sat on several key committees. He was a director of Imparja, the national Aboriginal broadcasting network, and a member of the Australian federal government's National Indigenous Council.

Sadly, the last years of his life saw him disgraced and ostracised for misappropriating $230,000 of community funds. Forced to resign in 2005, he slid into poverty and ill-health. He did, however, reconcile with the Maralinga people before he died. Friends blame old age and impaired judgement for his dishonesty, together with the financial demands placed upon him by relatives.

He once told Andrew Collett, longstanding barrister to the Maralinga community, that he was "between two cultures", obliged to fulfil his traditional responsibilities as well as the demands of western life.

Collett says of Barton: "He was a man of great patience and wisdom, and great determination, and a very courteous but firm negotiator. He was universally respected by the very many government ministers and public servants he got to know through the Maralinga negotiations."

Kathy Marks

Archie Barton, political activist and land-rights compaigner: born Barton, South Australia March 1936; administrator, Maralinga Tjarutja community 1985-2005; OM 1989; Member, National Indigenous Council 2004-05; died Ceduna, South Australia 18 October 2008.