Marcus Blake Norman Brown was a Tasmanian Aboriginal from Cape Barren Island, off the north-east coast of mainland Tasmania. He fought as a Private in C Company, the 40th Battalion, and died in France on 11 June, 1917. His next-of-kin received this memorial death plaque, also known as a ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, for his services. More than a million of these plaques were produced, marking the sacrifice of men and women who died between 4 August 1914 and 30 April 1920.
More than 400 indigenous Australians fought in the First World War, fighting for a country that did not allow them to vote and did not even count them in the census. During their time in the services, the racial divide that had shaped their lives as civilians was virtually non-existent - they were paid the same as other soldiers and generally accepted without prejudice. However, when they returned from Gallipoli, the Western Front and other campaigns, these same people were denied the rights of other servicemen and women, with only one indigenous person in Australia (in NSW) receiving a land lot as part of the Returned Servicemen’s Settlement Scheme. In Tasmania, approximately 271,537 acres – comprising 1,935 farms – were allocated - none to Tasmanian Aborigines.
The irony of the inscription on Marcus’ plaque – HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR – must have been apparent to his relatives. Each plaque commemorated the name of the soldier, individually embossed as part of the design. No indication of rank was given, in order to show equality of sacrifice of all those who lost their lives. While there might have been equality in death, there was none in life.
But, as a footnote to this story, Cape Barren Island – along with other areas of Tasmania – was returned to Aboriginal ownership on 10 May 2005.