Australia Has A Long History Of Slavery, And We’re Still Feeling The Effects

"If there is no slavery in the British Empire then the NT is not part of the British Empire; for it certainly exists here in its worst form" - the North Australian Workers’ Union, in 1932.

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In 1868, an article appeared in a Central Queensland newspaper. The headline: Slave-Stealing And Slave-Dealing In Queensland.

The story, in the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, details a court case involving a South Sea Islander boy named Towhey who tried to run away. John Tancred was charged with stealing the “hired servant” from Arthur Gossett, and was fined £10.

They were able to identify the missing boy because he had been branded — twice.

“The advantage of the branding these intelligent islanders who cannot speak English, and who make crosses to their agreements, has been made very manifest by this case, and, perhaps, it may not yet be too late for the Assembly to insert a “branding” clause in the Polynesian Laborers Bill,” the article mused.

Clearly, newspapers at the time didn’t shy away from identifying slavery. Modern academics (and anyone with the ability to read a history book) call what we did slavery. Plenty of Australians throughout the 19th and 20th centuries admitted it slavery.

So why can’t our Prime Minister?

A History Of Australian Slavery

Last week Morrison was absolutely slammed for saying Australia never had slavery.

On Friday, he apologised to anyone offended — but still didn’t really back down.

“The comments I was referring to was how the New South Wales settlement was first established …  one of the principles was to be that Australia or in that case, New South Wales, was not to have lawful slavery. And that was indeed the case,” he said.

“There was not the laws that have ever proved to slavery in this country.”

Dr Thalia Anthony is an expert on Indigenous criminalisation and community justice, and the colonial legacy in legal institutions. She disagrees.

“He’s basically narrowed the definition of slavery to an American type model where slave laws imported people from African colonies to the United States and to Britain,” she explained.

“That is one way in which slavery was legalised, but in Australia largely because of the reliance on First Nations workers — there was also Melanesian people — but predominantly First Nations people, we didn’t need to export anyone.

“The work of colonisation had enabled a set of distinct laws, primarily Aboriginal Protection Acts, that gave complete control to protectors working in conjunction with police and pastoralists, to control the lives of Aboriginal people.”

To give some clarity, the term “protector” is a bit of an oxymoron.

For example, the title of “Chief Protector of Aborigines” was given to Dr Cecil Cook from 1927 to 1939. He was opposed to cash wages for Indigenous Australians and advocated for them to be used as cheap labour.

He was also the one who pointed out that Australia was in breach of its obligations under the League of Nations Slavery Convention.

He wasn’t the only one — in the 1930s Owen Rowe, from the North Australian Workers’ Union, said slavery “exists here in its worst form”.

He campaigned against the hiring of Aboriginal people and said it was not because of the colour of their skin, but “on economic grounds, as the black slave was competing with the unskilled white worker”.

That’s despite slavery legally being abolished in 1833 in the British Empire.

What Defines Australian Slavery?

Dr Anthony said the important criteria for slavery isn’t just that the person is forced into employment.

She said often every aspect of the “employees” lives were controlled, from where they lived, what clothes they wore, who they associated with, who they married, and what they spent their money on.

That’s if they even received money. Often they were paid in rations like tobacco or alcohol, or didn’t get paid at all.

“That total control goes to the heart of slavery, it’s not just controlling your labour but it controls your entire being and undermines your free will,” Dr Anthony said.

Many Aboriginal women were also forced to work domestically in white homes in what could be considered indentured labour, but often the focus falls on agricultural industries because that was where it was literally government sanctioned.

For example, in the Northern Territory the Aboriginal Ordinance 1918 allowed Indigenous workers to be forcibly recruited, and legalised the non-payment of wages under Commonwealth law.

“That’s where the claims that it wasn’t slavery really fall in their face because we’ve got legislation that enabled that to happen,” Dr Anthony said.

“(But) I suspect the treatment of Aboriginal workers much more broadly in the colonies could be described as akin to slavery.”

Often settlers, like those in the pastoral industry, would prey on the Indigenous connection to country and force them to work for free in exchange for being allowed to stay on their land.

“Although violence was a common form of taking Aboriginal people onto cattle stations, it meant that if the people were already there they could be forced into the labour relationship without violence, so it made it a lot easier,” she said.

“Perhaps for that reason people would say they chose to be there, but when you belong to that country and you need to stay connected to that country, that’s not really a choice at all.”

But people were also traded and sold — like the aforementioned Twohey, who Tancred tried to sell for £2. That’s less than $500 today.

That’s not to mention the practice of blackbirding, where people from the Pacific islands were kidnapped or tricked into coming to Australia to work on plantations under terrible conditions.

More than 60,000 people were trafficked to Queensland, and mass graves of those labourers are still being uncovered.

Some people deny it was slavery because contracts were signed and the men were paid — dramatically less than their white counterparts — and the government legislated the trade as indentured labour.

But Professor Clive Moore, a leading researcher on South Sea Islander history at University of Queensland, told the ABC just because the legal definition says otherwise doesn’t mean it wasn’t slavery.

“After slavery was abolished the British practitioners asked themselves ‘how can we get the same labour we used to get,’ so they used the indentured system,” he said.

“Whether you call them slaves or not, they definitely worked in slave-like conditions. It was often horrific.”

The practice only stopped when this country introduced the White Australia Policy in 1901.

When asked whether he considered blackbirding to be slavery, Scott Morrison said he did not deny that “hideous practices” took place, but he did not want to get into “the history wars”.

If he’d rather not look back at history, maybe he could take a look at some more recent examples — like his own party’s work-for-the-dole scheme, which has been compared to modern-day slavery by academics and politicians.

Who Benefited From Australian Slavery?

Basically, everyone — except Indigenous Australians.

Plenty of agricultural industries like the pearling, sugar cane, cotton and pastoral industries relied on their labour.

In the cattle industry, for example, pastoral lessees depended on the skill of Aboriginal stock workers who knew the country and were good with animals.

“Without that labour they would have failed … the whole industry simply depended on them from the beginning, so they were always dependent on Aboriginal workers,” she said.

That lasted right up until the 1960s when the industry became more mechanised. Around this time, Aboriginal workers also began to mobilise, and in 1966 they waged the longest strike in Australian history with the Gurindji walk off.

The seven year standoff between the stockmen and domestic workers of Wave Hill and the Vestey Brothers, who owned the Northern Territory station, was made famous by the Paul Kelly song From Little Things Big Things Grow, which details the struggle of leader Vincent Lingiarri.

In the decades leading up to the strike, workers for the Vestey Brothers were often beaten or killed, sexually abused, denied running water and adequate meals, forced to live in tiny tin humpies, had children stolen, and denied wages.

“It was obvious that they had been… quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights,” a NT government report said.

More broadly speaking, many large companies also benefited from slave labour — including British companies.

Dr Anthony said the Australian government should be engaging with First Nations people on what kind of redress and reparations are required, including things like the repayment of stolen wages.

“There also needs to be some accountability from the corporate interests that benefited from Australian slavery,” she said.

“But I think the government needs to take leadership in bringing people to the table, but that can only happen once there’s recognition.”

What Impact Has That Had?

The impacts of these events are still very fresh in living memory — the Gurindji walk off only finished 45 years ago, and the Queensland Government’s Stolen Wages class action covered workers from as recently as the 70s.

Long-term, these impacts are intergenerational.

“Obviously the psychological and emotion impacts of being treated like a slave gets passed down, especially when our society continues to mistreat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people,” Dr Anthony said.

“But also what gets passed down is the poverty. These people worked so hard, how were they ever supposed to save for a home, how were they supposed to get any type of inheritance to pass down to their children?

“Today’s poverty very much speaks to the exploitation of Aboriginal people in the past. Not only their land, that’s a huge part of it, but also their labour.”

Clearly the widespread use of unpaid labour has massively contributed to the entrenched inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the effects of which are still being felt today.

There are many Australians who are probably uncomfortable with the thought of their modern privilege coming at the expense of slave labour — but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Without a basic understanding of this — or at the very least, basic recognition from our Prime Minister — we can’t hope for any meaningful redress.

And with our Indigenous population typically having higher mortality rates and levels of poverty, it’s redress we desperately need.

Why Australians need to recognise our history of slavery

We need to talk about Indigenous slavery and 'blackbirding'

Posted by Junkee on Monday, 15 June 2020

Feature Image: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images