Slavery in Australia – in the laid back n’ easy goin’ ‘land of the fair go’


In 1891 a ‘Slave Map of Modern Australia’ was printed in the British Anti-Slavery Reporter

Thalia Anthony, Stephen Gray, ‘Was there slavery in Australia? Yes. It shouldn’t even be up for debate’, The Conversation, 11.06.20

Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserted in a radio interview that “there was no slavery in Australia”.

This is a common misunderstanding which often obscures our nation’s history of exploitation of First Nations people and Pacific Islanders.

Morrison followed up with “I’ve always said we’ve got to be honest about our history”. Unfortunately, his statement is at odds with the historical record.

This history was widely and publicly documented, among other sources, in the 2006 Australian Senate report Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages.

What is slavery?

Australia was not a “slave state” like the American South. However, slavery is a broader concept. As Article 1 of the United Nations Slavery Convention says:

Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.

These powers might include non-payment of wages, physical or sexual abuse, controls over freedom of movement, or selling a person like a piece of property. In the words of slavery historian Orlando Patterson, slavery is a form of “social death”.

Slavery has been illegal in the (former) British Empire since the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade of 1807, and certainly since 1833.

Slavery practices emerged in Australia in the 19th century and in some places endured until the 1950s.

Early coverage of slavery in Australia

As early as the 1860s, anti-slavery campaigners began to invoke “charges of chattel bondage and slavery” to describe north Australian conditions for Aboriginal labour.

In 1891 a “Slave Map of Modern Australia” was printed in the British Anti-Slavery Reporter, a journal that documented slavery around the world and campaigned against it.

Reprinted from English journalist Arthur Vogan’s account of frontier relations in Queensland, it showed large areas where:

… the traffic in Aboriginal labour, both children and adults, had descended into slavery conditions.

Seeds of slavery in Australia

Some 62,000 Melanesian people were brought to Australia and enslaved to work in Queensland’s sugar plantations between 1863 and 1904. First Nations Australians had a more enduring experience of slavery, originally in the pearling industry in Western Australia and the Torres Strait and then in the cattle industry.

In the pastoral industry, employers exercised a high degree of control over “their” Aboriginal workers, who were bought and sold as chattels, particularly where they “went with” the property upon sale. There were restrictions on their freedom of choice and movement. There was cruel treatment and abuse, control of sexuality, and forced labour.

A stock worker at Meda Station in the Kimberley, Jimmy Bird, recalled:

… whitefellas would pull their gun out and kill any Aborigines who stood up to them. And there was none of this taking your time to pull up your boots either. No fear!

Aboriginal woman Ruby de Satge, who worked on a Queensland station, described the Queensland Protection Act as meaning:

if you are sitting down minding your own business, a station manager can come up to you and say, “I want a couple of blackfellows” … Just like picking up a cat or a dog.

Through their roles under the legislation, police, Aboriginal protectors and pastoral managers were complicit in this force.

Slavery was sanctioned by Australian law

Legislation facilitated the enslavement of Aboriginal people across the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland. Under the South Australian Aborigines Act 1911, the government empowered police to “inspect workers and their conditions” but not to uphold basic working conditions or enforce payment. The Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 (Cth) allowed the forced recruitment of Indigenous workers in the Northern Territory, and legalised the non-payment of wages.

In Queensland, the licence system was effectively a blank cheque to recruit Aboriginal people into employment without their consent. Amendments to the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 gave powers to the Protector or police officer to “expend” their wages or invest them in a trust fund – which was never paid out.

Officials were well aware that “slavery” was a public relations problem. The Chief Protector in the Northern Territory noted in 1927 that pastoral workers:

… are kept in a servitude that is nothing short of slavery.

In the early 1930s, Chief Protector Dr Cecil Cook pointed out Australia was in breach of its obligations under the League of Nations Slavery Convention.

‘… it certainly exists here in its worst form’

Accusations of slavery continued into the 1930s, including through the British Commonwealth League.

In 1932 the North Australian Workers’ Union (NAWU) characterised Aboriginal workers as “slaves”. Unionist Owen Rowe argued:

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.

In the 1940s, anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt surveyed conditions on cattle stations owned by Lord Vestey, commenting that Aboriginal people:

… owned neither the huts in which they lived nor the land on which these were built, they had no rights of tenure, and in some cases have been sold or transferred with the property.

In 1958, counsel for the well-known Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira argued that the Welfare Ordinance 1953 (Cth) was unconstitutional, because the enacting legislation was:

… a law for the enslavement of part of the population of the Northern Territory.

Profits from slaves

Australia has unfinished business in repaying wages to Aboriginal and South Sea Islander slaves. First Nations slave work allowed big businesses to reap substantial profits, and helped maintain the Australian economy through the Great Depression. Aboriginal people are proud of their work on stations even though the historical narrative is enshrined in silence and denial.

As Bundjalung woman Valerie Linow has said of her experiences of slavery in the 1950s:

What if your wages got stolen? Honestly, wouldn’t you like to have your wages back? Honestly. I think it should be owed to the ones who were slave labour. We got up and worked from dawn to dusk … We lost everything – family, everything. You cannot go stealing our lousy little sixpence. We have got to have money back. You have got to give something back after all this country did to the Aboriginal people. You cannot keep stealing off us.


Addendum: the above addresses only part of the story – e.g. convicts were also used as slave labour.


Welcome to Australia, mate!

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Charlotte Grieve, ‘Behind every number is a student’: survey finds widespread racism in schools’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27.08.19

One in five African students has been threatened by another student and almost half of East Asian students have been called names, according to a survey of 4600 state school pupils across Victoria and NSW.

Racism and religious intolerance remain widespread in Australia’s primary and secondary schools, researchers from Australian National University have found, with discrimination coming from both students and teachers.

Tanzanian Year 11 student Emmanuel Asante was threatened on the grounds of his south Sydney school by another student, who called him a “black monkey” and ordered him to get off the soccer pitch.

“I felt sad and I felt that I wasn’t welcome. I didn’t play soccer again. Never again,” he says now, one year after finishing high school.

Mr Asante became depressed during school, and said that while family and relationship issues were the main causes, “being racist to me added oil to the flames”.

This form of bullying can have serious lifelong consequences, according to lead researcher Associate Professor Naomi Priest, contributing to mental and physical health problems and even undermining future employment opportunities as students become discouraged and disengaged.

“We talk about the numbers of students who experience racism and we look at the percentages. But it’s important to remember that behind every number is a student, a family, a community.”

The researchers found that one third of students had been subjected to racism from other students – from teasing to physical violence – and six in 10 witnessed it. Professor Priest said she was not surprised by the results.

“Schools are a microcosm of wider society,” she said. “We know racism is a major issue in our community, we’re seeing the rise of the far right and white nationalism around the globe.”

Religious intolerance was also found to be rife, with one in four students surveyed reporting they’d been bullied because of their faith.

While only 2.35 per cent of the students surveyed said they were Muslim, more than half of them said they’d been bullied for their faith.

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Throughout her schooling in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Sundus Ibrahim was bullied for wearing the hijab – other children yanked at her head scarf, asked why she wore it or screamed “I hate you” while pointing at her head.

Ms Ibrahim, who graduated two years ago, describes herself as having a “big personality” but “at school I felt small”.

She tried to brush it off but grew so anxious she now feels afraid when alone in public.

Teachers can also be racist, the students told researchers: one in 10 said their teachers was racist towards them and nearly half said they had seen teachers racially discriminating against other students.

Braybrook VCE student Praise Morris said her friend was barred from her economics class because there were “too many black students” and they would “turn the class into a party”.

The students wrote a letter to the principal complaining about the incident but Ms Morris said the teachers tried to downplay the event, rather than deal with it.

“Instead of just taking ownership of what happened, they said you might have perceived it wrong…It really discourages you from even trying in school. What’s the point of trying to prove something if they already have the perception that I’m going to fail?”

The researchers hope to repeat the survey so they can track changing attitudes in schools.


Not ‘white fragility’ but white Western supremacism



‘Robin DiAngelo says white people are sensitive and easily hurt when they are reminded of their own white privilege.’

‘White Fragility’, Late Night Live, ABC Radio National, 15.08.18

‘Robin DiAngelo is a social justice and anti-racism educator, and she says she specialises in making white people feel uncomfortable.

She argues that the overt racism of people like Queensland Senator Fraser Anning is a smaller part of the problem than we realise. A more pernicious form of racism, she argues, is the lack of consciousness that progressives have about their own white privilege.

Her book is called White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.’


A 1908 postcard welcoming the ‘Great White Fleet’ to Australia


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Convict culture on display

‘India v Australia: Local fans relish home team’s aggression against Steve Smith, touring Aussies’, James Bennett, ABC News, 12.03.17

India’s Test players reacted angrily to Australian captain Steve Smith’s illegal glance to the dressing room last week, and while the BCCI has now dropped its official complaint, club and junior cricketers see Australia getting a dose of its own medicine.

“If Australia will do like this, then India will not give respect to them,” says 14-year-old junior cricketer Anish Kumar Rao.

He is talking about Smith’s controversial ‘brain fade’ explanation for illegally seeking the dressing room’s advice on challenging his second innings dismissal in Bangalore.

Across town, at another of Delhi’s cricket grounds, an amateur team calling themselves the ‘weekend cricket enthusiasts’ are padding-up for their regular Saturday fixture.

Captain Sanjeev Ananthakrishnan is chatting with his players, about the same incident.

“What about that consultation?! Checking with the dressing room and all?”

“That is not acceptable,” is a team-mate’s immediate reply.

The BCCI has withdrawn India’s official complaint, but the incident visibly riled Indian captain Virat Kohli, and clearly still rankles among ordinary cricketers.

Akhil Sethi, another of the weekend enthusiasts team, describes the moment as ‘full of controversy’, but he is smiling as he does so.

Ananthakrishnan agrees. “We love a bit of spice,” he jokes, in reference to the heated atmosphere the incident created. “That’s part and parcel, and we love it,” he grins.

Indians can thank their captain, Ananthakrishnan says, for his willingness to take the verbal fight to Australia.

“Virat Kohli happens to be the main pillar, behind not only the confidence levels that the team has come up with, but yeah, maybe that aggression,” he says.

The willingness of India’s new skipper to take on Australia on the field and off has won him plenty of plaudits, young and old.

“Australia have always been a very aggressive team, and India being that, the fans don’t mind it at all,” says Drun, an 11 year old batsman.

Madan Lal, a former Indian fast bowler who is coaching this group of juniors, thinks he might know where the ‘mongrel’ in Kohli might come from.

“He is very aggressive you know, he is like Australians,” jokes Mr Lal.

Most Indian cricket fans see Kohli as giving back to the Australians what Indian teams had endured, particularly from Australian teams past.

“On the field and off the field, he likes to empower his players to give back,” says Akhil Sethi.

Madan Lal says he teaches his juniors respect for their opponents “as a matter of principle, and good education”.

As the weekend enthusiasts team wrap up their Twenty 20 match, captain Ananthakrishnan says its important for amateur players not to get carried away.

“As long as nobody gets into fist fights, everything is OK,” he laughs.

“We love the spirit of the game, that is very important to us.”

The behaviour of the Australian cricket team and management in the current Test series in India and how it is reported in the Australian media (The Sydney Morning Herald [the paper of the Oh-so-‘decent’ Aussie]: ‘Steve Smith cheated – it doesn’t matter’) is utterly consistent, in so many ways, with my experience in this convict culture.

It is not only what Smith did but of more interest, what he said afterwards, how he instinctively played on the Aussie myth (‘me ‘n the boys’, green n’ gold etc. – I could see the jacaranda flowering over the old bungalow and the kookaburra laughing in the ghost gum next to it as I listened to him) and how others on his team and the Australian media commented. The Australians make the game mean and nasty. India to win!

‘Steve unleashes the mongrel!’

Reply to Jason 3


Hi Jason,

I do believe the result of the poll (that ‘49% of Australians support banning Muslims immigrating to Australia’) is accurate – it was taken twice to confirm the result. One of the pollsters said the number was too big to say that it is unrepresentative.

I have heard the poll discussed in the middle-class media and no-one (as much as they would like to) has claimed that the result is in any way ‘false’.

If you step back and look at the ‘big picture’: there is a rising anti-refugee sentiment across the US, Europe and Australia. Fascism and fascist parties play an increasing part in this – discussions in the Australian middle-class media about the possibility of a Trump presidency have included mention of fascism in the US.

What is fascism? Capitalism in extremis. When the GFC hit the fan, a lot of tax-payers’ money was thrown at it. That money has now gone but the GFC hasn’t. The capitalists ponder – ‘What to do?’

Blame someone, ramp up protectionism, wage war and make force and the threat of force internally more prominent.

All of this, with regard to Australia, feeds into a pre-existing cultural ‘mind’ set.

Not only has racism always been deeply ingrained in Australia (the ‘White Australia policy’ was only finally dropped in 1973) – recent instances of anti-Chinese xenophobia yet again exemplify this – this racism is representative of a broader problem in Australia – the fear of difference.

Aussies on their island continent at the arse-end of the earth (to quote a former Prime Minister) cannot comprehend difference and its necessity, wrapped otherwise than in conformist ‘decency’ (hence the comparative welcoming of the Vietnamese refugees after the defeat of the US and Australia in their war on Vietnam).

Again, what is particularly repulsive about the behaviour of the white-dominated nations (including Australia – one of the richest nations in the world) towards the present great tide of refugees is that those people are fleeing from destruction initiated either directly by capitalist nations or as a consequence of their previous behaviour – led by the number 1 capitalist power, the US.

The West fears ‘Islamic terrorism’? Think of the treachery and terrorism that the West has dished out over and again to the Islamic people, particularly in the last 100 years.

As capitalism goes deeper into crisis, within capitalist nations, the rich get richer, the poor poorer and the middle class diminishes while beyond those nations, their militaries continue to wreak the destruction and suffering that puts further pressure on capitalism.

This is dialectics in action.



‘49% of Australians support banning Muslims immigrating to nation they insist isn’t racist’


The Backburner, SBS, ‘49% of Australians support banning Muslims immigrating to nation they insist isn’t racist’ 21.09.16

A new poll from Essential media has shown a troublingly high number of people support banning all Muslims from immigrating to a nation that they insist is free, welcome and accepting of all people.

Early analysis of the results show community concerns that Muslim immigrants will not abide by Australian values such as a baseless, hysterical fear of all Muslim immigrants. The poll has somehow come as a shock to the nation that recently elected multiple senators on the same fearful platform, but others have insisted that the result was obvious and predictable.

“It’s about the Australian way of life,” one respondent told The Backburner. “I mean, we have a nation here built on freedom – the freedom to deeply fear anyone who you find different and scary – the freedom to restrict their freedoms.

“Australians have always been deeply exclusionary to anyone in need. Neglecting others while insisting we’re great people is one of our proudest national traditions. I mean, what’s the point of being a city shining on a hill if you’re not using that shining light to spot and repel people trying to clamour up the hill to take refuge in your nice city?

“I’m just saying that if we want to keep this country great we have to be willing to sacrifice every last tenet of what we believe makes this country great.”

The poll reported 49% of people supported a ban on Muslim immigration with many respondents claiming that Muslims did not integrate well into the kind of free society that would never place a religious test on immigration and absolutely wouldn’t be caught dead making sweeping statements admonishing a community that makes up a significant percentage of the population.

“We’re just trying to preserve good old fashioned Australian fear-mongering. We want to make sure we keep ourselves true blue, easy-going, deeply aggressive and unbelievably bigoted and exclusionary.

“I’m sure there will be backlash against this but I’ve come up with a clever strategy: what I am going to say is that I’m not actually racist because Islam is not a race. See, I’m not a racist, I’m a completely different kind of bigot. I’m attacking a minority group on an entirely different basis. You know what? I think I’ll find this article when you put it up and make this very comment on it.”


What it means to be Australian


Peter Martin, ’China’s gifts, research, “special bonds” and Sam Dastyari’s ghost from his past,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 08.09.16

Sam Dastyari had been in the Senate mere months when a ghost from his past came back to haunt him. He was sued by a marketing company over work it said he had commissioned and then abandoned while general secretary of the NSW Labor Party.

He settled the case for around $5000, but rather than pay it himself or get the Labor Party to help, he sent the bill to the Yuhu Group, reporting its support in the register of senators’ interests.

The Shenzhen Yuhu investment development group was founded by Huang Xiangmo, a Chinese-Australian billionaire to whom $5000 was literally small change.

A few months earlier he had given $1.8 million to the University of Technology in Sydney to help establish an Australia-China Relations Institute, which supplanted an existing China Research Centre whose publications had at times been critical of China.

It emails journalists offering all expenses paid trips to China (“flights, accommodation, meals and internal transport”) and, in an unusual approach for a university body, describes itself as taking a “positive and optimistic view” of the Australia-China relationship.

Click the “research” button on its website and you won’t see research, but “fact sheets” urging Australia to approve the Australia-China free trade agreement, not to run freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea and not to block the takeover bid for an electricity network.

Huang chairs the Institute himself, or so he says, in another departure from normal practice. He says he personally chose Australia’s former foreign minister Bob Carr to run it.

John Fitzgerald, a China specialist who directs philanthropy studies at Swinburne University, says it is the clearest departure from accepted university practice he has seen. Other research centres, such as those part-funded by the United States, critically examine what’s happening in the US. Another academic familiar with the Institute who teaches in China says there is more questioning of the Chinese regime among his own Chinese students than there is at the University of Technology, which seems to be the way Huang wants it. A prodigious donor to both sides of Australian politics, he wrote in a Chinese newspaper last week that donors needed to learn how to have, “a more efficient combination between political requests and political donations, and how to use the media to push our political requests”.


Huang sees donations as transactional. But the transactions aren’t always in Australia. In China, where some of his associates have been under a cloud, giving money to Australian universities and politicians is seen as a way to do the right thing by Chinese officials. China has set up “Confucius Institutes” at 10 Australian universities including the University of Melbourne with the aim of promoting “Chinese language and culture in a friendly, accessible and educational way”. They are also in high schools, 35 of them according to the former education minister Christopher Pyne.

To the Chinese Communist Party they are “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”. To Australian schools desperate for funds, they are a way to get teaching resources cheaply.


The Communist Party itself has ultimate control over their curriculum, budget and hiring and training of staff, according to a Parliamentary Library research note, creating “extra-territoriality” within Australian universities and schools.

In Canada the Association of University Teachers has urged universities to sever their ties with Confucius Institutes. In the US, the Association of University Professors has issued a report suggesting their governance arrangements are “inconsistent with principles of academic freedom”, and at Chicago University the university senate has voted against renewing the institute’s contract after receiving a petition from 100 staff complaining that an outside entity was “in effect seriously influencing who’s teaching and what’s taught under our name”.

But here we don’t seem to care as much, perhaps because, like Sam Dastyari, we believe we can take money without being expected to give anything back in return. That isn’t how it’s seen in China, that’s not how it’s seen by donors such as Huang, and it’s not what the research shows. Yes: there is economic research into our response to gifts.

Oddly, and disturbingly for recipients such as Dastyari, it finds that small gifts can pack a biggerscreen-shot-2016-09-08-at-1-25-45-pm punch than big ones. For their study entitled You Owe Me, Ulrike Malmendier and Klaus Schmidt allowed bidders to give gifts to students deciding which firms to award contracts to in a laboratory experiment. The games weren’t repeated, so there was no chance of ever encountering the gift-givers again. Yet the small gifts won them over, even when what the bidders were offering was a worse service. As the size of the gift grew the effect faded.

They explain their findings by saying gifts “create a special bond between the gift giver and the receiver”. The more obvious the attempt, the more our guard goes up. It’s why doctors surgeries are filled with branded pens and free samples rather than wads of cash.

But there’s a caveat. Experienced China watchers say the gift needs to be just big enough to create a slight feeling of unease. Once the recipient feels they might have transgressed, they’re hooked for next time.

* Fairfax Media (the publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald and of this article) has joined visits to China organised and paid for by the Australia-China Relations Institute


The sort of speaking that resulted in so much political heat for Dastyari:

Gareth Hutchens, ’Labor senator Sam Dastyari claims 10 companies have taken control of Australian politicsBendigo Advertiser, 08.09.16

What a US peppercorn buys in Australia:

At a ceremony in 1967 the US ambassador to Australia Ed Clark laughingly paid the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt a peppercorn for a year’s rent on their spy base at North West Cape in Western Australia. The lease did not allow Australia any degree of control over the station.

This is the Australia I know – a racist, authoritarian culture gagging on its ‘decency’

Video of the tear-gassing of a child in prison


Camps: Germany in the 1930s and Australia now

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‘Immigration spends more than Defence on medals for its staff’, Adam Gartrell, The Sydney Morning Herald 16.01.16

‘Internal departmental awards are awarded across eight categories: Bravery, Conspicuous Conduct, Leadership, Excellence, Innovation, Work Health and Safety, Diversity, and Operations.’

Detention centre cartoon

The Sun-Herald 24.01.16

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Just as the first camps in Germany in the 1930s symbolised the broader reality in that country and reflected the direction in which Germany was going, so the camps do now in happy, egalitarian, laid-back Australia – or out of it, where Australia, having trawled its region as a racist bully (while taking pride in pandering to the interests of U.S. capital) and in contempt of its humanitarian and UN obligations has managed to impose camps and its responsibilities on economically dependent and impoverished neighbours in Asia and the

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Australian ‘heroes’. Does it make you wonder?

Australian cricket team

The Sydney Morning Herald 06.11.15

Australian cricket team playing New Zealand

With the exception of Usman Khawaja, the team are all white.

Don Bradman's cap

Don Bradman’s cap. Priceless

Sources: middle/bottom