Was Slavery Ever Legal In Australia?
On Wednesday, Scott Morrison was interviewed on 2GB about the protests in America. He made the point that there was no need to emulate the United States because we had a different history. He said:
"Australia when it was founded as a settlement, like NSW, was on the basis that there'd be no slavery ... and while slave ships continued to travel around the world, when Australia was established yes, sure, it was a pretty brutal settlement. My forefathers and foremothers were on the First and Second Fleets. It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia,"
This was enough to drive the mainstream and social media into a frenzy. “Everybody knows there was slavery in Australia, except the Prime Minister,” they said.
But they were wrong. Chattel slavery did not legally exist in Australia. Governor Arthur Phillip outlawed it, as one of his first executive orders as Governor of New South Wales, in 1788. This was nearly 50 years before William Wilberforce had his abolition bill passed by the House of Lords.
Poor old ignorant Scott Morrison had confused chattel slavery in America with what happened in Australia, wrote Jenna Price in a patronising article in the Canberra Times, but Australia was different from America. This was precisely the point the Prime Minister was making.
This is not to deny that there was no exploitation of workers in Australia including kidnapping and wage theft; some of it by pastoralists, some by farmers and some by governments. However, it is also true that indigenous workers were not the only ones who were exploited.
It started with the convicts who were assigned to work on the farms and in the businesses of the free settlers in the new colonies. As the Prime Minister said the conditions were brutal and punishment was arbitrary and cruel.
When the supply of convict labour ran out in the 1830’s it was replaced by coolie labour from India and China. Then as the cotton and sugar industries developed in Queensland, workers were recruited from the Pacific Islands. In the early years, it is likely that much of this labour was recruited involuntarily but after the first ten years the recruitment was regulated and all recruits were required to have contracted willingly.
As far as aboriginal labour was concerned, in a number of jurisdictions, indigenous workers were wards of the state and could be deployed as labour wherever the government of that state or territory deemed fit. Not only that, but their wages were ripped off by the bureaucrats who deposited the money in inaccessible trust accounts. This amounted to government-mandated wage theft. There are also verifiable stories of illegal abductions of aboriginals by pastoralists and cattle workers.
Some activists maintain that these actions by various Australian authorities amount to slavery and represent an intergenerational stain on Australian society.
This writer’s great great grandmother was a chattel slave in the West Indies. My great great grandfather was a slave owner. My great grandfather emigrated to Australia before federation and so escaped the ‘White Australia Policy’. He was a professional sportsman who earned his living from running, boxing and cycling. He rode his last professional bike race at the age of 72 and at the age of 75, during World War 2, he enlisted as a telegraph rider.
My great grandfather married three times. His first wife (my great grandmother) was German. His last wife was aboriginal.
Some years ago there was a family reunion in Bermuda. The streets of the main island were closed and the police led the family procession. My aboriginal cousins, who attended the reunion, said it was a great event. The photographs of the family of more than one thousand descendants of my great-great-grandmother showed distant cousins. ranging in skin tone from white to dark-skinned, happily enjoying each others’ company.
Based on personal experience it is difficult to believe that slavery always casts a lasting stain of shame on society.