Scott Morrison is wrong about Australia’s slave past, historians say

Scott Morrison's comments caused a stir among historians.

Scott Morrison's comments caused a stir among historians. Photo: TND

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under fire for stating Australia’s past is free of slavery, before suggesting he has always pushed for honest conversations regarding our history.

Discussing the Black Lives Matter protests and the colonisation of Australia on Sydney radio station 2GB on Thursday, Mr Morrison said: “My forefathers and foremothers were on the first and second fleets. It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia.”

“I’ve always said we’ve got to be honest about our history. We’ve got to acknowledge the positive and the negative.’’

The Prime Minister is right about one thing, Australia needs to be honest about its history, and that includes admitting parts of this nation were built on the back of slaves, Dr Nareen Young of the UTS Jumbunna Institute told The New Daily.

“He [Mr Morrison] thinks because [Captain James] Cook didn’t want to involve this colony in the slave trade, there was no slavery and that’s not true,” Dr Young said.

“The existence of stolen wages has been well established.

“Aboriginal people, they were working for indentured wages as labourers and domestic servants,” she explained, adding “[Mr Morrison] either needs to read some history books or talk to someone”.

Australia’s slave history is complex and as old as European settlement.

Convicts transported to the Australian penal colonies were, many historians argue, treated as slave labour.

In the 1830 New South Wales stopped receiving convicts and in their place, a Committee on Immigration imported thousands of ‘coolie labourers’ – indentured, low-paid workers from India and China.

Aboriginals across the country were forced into working as maids, servants, on farms and as labourers.

Most of the time they were given only rations as compensation.

Colonial Australians legally underpaid or refused to pay proper wages to Aboriginal Australians over two centuries.

But there are still Indigenous people who worked as slaves alive today, Dr Julia Hurst from University of Melbourne said.

“It’s still a contemporary idea. People are still fighting for stolen wages,” Dr Hurst said.

“It’s not like it’s a forgotten event in Aboriginal history. People are still looking for justice about this.

“Affected people are still alive.”

Last year, a class action on behalf of about 10,000 Aboriginal workers over unpaid wages was settled with the Queensland government for $190 million.

Members of the class action, who worked as slaves, in Brisbane last year. Photo: AAP

“Although it might not be how we imagine slavery to be, when looking into American history there are parallels, and injustice and rights taken away,” Dr Hurst said.

Slaves on the pearl farms

By the late 1800s slavery had been abolished in the British Empire and the United States, but in north-west Australia it was the backbone of the lucrative pearl farming industry.

Known as blackbirders, ‘slave traders’ would round up Aboriginals from the Pilbara and Kimberly regions and force them to work as pearl divers, according to University of Western Australia historian Dr Shino Konishi.

The practice started in the early 1860s and was legal for almost two decades.

“Certain pearlers would use violence, especially on women, and would force them to dive up to 10 metres deep,” Dr Konishi said.

Two Aboriginal men pearling. (Photo: National Museum Of Australia)

“When the pearl season ended, some of the pearlers would leave them on an island so they could easily come and get them again the next season.”

Western Australian Governor William Robinson acknowledged in the 1880s that the practice was ‘‘little short of slavery’’ and tried to abolish it, but the pearlers largely ignored the laws, Dr Konishi said.

“He found it very difficult to actually control the pearlers. So even when the new regulations were brought in, they were weakened and overturned,” she explained.

It’s unknown how many Aboriginal Australians were forced to work for free on the pearl farms, but in 1881 one newspaper reported there were 2000 that year.

“I think the governor in 1880 probably had a better idea of whether slavery was happening in that time than what we know today,” Dr Konishi said.

Sugar slavery

In Queensland, the ‘slave trade’ really ramped up in the 1860s when tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were taken from their homes to work on sugar and cotton plantations in Queensland.

There is evidence that a number of them came willingly, but many others were lured or taken forcibly onto the boats by blackbirders.

It was unpaid labour.

Islander labourers on the plantation. Photo: State Library Of Queensland

“It was widely felt that work in the sugar plantations was inappropriate for white men,” Professor of History at ANU Bruce Scates said.

“It was argued that so-called ‘coloured races’ were better suited. There was an extended narrative about it being unskilled, monotonous and not worthy of being a white man.”

He said that denying slavery exists as part of our national history only sets us back.

“We gain nothing by these sorts of denials. We diminish our understanding of the past,” Professor Scates said.

“If we want to move forward we need the courage and simple decency to recognise the wrongs of the past and reconcile with a complicated history.”

Topics: Scott Morrison
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