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Issue #1920      June 22, 2020


Slavery is at the heart of Australia’s foundation

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the incredibly ignorant comment, “there was no slavery in Australia,” in an attempt to quell political unrest related to Bla(c)k Deaths in Custody. As his comments sparked outrage, Morrison walked back his comments the following day stating that he was referring to “how the [NSW] settlement was first established,” and that views concerned the “forming the New South Wales colony.”

However, this isn’t entirely true. Australia only formally banned slavery in 1901, but it perpetrated many different forms of slavery, where minorities were exploited and received little to no compensation.

Australia was rife with these practices, and it is hard to think about where to begin given the length of this editorial. However, Morrison’s comments highlight a lack of education in Australia around our sordid history and the founding of this country. We had an education system that hid for many generations, the real atrocities that founded this state.

Thus, this editorial will be used to provide a quick rundown of some these heinous events.

In Queensland, South Sea Islanders were transported to Australia as a source of cheap labour for the sugar industry. According to Queensland Historical Atlas, South Sea Islanders were “forced, coerced, deceived or persuaded to leave their homes and travel by ship to Queensland.” In 1880, the Pacific Labourers Act (Queensland) was passed, which “provided a monitoring system for [...] indentured labour. […] Essentially cheap labour was provided by coerced workers who could not resign.”

Indigenous pastoral workers all across the country were subjected to slave, or slave-like, conditions. In fact, according to Creative Spirits, after pastoralists successfully opposed a minimum monthly wage for Indigenous workers in Western Australia, one parliamentarian “describe[d] the system as ‘another name for slavery.’ ” These workers were woefully underpaid. In 1919, the government claimed these workers were earning sixty-six per cent of a white wage. However, this was never the case. In 1949, records show that they were making thirty-three per cent of a white wage. And this perpetrated well into the twentieth century.

And these practices didn’t stop with the 1967 referendum either. Again, quoting from Creative Spirits: “[Up until the 1970s] Aboriginal people of all ages were taken from their homes and sent to work on cattle and sheep properties, in kitchens, homesteads, shearing sheds or on the land, all across Australia.”

ABC radio interviewed one such woman, Felicity Holt, who was taken from her parents to work as a domestic at sixteen years old. She was enrolled to be a nurse; however, she was removed to work in the kitchen at St Joseph’s Convent in Dalby. She remembers only receiving “a few coins a week” and the rest being placed in a “trust [account] opened by the Queensland government.” Many never saw the money put in those accounts.

This story isn’t unique in Australia. Holt’s account is only one of the thousands that shed light on the systemic injustice faced by Bla(c)k people in Australia. These actions were deliberate, rooted in white supremacy, all enacted to ensure the largest profits possible for white settlers.

Australia was not built by free men. The construction of this state is covered in the blood of thousands Bla(c)k people who were treated like cattle. It is a history that is swept under the rug because it does not comport with the supposed values our liberal democracy pretends to uphold. Instead, Australia’s history amplifies the stories of the “discovery” of Australia (with immense revisionism), federation, and our participation in the world wars – all part of the “battler” legend our nation creates for itself, instead of what the reality is: a colonial outpost designed to enrich European men.

Next article – Solidarity with calls for First Nations justice for deaths in custody

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