The Guardian • Issue #2043

African slaves in colonial Australia


The Melbourne Gaol is famous for being the place where the bushranger, Ned Kelly, was hanged in 1880. In the early 1970s I saw a collection of death masks displayed on its walls. They were made after the deceased had had their heads shaved. Executed criminals also had their heads boiled down and added to skull collections for “scientists” to study the criminal “type.”

Some of these skulls were held at the Old Melbourne Museum. In the 1990s, while researching for a seminar paper, I enquired at the new museum whether they still held the skull collection. It was confirmed that they did and that it included Aboriginal skulls, collected by explorers and anthropologists.

Amongst the death masks was one of an African. Who was this Black person and how did he get to “White” Australia? African slaves came to Australia with the First Fleet, and continued to arrive from England, the West Indies, and Africa in our colonial period, making Australia an integral part of the international slave trade.

Many believe that Africans and African West Indians only arrived in England in the 1950s. In fact, they have a long history in Britain. In 1783, following the American War of Independence, 9000 Africans, mainly former slaves, fled with the British. At the time there were over 15,000 people with African heritage living in England, of which 10,000 lived in greater London. By the early 1800s there were over 40,000, many from the West Indies.

Thousands of Black families had been living in England for hundreds of years, as slaves and as free men. By the late 1500s there were so many Africans in London that Queen Elizabeth I passed the draft proclamation of 1601 to stop further African immigration.

Rich Africans had moved to London to trade gold, ivory and cloth. Their children studied at Oxford. William Shakespeare probably had a relationship with an African woman, and his character Othello, a black general in the service of Venice, shows that he had some contact with Africans.

For those who remained in London after the 1600s life was not easy. In 1786, the plight of the African English was so bad that £900 was donated by the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor. Destitute, some turned to crime to eat. They were duly arrested and sentenced to the colonies. These poor people went from slavery to penal servitude.


Cassandra Pybus outlines in Black Founders the background a number of Africans who were sentenced as convicts to the Colony of NSW in the First Fleet in 1788. These men were Caesar, John Randall, John Martin, Janel Gordon, James Williams, John Coffin, John Williams, Thomas Orford, Samuel Chinery, and George Francisco. These convicts were illiterate and there is no record of how they got to England, only that they were sentenced for petty theft.

“Black Caesar” was a Creole slave who was evacuated from the American colonies in 1783. Five years later he was sentenced for stealing money and transported to the colony aboard the Alexander. The naval officer William Bradley thought he was “a native of Madagascar.” In 1796 Caesar escaped and became Australia’s first bushranger. He was hunted down, shot and killed.

Samuel Chinery became a servant and died in 1841. John Coffin was sentenced to Norfolk Island, which he left in 1795. George Francisco died in 1789.

John Martin came from the American colonies. He was freed in 1792. In 1812 he married the daughter of another black First Fleeter, Mary Randall, and had eleven children. He died in 1837.

John Moseley was sentenced to death but reprieved to transportation for life to NSW on the Scarborough. He lived in the Rocks and died in 1835 at the age of 77.

Thomas Orford was transported on the Alexander and in 1794 was granted 30 acres of land at Bulanaming. He left the colony in 1806, when he disappears from government records.

John Randall was also aboard the Alexander. In 1792 he received 60 acres north of Sydney. He died in 1822. His wife petitioned to have his two daughters placed into the Orphan Institution.

James Williams had been on a West Indian ship, before being sentenced for theft to the penal colony aboard the Scarborough. He was named “Black Jemmy” after trying to escape twice. He disappeared in 1792.

John Williams aka “Black Jack” was also aboard the Scarborough. He left Sydney aboard a sealing ship in 1805 and settled on Kangaroo Island, living amongst Aboriginal women. He drowned in 1830. We know from government records that the Indigenous people never attacked Black convicts, possibly having a racial and cultural affinity with them.

Other Africans included William Blue, who was originally from a free black family in New York state. He joined the British Navy in 1759 and went to England as a marine. In 1796 he was sentenced for stealing sugar and transported on the Minorca in 1801. Two years later he was freed. He died in 1834 at the age of 100.


Amongst the famous Black bushrangers was Black Douglas, who was described as a “Mulatto Indian.” He robbed travellers between Melbourne and Bendigo in the 1850s gold rush.

The British government abolished the trade in slaves within its empire in 1807. Twenty-six years later it passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which was supposed to emancipate all slaves in the British West Indies. It was replaced by indentured servitude, known as an “apprenticeship,” that required freed slaves to continue to work for their former owners as apprentices.

After the continuing slave revolts against the system, slavery was finally ended by colonial assemblies in 1838. Eric Williams argues in Capitalism and Slavery that falling sugar prices made slavery no longer economically viable. It was this and not some newfound morality in British capitalism that ended slavery in the Caribbean.

Australia’s colonies did not operate in exclusion from other British colonies. They were directly included in and interconnected with the British Empire, especially with the West Indies. Captain Bligh was procuring bread fruit trees from the Pacific Islanders, to supply cheap starch foods for Caribbean slaves, when the mutiny on the Bounty broke out.

The famous explorer Edward John Eyre had mapped SA and WA. In South Australia Lake Eyre, Eyre Peninsula and the Eyre Highway are named after him. In 1854 he became Governor of Jamaica, immediately increasing the harsh punishment of striking workers. In 1865 Governor Eyre brutally suppressed the Morant Bay rebellion, with 439 Black unarmed workers brutally butchered in reprisals. Another 600 strikers were flogged and 1000 houses burnt down. The trial against Eyre was influential in setting a precedent in English and Australian law. The conflict of laws between the colonies was applied to later international torts cases. Eyre was exonerated by the Queen’s Bench and retired peacefully in England. In Jamaica, Eyre remained a bitter memory amongst its Black population.

The delay in the emancipation of slaves had led to numerous and violent slave revolts that shook the West Indian colonies in the early 1800s, most notably in Jamaica, British Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. After 1830, as a means to control the West Indian colonies, the most troublesome slaves were transported to the Australian colonies.

Government records show that Alexander Simpson arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and told the Muster Master that he was part of a “Mutiny and exciting the Slaves to rebellion. I was a slave myself.” In 1831 Simpson had taken part in one of the largest slave rebellions in the British Empire, at Montego Bay, Jamaica. No slave society, other than Brazil, experienced such a series of revolts as Jamaica. Former African West Indian slaves were held in harsh servitude in the Australian colonies long after slavery ended in the West Indies.

The Caribbean economy failed after the fall of sugar prices in Europe, due to the production of sugar beet. Planters in Jamaica and elsewhere closed their plantations and moved their profits to England. West Indian sugar and slavery was the foundation of British capitalism. It was well studied by Karl Marx in Capital. British capitalists sent their ships to West Africa to buy slaves, which then sailed to the Caribbean, where the slaves were sold. There, rum and sugar were purchased for sale in Britain, leading to massive profits.

By 1865 sugar production in Jamaica fell to half that of 1834, creating massive unemployment, high taxes, low wages and increased poverty. Living conditions on the islands failed to improve resulting in civil unrest well into the 1930s. Slavery made an indelible impact on West Indian society retarding its socio-economic development, forcing many to emigrate to the UK, New York and Australia. Amongst them were many socialists and communists, who fought for the betterment of Black people around the world.

Further Reading:

Pybus, Cassandra. 2006. Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia’s First Black Settlers. Sydney. UNSW Press.
Williams, Eric. 2021. Capitalism and Slavery. London. Penguin Books. Original 1944.
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