Aboriginal Slave Trade?

The myths and exaggerations of Slavery in Australia have demonstrated how little the Australian academic elite understand the topic. Many such academics and journalists have misinterpreted what Slavery is. In this essay we will delve into this topic piece by piece to determine if the accusations of Slavery in Australia existed, to the extent that many think had occurred, and if it stands up to this day?

Slavery in definition

Slavery is often defined as people owning another person or group of people, and stating that they are property of the person who bought the individual or group. Strictly speaking, Slavery must mean that there was a “Property Law” pertaining slavery, in the admission of owning individuals or groups of people. Or as the UN Slavery Convention says:

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

However, many academics use a boarder and modern interpretation of Slavery in the form of “Forced Labour” and “UnPaid Labour” to de facto mean Slavery. Said academics also redefine many words to marry them to the connotation of “Slavery” especially in it’s modern romaticised terminology and implication. Words and Terms such as “Forced Labour” and “Blackbirding” are often used by academics to implicate the modern version of Slavery without understanding the nuances of historic definitions, moralities and circumstances.

Such loose and fluid definitions to imply Slavery, often than not, demonstrates that academics and journalists do not have an in-depth grasp on the topic and use any means of unjust labour or situation as “Slavery”.

Slavery in Australia

Now we come to the meat of the essay. Was there Slavery in Australia? A simple yes or no answer will not suffice a genuine answer to this topic. If we are going by the loose definition of Slavery as described before, then Australia and the entire world is guilty of slavery of some kind. But we’re not going to use the loose definition of Slavery and instead go with the widely accepted term of Slavery, being of “Property Law” and Ownership of an Individual or Group of people.

First piece of ‘evidence’ of Slavery in Australia comes from this illustration:

Slave Map of Australia

This map depicts Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory as having a history of Aboriginal Slavery and for Tasmania of having a war called “The Black War” that wiped out all Aboriginals from Tasmania.

This piece of ‘evidence’ from The Conversation, fails utterly. Described as being made in 1891, by the British Anti-Slavery Reporter, this piece of ‘evidence’ fails for numerous reasons. Firstly, the Northern Territory didn’t exist in 1891, it became a territory of the Commonwealth of Australia after 1911.

Map of Australia, 1890

Before then, there was no hard border separating the territory from South Australia and was regarded as “The Northern Territory of South Australia” under South Australian Administration, as with the rural areas of all colonial territories had Administrations to keep law and order the best they could given their low population and volunteering.

Including, online records don’t exist for the British Anti-Slavery Reporter outside of the years 1846-1852, 1855-1860 and 1861-1863. The image is “author provided” and the citation is a sentence from Raymond Evan’s ‘Fighting Words’, published 1999. Where Raymond Evan describes the map as follows:

“In the September-October 1891 copy of the British Anti-Slavery Reporter, there appeared a ‘Slave Map of Modern Australia’, purporting to show those areas of the continent where both ‘milder’ and ‘worst forms of Slavery’ were practiced. Such accusations of chattel bondage in the Australian colonies were by no means new…

…Vogan’s account depended largely on anger and sensationalism to make its point. Emotional outrage was its driving force and shocking exposé its main rationale. Much like the missionary pamphlets seeking to reveal the excesses of the Melanesian labour traffic, his work was basically polemical and political, intended to arouse a groundswell of scandalised liberal consciences, locally and overseas, in order to abolish the Native Police Force and to effect a humane reform of labour relations on colonial pastoral properties. His work is thus part of the long tradition of humanitarian writings emanating from Britain, the United States and the Pacific which indignantly identified ‘slavery’

The image itself comes from a pulp novel, ‘The Black Police‘, made by A.J Vogan, to illustrate his sensationalist rationale of Australian Slavery, which puts the whole concept of the “Slave Map of Australia” into question if it were a real empirical source of evidence to Slavery, or if it is nothing more than an anecdotal sensationalist novel driven by a political agenda. Which the latter seems to be more probable.

(Captain) Robert Towns 1794 – 1873

This isn’t the only ‘evidence’ of Slavery in Australia, as there are more. Such as the 62,000 Melanesian people (Kanaka) coming to Australia to work on the Queensland Sugar and Cotton plantations. This is usually the closest thing to what many academics and journalists can get close to Slavery in Australia and often exaggerate the conditions, method in how Kanaka’s were sent to Australia and if there was any movement to stop it.

By going with the solid definition of Slavery, there wasn’t a Slave trade from Polynesia to Australia, since it would of been illegal. But, there are quite a few academics who suggest that “Blackbirding” is Slavery. But what is Blackbirding? Blackbirding is often described as the coercion of an individual or people through deception or kidnapping to work as unpaid or poorly paid labourers in countries distant to their native land.

This would more or less fall under the categorisation of “Forced Labour” and “UnPaid Labour”.

How does this tie into the Kanakas? Captain Robert Towns, the founder of Townsville in Queensland, was known for his blackbirding of Kanakas and Coolies to work on Sugar and Cotton plantations. However, he never owned the Kanakas or Coolies, he coerced the Kanakas to board his ship to Australia under the pretense of a 3-year work contract. They were indeed given wages, albeit poorly. However one must understand that during this time, the Sugar and Cotton Industries were attempting to push out Australian labourers who were paid thirty pounds each year, with cheap coloured labour who were paid in weekly rations and a wage of six pounds a year at the end of the contract.

Many academics believed that Captain Towns chained the Kanakas similar to how the American Slave Trade brought slaves in from Africa to America. But this was never forced onto the Kanakas and were exploited for their lack of understanding of the English language. This was a dirty tactic in not only undercutting Australian workers; pushing them out of the market for cheap coloured labour, but also, of exploiting a people who didn’t understand the contract they signed fully and were obligated by the contract to work for three years. Captain Towns did however, illegally pay the Kanakas and Coolies with trinkets but he was called out on it by The Brisbane Courier, March, 20th, 1871 since it was illegal to pay people not with the “Coin of the Realm” being whatever Queensland’s currency was, and he was forced to legally oblige to the law which was called the “Polynesian Labourers Act of 1868“.

Do I condone this practice? No. What I do condone however, is the exaggeration and liberal connotation that this is Slavery. This is at most, dirty exploitation for cheap labour to cut costs. The Kanakas were not Slaves, they voluntarily signed the contracts and willingly boarded the ship to Australia. They weren’t set with chains as the American slaves were. The Kanakas did have a loose idea that they’d be working in another place and after three years they can return back to their native land.

At the time in Queensland, Blackbirding was seen by the Colonials as an abhorrent practice and in 1901 with the White Australia Policy, ended the practice of Blackbirding and deported most of the Kanakas back to their native land in an attempt to stop the Sugar and Cotton industries from undercutting Australian workers with cheap labour, importation of cheap labour and to end the methods in obtaining said cheap labour.

This also applies for the Pearling Industry in Western Australia. Often than not, when the “Slavery” in Queensland is questioned, the fallback narrative is of the pastoralists and pearl divers in Kimberly; Northern Western Australia, concerning the Aboriginal populations history with it. Let’s begin with what The Conversation briefly touched upon, as evidence of Slavery in Australia.

“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.”


Though loose accounts of slavery in the North West have been circulating since the interwar period, it was only when the well-known historian and aboriginal grifter Henry Reynolds wrote of such allegations that the notion of slavery in the Kimberly became widely popularised. In his 1998 book, This Whispering in our Hearts, Reynolds almost exclusively uses the accounts of the Pietist and missionary, John Gribble, as evidence that slavery and other such atrocities were committed in the Northern reaches of West Australia.
Gribble arrived in Western Australia in 1885 in order to set up a mission in the Pilbara. As a Pietist, he believed that in order to save the Aborigines from the material corruption and sin which plagued Western Society, they must be shielded from mixing with the European population. Thus, his mission, as with other pietist missions, served to allow for Aborigines to retain their traditions whilst being proselytised away from European settlements by a small number of Whites. His time spent attempting to achieve such would end up as a complete failure – though the mission itself ran quite smoothly, Gribble managed to alienate almost every important figure of Western Australia. It would become so bad that by 1886 he found himself smuggled aboard a steamer leaving for New South Wales after fleeing a failed defamation lawsuit he lodged against the West Australian Newspaper – he never paid the 20-pound fee owed to his lawyer. A few of the hilarious examples of his universal dislike include:

– Months after arriving in WA, the people of Carnarvon lodged a petition to the Bishop of Perth to have him removed from the colony.

– The entire township of Carnarvon placed a boycott on Gribble with all businesses refusing to serve him or his family.

– When on a ship to Perth, fellow townspeople attempted to fight Gribble, thus he had to spend the entirety of his trip cowering in his cabin with the door locked.

All of these instances and more are recorded in a pamphlet Gribble wrote called Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land. Henry Reynolds claims in This Whispering in our Hearts that this universal condemnation was due to the fact that Gribble valiantly called out slavery in Western Australia, imperiling the economic interests of the settlers and the colony at large. Reynolds, however, leaves out various parts of Gribble’s pamphlet which sheds light on where such universal condemnation came from. Gribble himself admits to such behaviour as openly mocking the governor’s wife at a vice-regal lunch on Rotnest Island, belittling her work toward the construction the Anglican Cathedral as a ‘pet project’. He further threatened to report the Governor to his superiors in London should the aforementioned settlers from the boat trip to Perth not be prosecuted. The most offense however, given the historical context of West Australia, would’ve been caused by the accusation of slavery in itself – a mere 17 years prior, after much protest from the citizenry, the transportation of convicts as indentured servants was outlawed. Furthermore, many of those living in the colony still remembered the debates surrounding slavery in the U.S. evoked by the civil war a mere twenty years earlier, in which the evangelical and largely abolitionist establishment of the colony sympathised with the Union.

Worse still, Gribble’s accusations of slavery were founded on little to no evidence, and were extremely hyperbolic in nature.

As a matter of law, pastoralists had to issue a certificate of discharge at the end of an agreed contract when employing shepherds, shearers and other such workers. Gribble supposedly heard from an unnamed woman in the colony that as many of the Aborigines who would drove cattle for settlers could not read, they were employed as long as the pastoralists pleased. Yes, that’s it, that is the basis of Gribble’s accusation of slavery in the North among the settlers. Other peripheral pieces of evidence included the fact that although Gribble says the Natives looked “sufficiently fed”, their clothing seemed to him unsatisfactory. He further disapproved of the fact that women would be employed by pastoralists, as he suspected that interracial romantic relations may occur between employers and the women, which somehow supposedly tied into the slavery allegations.

In regards to the pearling industry, the narrative of slavery here also was birthed from Gribble’s pamphlet, however, the original statement was reproduced from a man named David Carly. Carly claimed that Natives from the interior would be kidnapped and forced to work on ships run out of Broome and other such towns in the Kimberly. Carly’s claims included events such as Aboriginals being eaten by ‘alligators and sharks’, massacres, and poisoned flour being used to kill off said slaves. Of course, none of these accounts referenced any dates, names, or even places, being incredibly vague and spectacularly violent, such as when he wrote;

“I have seen many natives shot in the back for no other cause than that of running away from their cruel slave masters … I have seen hundreds of children brought into Cossack who have been torn away from their mothers, and yet it is said that where the British flag flies slavery cannot exist … I have seen numbers of natives brought in from the interior, and some of them had never before seen the face of a white man, and they were compelled to put their hand to a pen and make a cross which they never could understand, and having done this they were then slaves for life.”

Gribble would not be outshined by such outlandish claims, however, as he’d tell the Daily Telegraph that Aboriginal prisoners on Rotnest Island would die off in droves each week to then be fed to pigs out in the open. Gribble failed to mention, however, that the only time he’d been to the island was during the luncheon where he insulted essentially everyone to then returned to Perth that very afternoon. Though Reynolds himself doesn’t include the crazier claims made by the two, he does suspect that after Gribble sent his pamphlet off to London that the interested parties would take his claims at face-value, writing;

“The gentlemen-reformers of the Protection Society must have immediately realised that their informant from Perth was a man of little education and humble origins. But the moral conviction shone through.”

When questioned by the Colonial Office, however, Governor Broome merely produced Carly’s criminal record, showing that he would often be found drunk after illegally supplying natives with alcohol, was charged with theft, and had been charged with cohabiting with underage native girls. Ergo, it seems that the mythos of slavery in the North West was birthed of a morally-righteous asshole of a missionary and alcoholic paedophile.

Folder 23/04: Yarrabah photographs, ca. 1892-ca. 1910

One of the most remarkable claims the article makes is that slavery in Australia was sanctioned by law, with the evidence for this laying within the Aboriginals Ordinance Act of 1918. The authors of the article exclaim that said policy “allowed forced recruitment of Aborigines and legalised the non-payment of wages”, though upon reading the legislation itself, one may see that claiming the act sanctioned such is stretching the truth. The act itself sought to work out a system in which Aboriginal Protectors were tasked with granting an employer the right to Aboriginal labour via a license. In doing so, it was hoped that Aborigines may engage in the work force without being exploited, as Protectors could allow only those who they discerned to be of good character to employ Natives. Anyone employing Aboriginals without a license would be heavily reprimanded, as would those found to be in breach of a written agreement between Aboriginals and the employer by either policemen or a Protector. The fact that an agreement had to be come to between said parties in the first-place rules out the ability for one to forcibly recruit Natives under the law. Concerning the fact that the act legalised the non-payment of wages, this was only the case when the Aboriginal breached the agreement, as is written in the following;

27. Any employer or aboriginal who is guilty of a breach of an agreement made in pursuance of the last preceding section, shall be guilty of an offence against this Ordinance. Penalty: In the case of an employer, twenty pounds; and in the case of an aboriginal, forfeiture of wage and cancellation or suspension of permit to enter the Town District.

– hardly a sign of slavery

To be fair to the proponents of such narratives at the time, it is easy to imagine that in the remote stretches of Northern Australia, many miles from the nearest courthouse, law enforcement may turn a blind eye to malpractice or mistreatment of Aborigines – it could be surmised that it is for this reason that the “slave map” began with highlighted the most remote, sparsely populated regions of Australia. However, stating that such was sanctioned as a matter of law is completely unfounded, and is most blatantly refuted by the concern exhibited by the establishment at the time. One can hardly imagine that figures such as the Chief Protector condemning the conditions faced by Aborigines if such were sanctioned by law. The only time in which the argument against the payment of wages to Natives arose was under the pretence that Aborigines would spend their money on alcohol, which sank their communities into violent alcoholism and illness – a problem which continues to afflict such communities to this day.

Though one could further inspect the references and quotations the article makes, however it is far more pertinent to point out the fact that a huge slew of figures immeasurably important to this nation’s development were abolitionists and Evangelicals. The roots of such run all the way to the foundational decades following the arrival of the First Fleet, with Arthur Phillips making his stance on slavery clear following his ascension to governor of the new colony in 1786. In his memorandum concerning his plans for New South Wales, he wrote;

“The laws of this country [England] will, of course, be introduced in [New] South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves.”

Such a significant proclamation likely came from Phillips’ time spent in the America’s as a Captain in the Portuguese Navy, in which he witnessed firsthand the squalid conditions in which slaves would mine diamonds. Not only does this stand as a testament to the moral convictions of Phillip, who stood against slavery in an era in which slavery in the colonies was relatively commonplace, but further foreshadowed the future of Australia as a great, free land, liberated of rigid class structure, rather than a mere penal colony.

Anti-slavery sentiment and Evangelical philosophy would further guide the development of the Australian colonies into the 19th century. Perhaps the most vivid example of such is the guiding role William Wilberforce occupied over New South Wales and Australia at large. Wilberforce was best known for his central role in the popularisation of the abolitionist movement in Britain, and his eventual success in outlawing slavery across the entirety of the Empire. As a proponent of Evangelicalism, Wilberforce perceived all men to be of the one race as equals under God, and as such, saw New South Wales as a perfect base from which the remote Pacific Islanders, Aborigines, and sinful convicts could be brought to salvation. As such, many of Wilberforce’s adherents had found themselves in Australia, either as members of the clergy or colonial officials, one of which being Lieutenant William Dawes, who became Australia’s first conscientious objector after refusing to obey Governor Phillip’s orders to pursue an Aboriginal guilty of murder. Wilberforce would have him relocated to the Caribbean to aid the anti-slavery movement and educate the children of slaves.

Despite residing halfway across the world, Wilberforce would also influence the colony directly, rather than through conduits such as Lieutenant Dawes. In 1808, for example, after the rebellion of the New South Wales Corps and the arrest of Governor Bligh, the supporters of said governor immediately appealed to Wilberforce in Britain to appeal this issue. Wilberforce would continue to resolve such issues in the following decades.

Images of ‘Slavery’


This cropped out photo of Aboriginals in chains comes from Wyndham Prison, WA c1901 for committing crimes.

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