Features Australia

Slaves come in all colours

Was there slavery in Australia?

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

I use this definition for the word ‘slave’: ‘a person who is the legal property of another and is bound to absolute obedience, a human chattel.’

Other meanings can apply. This one conveys the core meaning in sentences like ‘Australia was not a “slave state” like the American Confederacy’.

Activists manipulate language, changing definitions as they go. We are now told that the definition of ‘woman’ includes those with penises who decide that they are women. The word ‘racist’ can be applied to any ‘white’ person who the woke Left disagrees with.

The UN expands or reduces definitions so that it can avoid taking appropriate action or to attack soft targets like Australia. It allows nations with the worst human rights records of all to make the relevant decisions. They have decided to make human rights a ‘matter for mutually beneficial cooperation’ to allow China to continue to destroy the freedoms and culture of Tibetans and Hong Kongers, incarcerate a million Muslim Uighurs and threaten the existence of the liberal, open democracy of Taiwan.

Slaves and slave owners have come in all colours. Slavery was practised by all civilisations and most tribal societies in the past. The word comes from ‘Slav’ because the white Slavs were so often enslaved by their conquerors. The first slaves on West Indian plantations were white, defeated Irish and Scottish men and women sold by Oliver Cromwell. Well over a million western Europeans were enslaved by North African Muslims from the 17th to the 19th centuries. It was ended by the military forces of the USA and the European powers. The international slave trade was brought to an end by European armies and navies.

There were far more slaves in China (including black Africans traded by Muslim Arabs), India and South East Asia than there ever were in the US. It was part of the culture of Africans, Asians, Polynesians, Melanesians and Native Americans some of whom owned black slaves and supported the Confederacy. The Maori owned slaves, practised cannibalism and were capable of genocide. Muslim slavers based in the southern Philippines raided throughout Southeast Asia just at the time that the Australian colonies were being established.


The British Empire was the first in history to officially abolish slavery fifty-eight years before the US. Brazil didn’t get around to it until 1888, sixty-six years after independence from Portugal. The Islamic Republic of Mauritania held on until 1981 although it is still openly practised there. In 2018 it was estimated that there were still around 9.2 million slaves in Africa alone. The next highest number is in the Muslim Arab states. ‘People of colour’ enslaving ‘people of colour’.

British abolitionists were passionate activists. Their cause was entirely just. However, like all activists, they tended to exaggeration and hyperbole. To advance their cause, they routinely claimed that Aboriginal people were being enslaved. They were not interested in the scandalously brutal transportation in chains of Anglo-Celtic convicts to the Americas, West Africa and New Holland to work for no pay in ‘slave like’ conditions. Like all activists they simplified complexity and distorted facts.

There is no doubt that Indigenous Australians and Melanesian islanders were treated appallingly in earlier times but it was never legal, chattel slavery. That ‘peculiar institution’ existed in North America from 1619 to its abolition in 1865. It took a Civil War and the deaths of well over 600,000 Americans to end it.

Pacific Islanders were not legally ‘enslaved’. That myth was promoted by Faith Bandler, an activist from the 1950’s to the 80’s. Her cause was just but she was not an historian. She was a member of the Communist Party of Australia. Communist regimes, starting with the Soviet Union have always used slaves ‘owned’ by the state. They labelled whole ethnic groups ‘enemies of the people’ enslaving and exiling them. The CPA has taken a leading role in the BLM protests while in Communist North Korea 104.6 out of 1,000 of its citizens are enslaved.

It is simply absurd to call non-payment of wages ‘slavery’. When Aboriginal people first came out of the desert in Central Australia they had no experience of money, clothes or blankets. They’d worked constantly for food and water just to survive. They were happy, initially, to work for ‘rations’. Between the world wars there were only two places in Central Australia, outside of town, where money could be spent, the Hermannsburg store and Horseshoe Bend tavern. White workers were rarely paid in cash. They were given promissory notes to be exchanged for goods at stores. A white ringer would go into town and ‘knock down’ his cheque without seeing any money.

To call Aboriginal men and women ‘slaves’ because they volunteered to work in such conditions is an unconscionable insult to them. In later times, as Aboriginal workers began to need money to survive, these conditions became intolerable and were duly changed by Conservative governments leading to Robert Menzies’ equal wage decision in 1965.

The extension of the definition of ‘slavery’ and its retroactive application is deliberately misleading and opens a can of worms. The Australian colonies didn’t need slaves because they had convicts supplied and controlled by the state. They were among the millions of Europeans caught up in the great enforced migrations that populated colonies around the world. They were transported in chains in very primitive conditions, often in converted slave ships captained by former slavers, forced to work for no pay and flogged mercilessly for minor offences.

One of my great grandmothers came as a teenage Irish Potato Famine orphan. Her parents starved to death in 1846 and 1847. She came from an Irish poorhouse, very much like a prison, where families were separated and worked in appalling conditions for an inadequate diet. She was brought with other teenage girls to supply white wives for ex-convicts.

Convicts and Famine orphans were slaves under the extended definition applied by the activists. Include the descendants of the tens of millions of European serfs and the great majority of our population could claim that they are descended from slaves.

Then there’s traditional Aboriginal culture. Yolngu elders tell us that their sacred Ngarra Law provides the following punishments to female law-breakers in certain circumstances: Automatic loss of freedom/Enforced marriage/ The requirement to ‘participate in sexual acts’ for a period of months/Execution.

Does this mean that Aboriginal women were treated as slaves under traditional Yolngu Law?

Scott Morrison was right and a proper debate hasn’t even begun.

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