Hey, just before we dive into a month with a theme, let’s clear the decks with this one. Content warning: Slavery!
This isn’t going to be an extensive, heavily sourced, exhaustive kind of breakdown of a historical accounting, because you shouldn’t be turning to me for that kind of thing. What this is going to be is an explanation of our national character, from inside.
The ongoing Black Lives Matters protests that are still, yes, going on, in the United States led to an upswelling of similar protests her in Australia, against white supremacy. Now, these would be perfectly legitimate and justifiable grievances to protest over right here, because between the stolen generation, the genocides, and the overpolicing of black Australians, there’s a lot of stuff we have not answered for or addressed. In this conversation recurred the conservative meme we never had slavery in Australia, as if the idea of slavery was the extent of the reasons black people are mad, and not, again, overpolicing and extrajudicial murder.
This is a stupid conversation, because it’s not the point of the protests, and even if it were true, it would not address the problems of right now.
Still, sure, let’s bite.
Ostensibly, Australia never had the practice of chattel slavery, as is expressed in the United States. That is to say, we did not have a practice where slaves were distributed as individual property that could be bought and sold in the same way that one could a toaster or a brick, with contracts and receipts of ownership.
Instead, we had:
- Overpoliced minorities of England, loaded into hulks, transported thousands of kilometers away from home for permanent life on a labor penal colony, also known as ‘the origin of the colony itself,’ where they were required to work without pay under threat of violence
- Indian and Chinese labourers known as Coolies were kidnapped from their homes, brought to Australia, and forced to work in specialised industries, without pay
- Indigenous labourers had their payment witheld from them while they were required to do work to pay rent, because they would ‘waste’ it, in a process known as Garnishing, meaning they did labour without pay
- The process known as blackbirding, where indigenous islanders from nearby countries were kidnapped through duress or deceit, brought to Australia, and employed fulltime as unpaid labour in Queensland’s sugarcane farms. When the White Australia policy was solidified, many of these labourers, who had been living here twenty years and had families, were deported.
Now, you may say ‘hey, none of those are the same kind of slavery that the United States had’ and yes, you’re right. After all, for example, the government turning its poor people into unpaid labour for infractions like stealing handkerchiefs and shouting in public parks, did not buy or sell any such slaves, because they weren’t called slaves. Same with Blackbirding, it wasn’t slavery slavery, it was… schmavery.
See, Australia was part of the Colonial British Empire before World War 1 broke out. So was India. And we were both pretty meaningfully close, in a period where ships mattered. A sensible vision of trade and mercantilism would suggest that we and India should be exchanging stuff. There was a history of Australia doing extremely racist things, then the governor general, as representative of the queen, wound us back from calling it the racist thing, or doing quite the most racist thing, because the myth of the empire was that subjects of the crown could respect one another. This meant that when we, a predominantly white colony in the same hemisphere as India, did stuff that was too racist, it made it hard for the racist rulers in India to do their own form of racism.
That meant we couldn’t call it the same stuff, but we still committed the same sins.
Soooo uh, yeah, we totally had slavery
We just spelled it differently.