The chokehold of slavery on settler memory

Scott Morrison’s recent qualification of his statements regarding the history of slavery in Australia, apparently limiting his denial to NSW, tells us a lot about the use of history in settler societies. 

It’s possible that the popular idea of sugar and cotton plantations of the Caribbean and southern states of the USA have distorted our understandings of slavery. As frequently pointed out, Governor Phillip’s instructions on slavery were clear; there was to be no slavery in NSW, the colony was to be an experiment in penitentiary reform.

But when we look at slavery as the deprivation of liberty itself, rather than a particular legal institution thereof, the waters gets murkier. Much has been made of Phillip’s instructions to conciliate the affections of Aboriginal people, and not to ‘give them any unnecessary Interruption in the exercise of their several occupation’. This last instruction was an invocation of the old Roman law of usufruct, which gave those without land the use of property belonging to others as long as it was used without causing damage to it. Its origins can be traced back to Leviticus 19:9-10 where the gleanings of the harvest are left for the poor and strangers. Effectively, Phillip’s instructions reduced Aboriginal people to a status of vagrant servitude.

Phillip’s kidnapping of Arabanoo, Colby and Bennelong were not consistent with his instructions, but then again, neither was his order to Watkin Tench to bring back Aboriginal heads from a punitive expedition in 1790. What are the accurate words for these actions?

Records show that it was common to find Aboriginal children working in settler farms and homes. Things ended badly for most of them. One boy was tortured and killed on a Hawkesbury farm in 1794, allegedly for spying. The Reverend Fyshe Palmer recounted in a 1795 letter a surprise attack upon an Aboriginal camp in which a young boy was forced to serve as a guide.

Certainly, attempts were made by officers of the NSW Corps to enslave Aboriginal boys. In February 1795, the Judge-Advocate, Richard Atkins, recorded in his private journal that the officers of the NSW Corps had the idea ‘that the Natives can be made slaves of’. David Collins in his Account, substantiated, in more cautious language, that this was not uncommon: ‘Several native boys, from eight to fourteen years of age, were at this time living among the settlers in the different districts. They were found capable of being made extremely useful.’

A little girl taken by Private Henry Lamb from Lane Cove disappeared from the historical record in 1805 after being blamed for the burning of the farmhouse she lived in. The five-year-old Aboriginal boy adopted by Constable Rickerby died of disease in 1806. Charley, who was probably one of the subjects of the NSW Corps officer’s experiments in indentured servitude, was shot in 1805, despite living in settlement as a farmer. Tedbury, Pemulwuy’s son, grew up on MacArthur’s farm, developed a taste for liquor, and died after being shot in 1810. Samuel Marsden was a serial abductor of Aboriginal children. One died around 1810, and another renamed Tristan who was ‘taken from its mother’s breast’ ran away from Samuel Marsden in Rio de Janeiro en route to London in 1807. He was brought back to Sydney by Captain Piper and died shortly after. Marsden and MacArthur were recognised as ‘Master’ by Tedbury and Tristan.

Much has also been made of Macquarie’s school for Aboriginal children at Parramatta. However, when his beneficence is contextualised by his instructions to Captain Schaw in 1816 to select twelve boys and six girls for the Native Institution at Parramatta from the ‘the Native Prisoners of War taken in the course of your operations’, one again has to ask what words describe these actions?

And the list of killings, missions, reserves, removals, assimilations, interventions and whatever else may come, goes on. The failure in what can be euphemistically called Aboriginal policy, is probably best surmised by the argument of the anthropologist Patrick Wolfe that invasion is a structure, not an event.

The work of official history in settler societies is to translate murky details and compromised actions into a superficially inclusive national myth, one which undermines settler accountability, thereby allowing the beneficiaries of invasion to move to innocence with only the occasional handwringing over a little spilt milk.

Contemporary commentators invariably blamed apparent failure of Aboriginal children to ‘civilise’, on the children themselves. In 1797 David Collins emphasizes the ‘distress’ caused to settlers when these children returning to their parents. Barron Field writes in 1825: “They have been brought up by us from infancy in our nurseries, and yet the woods have seduced them at maturity”. They didn’t think of it as slavery either.

The anthropologist WEH Stanner, memorably described this bias in The History of Indifference Thus Begins (1963):

Phillip’s period is interesting because it produced the materials whose decay-products made the ground fertile for such rank growths. The vision of primitive man was already trifocal – romantic, realistic and sardonic. As might perhaps have been expected, the collapsed romanticism turned into violence, the realism into indifference, and the sardonicism turned into contempt. The ensemble of violence, indifference and contempt suited the mood and needs of a transplanted people. What makes the case for a relational history, within a field containing two people, is the continuous working of a single influence with two victims – a sightlessness towards Aboriginal life, and an eyelessness towards the moral foundation of Australian development. Let us call it simply the fact of indifference. It denotes a whole syndrome of psycho-social qualities, which were as much an enabling cause or condition of Aboriginal ruin as they were of the shaping of European mentality and life in Australia.

Given the history and the structure behind it, there’s nothing surprising about Morrison’s ignorance. Nor is it surprising that the leader of a settler-colonial state so invested in erasing the history and sovereignty of Aboriginal people would manipulate public perception of this history to further undermine Aboriginal organising and solidarity. The question is whether we allow this indifference to continue the structure of invasion by further colonising the past or choose to accept the responsibility for its redress.

Where does it stop?

When do you take responsibility?

How will you act?

Barry Corr

Barry Corr was a participant in the so-called 1965 Freedom Ride, worked for 20 years teaching history in low SES schools, and for another twelve years in Aboriginal education. He continues to be involved in Aboriginal education and has successfully applied to extend Shaws Creek Aboriginal Place in Yellomundee Regional Park, to include Shaws Island. He continues to research and write about the ways in which the Hawkesbury’s Frontier War is remembered, or not remembered. His writings on Aboriginal perspectives of settler-coloniality have been published in Meanjin, Overland, and Honi Soit. His essay, 'Knowing even as we are Known' is published in Against Disappearance: Essays on Memory.

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  1. A wonderfully concise piece that demands action. We have been given the way forward: Voice – Truth – Treaty.

  2. An important piece for white allies to keep as a resource when confronting denial and obfuscation.

  3. The heads taken by Phillip went to Hunterian collection at royal college of surgeons London and Edinburgh, phrenology was big as was hunt for missing link, th Huxley came on rattlesnake up east coast head hunting for Darwin’s theory..I was stolen at birth for Costin family, ancestors deeply involved in Freemasonary as was Phillips Darwin Huxley etc..long lists of young kids taken to deebing Ck in correspondences I found with one rellie being clerk for protector of aborigines..brutal stuff..

  4. Great article!

    I also think we should link the convict gulag with South Sea Islander and Indigenous slavery.

    Although the people exiled from Britain were mostly Anglo-Celtic, it’s an important connection that could be made, and a point of solidarity. For some reason, we never seem to make that connection.

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