'That's what drives us to fight': labour, wilderness and the environment in Australia

In 1838, the Sydney Herald dismissed arguments about prior Indigenous possession of the place now known as Australia. In its response to Aboriginal claims, the editorial argued that ‘[t]his vast country was to [Indigenous people] a common—they bestowed no labor upon the land—their ownership, their right, was nothing more than that of the Emu or the Kangaroo.’1

The editorial expressed the philosophical underpinning of terra nullius: that, as John Locke says, land becomes property only when man ‘improve[s] it for the benefit of Life, and therein lay[s] out something upon it that was his own, his labour’.2 Without that, the argument went, the earth remained wild, and owned by no-one. Thus when James Cook described the continent he ‘discovered’ as ‘in the pure state of Nature’ with ‘the Industry of Man [having] had nothing to do with any part of it’, the assessment implicitly justified British colonisation.3

Of course, Cook entirely misunderstood what he saw. Rather than finding a ‘state of Nature’, he gazed upon a land shaped by the labour of Indigenous men and women who, for thousands of years, had lived not in the Herald’s ‘unproductive wilderness’ but in an ecological abundance created through what Victor Steffensen calls ‘a knowledge system based on natural lore from thousands of years of experience’.4 As Deborah Bird Rose says, ‘Aboriginal people’s land management practices, especially their skilled and detailed use of fire, were responsible for the long-term productivity and biodiversity of this continent.’5

But if the recognition of those practices undercuts terra nullius, it also challenges key assumptions of ‘common sense’ environmentalism. The default articulation of the environmental project often rests upon a simple opposition between nature and humanity, with the former defended against the activities of the latter. Such a presentation stresses, above all, the protection of ecologies uncontaminated by people—‘wildernesses’—from human encroachment.

Most environmental activists today accept the problems with the wilderness paradigm. They acknowledge that, always and everywhere, humans remain part of nature (which is why climate change threatens us, just as it affects other living creatures). Yet, if nature shapes humans, humans shape nature—and have done so since time immemorial, everywhere in the world. Unlike other animals, we lack fangs, fur or other attributes by which we might keep ourselves warm and fed. To survive, we must alter our surrounds. If we don’t make clothes from skins, construct shelters, fashion tools and engage in other forms of labour, we die.

In other words, labour is both humanity’s central activity and, as Marx writes, ‘a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature’.6

That’s why simply contrasting people with nature makes no sense. If it fails philosophically, it also fails strategically, since a valorisation of wilderness destines environmentalism to lose. The categorisation of the Anthropocene acknowledges, by definition, that human activity now impacts the entire planet, and so environmentalism centred on ‘untouched’ nature has always already been defeated.

Furthermore, in the Australian context, the wilderness paradigm rehabilitates terra nullius. Whatever their intentions, those who celebrate ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’ bush share Cook’s prejudice, implicitly dismissing thousands of years of Indigenous occupancy. As Fabienne Bayet says, their arguments are ‘yet another form of paternalism and dispossession if they continue to conceptually remove Aboriginal people from the Australian landscape’.7

Yet, if we abandon the wilderness framework, where does that leave environmentalism? We might recall how, in 1991, a coalition called the Public Lands Council of Victoria declared ‘wilderness’ a culturally relative concept and claimed that, given that Indigenous people changed the landscape over 60 000 years, references to ‘natural’ areas could not be justified. Back then, those entirely correct arguments came from a group that united the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, the Victorian Farmers’ Federation, the Chamber of Mines, the Field and Game Association, the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria and other organisations not known for their progressive sympathies, with the PLCV’s intervention explicitly seeking to derail the creation of new national parks by the Victorian Government.Critiques of the wilderness paradigm can, it seems, be weaponised by the enemies of nature. So where does that leave us? How can we defend the natural world, while still recognising Indigenous history?


Prior to 1788, Indigenous people ‘owned, lived on, were taught to know, and belonged to particular tracts of “country”’.9 They sustained themselves from the land, the original means of production. With rare exceptions, they did not produce for exchange. In societies without the commodity form, they hunted, planted and fished, treating the earth, in Marx’s terms, as their ‘own inorganic body’, and using it to satisfy their direct needs.10

Because Aboriginal people did not accumulate surpluses, they were not divided by social classes and were not materially acquisitive. Mary Graham describes a culture in which children were given food and then invited to give it back: ‘social obligations are pointed out and possessiveness gently discouraged, as in the following child’s lullaby: ‘Give to me, Baby/Give to her, Baby/Give to him, Baby/Give to one, Baby/Give to all, Baby.’11

These traits infuriated early colonists. The missionary James Gunther complained of a ‘peculiar form of government’, which, he said, acknowledged ‘no distinction of rank’, but rather allowed ‘each man to share in their consultations and decisions as to any questions arising among them’. He claimed that the men he met possessed no titles for leadership and correspondingly ‘neither a word in their language to signify a servant’ since ‘no man has an idea of serving another’.12

Because Europeans identified neither surplus nor class in Indigenous communities, they did not recognise the labour by which such societies were sustained. For instance, Cook understood that the ‘Natives of New Holland’ lived ‘in a Tranquility’ and that they ‘think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life’. But he attributed their happiness to ‘a Warm and fine Climate and … a very wholsome Air’, rather than their own efforts.13 

In Port Jackson, John Hunter went even further, arguing that the local people benefited from the, ‘kindness of nature’, able to live without houses thanks to ‘the remarkable softness of the rocks, which encompass the sea coast, as well as those of the interior parts of the country’.14

The ‘kindness of nature’ did not, of course, prevent the colonists from near starvation in the first years of their settlement. But their propensity to ascribe more agency to rocks than to Indigenous men and women reflected not merely their racism but also the fundamental differences between pre-1788 Australia and capitalist England.

When, for instance, the Sydney Herald editorialist declared that Indigenous land, prior to the arrival of the British constituted ‘an unproductive wilderness … in a state of waste’, he invoked social relations prevailing in capitalist England. There, agricultural capitalists privately possessed land, which remained waste until their owners applied the waged labour of workers.

But that was not how Indigenous society functioned. Labour power—the ability of human beings to shape nature—had not been commodified; labour remained something that men and women did for themselves rather than a service performed for others in exchange for wages. The human relationship with the land and sea and air was direct and unmediated, as obviously integral to people’s existence as their own arms and legs.

Indigenous society was no utopia. Aboriginal people did not possess the mystical powers that some adherents of the ‘noble savage’ trope attribute to them. But through 60 000 years of experience they developed an extensive knowledge about the ecosystems in which they lived. That knowledge had been codified into songs, stories, rituals and taboos, integrating metaphysics and morality to regulate day-to-day behaviour and ensure that communities nourished environments on which they depended and which depended upon them. ‘The natural world,’ explains Victor Steffensen, ‘has evolved to depend on humans … which is another connection to reinforce that people are a part of the landscape.’15

In that sense, much of the recent debate about Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu misses the point. Whether pre-colonial Indigenous people are classified as hunter-gatherers or farmers matters less than the recognition that they lived outside capitalism. Without the external compulsion exerted by markets or masters, they could control their labour through their culture—and, as a result, they could improve, rather than diminish, the natural environment.

That all changed in 1788.

Steffensen compares the Australian landscape today to an abandoned building: neglected, vandalised and derelict.16

Pascoe’s attempts to revive once common food sources like myrnyong (or yam daisy) have highlighted how plants once ubiquitous became, after settlement, vanishingly rare. As early as 1839, an Indigenous man called Moonin-Moonin was complaining to settlers: ‘There were no “param” or “tarook” at Port Phillip … too many “jumbuck” (sheep) and “bulgana” (bullocks, cattle) plenty eat it myrnyong—all gone myrnyong.’17

The settlers, too, grasped that something had gone wrong. Major Mitchell described how springs he camped beside in 1835 had, after a decade of settlement, deteriorated so grossly that ‘instead of being limpid and surrounded with verdant grass, as they had been, they were now trodden by cattle into muddy holes … and I could easily conceive how I, had I been an aboriginal native, should have felt and regretted that change’.18

Dame Mary Gilmore, the daughter of a settler, understood that the newly arrived European colonists lived ‘on the teeming life of the forests, the rivers, and the air of the country’, a bounty they attributed to ‘nature’s prolific breeding’. But they soon found that ‘fish were no longer caught in profusion, and meats had to be taken from the farm and the home-paddock’.19

Gilmore explicitly argued that the ecological devastation did not result from so-called ‘overpopulation’. On the contrary, the killings and disease accompanying settlement substantially decreased the number of people living on the land. Nor was the problem technology: the Europeans relied on animals, hand tools and other low-tech methods.

The deterioration of the natural world followed from the imposition of a different mode of production, with the introduction of capitalism fundamentally changing the human relationship with the land.20

That integration of the penal settlement into the broader capitalist system determined the priorities of its rulers, even before pastoralists began carving up the country to run their stock.

White settlement meant the subjection of production, previously dependant on a knowledge of specific environments and conducted by people deeply enmeshed in the natural rhythms of seasonality, to the cycles of the market. Each capitalist competed against the other, forced to reinvest in their enterprise or lose out to rivals. Where Indigenous production for use could be directed and controlled through culture and lore, capitalist production for exchange needed always to expand, with the natural limits of a particular ecology serving only as the goad for the accumulation of value.

Had the settlers been interested in satisfying human needs, they might have learned from Indigenous people about native animals and plants. But rather than food and clothing, the Europeans produced commodities: specifically, the cattle and sheep that the market required. The hooves of livestock destroyed the plains carefully tended by Aboriginal people; fences (and private property in general) rendered maintenance burning impossible. Settlers desecrated sacred sites associated with animal breeding and feeding grounds, not merely out of ignorance, but because the land mattered to them only insofar as it contributed to capital growth.

From the perspective of Indigenous people, capitalism degraded nature. Just as importantly, it degraded labour, with settlers reporting, again and again, the horror that Aboriginal people expressed about European work practices.

In 1828, a New South Wales doctor commented that ‘the interior tribes consider the whites, as a strange plodding race, for the greater part slaves, obliged to get their living by constant drudgery every day.’21

In 1845, the Reverend William Schmidt explained that Indigenous people ‘considered themselves superior to us … they preferred their mode of living to ours; when they have accompanied us on some of our journeys, they have expressed the opinion, that they were our masters in the bush, and our servants at the stations; they pitied us that we troubled ourselves with so many things.’22

Whites often attributed such scorn to a native preference for simplicity over European sophistication. But that entirely missed the point. In fact, Indigenous people were contrasting the richness of their own lives with the spiritual poverty of wage labour.

‘They do not court a life of labour,’ wrote a Victorian Justice of the Peace in 1849, ‘that of our shepherds and hut-keepers—our splitters or bullock drivers—appears to them one of unmeaning toil, and they would by no means consent to exchange their free unhoused condition for the monotonous drudgery of such a dreary existence.’23

The key word is ‘unmeaning’. The wage labourer toiled for money, with the activities she performed and the land on which she performed them a distinctly secondary matter. Such behaviour was unimaginable to Indigenous people who moved through a world saturated with meaning, a land where everyday tasks linked men, women, plants, animals and spirits, so that there was no action without consequence.

‘In Indigenous cultural domains,’ explains Aileen Moreton-Robertson, ‘relationality means that one experiences the self as part of other and that others are part of the self; this is learnt through reciprocity, shared experiences, coexistence, cooperation and social memory.’24

Capitalism, however, replaced those organic connections with the cold nexus of the wages system. By definition, the commodification of labour power mandates a distinction between ‘work’, during which employees do as their bosses command, and ‘leisure’, the time that belongs to them. Prior to 1788, those categories had not applied to Indigenous people. Because they controlled their own labour—that is, their interaction with nature—their daily activities belonged to an integrated whole.

Seeking food was a necessity, but it also possessed a spiritual significance; ceremonies by the campfire were as much part of maintaining the community as hunting, fishing or digging for crops. Indigenous people did not separate themselves from nature; they recognised their reliance on the landscape, even as, with their labour, they deliberately changed it. Every facet of life was connected; no part was devoid of significance.25

As the Yolnu people argue:

[Country] means home and land, but it means more than that too. It means the seas, and the waters, the rocks and the soils, the animals and winds and all the beings, including people that come into existence there. It means the connections between these things, and their dreams, their emotions, their languages and their Rom (Law). It means the ways we emerge together have always emerged together and will always emerge together.26

In recent years, historians of the so-called Frontier Wars have noted the absence of commemoration in the Australian War Memorial, an institution recently allocated an astonishing $500 million budget for renovations. In his book Truth Telling, Henry Reynolds contrasts the silence about the sacrifices made by Indigenous warriors with the 4000 or more monuments remembering other wars in cities and towns across Australia.27

Yet, if we understand the violence associated with settlement as a clash between different modes of production, the analogy with the First and Second World Wars—two conflicts between capitalist nations—becomes less apt. We might more profitably discuss the Frontier Wars alongside another barely commemorated campaign: the Australian intervention into Russia in 1919.

In that year, about 150 Australians joined the Allied campaign to quash the Russian revolution by participating in the so-called North Russia Relief Force that supported the counter-revolutionary White Army in its battle against the Reds.28 Though the Australian contribution was minor, the intervention remains significant for its social content: an effort by fourteen different capitalist nations to overturn the workers’ state that briefly prevailed in Russia on the basis that, as the United States Secretary of State explained, Bolshevism was ‘the most hideous and monstrous thing that the human mind has ever conceived’.29

The social basis of the invasion makes the comparison with the Frontier Wars suggestive. Both campaigns were waged to ensure the dominance of capitalism over a rival mode of production: in 1919, Australian soldiers fought against an embryonic post-capitalist state in the Soviet Union; in 1788, settlers destroyed the pre-capitalist societies of Indigenous Australia.

We should not, of course, equate traditional Aboriginal society with the short-lived workers’ state in Russia (though more on that later). The comparison merely highlights the obvious but often overlooked point that the Frontier Wars involved more than skirmishes over territory. More specifically, just as the Allied effort to crush the Bolsheviks entailed a struggle over the nature of human labour, so too did the wars associated with European settlement in Australia.

When the First Fleet sailed into what we now call New South Wales, the transition to capitalism from feudalism in Europe remained relatively recent.

Unlike Indigenous society in Australia, feudalism was deeply unequal, a system that condemned most of the population to grinding oppression. In its classical form, feudalism meant that, as well as supporting themselves, peasants provided for their lord, his family and retainers, who used violence (or, more often, the threat of violence) to expropriate surplus.

Where Indigenous lore connected an entire community to country, a feudal estate belonged to an aristocrat. His title extended to the people themselves, whom he owned just as he did the land. Obviously, oppression altered most people’s relationship with the natural world, forcing them to labour to satisfy someone else’s whims. Yet, the direct domination of the aristocracy limited, at least in comparison to capitalism, the destruction feudalism wrought on nature. Peasants toiled on lands that they knew to fulfill the needs of their masters and those needs had finite limits, since even the greediest lord could only eat and drink so much. Exploitation was overt and personal: the peasants produced items for use (their own and that of their lord), and on a day-to-day basis still controlled what they did and how.

Further, the feudal order accorded ordinary people rights over certain lands, which could be collectively used to pasture animals, collect firewood, gather berries and nuts and so on. The management of those areas—the ‘commons’ so decried by the Sydney Herald editorialist—depended on a complex tapestry of customs, rituals, festivals and the like. Again, this culture was, of necessity, intimately connected with the seasons, the harvests and other natural cycles.

From about the fifteenth century, Britain began enclosing the fields previously collectively used by the rural population. The process was long and complicated, but between 1750 and 1850 parliamentary enclosures turned something like a quarter of the cultivated land from common land to private fields.30 Commodification broke the direct connection between the earth and those who produced, separating the people from their original means of production and estranging them from their own activities.

The emergence of capitalism in Britain (just like its later transplantation to Australia) fundamentally altered human interactions with the natural environment. As Kohei Saito explains, the drive for capital accumulation ‘can never be satisfied with a certain qualitative use value; it is an “endless” movement of an incessantly growing quantity.’ The entirety of capitalist production strives ‘at squeezing out abstract labor’, and this ‘one-sided expenditure of human labor power cannot help but distort humanity’s relation to nature’.31

Very quickly, the industrial towns of early modernity became synonymous with pollution. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to Manchester, a city where smoke rendered the air entirely black and the rivers’ ‘fetid, muddy waters [were] stained a thousand colours’ by refuse. ‘From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world,’ de Tocqueville wrote. ‘From this filthy sewer pure gold flows.’32

Meanwhile, dispossession from the land forced the rural population either to find waged employment in the new capitalist agriculture or to move into the cities as an industrial proletariat. Labour, the activity by which humans shaped the world, became ‘work’, a set of tasks performed under the control of and in the interests of capitalists, who were in turn driven by exchange rather than use.

The historian Sydney Pollard describes how ‘men who were nonaccumulative, non-acquisitive, accustomed to work for subsistence, not for maximization of income, had to be made obedient to the cash stimulus, and obedient in such a way as to react precisely to the stimuli provided’.33

The competition between employers meant individual capitalists demanded more and more from their workers. According to one estimate, in 1200, in the feudal period, an adult male in England might have laboured for perhaps 1620 hours per year (about thirty-one hours a week). By 1840 the figure had reached 3588—a staggering 69 hours a week.34

Many of those who fled from the country to the city struggled to cope. These men, writes Marx, ‘suddenly dragged from their accustomed mode of life, could not immediately adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned in massive quantities into beggars, robbers and vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases under the force of circumstances.’35

In response to growing criminality, the British ruling class developed a massive, repressive legal apparatus, vastly increasing the number of capital statutes and passing new laws regulating public assemblies, collective labour organisation, unemployment and so on.

Convict transportation to New South Wales arose in that context with, as Philip McMichael says, ‘the dispossession of the English rural population … [giving] rise to colonisation’.36

About 70 per cent of the Irish convicts and 59 per cent of the English sent to Botany Bay had never previously offended. Most of the people transported to Australia had been convicted of petty theft, as you would expect of people driven to crime by the transformation of the rural communities to which they were accustomed.37

The forcible separation of British people from their land thus facilitated the subsequent separation of Indigenous people from theirs. In that respect, the Frontier Wars, in which colonists used violence against Indigenous people to facilitate the commodification of labour power, represented an extension (or perhaps a continuation) of the violence used to commodify labour power in England.

The British did not colonise New South Wales seeking labour. Their colonial settler state depended on the dispossession of Indigenous people and the importation (initially through transportation) of European labour.

Nevertheless, almost at once, they obsessed about how best to turn Aboriginal people into what Governor Gipps called ‘voluntary labourers for wages’.38

As early as 1688, William Dampier decried the alleged ‘unfitness to labour’ of the natives he encountered, aggrieved that his ‘new servants’, as he styled them, refused to carry water barrels to his boats. Like many Europeans after him, he discovered that Indigenous people would happily assist people with whom they had a personal relationship, but they would do so on their own terms—and simply weren’t interested in the payments offered to them.39

Gipps argued that Indigenous people (‘by nature wild’) needed to be ‘induced to submit to the restraints which are imposed on ordinary labourers’. Governor Macquarie agreed, identifying ‘wild wandering and Unsettled Habits’ as an obstacle to be overcome so that Indigenous people might be employed as ‘labourers in Agricultural Employ or among the lower Class of Mechanics’.40

Their complaints about Aboriginal people—and their desire to change them—echoed the response of industrialists back in England to the reluctance of people there to behave as ‘voluntary labourers for wages’.

In his account of the eighteenth-century economy, the historian Thomas Ashton explains that British factory owners saw the men recently driven off the land as ‘by nature indolent, improvident, and self-indulgent’. Workers drank and didn’t go to church; they ‘took no thought for the morrow, and when evils came upon them they cast their burden on others’.41

The colonists used an almost identical rhetoric about Aboriginal people. Governor Hutt complained that Indigenous people were unpunctual, would not maintain regular schedules and would not settle to their tasks. ‘Every species of labour seems to be irksome to them,’ agreed the Commissioner for Crown Lands at Moreton Bay, while a settler in New England declared that Indigenous people would only labour to the extent ‘necessary to procure them enough game to enable them to exist from day to day’.42

The establishment of the wages system everywhere rested on dispossession making the exchange of labour power for money an unexceptional transaction. The ability to labour was no different from any other commodity—workers could freely decide whether to sell it or not (albeit in conditions in which if they didn’t they would starve).

Yet, the capitalists and their state also adopted extra-economic measures to foster acceptance of the new order.

Convict transportation itself provides an instructive example.

On face value, forcing men and women to work in chains looks entirely incompatible with commodified labour power—closer to slavery than the wages system.

Yet, before the First Fleet set sail to New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip explicitly disavowed any intent to establish plantation slavery in Australia.

‘There can be no slavery in a free land,’ he said, ‘and consequently no slaves.’43

That was because, by 1788, the more far-sighted ruling class ideologues were increasingly hostile to chattel slavery, both because it provoked revolts but also because it was less efficient than the new industrial system. Yet, Phillip did not see any hypocrisy in his anti-slavery pledge, even as he founded a colony dependent on transporting convicts to toil under the whip.

Unlike slavery, he reasoned, transportation did not impose a permanent servitude so much as rectify the wrongdoing of the morally perverse. The men and women sent to Botany Bay had broken the law. Their punishment would deter others; it would force the transportees themselves to become the citizens a capitalist society required.44

In other words, though the transportation system looked like slavery, it was undertaken to enforce labour commodification. You can see that in comments from John Macarthur, an officer on one of the transports:

[W]hen a lot of convicts were received from a ship they were at once put to some very hard labour … which was a severe punishment to them; we kept them at that kind of work for a considerable period, according to their conduct, and so broke them in, and made them well disposed; taught them the difference between good conduct and bad, the advantages of regular and orderly behaviour.45

In Britain itself, industrialists adopted all sorts of methods to ‘break in’ their new workforce to the norms of wage labour. They identified children as more pliable than their parents—and then sought to socialise their young workers through physical violence.

When a cotton plant opened in Catrine in Scotland in the early nineteenth century, a manager explained, ‘the children were all newcomers, and were very much beat at first before they could be taught their business’.

‘We beat only the lesser,’ explained Samuel Miller, a mill owner from Nottingham, ‘up to thirteen or fourteen … we use a strap.’46

If children weren’t beaten, they were often deliberately humiliated. John Wood, an industrialist in Bradford, would, for instance, force an erring child to hold up a card explaining his infraction—or, for more serious offences, confess his errors to all the other workers.

At the same time, the industrialists preached morality, sometimes creating communities specifically for their workers so that their home life and social activities could be more intensively monitored.

Pollard notes that, ‘almost everywhere, churches, chapels and Sunday Schools were supported by employers, both to encourage moral education in its more usual sense, and to inculcate obedience.’47

All the methods pioneered in Britain to normalise wage labour were used, in intensified form, on Indigenous people in Australia.

For instance, settlers identified Indigenous children as more liable to adapt to menial labour than their parents. Shirleene Robinson explains that, ‘by the 1820s, this had become a prevailing element of colonial discourse, and missionaries, government agents and individual colonists alike were separating Aboriginal children from their kin with the expectation that these children would form a servile workforce.’48

Just as the British industrialists sought to replace the traditional village customs with a morality more conducive to wage labour, missionaries in Australia set out to discredit Indigenous beliefs.

Writing of South Australia, Alan Pope notes how, through education and conversion to Christianity, ‘Aborigines were encouraged to abandon traditional ways, and efforts were made to bring them into the European settler society, albeit as “. . . the lowest class of industrial labour”.’49

Perhaps most egregiously, the rationale used for transportation—coercive control as the handmaiden of ‘freedom’—also justified the imposition of forced labour on Indigenous people.

For instance, towards the end of the nineteenth century—long after Britain had officially renounced slavery—the colonial parliaments introduced special Acts giving authorities extraordinary powers over the personal lives and working conditions of Indigenous people.50 As Roz Kidd explains, ‘if you were a person of Aboriginal descent, [the various] governments could dictate where and when you worked, the type and conditions of that work, what you may be paid and if you could spend it.’51

Again, the colonists rationalised this, not as slavery but as a temporary measure to normalise waged labour.

‘I do not live in the dwelling of the whites, the whites are angry with me. I have no pipe, no tobacco, no hatchet. I live in the bush.’

That was how a tribal warrior in Baroon urged his people to fight back against colonisation in 1844.52

As that rhetoric suggests, Indigenous military resistance centred on land.

In Tasmania, George Arthur Robinson described how Aboriginal fighters ‘subsist on roots and small animals and … know the passes and are well acquainted with the topography of the country. … Their mode of attack is by surreptition. They lay in ambush for some time before they make their attack, a sudden and unperceived invasion, or by surprising.’53

In New South Wales, Governor Arthur complained that ‘the species of warfare which we are carrying on with them is of the most distressing nature; they suddenly appear, commit some act of outrage and then as suddenly vanish: if pursued it seems impossible to surround and capture them.’54

Access to the ‘natural workshop’ of the bush enabled Indigenous people to fight back; it also, on occasion, offered opportunities to convicts. The men and women transported to Australia might have dreamed of returning to England or Ireland, but fleeing inland remained a far more realistic alternative for those who were prepared to learn from Aboriginal people. The list of convicts who integrated themselves into Indigenous society includes William Buckley, who lived with the Wathaurang people for thirty-two years; John Graham, who spent six years with an Aboriginal tribe near Moreton Bay; George Clarke, who adopted tribal dress and body markings when he escaped to join the Kamilaroi people; James Davis, who reportedly forgot all English; John Wilson, who went back into the bush after his term expired, and many others.55


On rare occasions, Indigenous and European opponents of the colonial regime collaborated on a wider scale. In 1790, for instance, five convicts who escaped in a seized boat were found living with Aboriginal people at Port Stephens. Around the same time, two other white men, John Wilson and William Knight, were thought to be in contact with Indigenous warriors, even to the extent of assisting them as they attacked settlers west of Parramatta. Knight and a man called Thomas Thrush were later accused of aiding the legendary Pemulwuy. In 1839, a horrified Sydney Herald reported that a gang of escaped convicts had relied on Aboriginal accomplices to survive as bushrangers.56

Partnerships of this kind were rare because of the very nature of a colonial settler state. A convict colony allowed the British ruling class to treat white workers, as Jeremy Bentham put it, ‘as a sort of excrementitious mass that could be projected, and accordingly was projected, and as it should seem purposely—as far out of sight as possible’.57 Of course, the place to which they were projected was already occupied. The settlement thus worked to disrupt potential alliances among those it oppressed. The military authorities relied on white fear of Aboriginal warriors to prevent the transportees escaping; at the same time, in both New South Wales and Tasmania, convicts were often sent to the locations where conflict with Indigenous people was most likely. The Hobart Colonial Times explained how ‘they dare not refuse, if they do there is the chain gang for them’.58 As a result, convicts were often directly responsible for acts of violence against Indigenous people.

Nevertheless, Jan Kociumbas argues that, as late as the 1840s, a dread persisted among settlers and authorities that Indigenous land might facilitate a grand coalition against the colony, that ‘convict and Aboriginal resistance workers—male, female and perhaps even their children—would team up, and that the combination of Aboriginal knowledge of the bush and convict knowledge of arms, horsemanship and military operations would prove a formidable force’.59

The fear, no matter how unfounded, illustrates an argument made by the environmental Marxist Andreas Malm.

The capitalist class, he argues, ‘was brought up on hatred against the wild’, perennially concerned that places external to capital might foster rebellion.60 On the slave plantations of the New World, the masters dreaded jungles, mountains, swamps and other uncommodified landscapes, knowing they might become sites of resistance. Escapees in the Caribbean and elsewhere took shelter in such places, where they formed ‘maroon’ communities, the persistence of which inspired others to flee and revolt.

Malm draws a parallel with Jewish partisans of the Second World War, who used the deep forests in Eastern Europe as bases to hide from and fight against the Nazis. While acknowledging the reactionary connotations of the term ‘wilderness’, he makes a case for the importance of ‘relative wilderness’, defined as ‘landscapes that carry marks of human presence but have not been built by the exploiters and are not manipulated by them on a daily basis’.61 Because these ‘hint at the possibility of life beyond capital’, they have historically provided a resource for struggle—and, he says, continue to do so today.62

In the Australian context, Malm’s phrase ‘relative wilderness’ might still risk eliding Indigenous labour. We might note, for instance, that Daly Pulkara, a traditional owner in the Victoria River district of the Northern Territory, uses ‘wild’ explicitly to refer to country ruined by Europeans rather than tended by Indigenous people.63

Nevertheless, whatever the terminology, a recognition of the connection between ‘the domination of nature’ and ‘the domination of labour’ allows us to rethink the terrain on which we fight today, in a struggle to protect nature not from people but from capital. Instead of pitting the natural world against humanity, an anti-capitalist environmentalism must recognise the relationship between the two, understanding that the struggle for nature necessarily means the redemption of labour.

On that basis, the long history of Indigenous modification to the land provides no alibi for anti-environmental fronts like the Public Lands Council of Victoria. Rather, traditional Aboriginal custodianship—a form of stewardship driven by non-capitalist imperatives—implicitly critiques the foresters, the miners and other profit-driven extractivists.

‘We have stories, songs and dances that connects us through the land that we live on,’ explained anti-fracking activist Scott McDinny at 2016 conference organised by Indigenous Climate Youth Network SEED. ‘That’s what drives us to fight.’64

As Tony Birch says, Indigenous communities, like the impoverished and oppressed everywhere, are particularly vulnerable to climate change, even though they have barely engaged in the industrial processes most associated with carbon.65

But we can take the argument further.

Citing Adorno, Malm suggests that people responded so elementally to forests, fields or oceans that haven’t yet been devastated by multinational polluters because they offer an allegory of what exists ‘beyond bourgeois society, its labor and its commodities’.66

In the context of Australia—a continent shaped by the non-commodified labour of Indigenous people—the point becomes particularly profound.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, European socialists, particularly those with an environmental bent, imagined alternatives to capitalism by looking back to the Middle Ages.

For William Morris, the Middle Ages provided a palpable example of how pre-capitalist craftsmen experienced a fundamentally different relationship to the natural world. He argued that medieval objects were beautiful ‘because they were made mainly for use’, with ‘the workman [exercising] control over his material, tools and time’.67 That was the basis of Morris’ famous description of art as ‘man’s pleasure in his daily necessary work, which expresses itself and is embodied in that work itself’.68

Likewise, to show how commodification had fostered ‘a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature’, Marx recalled the attitude of the mystical German peasant leader Thomas Müntzer, who decried how even the fishes in the water, the birds in the air and the plants on the earth were transformed into property.

‘The creatures, too,’ Müntzer cried, ‘must become free!’69

Comparisons with the feudal order hinted at how a different social order might function. The commodification of nature corresponded with the commodification of labour, the transformation of a basic human activity into a tedious and destructive chore, used by employers to expand value whatever the cost to the working class, the environment and its creatures.

In such a society, the social relations between human beings assumes, in Marx’s phrase, ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things’.70 The climate crisis, to take the most obvious example, seems the fault of coal rather than people, with an inanimate object somehow driving the whole species into existential peril. A rise in the price of wheat brings starvation for millions; the collapse in the value of iron ore means you no longer have a job.

As Marx says, people’s ‘own movement within society has for them the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them’.71

But that hadn’t been so in the past and so it needn’t be in the future. If workers took control over the modern means of production, if ordinary men and women democratically ran their own workplaces, they could, Morris thought, reclaim some of the pleasure that the old artisans found in meaningful tasks performed well, by collectively deciding what they did and how.

In the early years of the Russian revolution, as a beleaguered and rudimentary workers’ state fought off enemies without and within, a new generation returned to these questions. The artist Alexander Rodchenko described how men and women might relate to the world and to each other in a future where their labour had became truly free.

‘Objects will be understood,’ he promised, ‘will become people’s friends and comrades, and people will begin to know how to laugh and enjoy and converse with things.’72

That sounds like the most unhinged utopianism. But the very land around us reminds us that it’s not.

Prior to white settlement, the Australian continent was managed by philosophy stressing relationships, between people, between animals and between objects.

‘Aboriginal people,’ writes Mary Graham, ‘maintain that humans are not alone. They are connected and made by way of relationships with a wide range of beings, and it is thus of prime importance to maintain and strengthen these relationships.’73

Deborah Bird Rose cites the anthropologist Graham Harvey’s description of a ‘world … full of persons, only some of whom are human, and [in which] life is always lived in relationship to others’.

‘A person in this context,’ Rose says, ‘is both autonomous and connected, enmeshed in relations of interdependence, always bearing responsibilities for others, and always the beneficiary of the actions of others.’74

If the Middle Ages provides a resource for anti-capitalists, Indigenous culture is, in many ways, even more important. While feudalism remained a system of oppression and naked exploitation, traditional Indigenous labour was truly free, an activity in which people fused aesthetics and utility as they shaped the natural world. The 60 000 years of habitation on the Australian continent provides a definitive proof that unalienated labour—labour that people direct themselves—need not destroy the environment and can, in fact, improve it, even over unimaginably long spans of time.

In other words, it is precisely because the Australian landscape has been altered by Aboriginal people that it inspires us to think beyond the commodity. From it, we can grasp how, in a society in which humans control their interactions with nature and with other human beings, rivers become entities to whom we owe obligations and objects speak to us about the people who constructed them.

A post-capitalist world might employ a scientific rather than metaphysical vocabulary, but it would necessarily develop a new lexicon and philosophy corresponding to the changed relationships between people, nature and things.

The society that existed prior to 1788 cannot, of course, simply be revived. After centuries of capitalism, the only way out is through, with a revolutionary order built upon the technological, scientific and economic developments of the last centuries. The means of production we must seize stretch across the globe: we will require new forms of international democracy to manage a planned economy globally.75

Nevertheless, in the social organisation that the colonists smashed, we can glimpse fragments of the future.


1 ‘Crown Lands’, Sydney Herald, 7 November 1838.
2 J Locke, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, Yale University Press, 2003, p 113.
3 See A Frost, ‘New South Wales as terra nullius: The British Denial of Aboriginal Land Rights’, Historical Studies, 1981, 19(77):513–23.
4 V Steffensen, Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia, CSIRO Publishing ebook, 2020, ch 4.
5 DB Rose, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra, 1996, p 10.
6 K Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol 1, Penguin Books, 1981,p 283.
7 F Bayet, ‘Overturning the Doctrine: Indigenous people and wilderness – Being Aboriginal in the environmental movement’, Social Alternatives, 1994, 13(2):27.
8 D Mercer, ‘Victoria’s National Parks (Wilderness) Act 1992: Background and Issues’, Australian Geographer, 1993, 24(1): 30; L Head, Second Nature: The History and Implications of Australia as Aboriginal Landscape, 1st ed, 2000, Syracuse University Press, p 131.
9 A Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, 2015, University of Minnesota Press, p 12.
10 K Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, 2005, Penguin UK, p 5.
11 M Graham, ‘Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews’, Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology, 1999, 3(2):112.
12 Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, 2006, UNSW Press, Sydney, p 211.
13 B Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, 2011, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, p 309.
14 S Konishi, ‘Idle Men: The Eighteenth-Century Roots of the Indigenous Indolence Myth’, Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Histories, Ann Curthoys, Frances Peters-Little and John Docker (Eds), Aboriginal History Monographs, 2010, p 113.
15 Steffensen, Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia, ch 20.
16 Steffensen, ch 21.
17 Head, Second Nature, p 59.
18 Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth, p 313.
19 Rose, Nourishing Terrains, p 76.
20 On the surface, the state-run penal colony established in 1788 might not have seemed capitalist, since the settlement involved very little private enterprise, with the labour of the convicts controlled and directed by military officers. Nevertheless, as Humphrys argues, ‘the colonies … were capitalist from the start because they were part of British capitalism and the world market through the web of social relations comprising the penal state and imposed by it.’ E Humphrys, ‘The Birth of Australia: Non-Capitalist Social Relations in a Capitalist Mode of Production?’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 2012, 70, p 127.
21 Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth, p 310.
22 Gammage, p 310.
23 Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier, p 210.
24 A Moreton-Robinson, Talkin’up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism, 2021, University of Minnesota Press, p 16.
25 See, for instance, Rose, Nourishing Terrains, pp 1–31.
26 Bawaka Country et al., ‘Goŋ Gurtha: Enacting Response-Abilities as Situated Co-Becoming’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2019, 37(4):683.
27 H Reynolds, Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, 2021, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2021), p 205.
28 M Challinger, ANZACS in Arkhangel, 2010, Hardie Grant Publishing.
29 CJ Richard, When the United States Invaded Russia: Woodrow Wilson’s Siberian Disaster, 2012, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, p 69.
30 E Hobsbawm and G Rudé, Captain Swing, 2014, Verso Books, p 27.
31 K Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, 2017, NYU Press, p 122.
32 A De Tocqueville, Journeys to England and Ireland, 2017, Routledge, p 107.
33 S Pollard, ‘Factory Discipline in the Industrial Revolution’, Economic History Revie, 1963, p 254.
34 A Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming 2016, Verso, London, New York, p 237.
35 Marx, Capital, p 896.
36 P McMichael, ‘Settlers and Primitive Accumulation: Foundations of Capitalism in Australia’, Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 1980, 4(2):315.
37 Humphrys, ‘The Birth of Australia: Non-Capitalist Social Relations in a Capitalist Mode of Production?’, p 122.
38 P Wolfe, Settler Colonialism, 1999, A&C Black, p 1.
39 Konishi, ‘Idle Men: The Eighteenth-Century Roots of the Indigenous Indolence Myth’, p 99.
40 Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier, p 196.
41 TS Ashton, An Economic History of England: The Eighteenth Century, 2013, Routledge, p 201.
42 Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier, p 200.
43 J Lydon, Anti-Slavery and Australia: No Slavery in a Free Land?, 2021, Routledge, p 22.
44 Lydon, pp 22–37.
45 B Hillier and T O’Lincoln, ‘Five Hundred Lashes and Double Irons: The Origins of Australian Capitalism’, Marxist Left Review 5, 2013, https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/five-hundred-lashes-and-double-irons-the-origins-of-australian-capitalism/.
46 Pollard, ‘Factory Discipline in the Industrial Revolution’, p 260.
47 Pollard, p 268.
48 S Robinson and S Sleight, Children, Childhood and Youth in the British World, 2016, Springer, p 32.
49 A Pope, ‘Aboriginal Adaptation to Early Colonial Labour Markets: The South Australian Experience’, Labour History 54, 1988, p 2.
50 R Kidd, ‘Hard Labour, Stolen Wages’, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), 2007.
51 R Kidd, ‘9. Aboriginal Workers, Aboriginal Poverty’, Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies II, 2012, p 171.
52 R Kerkhove, ‘Tribal Alliances with Broader Agendas?: Aboriginal Resistance in Southern Queensland’s’ Black War’, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2014, 6(3):51.
53 N Clements, The Black War: Fear, Sex and Resistance in Tasmania, University of Queensland Press, 2014, p 79.
54 H Reynolds, Forgotten War, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2013, p 87.
55 MJ Tipping, ‘Buckley, William (1780–1856)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University; ‘Graham, John (1800–1837)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University; Arthur Laurie, ‘Davis, James (1808–1889)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University; AH Chisholm, ‘Wilson, John (?–1800)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
56 See J Kociumbas, ‘“Mary Ann”, Joseph Fleming and “Gentleman Dick”: Aboriginal-Convict Relationships in Colonial History’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 2001, 3(1):28–54.
57 R Hughes, The Fatal Shore, 1st ed Vintage Books, New York, 1988, p 2.
58 Reynolds, Forgotten War, p 91.
59 Kociumbas, ‘“Mary Ann”, Joseph Fleming and “Gentleman Dick”: Aboriginal-Convict Relationships in Colonial History’, p 51.
60 A Malm, ‘In Wildness Is the Liberation of the World: On Maroon Ecology and Partisan Nature’, Historical Materialism, 2018, 26(3):10.
61 Malm, p 9.
62 Malm, p 28.
63 Rose, Nourishing Terrain, p 10.
64 P Gibson, ‘Borroloola Youth Step up the Fight for Climate Justice’, Solidarity, 2016.
65 T Birch, ‘Climate Change, Mining and Traditional Indigenous Knowledge in Australia’, Social Inclusion, 2016, 4(1):93–94.
66 Malm, ‘In Wildness Is the Liberation of the World’, p 28.
67 ‘W Morris, Art and Labour’, accessed 1 March 2022, https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1884/art-lab.htm.
68 W Morris, ‘The Worker’s Share of Art’, Commonweal, 1885, 1(3):18–19.
69 K Marx, On the Jewish Question, 2014, Routledge, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/.
70 Marx, Capital, p 165.
71 Marx, p 168.
72 O Kravets, ‘On Things and Comrades’, Ephemera, 2013, 13(2):421.
73 Graham, ‘Some Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews’, p 111.
74 DB Rose, ‘Dreaming Ecology: Beyond the Between’, Religion & Literature, 2008, 40(1):109–22.
75 For more on this, see J Sparrow, Crimes against Nature: Capitalism and Global Heating, 2021, Scribe Publications.



Read the rest of Overland 246

If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four brilliant issues for a year

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays