The Brave and Multiracial Marc Fennell (a fellow Eurasian) hosted a program recently on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) called ‘The School that Tried to End Racism’. It was an interesting foray opening up discussions on racial discrimination in Australia with school kids. I really liked the premise of this show and I do think (evident from posts on this blog) that it is a discussion Australia needs to have. The stiff upper British Lip has surely evolved beyond colonial times to open up for conversational engagement on ‘icky’ matters. Perhaps Australia still isn’t ready for it.
The show starts with introducing topics of race, bias/prejudice, privilege and stereotypes, all worthy topics when discussing racism. A classroom of Year 6 students from a primary school in South West Sydney participated in the program and specific attention is given to certain students in the group. It was interesting to see the different personalities, the maturity and ability to articulate some fairly complex thoughts to the camera and home audience. If anything, the program demonstrated how insightful and articulate school kids can be.
Marc Fenell’s social media predictably indicated many in Australia viewed the program for it’s true intent and premise with reviews being mainly positive. However, as to be expected from right wing media outlets like Sky and The Australian the criticisms came thick and fast. Especially scathing was an article written by Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian accusing the show of priming critical race theory in schools, creating that old trope ‘victims’ and therefore causing division amongst Australians. Out of my own curiosity as to why this woman was privileged with a mouth piece, further research into Ms Albrechtsen’s background revealed she’s a lawyer and was working in the Law Faculty of Sydney University. Around John Howard’s prime ministership, she was parachuted by the Liberal party onto the ABC board. Ms Albrechtsen described the ABC workplace as a ‘soviet style workers collective’. I began to think that Ms Albrechtsen was indeed shackled up in a Soviet Union collective in her younger days and that perhaps she’s had personal experience to enable her such conclusions? I’ll go one step further on account of her article about the program; does Ms Albrechtsen have any experience whatsoever of what it means to be discriminated against according to race? Why is it in Australia the loudest fog horns against a particular issue often do not have first-hand personal experience of the issue? What gives these people the right to voice any opinion about any matter when they can’t give a credible account of experiencing the topic first hand?
One thing I will say in defence of Ms Albrechtsen is that I can understand how the show would put a few high bridged western noses out of joint. There was a moment in the show when the kids were asked to split into their affiliation groups and I noticed the conveners were careful not to add racial labels, but nevertheless, low and behold the kids split into roughly the white group and the ‘others’ group. I was I had to say a little uncomfortable about the finger pointing ‘shaming and blaming’ the white kids for their privilege. I did feel completely uneasy when they were made to almost take the blame for being the skin colour that is automatically assigned privilege and the racial aggressors here in Australia. Trying to highlight racial stereotypes in the program and then doing exactly that to white kids made this a problematic exercise in my mind. As an allied health therapist, I’ve seen white underprivileged children who will never, despite the inherent bias that works in their favour here in Australia, will never catch up to their privileged white counterparts. The years of abuse and trauma would ensure that.
Why should a young white girl be forced to admit that she benefits from a system she had little say in manufacturing? And yes, I understand that this awareness may spark some empathy to want to change systems for all involved but that’s the rub of this show- will it actually make any systemic changes here in Australia? I’m not sure putting off white people with a finger pointing shaming activity is going to do that.
I guess this is why everyone leaves this ‘icky’ issue of addressing racism alone. When actions, behaviours and microaggressions are interpreted mostly as racism then we start to see the world as a very binary platform that plays into the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality and we’re trapped into the mindset of the perpetrators. This mindset holds dear homogeneity, that ‘youse all are like that’, creating stereotypes that label the innocent. In addition, racial discrimination occurs between non white migrant groups in Australia. I’ve been privy to many conversations when racist stereotypes of an ‘ethnic’ group have been expressed by an ‘ethnic’. Being a perpetrator and aggressor of racism is not purely the domain of the white colonists. When examining racism, we need to do and be better than that. I’m by no way diminishing the experience of lived racism (having experienced this myself) and I am of course talking about the nebulous variety of perceived racism certainly not the systemic ones where numbers and facts like incarceration rates, deaths in custody, poverty rates, infant mortality, early death etc are well documented.
Which comes to my next point. I thought the activities in the show that actually did create communication, empathy and perhaps the realisation of privilege and discrimination was best done when the kids actually spoke to each other. The cut out cardboard friends created communication, dialogue and ultimately new friendships. The ability to talk about being bullied and called all different types of racial names and learning to process those experiences as a group was again a productive activity that helped everyone better understand how someone feels when being at the receiving end of racial abuse. Going out into the community and interviewing community members of different backgrounds again broadened the experience beyond the school gates and made the kids realise the real-life problems some adults deal with in terms of race. I could see that these activities took the heat off one particular group for being ‘perpetrators’ but also allowed the ‘recipients’ (yes Ms Albrechtsen I’m careful not to use ‘victims’) to express themselves to the point of showing raw emotion. The outpouring of how someone feels is surely enough to elicit empathy, with the inability to empathise based in my opinion in an underlying neurological/psychological issue.
Marc Fennell took on this project perhaps as a personal journey with first hand experiences of racism growing up here in Australia and I completely understand his feelings, his experiences and his perspective. This was a hugely brave topic to address due to the complex and sometimes nebulous nature of racism. I take my hat off to him for living up to the Aussie value of least ‘having a go’ at tackling that icky issue of racism here in Australia which is more than any public figure, politician or celebrity has bothered to successfully do.
Frances McDormand has always captivated me. From the first time I watched her in Fargo to the latest release of Nomadland, there is a connecting quality. One doesn’t have to look too deep to uncover that Frances is adopted. I am not adopted and I can never really understand how one might be but maybe my current questioning of identity and affiliation comes close? There’s an innate feeling of rejection, anger, injustice, questions around belonging. And life is spent filling these gaps and holes trying to make sense of one’s place and worth, in my case, being mixed race in a country that’s still entrapped in binary colonial worldviews. Before moving to my current residence, my people were the target of government policy that wanted us gone- our existence, our rights, our identity, and our sense of place. And that’s why a critic’s review of Frances’ recent film is so incredibly relatable to me ‘hardscrabble lives in a society that has little room for them.’ There can be no more common ground than having first hand experience of that quote regardless of one’s ethnicity and background. It’s a unifying language the film subtly and gently portrays.
On the surface the film shows a segment of American society discarded by capitalism. In our ‘throwaway’ consumerism , these people or traded commodities are thrown away no longer needed and no longer remunerated. The lack of the latter forcing hard decisions for a hard end of life. The world cares little for them because they aren’t professionals running a well oiled capitalist machine. Their worth and value defined by their ‘lack of’- education, profession, connection, money. What strikes me as particularly poignant is that anyone at any time of their life can fall off the edge and join these vagabonds, that ‘lack of’ can happen completely out of one’s control; we can seriously find ourselves homeless.
A balanced voice may suggest that people can choose the life they ultimately have. That choice comes into play such as a battered wife in a loveless marriage chooses to stay because financially she’s better off. Or a husband chooses to continue in an affair because it makes the loveless marriage so much more bearable than to divorce and go through messy child custody issues and financial wrangling with a bitch who doesn’t deserve a penny. Some come out of it all the better. Many others though live with regret, pain and emotional scarring taking years to heal. Others have an amazing talent for self deception.
Normadland did come out a year after my mother passed away. My travelling caravan of life, lonely, empty, the constant outsider, the itinerant resident became more so when someone permanent to me was no longer. Despite the complex feelings I had toward my mother she was still around to listen when at times I was in my own echo chamber, deplete of anyone who could understand. She got my context without explanation and perhaps shielded her fears in some hope I wouldn’t take them on, that my life would be better than hers. In many ways it is but the tragedy of her death, her joyless, unhappy marriage and suffrage have left me questioning many things in life.
This is where a nomadic lifestyle, I believe, allows you to let go. The beauty of coming to terms with one’s lot in life is the freedom of letting go and being as authentic as you can be. When there’s no one else around, how long can you keep lying to yourself? When those around have little tolerance for pretence as is the case in a Nomadic life, the road travelled could get even lonelier and I wonder is this the lesson so many need? Does it matter about your profession, the money you made, the connections you had , the lifestyle you led when you close your eyes for the last time and don’t like who you’ve become? A nomadic life must be a catalyst to that point and yet so many won’t have the happenstance to experience it and many actively choose to avoid it, a much needed life lesson.
Fargo, Three Billboards, Olive Kitteridge, and many of France’s acting roles bring me back to the intersection of tragedy and authenticity, of truth and pretence, of all life’s contradictions and how we can choose our authentic self to the end with all the pain and delights on the way. The journey of a forced nomadic life may bring this to the fore for many, travelling with ourselves and facing our weaknesses and strengths daily and our place in ourselves and the world. Nomadland may be a story of movement and itinerant residence but to me it’s a metaphor of my life epitomised by the genuine and unapologetic Frances McDormand.
This is an excellent article by Henry Reynolds explaining historical facts around British colonisation of Australia. It proves that Anglo sovereignty in Australia was built on lies. The issue today though is not that things ought to be reversed. It is that the truth ought to be acknowledged and a standard of governing that ought to be corrected. I and so many other Australians benefit from the colonisation of the country, the rule of law and the general safety of the place. My blog has never challenged this but it does challenge the right to include and exclude people from the national identity when those in power are here on a lie. So when you say ‘we will decidewho comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come‘ well you have no grounds for this when land was stolen.
Henry Reynold’s Article:
The problematic nature of January 26 has been apparent for a long time. It was clearly displayed in 1938 when Sydney commemorated the sesquicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet. While crowds watched a replay of the British arrival, leaders of the Aboriginal communities in Victoria and New South Wales held a Day of Mourning.
Fifty years later, Sydney was again immersed in celebration, this time for the bicentenary of the founding of white Australia. A huge procession, of what was calculated to be more than 40,000 Aboriginal people, stormed along Elizabeth Street for a rally in Hyde Park. They carried banners and wore badges that read: “White Australia Has a Black History – Don’t Celebrate 1988”.
The overwhelming theme of both march and meeting was for the return of Indigenous land and reparation for two centuries of brutality and injustice.
Opinion polls on the subject are clear about a number of things. A large majority of people want to have an occasion to commemorate our history and celebrate our way of life. This does not necessarily mean they are wedded to the present day. Nor is there evidence to suggest that those who would prefer a change of date are opposed to the idea of a distinctive national day.
There is widespread confusion as to why January 26 was chosen in the first place. A national survey reported in The Age in March 2017 found that while more than seven out of 10 respondents declared Australia Day was important to them, many did not know which event it commemorated. Only 43 per cent correctly identified the first arrival of a First Fleet ship at Sydney Cove.
There is a degree of perversity on display among the passionate defenders of January 26. It made sense in the past for those who wanted to commemorate the founding of Sydney. That was when the decision was made to move the whole expedition from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour. It makes less sense as a day of national commemoration.
There are two other dates that would be more appropriate. The first is the 20th of the month, when all the ships had arrived in Botany Bay. It was the successful conclusion of a remarkable expedition, bringing a fleet of 11 ships and over 1000 men and women from the other side of the world. It was a significant achievement of logistics and seamanship, but one of British imperial rather than Australian history.
The second date is February 7, when the formal ceremony of annexation was conducted before the whole population. The public commissions were read and, as [marine officer Lieutenant] Watkin Tench explained, the British took “possession of the colony in form”. Once the documents had been read, the officers joined Governor Arthur Phillip “to partake of a cold collation”, at which “many loyal and public toasts were drank in commemoration of the day”.
As officers toasted the formal establishment of New South Wales, the future of relations with the local Aboriginal bands appeared propitious. The governor had good intentions and his instructions suggested he “conciliate their affections” and enjoin “all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them”.
Things did not turn out the way Tench expected. That had become quite clear by the time he left the colony in December 1791. A disastrous smallpox epidemic ravaged the local bands in April and May of 1789 and then spread outwards across much of south-eastern Australia. Violence increased around the fringes of settlement until, in December 1790, the governor ordered Tench to lead Australia’s first punitive expedition towards Botany Bay and use terror to bring resistance to an end.
Frontier conflict became a permanent feature of Australian life for 150 years. It was predetermined by the fateful decisions made in London before the First Fleet set sail. The documents read on February 7 did two things. They concerned sovereignty and property. The imperial government asserted sovereignty over the eastern half of the continent. It was a vast and audacious claim that would have been found illegitimate in international law. And there were already clearly understood protocols among the European nations about the extension of sovereignty.
What provided the British with a thin cloak of legitimacy was the assumption that no prior sovereignty existed. The First Nations had been judged from afar to have neither government nor laws and customs. And so the British officials turned their back on the tradition of treaty-making that had been alive in North America for 150 years.
It is simply not possible that educated officials were unaware of already deeply entrenched policies concerning the Native Americans. The decision to regard New South Wales as a terra nullius was not the result of forgetfulness or inattention. The likely consequences were understood at the time. Without any means or machinery for negotiation, violence would stalk the land.
An even more egregious decision was made in relation to property. In one apocalyptic moment, all the real estate over half the continent became the property of the Crown. It was an appropriation confirmed in Australian courts for 200 years. It became so central to national life that it was rarely questioned. And it cannot be distinguished from the foundation of British Australia and the commemorations of January 26.
The scale of the expropriation was without precedent, and once again only made sense if it was accepted that the First Nations had never been in actual possession of their homelands and that over vast stretches of land there were no settled inhabitants and that there was neither land law nor tenure.
Everything changed in 1992, when the High Court handed down its judgment in the Mabo case. The judges overthrew 200 years of legal precedent, deciding that before the arrival of the British invaders the First Nations had both settled inhabitants and land law. They were the legitimate owners of their ancestral homelands.
The implication was inescapable. The British had expropriated the land without compensation. It was a land grab almost without precedent. How this expropriation could have happened under the aegis of the common law is hard to explain. Because at the same moment, and by the same legal instruments the land was expropriated, the Aboriginal peoples all over New South Wales became British subjects, so-called beneficiaries of the King’s peace.
Australian judges have often dated the assumption of ownership from either 1786, when Phillip received his first commission, or from the formal annexation on February 7, 1788. Is that when the incorporation occurred? Both at the same time? Or did one precede the other? These seemingly arcane questions matter because they bring us to the much broader question of the sanctity bestowed on private property by the common law.
One of the central themes in the history of the common law was the centuries-long struggle to defend the property of the subject from appropriation by the Crown. Statutes of the 13th and 14th centuries were designed to restrain the arbitrary power of kings to confiscate the property of their subjects.
It is important to remember that New South Wales was regarded as a colony of settlement. British law arrived with the First Fleet. Early legal and administrative decisions made it clear that the prerogative power of the Crown was no more extensive in Sydney than in Britain itself.
So how had the Crown acquired the landed property of First Nations across vast stretches of territory without their permission and without providing compensation? It had been stolen from people who were subjects within the King’s peace. And how and why was this outstanding anomaly allowed to determine what happened to tens of thousands of men, women and children for 200 years? Ultimately it was the responsibility of the British Crown, which made no attempt to protect the First Nations from the inundation of the prerogative.
Another astonishing anomaly that the proponents of January 26 as our national day often assert is that the First Fleet brought with it the rule of law. It is less than obvious how such a claim can be sustained. In 1788, the law was profoundly subverted. Hundreds of years of tradition were overturned. For anyone to lose their property as a result of being incorporated into British society was, as Locke had insisted, too gross an absurdity for any man to own. Do the flag-wavers have any idea what they are urging us to commemorate? Do they not know? Do they care?
If Australia had a founding principle, it was the sanctity of private property. The imperial government had a number of motives when it decided to plant a settlement on the east coast of Australia, but punishment for crimes against property was central to the whole operation. The convicts were wrenched from homeland, community and family, in most cases for theft. Their punishment was designed as a deterrent against future transgression.
‘It is pointless and gratuitous to tell Indigenous Australians to get over it and to look to the future.’
The full force of laws against theft was imposed from the moment the expedition arrived in Sydney. At the end of February 1788, five men were convicted of theft and condemned to death, illustrating that property was more sacrosanct than life itself. The sentences were carried out at public hangings, which the whole convict population was forced to watch. Just three weeks before, half a continent had been declared Crown land in one of the most remarkable acts of plunder in modern times.
There are so many reasons not to commemorate the nation on January 26. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made their feelings plain since at least 1938 and continue to do so. It is surely extraordinary that their opposition has been disregarded. And it is not as if they didn’t have a strong case. The arrival in January 1788 did not merely presage disasters that were to follow.
It is pointless and gratuitous to tell Indigenous Australians to get over it and to look to the future. An argument frequently heard in the testy debate about Australia Day is that what happened to the Aboriginal peoples resulted from what was regarded as acceptable behaviour at the time. That is just what happened in the 18th century, the argument runs, and it is pointless now to make judgments using the ideas and sensibility of contem- porary times.
On any measure, the First Nations suffered grievously as a result of the British annexation. They were the victims of profound injustice. Even now, many Australians find it hard to accept that white Australia does, indeed, have a black history. Their desire to commemorate January 26 arises from the felt need to focus on both our British heritage and the ongoing story of successful nation-building. John Howard was fond of saying that our history had a few blemishes. Scott Morrison remarked recently that colonisation did produce “a few scars from some mistakes and things that [we] could have done better”. These comments may have been made in passing, but they are symptomatic of problems that are much more than skin deep.
How are we to explain this singular failure of empathy? Why is the profound injustice visited upon the First Nations not treated with the appropriate gravity? Why continue to commemorate a day that takes the nation back to where it all began? Why have Australian leaders never asked for an apology from the British government or from the Queen herself in the manner pursued by the Māori? And why not suggest that some form of reparation would be appropriate for a land seizure completely at odds with the common law? The apostles of our current Australia Day expect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be loyal members of the Australian state and would react strongly against any hint of separatism.
But do they really think they are part of the nation? Are they white Australians’ countrymen and -women? If so, why can’t all Australians identify with them and feel their pain?
Ella Archibald Binge is a Kamilaroi woman who wrote about the truth of slavery in Australia. Let’s be clear that indentured work occurred and was offered prolifically in the 19th Century as a means for getting cheap labour. It was taken up usually by the very poor and destitute from the UK- orphans, single mothers, poor people. The point here is that these people once they found their feet in Australia went on to enjoy social mobility and better themselves where as the Indigenous and South Pacific Islanders were discriminated against to the point that the government felt it needed to introduce the “White Australian Policy” to restrict non white privilege and economic success en masse. I have cut and pasted this article here in it’s entirety because it’s an important read but the link to the article can also be found here: https://www.smh.com.au/national/they-ruled-our-lives-what-impact-has-slavery-had-in-australia-20200630-p557ht.htm
‘They ruled our lives’: What impact has slavery had in Australia?
Many Australians might think that slavery never reached our shores but the history books tell a different story. So what did slavery look like in Australia?
Waskam Emelda Davis was sitting in her favourite orange armchair in her loungeroom on a cool winter’s day when her phone rang.
“Did you just hear this?” came her friend’s voice down the line.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had just been on radio, her friend informed her, claiming there was no history of slavery in Australia.
“I was enraged,” says Davis.
The comments in June 2020, which the Prime Minister later apologised for and clarified, prompted a fresh examination of Australia’s colonial history at the height of a reinvigorated global Black Lives Matter movement.
The debate over the history of slavery in Australia is one that resurfaces on a regular basis, much to the chagrin of the tens of thousands of Indigenous workers who have been fighting for decades to reclaim wages that were withheld from them under discriminatory laws until the 1970s.
Each time, Davis dredges up the painful stories from her family’s past in a bid to set the record straight about a struggle stretching back more than a century.
The 58-year-old has spent her life advocating for the rights of Australian South Sea Islander people – the descendants of men, women and children known as “sugar slaves” who were taken from the Pacific islands and forced into hard labour in Australia. She chairs the Australian South Sea Islanders Port Jackson organisation in Sydney.
“Slavery is slavery. You can’t dress it up or dress it down,” Davis says. “The kidnapping, the coercing, the stealing and the serious abuses that happened to our people … this is something that’s handed down through generations.”
So how did slavery operate in Australia? How long did the practices continue? And how has it made a lasting impact on the nation?
A warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: this article includes images of deceased people.
What forms of slavery were in Australia?
Article 1 of the United Nations Slavery Convention defines slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”.
Around the time of colonisation in Australia – the First Fleet arrived in 1788 – an anti-slavery movement was growing in Britain. The British Parliament abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
As such, there was to be no slave trade in Australia. However numerous historians, legal experts and government officials have found that the controls imposed on Pacific Islander and First Nations peoples essentially amounted to slavery.
“It is true that Australia was not a ‘slave state’ in the manner of the American South,” writes Stephen Gray in the Australian Indigenous Law Review.
“Nevertheless, employers exercised a high degree of control over ‘their’ Aboriginal workers who were, in some cases, bought and sold as chattels … Employers exercised a form of ‘legal coercion’ over their workers in a manner consistent with the legal interpretation of slavery.”
What was blackbirding?
Emelda Davis says her grandfather was 12 when he went for a swim at the beach near his home on the island of Tanauta (formerly Tanna) in Vanuatu and never returned.Advertisement
He was kidnapped in the late 1800s, she says, and taken to Bundaberg, in north Queensland, where he was put to work in the cane fields.
At least 50,000 people, mostly men, from 80 Melanesian islands were brought by boat to work in Australia’s agriculture, maritime and sugar industries. Some went voluntarily but many were coerced or kidnapped. Their wages were less than a third of other workers.
The practice, known as blackbirding, was sanctioned by various Queensland laws from the mid-1860s to 1904. Several members of parliament grew wealthy through this system.
Those who chose to leave the islands signed three-year indenture agreements, explains University of Queensland historian Professor Clive Moore, but few knew what awaited them in Australia.
He says the indenture system has often been called “a new form of slavery”.
“Just think, you’re a capitalist in the 1830s and 1840s and they’ve just abolished slavery and you want cheap labour, so you scratch your head and you say, ‘Well, how can I get cheap labour?’.
“[Islanders] were legally indentured, but then you’ve got to ask, did they understand the indenture system? Often no, they wouldn’t have had a clue what it really was … therefore you might say the contract’s invalid,” he says.
Moore estimates 15,000 South Sea Islander people – around a third of the workforce – died from common diseases during their first year in Australia due to low immunity levels.
“The mortality figures are horrific,” he says. “The government must have known and yet it did absolutely nothing to try to stop it.”
When the White Australia policy was enacted in 1901, the government ordered the mass deportation of all South Sea Islander people, sparking outrage among those who had built lives on the mainland and wished to stay.
Ultimately, around 5000 workers were forcibly deported. In a cruel twist of fate, their deportations were funded by the wages of deceased South Sea Islanders, whose estates were controlled by the government.
Those who remained were subject to racial discrimination and embarked on a long journey to carve out their own place in Australian society.
How did ‘protection’ usher in a new form of slavery?
It could be argued that what happened to South Sea Islander workers was a precursor to the systematic wage controls imposed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups from around the 1890s, notably in the pearling and cattle industries.
In the late 19th century, every mainland state and the Northern Territory enacted laws, known as the protection acts, to control the lives of Indigenous people. Prior to this, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers were routinely exploited.
Historian Dr Ros Kidd says there is evidence that women were used as sex slaves, children were kidnapped and Aboriginal stockmen were encouraged to form opium addictions to make them reliant on their employers, who supplied the drug.
Kidd says the protection acts were largely introduced to ensure industries remained profitable rather than to protect the welfare of Indigenous people.
“Part of the problem, as the authorities saw it, was the rise of inter-racial children and the fact that we, as the whites, needed to assert some authority and regulation over all of this,” she says.
Under the protection acts, most Aboriginal people were removed from their homelands and forced to live on missions or reserves run by the church or government, respectively. Some South Sea Islander people were subjected to the same controls.
Aboriginal people were forbidden from speaking their native languages or practising their cultures, and children were separated from their families and placed in dormitories.
Employment laws varied from state to state but, for the most part, the wages of Aboriginal people were diverted to government-managed trust funds, while local protectors managed the residue as legal trustees. Official documents reveal protectors habitually defrauded Aboriginal workers for much of the 20th century.
For most Queensland workers, the minimum monthly wage was set at five shillings (around $24), less than one-eighth of the non-Indigenous wage.
Sometimes, the worker would receive a small portion of that amount as pocket money but, in many cases, they received nothing. Workers could, in theory, withdraw from their trust account for necessities but only with permission from the local protector. Requests were often refused, or workers were falsely told they had no money.
Roy Savo is a former stockman who spent a decade working on Queensland cattle stations from the age of 13. He says he didn’t see physical money until he was almost 20.
“When we wanted to go to the shop, they’d just write us a note and say, ‘Take that to the shop’,” he says. “That’s how we got through life.”
The 80-year-old says the bosses would not call the Aboriginal workers by their names, referring to them only as “boy”.
“They made you feel so low. When I think back, we were just no one, nothing. We had no chance against the white people, they just ruled our lives. We were one step from being an animal. In some places you were told to sit out and eat with the animals anyway, out in the wood heap.”
When he was about 19, Savo ran away from his “job”. Dodging authorities, he continued to work at various cattle stations and railways across far north Queensland and the Torres Strait, before meeting his wife and starting a family in Silkwood, south of Cairns.
In Western Australia, most employers weren’t legally required to pay Aboriginal workers at all until the 1940s, so long as they provided rations, clothing and blankets.
Many workers in the Northern Territory died from starvation in the 1920s and ’30s due to poor rations, records show. One anthropologist reported that on one station, only 10 children survived from 51 births during a five-year period. The government declined to intervene. The chief protector in the Northern Territory said in 1927 that Aboriginal pastoral workers were “kept in a servitude that is nothing short of slavery”.
Those who absconded from a work contract could be whipped, jailed or arrested and brought back in chains.
Aboriginal children were routinely indentured to work, with boys sent to farms and pastoral stations and girls to domestic service for non-Indigenous families.
Their wages were supposed to be administered similarly to the adults’ but there was little to no regulation to ensure employers complied with the law.
Protectors themselves described Queensland’s Aboriginal wage system as a “farce” in the 1940s, says Kidd, with workers “entirely at the mercy of employers who simply doctored the books”.
She notes the broad lack of oversight prompted one protector in the Northern Territory to remark: “I think it is about time that slavery is put a stop to among the natives of Australia.”
When did this kind of slavery end?
The protection acts were gradually amended and replaced throughout the second half of the 20th century but some controls endured until at least 1972 – the year Gough Whitlam was elected prime minister.
And yet when the laws were repealed, the money held in trust was never returned to Aboriginal workers. The unpaid funds have become known as the stolen wages.
In Queensland, Aboriginal trust funds were used to cover government revenue shortfalls. Millions were spent on regional hospitals. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were used to facilitate the forcible removal of Aboriginal families from their traditional lands.
In today’s money, Kidd conservatively estimates the missing or misappropriated funds to total $500 million in Queensland alone.
“The government made a lot of money exploiting the savings accounts for its own profit,” she says. “This is while people were starving and dying in need of these payments.”
For decades, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been fighting to get that money back.
In Queensland, thousands joined a class action to sue the government. In 2019, the state government agreed to a landmark $190 million settlement. It was the largest settlement for Indigenous people outside native title and the fifth-largest class action settlement in Australian history.
But it was less than half what the workers were owed and by the time the settlement was reached, more than half of the claimants had died.
Similar class actions are being investigated in NSW and the NT while one has been launched in WA. Australian South Sea Islanders are also fighting for reparations for an estimated $38 million in misspent wages of deceased workers.
A year after Queensland’s class action was settled, Roy Savo still doesn’t know when, or how much, he will be paid for a decade’s hard labour. He fears it will be much less than he had hoped.
“I wanted to buy a home,” he says. “But looking at what I’m going to get now, I’m thinking it would be better putting it into some trust or something for my funeral. I come in with nothing, go out with nothing, I suppose.”
What is the legacy of slavery in Australia?
As fate would have it, Emelda Davis’ housing unit in the inner-Sydney suburb of Pyrmont looks out to the refinery where the raw sugar harvested by South Sea Islanders was once processed.
It’s widely acknowledged much of Australia’s wealth across the sugar, pastoral and maritime industries was built on the backs of Indigenous and South Sea Islander labour.
“The contribution of the 60-odd thousand [South Sea Islanders], coupled with our First Nations families, is quite significant in establishing what we call today the lucky country,” Davis says. “Our legacy is what people are thriving off today.”
At the Redcliffe Hospital, north of Brisbane, there is a plaque to acknowledge that it was built, in part, with a $1.7 million loan from Aboriginal trust funds in the 1960s.
Similar plaques have been installed across Queensland, at the recommendation of a 2016 taskforce, to recognise the labour and financial contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Yet many within these communities still live in poverty. Disparities in health, education and employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are well documented.
Ros Kidd says this disadvantage is “inextricably linked” with historical practices.
She says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were excluded from the capitalist society.
“They trapped people in what I would call engineered disadvantage – because it didn’t happen by coincidence, it didn’t happen through an unfortunate set of circumstances. All of these conditions and this poverty was specific government policy and practice.”
Australian South Sea Islanders, too, have inherited generations of trauma and disadvantage. The community was officially recognised as a distinct cultural group in 1994, but without targeted policies Davis says they often “fall through the cracks”, missing out on support programs tailored for Indigenous Australians.
“We’re at a point where it’s completely desperate. There’s no hope in looking to our government for anything. It’s just constant hoop-jumping and lining up against everybody else in the queues for rations,” she says.
The legacy of trauma is also felt in the Pacific Islands.
On a beach in Vanuatu, there’s a spot called Howling Rock, where mothers would mourn their husbands and children who disappeared. There are songs, passed through the generations, warning not to go to certain beaches for risk of being taken.
But new generations in Australia have inherited something else from their ancestors, too: strength.
Queensland artist Dylan Mooney, 24, has Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander heritage. His paternal great-great-grandparents were blackbirded from Vanuatu. His great-great-grandfather worked on sugar plantations in northern NSW while his great-great-grandmother, Fanny Togo, was sold as a house servant in Sydney.
Mooney says knowing what his ancestors went through has only strengthened his sense of identity and pride.
“I carry that with me every day – that strength, that resilience, that story of survival.”
My Answer: Anyone Albino. Wait. I’m following it with the Larrikin Caveat: Just Joking.
Last Saturday a lovely Nepalese man came to my door to pick up a couple of things. We got chatting. Half way through the conversation he bluntly tells me and asks ‘You’re not Australian, where do you come from?’ I asked him to guess and of course, as usual, he was way off the mark. You see an Australian is someone white, preferably the striking image of a displaced Pom (English person). To be a person of any other colour, especially olive, is to be ‘from elsewhere’. Not so long ago and in some media portrayals today, this excluded indigenous people too.
I went to school with an Australian Chinese girl who was 3rd generation Australian but looked Chinese because her father who was born in Australia of Chinese parents, married a Hong Kong Chinese immigrant. She struggled all her life with identity as she looked Chinese but spoke English only and with a broad Aussie accent. The Chinese didn’t know what to quite make of her and she didn’t hold any Chinese values in how she saw the world but she has NEVER in her life been mistaken for an Australian- the country where she was born, holds the same values, pays taxes in, and is a law-abiding citizen. As she tells me constantly, ‘I feel invisible’. Well done to those past PMs of Australia- your social engineering to make this a white country to the exclusion of the indigenous and others has worked.
Meanwhile, we have the likes of 10 pound Poms settling into Australia in the 1950s. Their offspring would be up to 3rd , some 4th generation Australians but no-one, absolutely no-one would ever mistaken them for being from elsewhere, even though their families would have spent an equal amount of generational time in Australia just like post war Greeks, Italians and everyone else of a non-white hue. In fact, we even managed to elect a PM from a 10 pound Pom family.
At what point in time do non-white migrants become part of the National Australian Identity?
SHE COULD BE AUSTRALIAN, CANADIAN, AMERICAN, NEW ZEALAND.
HE COULD BE AUSTRALIAN, CANADIAN, AMERICAN, NEW ZEALAND.
BUT WHY DO WE QUESTION THE IDENTITY AND NATIONALITIES OF THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE DESPITE BEING BORN IN ANY ONE OF THE FOLLOWING COUNTRIES:
AUSTRALIA, AMERICA, NEW ZEALAND, CANADA?
Check out this article on this topic a former Human Rights Commissioner :
In addition, SBS released in 2021 an excellent documentary on the first Africans that were transported to Australia in the late 1780s. Little was known about these folk and yet they contributed significantly to early settlement in Sydney and Melbourne.
Here is an article about the documentary by Kate Meyers:
Santilla Chingaipe shares the stories of the trailblazing men and women who made big contributions to our history.
John Randall, Billy Blue, John Martin, Fanny Finch, John Joseph. It’s a list that should read as a roll call of some of the most influential figures in Australia’s history, but if their names are unfamiliar to you, chances are you’re not alone. While they should be as central to the post-colonial narrative as the Ned Kellys or Mary Bryants that have secured their place within our national mythology, these figures have instead been largely ignored.
For journalist, filmmaker and author Santilla Chingaipe, the absence of the African-Australian story within prevailing historical accounts is a reality she is determined to change as she investigates the circumstances that saw them fall out of national consciousness in her new documentary, Our African Roots. Inspired by the evidence collected as research for her upcoming book of the same title, Chingaipe uncovers the contributions that individuals of African descent have made to our continent from the time of the British invasion. The rhetoric around African-Australians in contemporary society, and the consequences of this, particularly on younger members of the community, inspired her to approach the issue from a completely different angle.
‘Our African Roots’ host and co-producer Santilla Chingaipe. Source: Warsan Mohammed
“What drove me to the archive was the so called ‘African crime wave’ and the fact that a lot of commentators and people in the media were talking about this as some sort of Australian rite of passage,” she says.
“It was as if every other migrant group had copped some sort of negative opinion and chatter, and it was now time for the spotlight to be on the African community. I knew that wasn’t right.”
It was a need to challenge this attitude that saw Chingaipe begin her investigation into the very first African migrants to land on these shores.
“If I can find evidence of these people as early as the First Fleet, then surely the discussion can’t be about the fact that they are newly arrived groups experiencing this discrimination. There must be more to it,” she explains.
It turns out that when colonists first arrived on Australian shores in 1788, there were indeed ten convicts of African descent among them. It’s a fact that remains largely undocumented in most school history books. It also fails to capture the important role of these convicts, and their ongoing significance to Australia’s cultural landscape. There’s a personal frustration with the limited reference to these early settlers for Chingaipe; when her family migrated from Zambia when she was just a child, she struggled to connect with the historical narrative she was taught and recognises the impact this can have.
“A lot of young African-Australians talk not just about the overt racism they experience, but also how it impacts their sense of belonging and identity,” she explains. “It’s already hard enough being a young person trying to find your place in the world without having the added burden of discrimination and racism thrown into that.”
“(The absence of this history) ultimately reinforces this idea that one group might be inherently predisposed to doing these amazing things and everyone else isn’t. A lot of people don’t know these stories, they’ve been erased.”
One such story is that of Billy Blue, a well-known figure within early colonial Australia who, despite having a great many contemporary Sydney landmarks named after him, has largely had his African heritage erased from popular imagination. Entrusted with the responsibility of transporting people to the sparsely inhabited northern side of Sydney by Governor Macquarie, Billy was arguably the first person to connect the two sides of the harbour. His legacy is not only the communities that came to be established on the lower north shore, but also the ingenuity and determination he displayed in the face of an Anglo-dominated society.
North Sydney Council historian Ian Hoskins and Santilla Chingaipe on the trail of convict Billy Blue, who became Sydney harbour’s first licensed ferryman. Source: Tony Jackson
Though parts of Billy’s tale are dispersed throughout historical commentary, others like Fanny Finch have, until recently, been almost entirely omitted from the conversation. As Chingaipe discovers in her conversations with Fanny’s descendants in Castlemaine, she was a pioneer of Victoria’s gold rush era, a single mother and business owner who campaigned for the right of women to vote. Why then has our society, which applauds Australian achievement and success, not embraced these stories?
“It’s one thing to outlaw and abolish racist legislation, it’s another to do the same with cultural attitudes,” Chingaipe says. “How do you begin to get people to unlearn something that they’ve been wired to think for a good seventy years?”
“Part of it is who gets to tell the stories. Even early on, I was very reluctant to publish the research because I kept thinking, I am a young, black woman; people like me don’t tell history, people like me don’t write history.”
It’s lucky then that Chingaipe overcame this uncertainty as it is her curiosity, expertise and obvious passion for sharing these stories that engage audiences, as she brings to life more than 200 years of African-Australian history. Though it’s clear that the existing accounts lack depth, the documentary is not an attack on the legends around which Australian identity has been formed, but rather an attempt to showcase components of that identity that are too often neglected.
“I do hope that when we do think about the stories that we tell ourselves that reinforce a certain form of Australian-ness, that we recognise that Australian-ness does not mean whiteness or relationship to the Anglo empire,” she says.
“I also hope that people embrace these histories and I hope it leads us to a place, as a country, where we start telling the truth in many ways about the foundation of colonised Australia. Australia’s foundational story is way more interesting and diverse than we were told.”
Nothing more exotic seems to have turned up, and even when this rolling mess tried to incorporate Italy via Matt Canavan, it failed on the grounds that Canavan probably wasn’t an Italian citizen anyway. It’s not Penny Wong under a cloud. Even Sam Dastyari had to find another way to eject himself from the Senate. I’m far from the first to observe it is those of Anglo-Celtic or Anglo-Saxon stock who are caught in this mess. And it’s worth considering why.
Perhaps there’s a clue in the fact that, by and large, few Australians seem to care about this. It certainly didn’t harm Barnaby Joyce or John Alexander in their bids for re-election.
Truth is we’re generally more inclined to see this as an annoying technicality than any genuine crisis of divided loyalties in our Parliament. But what if instead of being kicked off by Scott Ludlam’s New Zealand citizenship, we’d discovered Dastyari was Iranian?
Would the underlying principle of section 44 of the constitution – that dual citizenship implies divided loyalties inconsistent with the job of sitting in the Australian Parliament – have seem quite so quaint? What if instead of New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom, we were talking about, say, China, Indonesia and Afghanistan? Is it possible we’d be more disposed to seeing section 44 as a wise and important protection against foreign infiltration?
I suppose it’s a hypothetical and there’s no real way to know for sure. But for what it’s worth, my hunch is that there’d be a section or two of the electorate in a modest panic about it.
Gallagher decision triggers mass resignations
In the space of a few hours, the Australian parliament lost five MPs after the High Court ruled Labor’s Katy Gallagher ineligible to sit as a Senator.
I can easily imagine the odd talkback caller (and host) intoning about the importance of putting Australia first, demanding these people be thrown emphatically out of our Parliament and maybe being sceptical of how much they could be trusted even after they’d renounced their other nationality. I suspect the reason we regard our current situation as a technicality is at least partly that we still think of New Zealand or Britain as places that are only technically foreign countries.
When we think of our migrant communities, we’re not imagining Kiwis and Brits, which is why while it is common for Australian politicians to insist that migrants assimilate and pledge their loyalty to Australia in citizenship ceremonies, no one seems to notice that Brits in Australia adopt Australian citizenship at a remarkably low rate. No one seriously thinks of Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard as migrants who rose to the highest office in the land. For all the banging on about Australian multiculturalism, their backgrounds are ones of continuity rather than conversion. And to be fair, that’s the way the law saw it for a long time.
Australian citizenship didn’t even exist before 1948, and when it did, Australians were still legally considered British subjects until that was finally undone in 1987. But while the law moved on, and while Australian society has changed dramatically, it’s clear our most deeply received notions of Australian-ness haven’t quite.
The giveaway is that so many of the politicians ensnared in this are genuinely surprised to learn they hold these other citizenships. Sure, some of this is down to the legal quirks of citizenship that exist between nations of the British Empire. But it’s bigger than that.
Put simply, there is barely any cultural reason for these people to have thought about it. If you’re white, from an Anglophonic background and an Australian citizen, then you face no questions. Your Australian-ness is presumed and uncomplicated. It never needs to be proven and never needs to be justified. Why should anybody be surprised that when it comes time for them to nominate for Parliament, they overlook their foreignness when they have never been scrutinised in that way in their lives? Their national loyalty is, well, written all over their faces.
That’s not a luxury Penny Wong enjoys. For that matter, it’s probably not one Mathias Cormann enjoys either. If you’re from a non-English speaking background – and especially if you’re not white – you experience Australian-ness in a much more conspicuous way.
If you’re from a non-English speaking background – and especially if you’re not white – you experience Australian-ness in a much more conspicuous way.
You cannot simply claim it, you must proclaim it. Every day seems to require a declaration – even a demonstration – of loyalty. Your life becomes one of constant renunciation because that is the shortest route to countering suspicion and establishing your Australian credentials. You carry something with you that must always be either abandoned or explained. Either way you will be reminded, again and again. And after all that, if for some reason you decide to try your hand at federal politics – and as one glance at our Parliament reveals, most people in this category don’t – what are the chances you’ll simply overlook the possibility you’re a dual citizen? How likely is it that this thing for which you’ve been held to account your entire life, will catch you by surprise?
We’ve heard much in the past 10 months about how section 44 is anachronistic in our multicultural age, how it doesn’t capture the reality of modern Australia. But the truth is it is not multicultural Australia that has been caught out by it. It is those who see themselves as free of other cultural attachments altogether. Sure, you could amend section 44 to bring it into line with Australian society. But this saga shows it’s our unspoken, daily-experienced notion of Australian-ness that needs amendment, too.
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax columnist and a presenter on The Project.
Royal wedding: Meghan Markle’s race is not a question worth debating
By Matter of Fact host Stan Grant
What race is Meghan Markle? The world has seemed obsessed with the question.
The Royal wedding commentary returned to it time and again, as the bride was referred to as “mixed race” or “biracial”.
One British commentator part of ABC’s coverage, even wondered ridiculously about the future children of Meghan and Harry who, in her words, could be “all sorts of colours”.
Race does not exist
Race is a strange subject. It is an utterly discredited notion; scientists know it is nonsense to even speak of race.
We belong to one human family, and advances in the study of DNA show we all draw our heritage from different parts of the globe.
In this way, we are all “mixed” race.
As geneticist David Reich says in his recent book Who We Are and How We Got Here, “the genome revolution — turbo charged by ancient DNA — has revealed that human populations are related to each other in ways that no one expected”.
Reich says “if we trace back our lineages far enough into the past, we reach a point where everyone descends from the same ancestor …” The evidence of human remains tells us that ancestral “Eve” was from Africa.
Yes, the Queen is an African and Harry and Meghan — like the rest of us — are distant cousins. Meghan Markle was no more “mixed race” than anyone else at her wedding.
Race has us trapped
Scientifically, race is rubbish: yet, it matters. It matters because as a society we have made it matter.
Ideas of “race” have brought out the worst of humanity.
They have inspired — and continue to inspire — genocide, holocaust, war, dispossession, colonisation, imperialism, slavery, lynchings, segregation, mass incarceration.
Personally and individually it ties us in knots.
Meghan Markle’s mother is considered black and her father white.
The American census now allows people to self-identify in ever-more convoluted and exotic abstractions and hyphens.
The golfer Tiger Woods has gone to ludicrous lengths to describe himself, inventing his own category “Cablinasian” to reflect his Caucasian, Black, Indian, Asian roots.
Meghan herself, in an op-ed for Elle magazine, wrote of how she has embraced “the grey area surrounding my self-identification, keeping me with a foot on both sides of the fence”.
Race has us trapped. It is all but impossible for us to think about ourselves or articulate a sense of identity without referring to race.
More than a check-box
I identify as an Indigenous Australian — there is deep indigenous heritage in my mother’s and father’s families.
Historically, we have been categorised as “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous”, or more colloquially or disparagingly as “blacks”.
That has meant at various times being subject to government policy that has restricted our liberty; has told us where we could live and who we could marry.
Families have been divided on arbitrary rulings of colour.
The Australian Law Reform Commission lists historically more than 60 different definitions of who was considered as Indigenous.
Today, I am asked to tick a box on the census form identifying whether I am Aboriginal. It is an entirely invented category that erases the complexity of my heritage.
I am descended from Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people but I also have an Irish convict ancestor and my maternal grandmother was European. How can that census box possibly contain all of me?
See how quickly we become bogged in the swamp of scientifically meaningless racial categorisation: was my grandmother “white”? My grandfather black? Are both of my parents “biracial”?
Genetically, none of us are “pure”. “Whiteness” is often normalised and “blackness” seen as something “other”. These are relationships of power not science.
Can we be truly post-racial?
This was the tantalising possibility raised by the election in 2008 of Barack Obama as America’s president, a man with a white mother and a black Kenyan father.
His election was hailed as the fulfilment of the Martin Luther King Jnr promise of being judged not by colour but character.
The writer Toure challenged the whole idea of “blackness” in his book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?
He said “the point of fighting for freedom is for black folk to define blackness as we see fit”.
As he made clear, there are forty million blacks in America and forty million ways to be black.
Historian and social scientist David Hollinger has called for Americans to “push yet harder against the authority that shape and colour have historically been allowed by society to exert over our culture”.
Hollinger, in his book Post-ethnic America, dismisses the idea of “fixed” identities, he favours making room for new communities that promotes solidarity between people beyond definitions of race or ethnicity.
As he says we “live in an age not of identities but affiliations”.
It is a worthy idea that remains a work in progress.
Obama spoke of a “nation where all things are possible”, yet, as historian Garry Gerstle points out:
“If Obama’s election produced spasms of racial vertigo, the reality for millions of African-Americans who cheered his victory, continued to be contoured by the very forces of racial segregation, police brutality, poverty, unemployment that in some quarters, Obama’s election had suddenly made irrelevant”.
Race matters, even if the evidence tells us it should not.
Shifting our language is not some kumbuya, all-hold-hands fantasy — it is urgent: race exacts a terrible human toll.
Race the new witchcraft
Historian, Barbara Fields and her sister, sociologist Karen Fields, remind us that “race is the principle unit and core concept of racism”.
Racism, they write, is a social practice that “always takes for granted the objective reality of race”.
Race is voodoo; it is no different, they argue, than witchcraft. In their book Racecraft, they point out that:
“Neither witch nor pure race has a material existence. Both are products of thought and of language.”
Witchcraft they say only exists when people “act on the reality of the imagined thing”. It is the action that creates the evidence.
There is nothing in the hue of a person’s skin that creates segregation and suffering; it happens when people act on ideas about that skin colour.
The Fields sisters say we have moved beyond fears of witchcraft, but “racecraft” persists.
They reject the language of race, even terms like “mixed-race” or “post-racialism”, which draw from the same well as racism.
A better way to approach Markle
That’s what all the discussion about Meghan Markle’s “race” was really doing — perpetuating voodoo science and fuelling the same old fears of difference, as if that has not done enough damage to our world already.
How much better to celebrate that wonderful cosmopolitan meeting of cultures, sharing the joy of Harry and Meghan, and reflecting on Bishop Michael Curry’s message of the transforming power of love than the discredited notions of race ands colour.