Black History

Black Lives Still Don’t Matter Here

This article accompanies Emma Christopher’s article “An Illegitimate Offspring: South Sea Islanders, Queensland Sugar, and the Heirs of the British Atlantic Slave Complex”, in History Workshop Journal 90 – where it is currently free access.

On a recent three-day weekend, I drove from my home in Sydney down the New South Wales coast to Boydtown, once the grand folly of Benjamin Boyd, the British man who first brought enslaved Pacific Islanders to work in Australia, and one of the case studies in my article “An Illegitimate Offspring: South Sea Islanders, Queensland Sugar, and the Heirs of the British Atlantic Slave Complex”, in issue 90 of History Workshop Journal, where it forms part of the feature on Legacies of Slave Ownership. I’ve been researching him for some time, looking into his links to slavery in both Britain and Australia as part of a collective effort to explore such connections. All that remains of Boydtown in one location is his tower, his name clearly seen beneath the crenellations, now occupied by selfie-seekers who can hang from its windows and appear to be precariously balanced over the Pacific Ocean. A short drive away from there is the Ben Boyd Museum, where displays glorify the amount of money that Boyd allegedly brought to New South Wales from Britain. Those he shipped into the colony as unfree labourers are glossed over. It is part of a ‘whitewashing’ of history, and a deep reluctance to see connections between the transatlantic slave trade, slavery within the British Empire, and what happened here in Australia.

Boyd Tower, October 2020, photo by Sergio Leyva Seiglie

Just before the trip, I had been asked in a radio interview why the Black Lives Matter movement is currently less dominant in Australia than in the USA. One reason is the more diverse meaning of blackness here. As in many other nations, it can refer to those of Sub-Saharan African origin. But the First Australians, the oldest continuing civilisations on earth who lived here for fifty thousand years before Europeans arrived, have also been termed Black since first contact.  Among the perhaps 500 ‘nations’ inhabiting Australia at that time, it was the land of Kunnerkwell Kudingal people, who now call themselves Yuin, that Benjamin Boyd appropriated for his eponymous town. The third group commonly designated as ‘Black’ in Australia is that whose ‘importation’ Boyd instigated: Pacific Islanders brought to labour in arrangements their descendants term slavery.

It is hardly surprising that the battles of, say, a Yolngu family in Arnhem Land fighting over stolen land, stolen generations and stolen wages do not easily align with the struggles of a Sudanese immigrant facing sickening racism 3000 kilometres away in Australia’s cities. The link between them is in European rhetoric, in insults thrown, more than in their backgrounds, worldviews or experiences. In his widely quoted work on the N-word, Randall Kennedy does not mention Australia at all, but in fact this racial slur was used for members of all three of these groups. It was used for ‘Boyd’s Blacks’ in the Sydney newspapers at the time of their arrival, along with ‘sable’ and ‘black as soot’.

Yet at Boydtown it is possible to see how those histories do intertwine in more than ugly slurs. European preconceptions about dark skin could circle the globe in family lineages, damning so many not just by the broad-brush strokes of culture and society but within microhistories.

Image in the window of the Benjamin Boyd Museum, October 2020, photo by Sergio Leyva Seiglie.

In his remarkable book Looking for Blackfellas’ Point, historian Mark McKenna recounts the story of Benjamin Boyd’s dealings with Aboriginal people around Boydtown. Boyd ‘”owned” 380,000 acres of Aboriginal land’ but he remained unhappy with them as forced labourers, because he judged them to be insufficiently tied to his every whim. He tried using convicts from Sydney, but they too fled. So Boyd sent out two of his ships to ‘recruit’ from nearby Pacific Islands. We cannot entirely know what the men who joined these ships did or did not agree to, nor the manner in which they were lured aboard, only that after arrival most quickly headed off into the bush when the reality became apparent.

None of this is told in any detail at the Ben Boyd Museum. Not Boyd’s forced dispossession of the Kudingal. Not Boyd as a ‘slave trader’, as he was termed at the time. It does not name those few Pacific Islanders for whom vague identities are known: Etoisi, Panyella and Sabathahoo from Lifou; Kauware from Aneiytum; Nassum and Joe from Wea. It does not show a stylised drawing that exists of the three Lifou men.

‘Three Men Transported to Australia by Benjamin Boyd’, from Heads of the People: An illustrated Journal of literature, whims and oddities, vol. 1:3, (1 May 1847) p1.

It is hardly surprising, given these absences, that Boyd’s connection to the widespread persecution of Africans is also ignored. No indication is given of the background of Boyd’s family money nor where he might have honed his astonishing sense of entitlement. Boyd had grown up with a household servant named Dick, an African brought home from a slave voyage as a child because he was too sick to sell. The slave ship concerned belonged to Edward Boyd, Benjamin’s father. He was a slave trader sufficiently powerful and wealthy to have the ear of the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, opportuning him to fight in parliament against the outlawing of the transatlantic slave trade. This was the milieu in which Benjamin was raised, with an African ‘servant’ who called his father ‘Massa’, just as he would later expect to be called by ‘his’ Pacific Islanders. When I mentioned his father’s profession in the museum, incidentally, I was met with the stony reply, ‘well, they say his father was a merchant’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘a slave merchant.’

It might not matter much if Boyd was alone in this history, but he was the first of so many men who arrived in the Australian colonies with family backgrounds in the transatlantic slave complex who then oversaw bonded Pacific Islander workforces on stolen Aboriginal land. When I began researching this subject, I thought that I might find a few such cases. In fact, there are hundreds, and many are hiding in plain sight. Louis Hope, for example, much exalted in Australian history as the first man to use Pacific Islander workers in the manufacture of sugar, has not been connected to his family’s past despite the evidence being clear on his Wikipedia page. His mother, it states, was Louisa Wedderburn. It is well known among historians of Britain and the Caribbean that her family were notorious twice over, first for trying to keep a man enslaved for life despite taking him from Jamaica to Scotland, and second when Robert Wedderburn appeared in London and declared himself the product of a rape perpetuated by James Wedderburn on his slave woman Rosanna. The Australian colonies for Hope, as for so many others, were a place distant enough to escape the taint of scandal.

Arguably, Boyd, Hope and all of the others were not responsible for what their families had wrought. Things get murkier, however, when exploring what they themselves did, what those arriving directly from the Caribbean believed themselves entitled to, and what their preconceptions were. Whatever the differences in time, place and legal status between Africans taken to the Americas and Pacific Islanders in Australia, it requires wanton disconnect to not see any link at all. The islanders were overwhelmingly from the western Pacific, Melanesians, from the Greek ‘melas’ meaning black, where once their ancestors had called their workers ‘negroes’, from the Latin for black.

Legally, Pacific Islanders in Australia were ‘indentured,’ but to see what occurred solely through that lens is to see only what the planters wanted us to see: an era of abolition and humanitarianism in which they had turned their backs on slavery. It demands that we do not consider the more than 400 years of transformative history that tied dark skin and curly hair, in the mind of those of European origin, firmly to enslavement. It is a version of history that is still widely presented in the glorification of men like Hope and Boyd.

It is a version of history in which Black Lives still do not Matter nearly as much as they should.

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