Black History

Slavery and Australian colonisation

This article accompanies Jane Lydon’s “A Secret Longing for a Trade in Human Flesh: the Decline of British Slavery and the Making of the Settler Colonies” in issue 90 of History Workshop Journal, now available outside the paywall.

Yes, the year 2020 was dominated by a pandemic – but perhaps even more consequential was the social protest movement #BlackLivesMatter which swept America and the world. As many have pointed out, the structural racism that sanctions Black deaths in custody can be understood in part as a legacy of slavery, abolished in 1833, when the Slavery Abolition Act made slavery illegal within the British Empire, and provided for compensation to be paid to slave-owners.

The history of British slavery and its abolition continues to shape ideas and debates in the present: in June 2020 the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison controversially stated that ‘Australia when it was founded as a settlement, as New South Wales, was on the basis that there be no slavery … And while slave ships continued to travel around the world, when Australia was established, yes sure, it was a pretty brutal settlement… but there was no slavery in Australia.’ In responding to Morrison, Indigenous leaders such as Northern Territory Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy suggested that he ‘would do well to look into the history of the country he is trying to lead. Truth telling must be an integral part of unifying our country, not dividing it.’ West Australian Labor senator and Yawuru leader Pat Dodson said there were numerous examples of Aboriginal people ‘who were basically incarcerated, enslaved, on pastoral properties under acts which indentured them to employers without any pay’. These comments hint at the ways that celebrating the end of one, archetypal, form of unfreedom in the Caribbean simultaneously obscured and sanctioned other forms of exploitation.

We have forgotten that new settler colonies were founded in Australasia and flourished for fifty years alongside the British slave system. Historians have rarely thought to ask how slavery shaped colonization, let alone whether colonization played a role in abolition. One implication of the ground-breaking Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project has been to challenge historians to trace the continuing effects of British slavery across the empire, as people, capital, ideas and practices were transferred from the Caribbean to new sites of investment, exploitation, and profit-making. As Alan Lester and Nikita Vanderbyl argue, these links were not always straightforward, and they suggest a general reorientation prompted by the broader restructuring of the British Empire, as investors moved unevenly from their prior interests in India and the Caribbean, toward the new settler colonies.

In my contribution to the special feature of issue 90 of History Workshop Journal exploring the legacies of British slavery in the Australasian colonies, I ask about the period before abolition, and how the two systems, usually considered separately, might have been connected. Part of the answer lies in the momentous debates sparked by the anti-slavery campaign during the years leading up to 1833, where we see how questions of labour discipline were central within both ameliorative slave reform, as well as the new schemes of emigration and settler colonialism that were devised at this time. Many of those debating the Abolition Act were sceptical or uncertain about emancipation – as captured by the title of Seymour Drescher’s classic study, The Mighty Experiment  Languishing in Newgate in the late 1820s, and doubtless pondering his uncertain future in respectable society following his abduction of a 15-year-old heiress, Edward Gibbon Wakefield developed his theory of systematic colonization (Figure 1). As I argue, his program expressed this ambivalence regarding the benefits of ‘free labour’ and translated categories and practices developed in the Caribbean into colonial projects, including raced and classed labour hierarchies targeted to specific climatic zones. Wakefield’s schemes promised a solution to the ‘loss’ of Caribbean slavery, by opening up the new settler colonies for investment and the recreation of the British social order. Australian colonization, therefore, must be understood in the context of this fundamental restructuring, while historians must look to the southern hemisphere to understand the shifting priorities of British imperialism during the nineteenth century.

Figure 1. Francis Greenway (attrib.), Interior of Newgate Prison, Bristol, c.1812, oil on canvas, 42.2 x 68.2 cm. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

One of the lasting effects of abolition was to inscribe slavery in the Caribbean as the opposite of freedom. Critics of the anti-slavery movement had always pointed out its implication within global capitalism, and its function in denying or downplaying other forms of oppression. At a time of tremendous social turmoil in Britain, contemporaries of William Wilberforce, such as radical journalist William Cobbett, condemned his role in passing the Combination acts preventing working-class organization, and ridiculed the idea that enslaved Africans were worse off than ‘free British labourers’, many of whom had ‘actually died from starvation’, or ‘the miserable Irish stretched out by thousands, expiring from hunger’. He challenged Wilberforce to ‘tell us what you mean by the word freedom.

Abolition inscribed the binary categories of ‘slave’ or ‘free’ indelibly within British culture. Yet while abolition halted specific forms of labour in Britain’s colonies, after 1838 slavery was widely replaced on her Caribbean sugar plantations by indentured labour. The demands of industrialization in Britain combined with external slave systems to produce diverse new global regimes of exploitation, contributing to huge increases in enslaved and coerced labour workforces around the globe. In this way abolition produced an imperial spatial politics that ultimately racialised freedom and citizenship as white.

Modern neoliberal globalization derives directly from these racialized post-emancipation transformations. This is disguised by the celebration of the abolition of British slavery in 1833, which had the effect of reifying the forced/free dyad, as it is sometimes termed. The continuing cultural power of the imagery and arguments of the abolitionist movement – such as the stereotypical shackled and flogged Black slave, brutal perpetrator, and abolitionist hero – continues to obscure this more complex history and its legacies. This is the criticism of the ‘new abolitionists’ who now campaign against a range of exploitative practices gathered under the umbrella term ‘modern slavery’. Popular narratives of transatlantic slavery and its historical stereotypes have galvanised work against exploitation but have also obscured important differences with the past, and may therefore impede attempts to prevent exploitation.

Despite the continuing potency of the language of British abolition, the experience of Aboriginal people in colonial Australia differed from that of the archetypal enslaved African and should be recognized on its own terms. But when Indigenous people such as Mcarthy and Dodson use the language of slavery they are demanding more nuanced attention to the lived experience of labour and the harms done to their ancestors. In doing so they are also challenging the stereotype of the enslaved African to point toward a more fluid and contingent concept of slavery, and the specificities and innovations of forms of coercive labour as translations rather than repetitions of Caribbean slave society. Transcending the dichotomy between ‘slave’ and ‘free’ by defining the specificity of exploitative relationships tells us of a more complex post-emancipation history, and the antecedents of abuse which continues within forced migration and labour regimes. In this way descendants insist on recovering alternative histories of oppression, contesting uncritical celebration of the ‘end’ of British slaveries during the 1830s by pointing toward the suffering entailed by unfree labour exploitation practices emerging after abolition, that were central to colonialism. Such demands for ‘truth-telling’ reveal our need for a more nuanced vocabulary of unfreedom.




  1. Illuminating. Another example of the contradictions buried in accounts of history. So, is class still the dominant feature albeit the importance of understanding better the history of race?

    1. Thank you for this comment. I don’t know that class is/ was dominant – rather I would see this history in terms of diverse ways of classifying humankind, and what David Brion Davis termed ‘two competing systems of oppression’ – beautifully exemplified by the parallel histories of Britain’s campaign for the abolition of slavery in the caribbean simultaneously with its tightening control of British workers, alongside the persistence of slavery in America, the supposed home of democracy.

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