Many were, and continue to be, dumbfounded by the historically untrue and ignorant statements coming from Prime Minister Scott Morrison these past weeks.

Indicating Australia is an equal country not experiencing similar issues to the United States and claiming slavery didn’t exist are two such sentiments that make it obvious Morrison needs a bit of a Blak history lesson.

Books such as Raparapa: Stories from the Fitzroy River Drovers, Ian Crawford’s We Won the Victory, and Chris Owen’s Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905 reveal the prevalent slavery and poor treatment of Aboriginal people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The following observations, which are noted in Chris Owen’s book, show that between 1882 and 1905 Aboriginal people were heavily exploited in the pearling and pastoral industries.


In the pearling industry:

  • Kimberley Aboriginal people were kidnapped in a process known as ‘nigger-driving’, ‘native-hunting’ or ‘blackbirding’ to work on pearling boats without wages—as slaves
  • The 1905 Royal Commission into the Condition of the Natives found boys as young as ten-years-old were being indentured to pearlers
  • Pastoralists assisted this illegal practice by keeping Aboriginal people on their stations until they were picked up by pearlers or ‘blackbirders’.

The fact that many of these Aboriginal people were from the bush and couldn’t swim didn’t seem to discourage the blackbirders from hunting them and forcing them to work in the ocean.


In the pastoral industry:

  • In the late 1800s reports of abuse of Aboriginal people and allegations of slavery in Western Australia were being received in London and reported in local newspapers such as The Westminster Review
  • If Aboriginal people absconded from a station where they were working, or disobeyed the station owner, they could be sent to gaol. The police had the power to prosecute them or hand them back to the pastoralist. This was slavery.

Correspondence to the Aborigines Protection Board from a man named Bishop Riley demonstrated the cruelty of the system by which Aboriginal people were indentured by settlers.

Riley said it was a form of slavery and that local people signed employment agreements under duress. They didn’t dare refuse to sign.

He also said as soon as people were indentured they were under the power of the master, and just as some masters treat their animals well, others treat them badly, and so was the treatment of Kimberley Aboriginal people.


A 1905 Royal Commission on the Condition of the Natives found:

  • No education and no wages were stipulated for in indentures
  • The interests of Aboriginal people were not protected against the fitness or unfitness of their future employers, meaning there was “nothing to prevent the greatest scoundrel unhung, European or Asiatic, putting under contract any blacks he pleases”
  • Prisoners pleaded guilty under the muzzles of rifles
  • The police received blood money—payment per head for the number of prisoners and witnesses they brought in. One such jailer told the Commission that of 20 Aboriginal people in his charge, not one understood why he’d been arrested.


Why do we need to understand history?

The Australian public needs to understand the context of why Aboriginal people in Australia are in our current position.

This is why it is so important that the Federal Parliament and the Australian people embrace a just and fair process for Australia’s First Peoples to be heard through a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament.

We need a process where the people who represent us know and understand the history of this country we call Australia home.

Without truth telling we have no context for current decisions or current government policies. Without truth and understanding history is lost.

Scott Morrison would benefit from reading up on Kimberley Aboriginal history, starting with the books noted above.

History is our human memory, and a sound knowledge and understanding of history is crucial to avoiding the same mistakes of the past.

By Wayne Bergmann