The Western Australian Legacies of British Slavery project, in collaboration with the National Centre for Biography, presents a series of online seminars around the theme of Writing Slavery into Australian History.
Albert Messiah, alias Arthur Fredrick Augustus Plantagenet Messiah, is an enigma, yet somebody that history records enough about to beg many questions and reveal some answers about slavery and associated questions of freedom, ‘blackness’ and racism in Australian history. A man of African origin from the small Caribbean island of Antigua, formerly a slave society producing sugar, Messiah went to sea as a ship’s cook and sailed to the UK. Then, after jumping ship in Tasmania, he worked on Pacific Labour ‘recruitment’ voyages, the industry that, often by trickery and deceit or worse, found men in the Pacific Islands and took them to Queensland’s sugar plantations. In an industry often likened to the Atlantic slave trade—just about stamped out by this time, though enslaved people were not yet emancipated in Brazil—he was one of many men of African origin who worked in this role, but he was certainly the one who left the biggest impact.
This paper will explore what reading slave history back into black seamen’s lives within the Pacific Labour arena reveals. In Messiah’s case it underscores his allegation that people arriving onboard the Hopeful were victims of a crime against humanity, just as his own forebears had been. That he would make these assertations at great cost to himself, all the while being forced to repeat that his dark skin did not make him either a Pacific Islander or an Indigenous Australian but a citizen of the British Empire, casts new light on accusations of slavery in the Queensland labour trade.