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.
As Western Australia agitated for self-government in the 1880s, its colonists were caught in a dilemma. They needed to show the Colonial Office, which had threatened to retain management of the north, that the colony effectively controlled the furthest reaches of its vast land mass and that it was able to marshall the resources to develop them. The availability of cheap and reliable labour had been an almost intractable problem since the first days of the colony. Various solutions had been attempted – Indian indentured labour, convictism, Aboriginal labour contracts – with varying degrees of effectiveness. With the colonisation of the Gascoyne, Pilbara, and Kimberley after the 1860s the system of Aboriginal labour, initially under the provisions of the Masters and Servants Act, prevailed. Yet its heavily policed nature – the enforcement of labour contracts, labour gangs, neck-chaining, punitive expeditions against ‘uncontrolled’ populations – left the colony open to allegations that it tolerated conditions tantamount to slavery. Media allegations and complaints to London threatened to derail to path to self-government; indeed the Crown retained control of Aboriginal affairs until 1898, reserve powers that were seen by colonists as a great slight on their ability to govern. The colonial government though steadily moved to control the optics of the situation and introduced a new protectorate that allowed it to preserve a labour force that remained subservient yet avoided the obvious trappings of slavery. As Henry Prinsep, Chief Protector of Aborigines between 1898 and 1907 and the architect of the Aborigines Act 1905 put it: “Neck chaining has not a pleasant sound to it, but perhaps that is the worst of the problem.”