Racism in Australia: from 1788 to stopping the boats

December 3, 2015
No to Aboriginal deaths in custody rally, Brisbane.

When the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson on January 26, 1788, it carried more than the physical paraphernalia for European settlement. Along with tools, agricultural implements, chains, handcuffs, the cat-o'-nine-tails and gunpowder, the colonists brought with them an entrenched world-view.

A key component of this was the fast-crystallising ideology of modern racism, which had been spawned by slavery. This was to shape the social landscape of the new colonial-settler state and would assume a form so virulent that in 1933 British fascist leader Oswald Moseley said: “I always thought it remarkable that Australia, without studying the fascist political philosophy and methods, so spontaneously developed a form of fascism peculiarly suited to the needs of the British Empire”.

By 1788, most Europeans took it for granted that they were superior to people with darker skins. Two centuries earlier — at the dawn of the modern age — such attitudes had not been so entrenched. For example, Shakespeare's Moorish hero Othello is portrayed as an admirable, if tragic figure, despite his complexion.

Things had changed by the time the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth. Xenophobia — the fear, mistrust, and perhaps scorn of foreigners as barbarians — had transmuted into a doctrine of innate biological superiority of one part of humankind over others. As Eric Williams argues in his book Capitalism and Slavery, the slave trade had spawned modern, “scientific” racism.

Atlantic slave trade and racism

The trade was vast, and enormously lucrative. From the 15th century to the 19th century, up to 20 million African slaves were transported across the ocean to the so-called New World. By 1788, slavery was an integral part of the European economy and Africa had become what Marx called “a warren for the hunting of black skins”.

The trade was brutal and inhuman. People were bought or captured in the African interior and marched in chains to coastal “slave factories”; places so foul that, as CLR James wrote in The Black Jacobins: “No European could stay in them for longer than a quarter of an hour without fainting”. Next they were loaded aboard slave ships for the infamous “middle passage” to the Americas.

About two million died in these floating hell-holes and the survivors were sold on the auction blocks of the slave ports. Once sold, they were put to work as forced labourers in the mines and plantations.

Contracts spoke of “tons of slaves” and in Jamaica masters debated the economics of working slaves to death. Was it more economical to work a slave to death in two, three or five years before buying a replacement?

The produce of the slaves' labour was shipped to Europe aboard the same vessels that had brought them from Africa, where the cotton, sugar, molasses, tobacco, coffee and indigo fetched a fine profit.

The ships were then loaded with manufactured goods for sale in Africa and the American colonies. Together, this three-pronged Atlantic traffic was known as the Triangular Trade.

Capitalism and slavery

The slave trade provided much of the seed capital for the Industrial Revolution and, according to James, it provided “the economic basis of the French Revolution”. Much was provided by revolutionised domestic agriculture, but as Marx pointed out in The Poverty of Philosophy, slavery, too, was indispensable during the period of “primitive accumulation of capital” and beyond:

“Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you would have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade; and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large scale industry.”

This is affirmed by recent research. English Marxist writer Robin Blackburn estimates that in 1770, profits from slavery provided between 20% and 55% of Britain's gross fixed capital formation. The prosperity of whole cities depended on it.

Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833. British industry, however — and in particular the Lancashire cotton trade — continued to depend on slavery in America.

How could civilisation justify this?

While Europeans generally supported slavery, it nevertheless sat uneasily on the human conscience. How could one justify inflicting such cruelty on fellow human creatures? How did slavery square with Enlightenment doctrines, which held that all human beings had the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?

While hypocrisy helps explain the contradiction, a more materialist explanation is that the economic system gave birth to the ideology of “scientific” racism. Africans could in good conscience be enslaved as they were not fully human.

Voltaire and other key Enlightenment figures proposed a theory of the origin of humanity in which the different “races” did not share a common ancestor. Even after chattel slavery disappeared, racist ideology clung on in the brains of subsequent generations.

Seventeenth century political philosopher John Locke is revered by many as the Apostle of Liberty. But he served as secretary of a North American slave company and embellished on the ancient legal doctrine of Terra Nullius to justify the dispossession of the Native Americans. He argued that land did not need to be “empty” and could only be legally owned if it were fenced and used “productively”. The Native Americans, who had no concept of private property in land, could thus legally have it taken from them.

The white settlers in Australia after 1788 might never have heard of or cared about Voltaire and Locke, but their mental universe owed much to them.

The government in faraway London might have prescribed vague fair treatment for the Aboriginal people, but no treaties were ever signed and Australia was far distant from the empire's centre.

The Aboriginal people were regarded as not greatly different from Australia's fauna — barbarians who did not use the land properly. Eventually, they were seen in Social Darwinist terms as a dying race unfit for life in the modern world. Their lands could be stolen without scruple; it was actually virtuous to take it, plant it and make it fruitful.

The effects on Aboriginal people were catastrophic. The population declined steeply as a result of hardship, disease, alcohol, heartbreak at dispossession of their country and loss of family, forced labour and massacres.

Estimates of the “contact population” in 1788 vary from a low of about 314,000 to 750,000 or higher; but whatever figure one chooses, what happened was a holocaust. By the 1920s, there were perhaps 21,000 Aboriginal people in the whole country and governments spoke of “smoothing the pillow of a dying race”.

Yet we should be wary of seeing Aboriginal people simply as victims. They resisted as best they could in an unequal struggle against much greater numbers of people armed with vastly superior weaponry. It is a testament to their resilience that they did not die out as forecast — and probably hoped for — by the white authorities. Instead, from the 1920s to the present, their numbers have steadily grown and the spirit of resistance has never died.

White fear of dispossession

Those who come by their possessions by force and guile are often terrified that someone else who is stronger will come along to steal them. This has been a recurring theme running through white Australian society since the First Fleet.

Early fear of the French faded, only to be replaced by terror of the “Yellow Peril”, particularly from the 1850s when Chinese immigrants began to appear in Australia.

The Chinese were accused of “stealing” jobs that properly belonged to white men. Soon, there were disturbances on the Victorian goldfields. At Lambing Flat in 1861, mobs of whites drove Chinese miners from the diggings, fearful of their comparative success and imbued with venomous racial hatred.

Such attitudes also permeated the early labour movement. “Non-whites” were forbidden membership of trade unions, but, with remarkable lack of logic, they were then held to be a threat for accepting inferior wages and conditions. Banjo Paterson clearly never wanted Chinese workers to join the union when he wrote:

I asked a bloke for shearin' once along the Marthaguy:

“We shear non-union here”, says he: “I call it scab” says I.

I looked along the shearin' floor before I turned to go—

There were eight or ten dashed Chinamen a-shearin' in a row.

Chinese workers were not the only “non-whites” to be employed on substandard wages and conditions. Aboriginal people were routinely treated in such a manner, often taken from their families and forced into servitude by white employers with the collusion of the state authorities.

“Really rather like slavery”

Racist dogma insisted that whites could not perform heavy manual labour in the tropics. As a result, from the 1860s up to 60,000 South Sea Islanders — the so-called Kanakas — were brought to Queensland as indentured labourers to work the sugarcane fields. Many were tricked or coerced aboard the blackbirders' ships.

The trade ended, ironically, because of the White Australia Policy. White unionists campaigned against it not out of solidarity but out of fear that indentured labourers were taking their jobs. After the Pacific Islands Labourers' Act was passed in 1901, most of the islanders were repatriated to their homelands, although perhaps 4000 of their descendants remain today, mainly in the Bundaberg region.

A similar picture emerges of Australian rule in Papua and New Guinea. In 1906, the British ceded control of Papua to Australia. In 1914, Australian troops occupied German New Guinea and administered it as a League of Nations “mandate”. Apartheid is generally associated with the white supremacist regime in South Africa, but Australia imposed it earlier in Papua and New Guinea.

Papuans were subjected to a battery of racist laws and ordinances, including a strict curfew; a prohibition on singing, dancing, playing cards, and gambling; a ban on the consumption of alcohol and kava and staying overnight in towns; and the institution of whites-only parks, beaches, swimming pools and cinemas.

Further, there were bans on marriage or sexual relations across the “colour line” and even prescriptions on what clothing “natives” could wear. Papuan law-breakers also suffered much harsher penalties than whites for the same offences. The system was not dismantled until the early 1960s at the insistence of the UN.

The colonies were rich in minerals and other raw materials, but employers found it impossible to recruit Papuans for work in the mines and plantations. As in Queensland, racist dogma prevented whites from performing the work and the White Australia Policy forbade the importation of Asian coolies.

Sir Hubert Murray, the first Australian Lieutenant-Governor of the colony, decided that the “lazy natives” would be compelled to work. He achieved this by means of a head tax imposed on all adult Papuan males.

As the Papuans lived outside of the money economy, they would either have to produce cash crops for export or work for the whites to raise the money to pay the tax. By 1941, almost half a million tax-bonded labourers were toiling for the whites. Murray admitted that the system was “really rather like slavery”.

The Native Labour Ordinance mandated heavy penalties for “absconders”. Papuan labourers could not leave their employers' service without permission. They could not take any form of industrial action or join trade unions — not that white unions were willing to recruit them.

The system devastated traditional Papuan society. John Decker observed that the coming of the Europeans “has been followed by the pathetic melting away of the native population” and anthropologists noted “a profound loss of interest in life”. The effects remain to this day.

The White Australia Policy and beyond

It is well known that one of the first laws passed by Australia's new federal parliament in 1901 was the Immigration Restriction Act, which banned “non-white” immigration into the country.

Less well-known is the reason why Australia lacks a constitutional bill of rights. As former High Court Judge Michael Kirby reminds us, a proposal for such a bill was defeated by 23 votes to 19 at a constitutional convention before federation. The delegates feared that “a due process provision in such a bill of rights would undermine the discriminatory powers of the law … including practices which disadvantaged Aboriginal people and the Chinese in Australia.”

The White Australia Policy was finally dismantled in 1973 and laws were introduced to forbid racial discrimination. Multiculturalism became official policy during the Whitlam government 40 years ago. In 1992, Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations and in 2011, far-right commentator Andrew Bolt was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act.

While some things have changed, we should not overestimate what has been achieved, and we are in grave danger of sliding backwards.

Twenty-three years ago, Paul Keating delivered his famous Redfern Speech “just a mile or two from the place where the first European settlers landed” on this continent. White settlement had brought “devastation and demoralisation to Aboriginal Australia”, he said and admitted that “it continues to be our failure”.

How much has changed?

A 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, Ms Dhu, died last August in Port Hedland while in police custody for non-payment of fines. She died after being denied the medical treatment white Australians take for granted. In 1987, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made 330 recommendations for change. Very few have been implemented and the deaths continue.

In 2007 John Howard's Northern Territory Intervention Act, which was introduced only by suspending the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act, was condemned by human rights agencies across the globe.

Six months before Ms Dhu's lonely death, Reza Barati, a 23 year-old Kurdish asylum seeker from Iran died following an attack at the Australian government's detention centre on Manus Island. By all accounts, Reza was a gentle and courteous young man. He had fled persecution in Iran and arrived by boat, asking for protection, as was his right under international law. Instead, he faced the cruelty of indefinite detention, locked up like a criminal.

Hamid Khazaei, a 24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, died in September last year in detention after being denied proper medical treatment for a cut to his foot. He, like thousands of others over the past 20 years, was the victim of the illegal, bipartisan, and racist “Pacific Solution” originally proposed by the bigot Pauline Hanson.

We have gone full circle from the White Australia Policy and “smoothing the pillow of a dying race” to “stopping the boats”. African slavery, the economic imperative that spawned modern racism, has gone, but the ideology is tenacious. As Marx would still observe, “the dead hand of the past lies like a nightmare on the brains of the living”.

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