Aboriginal Workers: a 1995 special issue of Labour History revisited in 2020.

To accompany the relaunch of the 1995 Aboriginal Workers Special Issue of Labour History, we hear from Ann McGrath, Kay Saunders, and Jackie Huggins, the editors of the original issue, as they explain why it remains so relevant today and why now was the right time to bring it back in to focus.

The reissue includes a new introduction written by the editors and is available to purchase as a single issue as well as being included in a 2021 subscription to Labour History.

JLH 69 copyCould you tell us more about this Special Issue on Aboriginal workers and the reasons behind relaunching it almost 25 years after it was initially published? 

The reason for republishing and relaunching this book 25 years after its publication is because this collection enhances our understanding of the history of slavery. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has drawn international attention to the long and shameful history of slavery. However, this is generally seen as an institution primarily affecting people of African descent. For Indigenous Australians, the BLM movement resonates powerfully with them today, for high numbers of their own people continue to die in police custody or prisons. They also share a history of labour exploitation and oppression, plus racism on the basis of their skin colour.

Recent research projects have produced data bases that reveal far more information about the history of slavery, its global repercussions, its implication on global capitalism, and insights into the consequences, including trans-generational trauma. This collection enables us to appreciate those new findings about slavery, for these historical revelations remain deeply informative. As we wrote in our original introduction in 1995:

“This collection has a particular emphasis on slavery. Its reappearance in questions relating to Australian Aboriginal labour reveals its continuing importance to an analysis of labour structures, racism and Imperialism. Beyond this, the slavery theme is also a deep-seated cultural motif in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal popular memory. In contemporary Aboriginal understandings, slavery is the ultimate humiliation, typifying a sense of defeat in the face of the great oppressions of colonialism.”

The volume was pioneering in its attention to the history of gender and race relations. It explored the role of Aboriginal girls and women as domestic servants under a forced labour system. It analysed white women’s roles as employers of domestic servants, and as “rescuers” of Aboriginal girls and women, whose labour and sexual exploitation they condemned.

At the same time, these stories offer salutary lessons for today, lessons for the such well-meaning anti-slavery efforts often misfired. They failed to appreciate the way they were implicated in a state that denied Aboriginal people their sovereignty and personal autonomy. They also failed to appreciate Indigenous priorities, including the importance of being near Country and keeping their culture strong.

Could you explain the factors influencing your choices of articles at the time?

The editors wanted to bring together insights from the leading researchers into the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander labour in Australia. We wanted to demonstrate the many roles in which Aboriginal men and women had worked. This drew attention to the way their labour and their payments were controlled by the state. It also highlighted their agency, their roles in the cattle industry, as soldiers and workers in the second world war, as entertainers and athletes, as artists, and in intimate roles as domestics and in child care in the homes of white families.

We were proud to be able to include two articles by the pioneering Aboriginal historian Jackie Huggins – one on the experience of Aboriginal domestics, which included her own mother Rita, and one on her own experience working in the state bureaucracy. With Tanya Harper, the Indigenous author, Vicki Matson-Green/Maykutenna contributed a valuable article about Palawa women of Tasmania. There were very few Indigenous scholars trained as historians in the 1990s, but the editors viewed the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives on their personal and family histories as crucial.

We were keen to show Aboriginal people as workers – as talented people who contributed much to the nation. We also wished to demonstrate, through the cover image and our interview with the leading lights of the Boomali Artists Co-operative, that Aboriginal people were also telling stories of their personal and wider histories through depicting these in art. The story on the cover depicts the surveillance of an Aboriginal woman’s household work by a visiting white woman, the kind of surveillance which underlines the power imbalance and intrusion into people’s everyday lives. 

Would you say the conversation and published research on Aboriginal workers has changed since 1995, and can you say how? 

Since 1995, Aboriginal history has become one of the most central and innovative areas of research in Australia. Transnational histories have demonstrated how the Indigenous experience is an integral part of wider, connected histories of slavery and other forms of forced labour.

The conversation has certainly changed. Greater knowledge has led to various public enquiries which provided Aboriginal people an opportunity to record their biographical and historical experiences, and to demand reparations or restitution. They have also led to important collections projects in major libraries. For example, the Bringing Them Home Report in 1997 highlighted the plight of children who were stolen from their families over much of the twentieth century. The National Library of Australia formed a large collection of oral histories containing their testimony.

In the late 1990s, Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo mounted the first test case to claim compensation for child removal, Gunner & Cubillo vs Commonwealth of Australia. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful, with the Judge who decided the case in 2000 failing to appreciate the wider historical forces at play or the policy’s damaging consequences. Although this case was lost, others followed. Public outcries and a widespread campaign for a national apology to the stolen children continued for ten years.

The 2008 Apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was a highpoint of recognition. Every year the Parliament of Australia must report on Closing the Gap, which highlights the many inequities that continue to be endured by Indigenous Australians, as a continuing consequence of their history.

Government-led enquiries such as the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse established in 2013, had a major impact upon raising public awareness of the sufferings of Aboriginal children and adults.

A Senate Enquiry into Stolen Wages was held in 2004, with little result, although several Australian states established schemes to compensate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers deprived of their wages. Unfortunately, many of these relied upon the availability of archival historical evidence, which had often been destroyed, and they were limited in other ways.

On the contribution of Indigenous veterans who served the country, a multimillion-dollar historical research project commencing in 2013 served to highlight their significant role.

Many of these campaigns to highlight histories of slavery and labour exploitation, led by Indigenous Australians, were enhanced by well-directed historical research, scholarly and other publications. This is also reflected in popular venues. For example, the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach, which originally sidelined the role of Aboriginal workers, now highlights their crucial role as stockmen, drovers and domestics.

Looking forward

We hope that the reissue will draw attention to the fact that the history of slavery very much pertains to Aboriginal Australians, as does the history of anti-slavery. After the abolition of slavery, new forms of labour exploitation targeted Aboriginal children and adults.

Looking forward, we think the pressing research questions of today are:

  • How can Aboriginal history be integrated into a global history of slavery?
  • What are the long-term impacts of forced labour and slavery on the individual, their family and community?
  • Why have the themes of sexual exploitation and oppressive gender relations been so difficult to integrate into wider histories of slavery and of nation?
  • How can Indigenous Australians have a stronger role in researching their histories?

Closing comments from the editors

Ann McGrath on how awareness has changed (or not) and has been translated (or not) into contemporary television and media.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission now devotes much air time on radio, television and digital media to Indigenous historical experiences and contemporary stories relating to Indigenous knowledge. Some outlets, such as the Conversation series, insist on an Indigenous co-author or reader of submissions.

NITV, the National Indigenous Television Network, plays quality documentaries, many of which are historical. Ann McGrath is pleased that her co-directed films A Frontier Conversation and Message from Mungo, are regularly featured.

In the past decades, Indigenous screenwriters have made many award-winning dramas and documentaries, some of which have won international acclaim.

Kay Saunders on the strategies for deploying Aboriginal and Islander peoples during war.

Kay was one of the pioneers in drawing attention to this neglected topic. Since then the  multimillion-dollar ‘Serving our Country’ project has produced various scholarly works and oral histories. The role of Aboriginal people in the military services is now well known and important memorials have been erected.

Jackie Huggins on the ways in which the legislation denied fundamental human rights to Aboriginal women in both law and practice.

Jackie has been at the coal face fighting for human rights for decades, serving the National Congress and a range of other organisations to ensure greater recognition for her people. (As outlined in the new Preface/Introduction).

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