'Confusion to all Sneaks': Protection and punishment on the 1880s Western Australian frontier

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In Western Australia in the late nineteenth century, Aboriginal labour was highly sought after in the north-western pastoralist and pearling industries. To ensure a labour supply, the colonial government imposed a system of courts, police, prisons and punishment targeted at Aboriginal people. ‘Humanitarians’ like the Reverend John Brown Gribble raised concerns about the treatment of Aboriginal people, but coercive labour practices were ultimately condoned by authorities in the colony and in Britain. During the 1880s, the frontier regime of the Murchison–Gascoyne region entailed the forcible and perpetual ‘assignment’ of Aboriginal people to settlers, their arrest for ‘absconding’ or ‘theft’ of stock, their removal ‘on the chain’ to prison, and the appropriation of Aboriginal women by white settlers for sex. This looked very much like Caribbean slavery to some observers. In 1881, for example, Governor Robinson wrote to the secretary of state that recent reports on the pearling industry had disclosed ‘a state of things little short of slavery’. Government Resident Robert Fairbairn was sent to investigate, and his 1882 report on the Murchison and Gascoyne districts identified violence perpetrated against Aboriginal people, particularly girls and women, as a source of racial conflict. These claims were contested by prominent settlers like Charles Brockman, but public debate was minimal.
The official perspective, represented by Fairbairn’s report, was that increased policing would curb the worst excesses of violence against Aboriginal workers yet ensure a docile labour force. But these aims stopped short of protecting Aboriginal women and children from abuse by white male employers. Together, Fairbairn and Gribble’s reports of labour conditions in Western Australia’s northwest revealed a culture of secrecy, or ‘code of silence’ (see Lyndall Ryan, this volume), that condoned coerced labour and especially the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women and children. The legacies of this complicity are visible today in continuing sexual violence against Aboriginal women.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAftermaths
Subtitle of host publicationColonialism, Violence and Memory in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific
EditorsAngela Wanhalla, Lyndall Ryan, Camille Nurka
Place of PublicationDunedin
PublisherUniversity of Otago Press
Pages149-156, 268-69
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)9781990048449
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2023

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