"Something like slavery"?: The exploitation of Aboriginal child labour in Queensland, 1842-1945

Robinson, Shirleene Rose (2003). "Something like slavery"?: The exploitation of Aboriginal child labour in Queensland, 1842-1945 PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion & Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Robinson, Shirleene Rose
Thesis Title "Something like slavery"?: The exploitation of Aboriginal child labour in Queensland, 1842-1945
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion & Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2003-03-03
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Total pages 532
Language eng
Subjects 210301 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History
Formatted abstract Aboriginal workers provided European settlers with essential labour in Queensland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Consequently, there has been much historical debate over the precise degree of agency and autonomy that these workers accomplished. Aboriginal workers constituted a uniform group because they shared the experience of dispossession. Nevertheless, their individual working experiences varied, depending on further factors such as their gender and locality of employment. This thesis argues that a further category — the classification of age - also dramatically impacted on the experiences of Aboriginal workers. It conducts a comprehensive analysis of the employment of Aboriginal children in Queensland from 1842 to 1945 and finds that the youthfulness of these workers made them particularly susceptible to exploitation. It argues that the experiences of Aboriginal child workers in Queensland during this period can be best understood through the application of a slave-type framework.

Thousands of Aboriginal children provided European settlers with essential labour in a range of different occupations in Queensland between 1842 and 1945. Female Aboriginal children were mainly employed as domestic servants and male Aboriginal children were predominantly employed as pastoral workers. A substantial number of Aboriginal children were also employed in the pearling and beche-de-mer industry. There are also accounts of Aboriginal children working as guides and interpreters; on the goldfields; as 'errand boys'; labourers; in circuses and as jockeys.

Aboriginal children were highly sought-after employees for several reasons.
In the first instance, they were available in regions where other workers were scarce. Secondly, these children represented the cheapest form of labour obtainable. Thirdly, settlers argued that Aboriginal children could be 'civilised' and the indigenous threat disbanded through the employment of these children. Finally, Europeans considered Aboriginal children to be pliable workers.

Aboriginal children were exceedingly desirable employees, yet these young workers did not freely choose to enter the European workforce. Throughout the entire period studied, Aboriginal children entered the European workforce at the behest of their employers and European officials and not as a result of their own volition. This strongly indicates that these young workers had much in common with slaves.

European settlers benefited greatly from the exploitation of Aboriginal child labour. The extraction of this labour, however, was detrimental to the emotional and physical health of Aboriginal child workers in all fields of labour. There were few official mechanisms in place to protect these child workers. Consequently, it was not unusual for Aboriginal child workers to be injured while performing labour that was physically strenuous. Furthermore, most Aboriginal child workers were not paid for their labour, were not educated and did not receive the basic essentials of life. Moreover, many of these children were physically, sexually and emotionally abused by their employers. Many Aboriginal children also suffered further severe psychological trauma after being removed from, or being denied contact with their indigenous family groups. There is evidence that Aboriginal children tried to resist the domination of European employers but overall, these children remained ensnared in a situation that resembled slavery.
Keyword Child labor -- Queensland
Children, Aboriginal Australian -- Employment -- Queensland
Additional Notes Variant title "Something like slavery"? Aboriginal child labour in Queensland, 1842-1945
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