Workers in bondage : the origins and bases of unfree labour in Queensland, 1824-1916

Saunders, Kay Workers in bondage : the origins and bases of unfree labour in Queensland, 1824-1916. St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 1982.

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Author Saunders, Kay
Title Workers in bondage : the origins and bases of unfree labour in Queensland, 1824-1916
Place of Publication St. Lucia, Qld.
Publisher University of Queensland Press
Publication year 1982
Sub-type Other
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
ISBN 070221583X
Language eng
Total number of pages 213
Subjects 210301 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History
430101 History - Australian
Formatted Abstract/Summary



From the commencement of free settlement in 1842 in the northern districts of New South Wales until 1906, the institution of indentured service provided the mainstay for certain sections of rural industry. Its beginnings were hardly auspicious, for indenture had evolved in these northern districts in conjunction with the system of assignment of felons and the widespread reliance of pastoralists upon the unfree labour of "ticket-of-leave” holder-s and "exiles". Like the convict, the indentured servant was legally bound in servitude to his or her master. Both of these categories were confined within highly authoritarian social structures. The situation where the white population was rigidly divided into the categories of free or bond was intensified by the brutal exigencies of the frontier where the invading British settlers fought the Aborigines for control of the land. Ultimately the blacks lost control and ownership of their vital land, and in many areas, where pastoralism replaced the traditional mode of production, they were forced to work for their conquerors. Their status resembled that of slaves, though they lacked what the moderate protection , the investment of capital in human resources , conferred upon chattels in societies such a s the American Ante-Bellum South. "Settler societies ", particularly those containing plantation economies like Queensland, soon found that the conquered indigenous people could not provide either the large numbers or the consistency of application to work for the new proprietors. The problem of securing and maintaining a viable labour force which could be controlled and regimented could be solved , firstly , by using slaves or , secondly , by engaging " coolies " or other forms of imported bonded workers . 


When indenture was established in what was to become Queensland, slavery in other English-speaking colonies or nations had become increasingly moribund and anachronistic. In Mauritius and in the West Indies, the particular forms of indenture which were substituted for outright chattel bondage differed only in legal definition. In certain respects, too, assignment in New South Wales operated as a variant of the slave mode of production where masters owned both the forces of production (the land , equipment , grain and livestock) and the labour power of their convict servants . These masters could not extract labour permanently from felons, as they owned "property in the services "rather than "property in the person” and only for the duration of the transportee’s sentence. This did not, however, alter the basic structure of the master-servant syndrome. In two vital regards - the existence of a modified system of slavery of felons and later the reliance upon imported non-European indentured servants - Queensland contained within it some elements that locked it unequivocally into patterns established in the slave-holding regions of the Empire. The successful if short existence of a classical plantation economy, at least with regard to the sugar industry until 1885 , further intensified and reinforced these structural similarities . 


Yet, despite these particular affinities, Queensland was never another British Guiana. Essentially, it presented a unique development among tropically-located settler societies. Unlike societies such as Mauritius, Fiji or Jamaica, Queensland never possessed a monocultural economy. In the nineteenth century the pastoral, sugar, mining and later wheat industries sustained the nascent economy. The survival of a classical plantation system depends upon its being part of an "overseas economy" , dominated by a metropolis where finance is generated , decisions made and managerial and technical skill recruited . The colonial segment merely provides the locus of production. Secondly, plantation economies are segmental, consisting of large numbers of independent estates each operating as a self-sufficient unit . (l) Certainly these characteristics were fully developed in the Queensland sugar industry until the depression of the 1890s. Most significantly, however , unlike the Third World , Queensland ' s sugar industry was only one component within a diversified economy . The racial composition of Caribbean societies likewise differed markedly from that of Queens land. The form of a small European elite of owners or managers and technical officers and large numbers of non-white servile workers was largely confined in Queens land to the early pastoral industry and the plantation system. Other very significant segments within the society such a s the capital and major provincial cities contained few non-Europeans. These patterns of urbanization contained a highly structured class system rather than the complex class/caste model which operated on the sugar estates and pastoral stations. Though the sugar industry was reconstructed on the basis of both plantations and central mills/ small farms in the late 1880 s for economic reasons, the crucial decision to trans form the basis of labour from black to white workers was political in nature. Petit-bourgeois and working class political organizations, which were based upon ideological premises quite distinct from those of the sugar planters, were able to mobilize successfully against the substantially weakened ruling c lass's ideology. Proprietors of large sugar estates throughout the 1890s and into the twentieth century clung tenaciously to the doctrine that sugar could only be profitably produced on the basis of the continued maintenance of widespread legal servitude of non-European workers. They wanted to perpetuate the system whereby their profits could be maintained by keeping their non-European servants in appalling material conditions in an extremely morbid physical environment. Particularly when labour supplies were plentiful and their level of profit was high , they regarded these workers as expendable and replaceable . Only when the labour market diminished at a time when the industry was entering a highly speculative expansive period in the early 1880s, did they begin to reassess their method. The solution was to locate and exploit new sources of labour rather than to improve the living standards and health of their existing workforce. Yet to regard bonded workers as passive, compliant individuals who meekly accepted their enforced situation is both naive and erroneous. Beyond the life imposed by the master through the daily work regimen and the meagre allocation of material resources, workers, particularly Melanesians who formed the largest numerical category, were able at first to maintain their own communities where their values and preferences predominated. Masters reluctantly regarded these sub-cultures within the plantation or pastoral station as necessary in order to maintain a viable labour force . But they did not so indulgently view the various strategies of resistance perpetrated by their bonded workers which challenged and undermined the smooth operation of the e state. They resorted to bullying, physical chastisement, violence and the legal system to enforce their wills upon their recalcitrant or rebellious servants. As the Melanesians who had served one term of indenture transformed themselves from servile bonded workers to wage-labourers, so too did their strategies alter. Instead of absconding from the plantation or farm, the usual practice of the indentured servant , the wage-labourer would negotiate demands and if unsatisfied , employ strike action …… 

Keyword Indentured servants -- Queensland -- History
Sugar workers -- Queensland -- History
Plantations -- Queensland -- History
Melanesians -- Queensland -- History
Queensland -- Social conditions
Q-Index Code AX
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status Unknown
Additional Notes Permission received from University of Queensland Press to make this item publicly available on 5th June 2013

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Created: Wed, 10 Mar 2010, 14:04:33 EST by Ms Natalie Hull on behalf of Social Sciences and Humanities Library Service