I found the story of the Africans and Asians in Australia’s history as a loose thread, buried in a throwaway sentence about an enslaved South African woman, Rachel of the Cape1, who had been sentenced to seven years’ banishment from South Africa. She was convicted in a theft case in August 1830, along with another enslaved woman and a free black woman. In March 1831, in mitigation of sentence, Rachel “… forwarded her own petition from Robben Island, begging not to be sent to New South Wales on account of her poor health, needy children and the ‘aged’ mistress who depended on her for an income.”2
This startling snippet of information, mentioned without context, in turn opened the door to practices that were common in the years before the abolition of slavery across the British empire, and to a history of dark people in Australia.
The book, The Australian People, says that under the British, transportation to Australia was applied mainly to black South Africans (including indigenous people, Asian and African slaves and Free Blacks), as well as slaves sent from Madagascar and Mauritius, who were originally imprisoned in South Africa. Until the start of transportation to Australia, enslaved people from Mauritius, Madagascar and other islands around South Africa were imprisoned on Robben Island, the penal colony where Nelson Mandela spent most of his imprisonment. Occasionally white soldiers and colonists were also sent to Australia.3
The historians Ian Duffield and Cassandra Pybus each give estimates for the numbers of African and Asian people transported and black settlers to Australia. Duffield estimating around 800, while Pybus, a prominent Australian historian, has identified more than a thousand people from the African diaspora who came to Australia as prisoners or as free settlers and immigrants. These included at least a dozen black people on the First Fleet, which brought the first colonial transportation of prisoners.
The African and Asian people who were exiled to Australia (and some who settled willingly) are often identified by having the appellation “black” attached to their name. Like the Aboriginal men written about in political and judicial records, these men survive for posterity with names meant to demean them, and with their identity obscured through the derogatory renaming. For Aboriginals, the injury was more egregious, with insulting and demeaning names4 given to them by colonisers, often the only way in which they are identified, even to this day.
Australia’s First Fleet landed in Sydney in January 1788, carrying at least a dozen black men.5 Australia’s colonisation started as key areas of the British Empire were rapidly changing in the United Kingdom, Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. Britain lost the American war of independence in 1783, thereby losing its most lucrative colony, just before the colonisation of Australia. America had also been one of the places where the British had transported people to. In Ireland, armed resistance was increasing and in South Africa, the British were meeting fierce resistance in their attempts to expand the colonial frontier.
The war and loss of the American prize colony had a significant impact on Britain’s economy. It also led to a large influx of black people into Britain, particularly those who had previously fought with the British against the Americans as a way of freeing themselves.
London’s black population was increased at the end of the American civil war, with the arrival of black people from Nova Scotia in Canada. These were made up largely of enslaved black men who joined the British side, against the Americans, and who were evacuated to Nova Scotia when the British retreated. The British had rescinded their status as slaves during the war, and many slaves flocked to join the fight against the Americans. The black soldiers who made it to London often found themselves among the poor masses, but faced even greater impoverishment as they did not qualify for the basic social grants available. Poverty often forced them into petty crimes, or acts of need: many were given harsh sentences with long jail terms or banishment to Australia. One of the more common crimes was stealing items of clothing.
Enslaved African-Americans who joined the British army against the Americans provide an interesting snapshot: future American presidents James Madison, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson all had significant numbers of slaves who liberated themselves by joining the English army. Washington, the first president of the United States, is believed to have lost 35 slaves this way.6 There are records, too, of America’s founding fathers petitioning to get their slaves back, including trying to recapture the men who were evacuated with the British ships to Novia Scotia.7
Around the same period, Britain clamped down on the slave trade (the commercial transactions, as opposed to the institution), particularly on the high seas. In 1838 slavery as an institution was abolished across the British colonies, but not in areas under other European, Arab, Persian or Ottoman control, nor in the areas where African groups were enslaving compatriots and selling them onto the international markets. British abolition occurred in 1834, but slaves had to serve a four-year apprenticeship before being finally freed in 1838, often working for their enslavers during that time.
In addition to the arrival of Africans and Asians in Australia, there was also a second generation of dark-skinned non-Aboriginal Australians, namely the children born as a result of the relationships between white, African, American and Asian transportees. Biracial, African and Asian people would through the centuries continue to partner with Aboriginal people. Their descendants have, in turn, assumed that they were Aboriginal, with no knowledge of their other ancestry, since Australia’s history posits that Aboriginal people were the only dark residents in its history.8
Australians revere Irish Ned Kelly as a bushranger (a runaway convict who lived by his wits, often through robbery), and the white outlaws were iconic figures in Australia’s colonisation. Yet the country’s first bushranger was a black American man called John Caesar, known in Australia as Black Caesar. Historians believe him to possibly have originated from Madagascar, which was a major source of enslaved people for the Indian Ocean trade.9 Caesar and Scipio were common ways to rename enslaved men: being renamed after Roman generals was seen as a further way to denigrate the enslaved. Caesar escaped into the bush for the first time in 1790, taking along a musket and joining a group of other escaped prisoners. He would continue to escape, until he was shot10.
Caesar was one of many black bushrangers in the history of Australian colonisation. One of the other iconic bushrangers was an indigenous South African Khoisan man. Peter Haley (also named as Caley), from Cape Town, joined a notorious group of bushrangers in Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1800s and he lives in the records as “Black Peter”.11 Centuries later, I found myself cheering for Australia’s Asian and Africa black vagabonds and rebels: as if Tonto had suddenly become the centre of the story, and the story was now being told by Tonto’s descendants.
Most of the exile, banishment and transportation of Asian and African slaves and free people occurred mainly from 1834. Besides it being the year of the British Emancipation Proclamation, it was also the year when Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) opened as a colony. This was also the year that slavery was abolished in the British territories, including in South Africa, although enslaved people were still bound for another four years as “apprentices” before they were finally freed in 1838.
Black people in Australia included formerly enslaved people and freemen, some of whom still bore ritual scarification marks from their childhood in Africa. There are also frequent references to Mohammedans, a dated reference to Muslims.
Enslaved Asians and labourers who were originally transported to Mauritius were also often re-transported to Australia, including Anglo-Sinhalese coin forger, John Hermaan Maas, and Sheik Adam, originally from Bombay.12 Adam was a notorious hustler from Bombay, who was originally transported to Mauritius in 1834. In Mauritius, he constantly escaped, and he had a tally of crimes against him. He frequently drugged and then robbed people. As a result of his life of crime, he was transported to Australia.13
Southern Africa was also a source of transportees to Australia: Asian and African slaves and convicts were transported largely from South Africa, but also from Mauritius and Madagascar. People transported from Mauritius have been recorded as “Afro-Mauritian”, slaves, former slaves serving apprenticeships, Chinese slaves, convicts and Indian convicts.14 This included women as well as men. Before people were banished to Australia in the 1800s, Mauritian convicts and slaves were sent to the Robben Island penal island off Cape Town’s coast. Before Australia, Asian convicts (particularly from Batavia, present-day Jakarta) were exiled to South Africa and at times enslaved there, while transportation and exile to penal colonies was also popularly used in Asia.
The discovery of gold in New South Wales in 1851 increased the activity of bushrangers, many of whom would rob prospectors of gold receipts and cheques when they were leaving the mines.
The colonial government introduced black trackers in 1852 to counter the scourge of bushranging, as well as police the gold digs and escort the bullion to Melbourne. The trackers were disbanded in 1853, despite reportedly being popular, as well as effective.15 There is no clarity on who comprised the black trackers – but accounts abound in Australian history of Aboriginal men being used as a border force, who were often joined by South African indigenous Khoi men, particularly the former soldiers exiled to Australia as political prisoners.
The lawlessness associated with the early gold mining spawned its own Asian bushranger, “Black” Douglas, identified as a “mulatto Indian” who operated with his gang between Melbourne and Bendigo.
Black Douglas’s headquarters were three miles from the Alma goldfield near Maryborough, and his gang’s method was to rob the diggers’ empty tents during the day and the shops at night. Black Douglas and his gang were captured when the diggers, fed up with the thieving, surrounded their tents and burnt them to the ground. Douglas was overpowered only after he was wounded. He was carted to Maryborough with an escort of more than 200 miners.”16
The Australian People also includes sailors and crew sentenced to transportation, frequently for disciplinary infractions while on British ships, or for criminal conduct while in a British colonial port. The black crewmen sent to Australia include:
- Daniel Williams, an American sailor (1817);
- John Bellevue and John Lavapeur were boatmen from Dominica (1837);
- Henry Corrie was a ship’s cook, born in Bermuda but transported from Trinidad (1837);
- and Antonio Pedro Antoons, of ‘dark complexion’, was a seaman sentenced to transportation by the Bombay Supreme Court in 1830.
- Abraham Sampson, a black sailor, found guilty of piracy on the island of St Christopher in the Caribbean (1836).
- Ahalt, a “Mohammedan” found guilty of wounding with intent in London and transported on the Stag in 1855.
- Caetane, a Mozambiquan fisherman found guilty of arson in Madagascar in 1839.17
But like the Irish, Canadians and African and Asian South Africans sent to Australia, even resistance in the Caribbean had its reaches in Australia, with at least ten Jamaican men reported banished to Australia after the Montego Bay slave uprising of 1831-32.18
Often historical accounts have painted Australia’s settlers as male convicts, or at a minority, poor British women. But black women were also banished to Australia.
The first person transported from Mauritius was a slave woman named Sophie, after she was convicted in 1823 of stealing cash and setting fire to a barn on her enslaver’s property.
When she was banished to New South Wales in 1825, there were no records of her travelling with her baby boy, who was born in early 1823. Sophie’s enslaver was compensated for her by the state, and the compensation included a fee for Sophie’s son.19
A Malagasy woman, Thérésia, was initially sentenced to death and this was then commuted to transportation to New South Wales after she was found guilty of hitting her enslaver’s daughter. Thérésia had up to then lodged a number of complaints of abuse against her owner, who was placed under police surveillance, and forbidden from punishing his slaves, unless he had permission.20 Her enslaver was also compensated for losing her, when she was sent to Australia in 1831.
The other notorious case that has survived the records is the case of “two female slaves” — the cousins Elizabeth Verloppe and Constance Couronne, accused of a botched plot to poison a woman they had been hired out to. They were accused of trying to poison her tea with arsenic, but had added the wrong substance. However, there are also other accounts that they were being blamed for somebody else’s botched poisoning attempt. They were supposed to be sent to South Africa’s Robben Island, but eventually were transported for life to New South Wales in 1834. At the time of their trial Elizabeth was twelve years old and Constance was eight.21
The story of the girl cousins is significant for Australia’s history, and they were not the only children transported. A British woman named Mary Wade is seen as one of modern Australia’s founding mothers, and is a forebear of former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. She was transported when she was 11 years old, after being convicted for robbery after stealing and pawning clothes from another child. Her death sentence was commuted to transportation. Mary Wade is often named as the youngest prisoner ever transported to Australia.
But the example of Verloppe and Couronne shows how much history alters once it no longer focuses almost solely on white protagonists, and Couronne being transported at eight years old adds a more nuanced dimension to child transportation — but especially the fate of enslaved children.22
The history of African and Asian people in Australia’s colonial history expands our understanding of slavery and exile across the Indian Ocean. Their transportation was not random, but part of a deeper story of Australia, its colonial history and its unwillingness to remember or acknowledge the country’s full history.
Echoes of Slavery: Voices from South Africa’s past: Jackie Loos, David Philip Publishers (New Africa Books), Cape Town 2004
Unfree labour and its discontents: transportation from Mauritius to Australia, 1825-1845, Clare Anderson, University of Leicester
Khoikhoi and the Question of Convict Transportation from the Cape Colony 1820-1842 – V.C. Malherbe
Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan and Maori Exiles – Kristyn Harman, UNSW Press, 2012
A Touch of the Tar: African settlers in colonial Australia and the implications for issues of Aboriginality – Cassandra Pybus (London Papers in Australia Studies, No. 3)
Early Australian Bushrangers (First accessed 04/06/2016)
1 “Of the cape” indicates that Rachel was an enslaved woman who was born at the Cape, as opposed to being imported from either the rest of Africa or from Asia. By 1830, many slaves would have been born as enslaved people in South Africa, with enslavement starting at the Cape from the arrival of the first Dutch colonist in 1652.
2Loos, p. 15.
3 The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins.
4 Names like Muscle, Mickey Mickey, Bulldog, Musquito, Blind-Eyed Alic and Sorethighed Jemm are the only records left of prominent Aboriginal men.
6 Pybus p.8
7 Novia Scotia still plays a significant role in the lives of descendants of the freed slaves: in the settlement of Sierra Leone were largely people from Novia Scotia, and even today, Krio Sierra Leoneans can still proudly trace their ancestry back to Novia Scotia.
8 While the history of dark-skinned arrivals has been buried in Australia, the country has not disavowed the language of enslavement: it is astonishing when listening to a progressive television programmes in Australia, or speaking to a leftist white Australian, to hear them unthinkingly use the words “half-caste, quadroon or octoroon” or similar terms when talking about Aboriginal people or about the Stolen Generation.
9 Pybus, p.7.
17 The Australian People, pp. 22-24.
18 The Australian People, p. 24.
19 Clare Anderson, Unfree labour and its discontents: transportation from Mauritius to Australia, 1825-1845, University of Leicester.
22 Southern African slave history abounds with enslaved children – either as slave arrivals at the Cape, or as shipwreck survivors in the period before colonisation.
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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.
Indian Ocean Slavery is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.