Africa- of African descent: This article has changed the term “black” to “of African descent” after readers brought it to our attention that indigenous Australians refer to themselves as “black” within Australia. The modification was made to accommodate that information and to more accurately reflect the specific realities of Australia.
The easy temptation is to take shelter when you come under scrutiny and criticism. Recently (in September 2016) we found ourselves in this position with the Australia-specific articles that were a part of the Indian Ocean series, where wider reader engagement has been the hallmark of the series.
Reader feedback has been crucial to the series, particularly since the intention of the series was to look at fairly unknown and unreported histories across the world. We wanted this series to be part of a wider global conversation, particularly between Africans, Asians and the Middle East, who have lived with common histories for centuries, even if the facts of that history has been suppressed and denied.
The information that Karen WIlliams stumbled on about Australia during the course of the research was eye-opening, and it extended the contact of dark people outside of Australia to the often-isolated island. Australia and its indigenous heritage is also a very important part of everyday discourse among leftist, progressive black South Africans, and this seemed to provide a concrete first step on which to build a possible political engagement across the oceans.
The isolation of Australia has at the same time meant that there has been fewer references to go on – and like so many of the other articles in the series, we saw this as the start of the thread of conversation that could develop and progress. Readers have often filled in gaps or opened historical doors for us, and that dialogue we hope will continue. There were a number of times when Karen had questions about specific incidents in the Australian history that she wrote about and had come to a dead-end on sources from Australia and about Australian history. In these cases she wrote about events as closely as they were reflected in multiple printed sources, quoting historians directly, rather than extrapolating. At other times the work was circumspect, and there were many times when the blindness of the written history astonished us in its silences, misrepresentation and erasure of indigenous history.
The research, writing and engagement the Indian Ocean Slavery series has been done in good faith throughout. However, as was pointed out to us, our use of the word ‘black’ did not recognise the specific history and meanings of the word for indigenous Australian peoples. This is not only about use of terminology but also about wider processes of research, writing and publication and how these can better recognise differences. We need to do better in the future and we hope that our work will continue to encourage dialogue about and recognition of the different histories and cultures that inflect racism and oppression across the globe.
One of the African-Americans who endures in Australian history is William Blue.
Blue was born in New York and said that he served with the English in the American War of Independence. By 1796 he was living in London, working as a chocolate-maker and a labourer on the River Thames. He was sentenced to seven years transportation after being convicted of stealing raw sugar and he landed in Australia in 1801.
Blue worked as a ferryman in Sydney Harbour and he owned property in the city. He was also known to a number of prominent Australian colonial political figures. Several Sydney streets are named after him and Sydney’s Blues Point was the site of the ferry service which he ran in the 1800s.
Journalist and newspaper editor Gilbert Robertson, was the son of a West Indian enslaver and plantation owner. Robertson’s father enslaved his mother, and Robertson was educated in Scotland where his paternal grandfather lived. He edited the Concord newspaper in Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) where he first arrived in 1822. After multiple imprisonments for libel, he moved to Norfolk Island penal colony where he worked as the agricultural superintendent. At the time of his death, Robertson worked as a newspaper editor in Victoria.1
Robertson’s political life is significant. There are various accounts that he led reconciliation efforts with Aboriginal groups on behalf of the colonial authorities. One of the more famous accounts of his political reconciliation work is with Eumarrah, an Aboriginal leader born in Campbell Town in Van Diemen’s Land. Eumarrah (c.1798-1832) was leader of the Stoney Creek (Tyerer-note-panner) people, who launched a staunch resistance against European colonialism in his area. Robertson captured Eumarrah and his wife Laoninneloonner in late 1828, when Robertson was working as part of the Governor George Arthur’s “roving parties”2.
Accounts note that Eumarrah was saved from being hanged after Robertson designated him as a prisoner of war3.
After a year in Richmond gaol, the Aboriginal leader joined G. A. Robinson’s ‘friendly mission’ through the south-west in early 1830. Eumarrah impressed Robinson, but never subordinated himself, and in May he decamped. Showing mighty bushcraft (and an island-wide reach), he trekked from near Trial Harbour to his homeland region. In October he presented himself to the Launceston authorities and, at Arthur’s request, immediately joined the ‘Black Line’ operation, as it sought to corral the remaining Aborigines. To Arthur’s chagrin, Eumarrah soon left the line and began harassing settlers in the Tamar and Esk valleys and in the north-east.”4
In 1831 Robinson and Eumarrah met again as part of Robinson’s efforts to find a political solution to war with the Aboriginal people and his attempts to negotiate some détente, and the relationship continued until Eumarrah’s death in 1832.
Born as the son of a former slave from St Kitts, William Cuffay was a key organiser and leader of the Chartist movement in Britain, often credited as the first mass popular political movement in Britain, which included campaigning for the right to vote. He worked as a tailor in London and was transported as a political prisoner to Van Diemen’s Land aged 60 for allegedly planning a mass uprising against the British government. He lost his job in 1834 after the new tailors’ union went on strike.
His campaign for universal suffrage was driven by his belief that workers needed representation in the British parliament.
The BBC writes that,
“In 1839, he helped to form the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association and soon became an important figure in the Chartist movement in London. He was elected to the national executive of the National Charter Association in 1842 and later that year voted president of the London Chartists.”5
Cuffay was arrested in 1848 and on the evidence of a government spy was convicted for planning to set fire to buildings as a signal for an uprising. He was subsequently sentenced to 21 years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
“Three years later all political prisoners in Tasmania were pardoned but Cuffay decided to remain, carrying on his trade as a tailor and again becoming involved in radical politics and trade union issues. He played an important role in persuading the authorities to amend the Master and Servant Law in the colony, before dying in poverty in July 1870.”6
At his death, four newspapers in three Australian states published obituaries of him. His grave disappeared under a basketball court – along with the graves of thousands of other prisoners7.
Two men of African descent, John Joseph and James McFie Campbell, also played a key role in the Eureka rebellion of 1854. Campbell was from Kingston, Jamaica and Joseph is recorded as a “black American from New York City or Baltimore, United States.”8 They were part of the 13 men who stood trial for the Eureka Stockade, charged with high treason, and all of whom were acquitted.
It was a key moment in the establishment of Australian governance, when goldfield miners opposed the government’s mining license fee scheme. The rebellion was eventually put down, although the event is iconic in Australian history.9
Blue William Billy, Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Gilbert Robertson, The Companion to Tasmanian History.
Eumarrah, Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Eumarrah, The Companion to Tasmanian History.
William Cuffay, BBC History. First accessed 19/06/2016.
The Isle of Denial: William Cuffay in Van Diemen’s Land. First accessed 19/06/2016.
Eureka Rebellion. First accessed 05/07/2016.
Eureka Stockade, Australian Government. First accessed 06/04/2016.
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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.