by Karen Williams

While little attention is paid to black and Asian prisoners transported during the colonisation of Australia, there is even less information about local Aboriginal people and the neighbouring Maori fighters who were exiled to or within Australia. Their exile happened as part of their wider experiences of organised resistance against colonisation and the theft of Aboriginal land. The colonisation of Australia meant that the original inhabitants of the island were brought into the colonial judicial system as outsiders. Exile and banishment also happened alongside their other experiences of judicial punishment, which included imprisonment and at times the death penalty.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, there is constant reference made to the fact that the country recognises the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between colonial authorities and various Maori groups. This, along with the insistence that Maori land was bought according to contracts by the New Zealand Company, dismisses the fact and legacy of any colonial settlement of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and works to obfuscate the social and political situation of Maori people, which is comparable to other dark people in previously-colonised societies elsewhere.

The Maori and Aboriginal colonial experience made them not citizens under the settler order, but subjects of a foreign government. This becomes apparent when considering the fact that they were criminalised and at times sentenced to death for insisting on their natural rights within their own countries.

It is important to remember that the colonial settlement of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand was in fact an invasion of two countries with the resultant destruction of various societies and communities.

Historical accounts of various Aboriginal groups paint a picture of varied distinct and independent societies, existing within their own territories, as well as a people whose fierce resistance scared the colonists. This is in direct contradiction to the current image of Aboriginals as groups which are undifferentiated from each other, largely invisible and confined to the Northern Territories. In addition, as communities in a sovereign country, Aboriginal groups were at times in conflict with each other – and colonisation impacted on those internal politics. Colonisation in practice also meant lack of access to traditional food and drinking sources, which in turn impacted on indigenous livelihoods. Social trauma was compounded in both countries with the kidnap of indigenous children for colonial schools.

The fight against the European invasion resulted in a number of Aboriginal leaders being imprisoned.

The fight of Aboriginal societies against the colonial settlers escalated, particularly as the settlers became more violent towards the island’s indigenous inhabitants. At the same time, there are consistent accounts that the Aboriginals very often left the colonists alone in certain areas and retaliated when violence was perpetrated against them.

But, the Aboriginal communities also provided an alternative to the colonial experience, particularly for prisoners who were sent to Australia. There are consistent historical reports of white convicts who escaped the penal colony and found shelter amongst various Aboriginal groups. This echoes what happened in South Africa, where some white men ran away from the colonial system and took shelter with maroon and indigenous communities, particularly those living on Table Mountain in Cape Town.

Historical records do not only document skirmishes between Aboriginal groups and the settlers (who comprised colonial authorities, convicts, political exiles and immigrants). Contact between the Aboriginal and settler camps also included political engagement by Aboriginal societies. One of the key political contacts was led by an immigrant black journalist and newspaper editor, Gilbert Robertson, who led what were termed “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 of the Stoney Creek (Tyerer-note-panner) people. Eumarrah was born in Campbell Town in Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) in around 1798, and he launched a staunch resistance against European colonialism in his area.

But the anti-colonial war also had a gendered impact on both sides of the society, although in historical research little attention is paid to violence against women. While there are court records mentioning white women at times being raped during attacks on homesteads by Aboriginal fighters, historians allude to sexual abuse against Aboriginal women in oblique comments mentioning complaints that settlers “misused” Aboriginal women. The historical allusions, however, appear to point to a more concerted pattern of organised attacks against Aboriginal women, including references that appear to indicate either consistent kidnapping and/or rape of groups of indigenous women from targetted communities. These references are scattered but consistent, and more research needs to be done to see whether sustained sexual violence against Aboriginal women was planned, coordinated and effectively amounted to colonial policy – and was therefore a crucial part of the colonisation of Australia.

When the indigenous fighters were punished within the colonial court system, they joined Irish, African and Asian political prisoners who were exiled to Australia, as well as other prisoners sentenced by the British to the penal colonies.

But there were differences in indigenous Australians’ experiences of the judiciary with often disproportionately more severe punishments meted out to Aboriginal people. They are also rendered invisible as people when the judicial records and historians’ writing often only refers to Aboriginal people by the names that the colonists gave them. Demeaning and insulting names like Blind-Eyed Alic, Jacky Jacky, Old Man Billy Billy, Tallboy and Sorethighed Jemmy is how they are still recorded in the history being written today.

Gamareagal warrior, Musquito
Gamareagal warrior, Musquito

Aboriginal fighters Bulldog and Musquito (as the records call them), were sent to Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land respectively for their resistance in New South Wales[1]. They were the first Aboriginal men sentenced as convicts in 1805, but scores of other Aboriginal men would be similarly sentenced and exiled throughout the period of colonization.[2]

Musquito led the Gamaregal resistance in the Hawkesbury, and was first exiled to Norfolk Island and then Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and he never returned home.[3] Accounts say that Bulldog probably returned to mainland Australia.

The two reportedly planned to burn down the jail they were being held in upon arrest, but their plan was discovered. Musquito’s brother also petitioned for his release and return to Sydney, but Musquito died in exile. Like the indigenous South African Khoi men, Musquito was used as a tracker during his imprisonment. Eventually, while in Van Diemen’s Land, Musquito rejoined local Aboriginal groups and he started participating in their warfare against the colonial settlers. He was eventually caught and hanged in Hobart.

Exile and de facto banishment also extracted a psychological toll on Aboriginal prisoners, and many of them died fairly early on while serving their sentences. This contrasts significantly with the experience of other European, Asian and African prisoners sent to Australia.

Aboriginal people entered the courts system as anti-colonial fighters as well as people who were seen to transgress British law. Banishment and exile from their homeland also came about when death sentences for Aboriginal prisoners were commuted to transportation.[4] The death sentence was not uncommon, and often Aboriginal prisoners or local Aboriginal groups were forced to watch the hangings of their compatriots and kin.

Even though they were regarded as colonial subjects by the British, they were not expected to take the oath in law courts, since they were seen as pagans, and they therefore could not act as witnesses or interpreters.[5]

Historian Kristyn Harman writes that,

Roberts and Warrigal were two of at least sixty Aboriginal men from New South Wales who were incorporated into the convict system in the Australian colonies during the first half of the nineteenth century. Transported to places as diverse as Van Diemen’s Land, Norfolk Island, and the Port Jackson penal islands of Goat Island and Cockatoo Island, Aboriginal convicts were put to work alongside other convicts clearing land, breaking rocks, and building roads. They laboured to help build the infrastructure of the colonial society that contained them. For the most part, Aboriginal convicts were treated the same as the majority of other convicts whilst in captivity. They were expected to participate in the government labour force, to receive the same rations from the government stores as other convict workers, and to be punished in the same way for any acts considered to be offences. It was their different pathways into captivity, their different understandings of and responses to imprisonment, and the different rationale informing the punishment meted out to them that set them apart from other convicts.”[6]

There were also other ways in which the Aboriginal communities came into contact with the colonial system. As was common practice in other colonial settings, the British deployed Aboriginal police (under white command) against other Aboriginal communities not their own. The colonial practice extended to the Border Police system, where many indigenous prisoners from Africa and Asia served as trackers, law enforcement officers and troops used to fight the Aboriginal resistance fighters.


But this should not obscure the anti-colonial impetus of Aboriginal communities across Australia. Similarly to the numerous reports of them leaving the colonists alone and retaliating when threatened or attacked, so too, it is important to document the sustained resistance and war waged by different Aboriginal communities and the fear that they engendered in the colonialists. It wasn’t simply singular communities that resisted colonisation: an attack by a confederation of Aboriginal groups in the 1830s also resulted in the death sentence being meted out to the resisters.

When the three hundred colonists living in the Brisbane Water District came under attack from a confederation of Aboriginal tribes in the early 1830s, eighteen Aboriginal captives eventually stood trial in Sydney. Because of difficulties in correctly identifying some of them, not all were found guilty. However, one man known as Mickey was sentenced to be hanged. Nine of his compatriots being held in gaol pending their transfer to be worked as convicts on Cockatoo Island were made to watch his execution. Threlkeld, who was present at the event, described the Aboriginal onlookers as having “pale visages”. Their “trembling muscles”, he said, “indicated the nervous excitement under which they laboured at the melancholy sight”. Biraban, who had accompanied Threlkeld, exclaimed, “When the drop fell, I thought he should shed his skin!” (like a snake) Threlkeld suggested to the colonial authorities that any Aborigines under confinement when executions were being carried out ought to be made to watch. It was considered that such an example would be a deterrent to Aboriginal men who were otherwise intent on resisting the colonial intrusion onto their lands.[7]

In neighbouring Aotearoa/New Zealand, resistance to colonisation was just as fierce and a group of Maori fighters were imprisoned in Australia. The colonial frontier expanded across Aotearoa/New Zealand often through violent conflict, collectively known as the New Zealand wars that were fought between Maori groups and the British in the 1800s.[8] The Hutt Valley campaign of 1846 brought a number of Maori men into the British judicial system and resulted in transportation to Australia.

Among the most prominent cases of Maori political prisoners exiled to Australia were five Maori men who were sentenced as convicts to Australia[9]. The most prominent among the group was a Wanganui Maori fighter, Hohepa Te Umuroa. He was among a group of political prisoners exiled for life to Maria Island off Tasmania.[10] He had joined the war of Wanganui Maori under the leadership of Te Rangiheata against colonialists in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s Hutt Valley.[11] Similarly to a number of captured Aboriginal men, the Maoris were captured by a rival Maori community and handed to the colonial authorities.

Te Umuroa and the six other Wanganui Maori who were captured with him (Te Waretiti, Matiu Tikiaki, Te Kumete, Topi, Matai-umu and Te Rahui) were “convicted of rebellion against the Queen, aiding Te Rangihaeata and possession of one of Her Majesty’s firearms”[12] on 12 October 1846 and sentenced to be transported for the rest of their lives.

Hohepa Te Umuroa died in exile in 1847. Te Ara: The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand writes that,

In mid April 1847 Te Umuroa fell seriously ill with tuberculosis. His health deteriorated through the winter. On 19 July 1847 the prison foreman, J. J. Imrie, wrote in his diary: ‘At 4 am visited the Maoris. Found Hohepa very nearly gone. At 5 am he breathed his last without a struggle.’ Te Umuroa was buried the next morning, in the small public cemetery on the island, on a bleak hillside, rather than in the convict cemetery. The funeral service was read in Maori by Imrie at the graveside. An anonymous benefactor later erected a headstone over the grave.

Te Umuroa’s death prompted the Australian authorities to action. Both La Trobe and the Colonial Office queried the legality of the court martial and transportation. Eventually the four remaining prisoners were released and returned to Auckland in March 1848.[13]

It would take Te Umuroa a little longer to return home. More than 140 years after his death, there was a campaign to return him home. After protracted negotiations between the Australian and Aotearoa/New Zealand governments, his remains were returned to Aotearoa/New Zealand, fetched by the elders of Te Umuroa’s community, and in August 1988 he was eventually reburied in his homeland with a full Maori funeral.[14]

This was not a symbolic return. The return of remains of political prisoners and people banished from their homelands during colonisation is a key demand for dignity and restitution. Te Umoroa made it back to Aotearoa/New Zealand, but still buried in Australia are the remains of scores of anti-colonial resisters who never made it back home.


[1] Aboriginal Convicts: Australian, Khoisan, and Maori Exiles – Kristyn Harman


[3]  Indigenous convicts: Khoisan, Maori and Aboriginal exiles

[4] Harman, K: ‘The Same Measure of Justice’: Aboriginal Convicts in the Australian Penal Colonies, pp.11-12

[5]Harman, K: ‘The Same Measure of Justice’: Aboriginal Convicts in the Australian Penal Colonies

[6] Harman, K: pp.7

[7] Harman, p. 14.

[8] Hutt Valley Campaign

[9] New Zealand’s Governor at the time, George Grey, was also posted to Cape Town in South Africa. He was also the colonial governor of Australia, meaning that he was key in the historical links between the three countries and the history of transportation between them. Auckland and Cape Town house extensive Grey historical collections: in South Africa on medieval and Renaissance literature, and on slavery and Cape history, and on Maori history in New Zealand. Grey was also Governor of South Australia. (Collections information from a conversation with Melanie Geustyn, National Library of South Africa.)

[10] Indigenous convicts: Khoisan, Maori and Aboriginal exiles


[12] Te Umuroa, Hohepa


[14] Ibid

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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 SlaveryZanj rebellion 2 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 curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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