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'The Art of Cutting Stone': Aboriginal convict labour in nineteenth-century New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land


Harman, K, 'The Art of Cutting Stone': Aboriginal convict labour in nineteenth-century New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies II: Historical engagements and current enterprises, ANU E Press, Natasha Fijn, Ian Keen, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Pickering (ed), Canberra, ACT, pp. 119-134. ISBN 9781921862847 (2012) [Research Book Chapter]

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The nation’s understandings of its convict founders underwent a profound transformation in the late 1980s. Previously viewed as ‘hardened and professional criminals’ or ‘prostitutes’, convict men and women were no longer simply seen as ‘prisoners undergoing punishment’ but were reconfigured as ‘a well-organised, efficient labour force’ (Nichols 1988:viii; Nichols and Shergold 1988:3). Rewriting the convict period as a narrative about forced migrants and the labour they provided enabled the penal settlements, in the words of the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, to ‘become an integral part of the economic history of an immigrant society, rather than an unsavoury aberration that preceded free settlement’ (Nichols 1988:viii). This timely re-imagining of the nation’s past coincided with Australia’s celebrations of its bicentenary in 1988.

Historians, taking what Ann Curthoys later termed an ‘imperial approach’, re-contextualised convict labourers within the networks of forced migration characteristic of the nineteenth century (2002:146). Research across imperial and colonial networks revealed the diversity of the convict population (Curthoys 2002:146). It became evident that rather than solely comprising white people, Australia’s penal settlements had also been populated by numerous people of colour transported to the Australian penal settlements from places as diverse as the Cape Colony, Corfu, Bermuda, India, New Zealand and China (Nichols and Shergold 1988:32, 36; see also Duffield 1985, 1986, 1987, 1999a, 1999b; Duly 1979:39; Malherbe 1980, 1985, 2001, 2002a, 2002b; Pybus 2006). While the newly emerging transnational histories of transportation shed light on the nascent multiculturalism apparent in the Australian penal colonies, one small yet highly significant cohort of convicts continued to be overlooked.

Between 1805 and the 1860s, at least 60 Aboriginal men from New South Wales were transported as convicts. Exiled to some of the harshest penal stations such as Norfolk Island and Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land, these men laboured alongside convicts from all over the British world. Others laboured on the penal islands at Port Jackson, or worked alongside other convicts, including Maori from New Zealand and Khoi from the Cape Colony, at the probation station on Maria Island off the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land.

Item Details

Item Type:Research Book Chapter
Keywords:Aboriginal, convict labour, New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land
Research Division:History, Heritage and Archaeology
Research Group:Historical studies
Research Field:Australian history
Objective Division:Culture and Society
Objective Group:Understanding past societies
Objective Field:Understanding Australia's past
UTAS Author:Harman, K (Associate Professor Kristyn Harman)
ID Code:78675
Year Published:2012
Deposited By:Riawunna
Deposited On:2012-07-17
Last Modified:2014-07-16

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