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Modern Slavery, 19th Century Slavery, and the University of Sydney

The University of Sydney has launched a major campaign with the goal of educating its staff and students on what constitutes modern slavery and to work towards eliminating it in the community.

Art by Khanh Tran.

Today, some of the common forms of modern slavery include human trafficking, forced or bonded labor, and slave labor embedded in supply chains. The Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018 requires the University to report on the risks of modern slavery in its operations and supply chains and to take concrete actions to address the risks.  The institutional response has included a mandatory online educational module on modern slavery to be completed with 80% pass mark by every staff member.  Some students might recall the ‘Human Mart’ Exhibition booth at this year’s Welcome Week that was set up to highlight the problem.

While the University should be commended for initiating this campaign, it is unfortunate that this discussion is being framed in a narrow, dehistoricised fashion.  After all, institutionalised slavery (along with the other two horsemen of Western civilisation, colonialism and racism) has been around for well over five centuries and Australia has not been immune.  There is a clear need to understand the problem in a historical context because our past has a tendency to cast a shadow over what happens in the present and beyond. This will enable us to look for connections between the 19th century manifestations of slavery in Australia and what we observe today, and for the University to come clean on its links to 19th century slavery.

This brings me to William Charles Wentworth, an important figure in the University’s early history. Wentworth was a highly influential if controversial politician in the NSW colony during the mid-1850’s.  I learnt from Prof. Julia Horne, the University’s historian, that his main contributions to the University were to lead the passage of legislation in the NSW Legislative Council that became the University’s Founding Act of 1850, and to articulate a vision of a relatively inclusive University, tolerant of different religious beliefs.  He served on the University Senate in the early days and made a modest financial contribution to provide student scholarships.  Nevertheless, he was formally conferred the title of ‘Founder’ of the University at a ceremony held in the Great Hall in May 1861.  His larger-than-life Carrara marble statue has stood in the Great Hall since 1862. The University Student Union for unknown reasons chose to name its building after him in the 1960’s.

WC Wentworth and 19th century slavery in Australia

Despite denials by establishment historians and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, slavery in one form or another has been part of the Australian landscape from the time of European settlement. The most troubling aspect of Wentworth’s legacy in the context of 19th century slavery is his strong advocacy, involvement, and profiting from the indentured coolie slave importation from India and China. The colony of NSW was faced with severe labour shortages following the end to convict arrivals in the 1830’s. This severely affected Wentworth’s finances given that he was one of the largest landowners in the colony. 

Even though slavery had been abolished in the colonies following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, this did not apply to the East India Company’s operations in Asia. Importing indentured labour from India and China, often referred to as the coolie trade, was seen as the solution. The first group of 42 coolies was brought in by one John Mackay who had extensive indigo plantations in India and a distillery in Sydney, to work as shepherds in a large landholding in Dungog.  These ‘British subjects’ were on 5-6 year indentured labour contracts with food, clothing, shelter and meagre wages provided. Most of them absconded because the terms were not being adhered to; they were kept in worse condition than African slaves in the Carribbean.  Some were apprehended and tried.  A few perished after they were subject to assault, slavery, and kidnapping.

The colonial office dithered on further coolie importation, and there were many voices that opposed this form of thinly disguised slavery.  In 1842, Wentworth and other landed colonists formed the Association to Import Coolies to lobby the colonial government to permit large-scale importation despite the serious problems with previous imports. The motion to form an association for the purpose of gaining permission to “avail themselves of Coolies, or other labourers from the East Indies” was seconded by William Wentworth. The committee appointed to pursue the matter included Charles Nicholson MD, who was later to become the Chancellor of the University, and after whom the Nicholson Museum is named.

The committee’s efforts were successful and several shiploads of Indian and Chinese indentured workers were brought to NSW and Victoria. Wentworth teamed up with Robert Towns to arrange a shipment of 56 Indian coolies on board Towns’s ship Orwell. They were brought under conditions of near starvation and two of them perished during the journey.  Most of the coolies were sent to Wentworth’s pastoral properties or worked as servants in his Vaucluse House mansion.  A few were leased out to a property in the Hunter valley.  Historical records show that the coolies were subject to severe beatings, non-payment of wages, and were inadequately fed and clothed.  Several died of exposure or assaults. Those who protested the breach of contract were imprisoned.

Chinese coolie importation started in 1847 with much larger groups.  A group of 420 Chinese coolies were brought to the Port Phillip District in Victoria, many of whom were abandoned after their arrival and forced to fend for themselves with no money or possessions. Many were lost and perished in the bush, some were imprisoned, and few were found wandering the streets of Melbourne with no food or shelter. A large contingent of 1500 coolies were brought under appalling conditions in 1854.  An investigation by the colonial office unearthed many cases of deaths and serious abuse aboard ships, as well as kidnapping and incarceration in the recruiting process.  The eastern colonies mercifully abandoned Asian coolie importation in 1855.

Modern Slavery Eradication

The campaign to educate the University community on the prevalence of modern slavery and steps to eliminate it can only be strengthened by an understanding of slavery in diverse forms in the past. This includes blackbirding of workers from the Pacific islands, forced indigenous labour, and stolen wages. In particular, the University has an ethical responsibility to acknowledge its own connections to slavery and to take appropriate actions to remove, replace and distance itself from the prominent symbols associated with 19th century slavery. I present two such actions that will go a long way towards helping the University to establish its bona fides.

Firstly, the naming of the USU Building after Wentworth is an abomination. As Andy Mason has argued in the pages of Honi Soit (Wentworth Must Fall, March 2017), Wentworth’s legacy is problematic at many levels and his name has to go. These include the fake ‘discovery’ of the Blue Mountains crossing with the help of indigenous trackers, his strong support for the frontier warriors and, in particular, the convicted Myall Creek massacre instigators, and the large-scale of indigenous land theft, among others.

There is no lack of suitable names for the USU Building. In light of the fact that the building stands on the traditional land of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, an indigenous name will be a small recognition of this connection.  How about naming it after Felcia Corowa, the first self-identified Aboriginal person (and female) to be admitted to the University in 1965, around the same time as the better known Charles Perkins?  Another option is Gough Whitlam, an illustrious graduate of the University and Australia’s 21st and arguably its most visionary Prime Minister.

Second, the Wentworth statue in the Great Hall must go. There may even be takers for it in the community!