Resistance and Race: Aboriginal Child Workers in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Australia

  • Shirleene Robinson
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Childhood book series (PSHC)


In 1903, in Oxley, a suburb located on the outskirts of the Queensland capital of Brisbane, a 14-year-old Aboriginal girl named Mulla set fire to her employer’s curtains.1 At the time that this incident occurred, Mrs Sturmpels, Mulla’s employer, did not suspect her of the act. Later though, Mulla informed police officers that she had indeed set fire to the curtains and that she had done so deliberately on account of the appalling abuse she had received from Sturmpels, who used to beat her with a stick.2 Mulla was fortunate in receiving support from official quarters, a rarity for Aboriginal people who came before the legal system at this time.3 She was removed from her employer, and Gus Forrest, the Sub-Inspector of Police for South Brisbane, told the Queensland Home Secretary that since the case had come before the Court, Mulla had ‘behaved very well’, performed ‘her work in a very satisfactory manner’, and ‘with kind treatment would make a very good servant’.4 Mulla’s dramatic act of defiance provides an illustration of the inventive strategies of resistance Aboriginal children deployed against their masters in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Australia. Tactics included running away from employment, stealing, ‘playing up’ and destroying the property of employers. By investigating strategies of resistance and their impact, this chapter explores the complications and limitations of indigenous childhood agency in a colonial British world setting where strict racial hierarchies operated.


Aboriginal People Child Labour Aboriginal Child Domestic Servant Indigenous Child 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Shirleene Robinson 2016

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  • Shirleene Robinson

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