The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

British Slavery and Australian Colonization

  • Jane LydonEmail author
Living reference work entry

Latest version View entry history




This entry explores the intersecting histories of British slavery and the anti-slavery movement and the colonization of Australia. Focusing on the crucial period between the American Revolution and the French and Caribbean revolutions (1776–1793), I review the ways that debates about slavery, penal discipline, and transportation map changing ideas about race, labor, and rights. This history reveals the role of the anti-slavery movement within imperialism and its imbrication with the apparatus of colonial government. The celebration of British abolition of Caribbean slavery has tended to obscure the impact of slavery on the development of a global labor system in two related ways: First, the prominence of transatlantic slavery has masked the long-term, global story of the role of coercive labor in imperial expansion, including its racial dimensions. Second, it has obscured the ways in which, for the British, race and class were articulated social categories that constituted competing objects of reform. British convicts, overwhelmingly working class, were seen by many as white slaves, and their status remained the focus of tension throughout the operation of transportation. In this way transportation was shaped by slavery but also subsequently determined key aspects of global post-emancipation labor flows. Conversely, as one of the most powerful humanitarian social campaigns ever seen in the Anglophone world, the anti-slavery movement became a fertile source of affective imagery, language, and stories that could be applied to a range of causes in the colonies. Slavery and its abolition shaped desires for freedom and justice and were invoked to contest the oppression of convicts, Aboriginal people, indentured laborers, and women, to the end of the nineteenth century and beyond.


On the 13 May 1787, the 11 ships now known as the “First Fleet” sailed from Portsmouth with their cargo of convicts, effectively initiating the British colonization of Australia. In the same month, the organized anti-slavery movement began, with the establishment by Granville Sharp and other evangelical Christians of A Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This correspondence was no coincidence but reveals the profound imbrication of the seemingly distinct histories of the anti-slavery movement and Australian colonization. In the months before the First Fleet departed, the first governor of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, presented his ideas regarding the colony’s management. He pictured a future colonial society in which convicts would both remain apart from civil society and, at the same time, retain their freedom, writing that:

As I would not wish convicts to lay the foundations of an empire, I think they should ever remain separated from the garrison, and other settlers that may come from Europe, and not be allowed to mix with them, even after the 7 or 14 years for which they are transported may be expired. The laws of this country will, of course, be introduced in [New] South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves. (“Phillip’s Views” 1787)

Phillip’s assertion may at first sight appear odd, given that at the time Britain was the world’s leading slave-trading nation and was not to abolish the trade for another 20 years (1807). The practice of slavery itself was not to be outlawed across the British Empire until 1833, 45 years after the colonization of New South Wales. So what did Phillip mean by the “laws of this country,” and what did he know of slavery? Phillip probably shared the general view that the condition of slavery did not exist under English law, promulgated following the landmark Somerset case of 1771–2. Often considered to mark the unofficial beginning of the abolition movement, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield held that chattel slavery had no basis in common law in England and Wales and had never been positively established by legislation (Temperley 1972; Wise 2006; Paley 2002). But as a junior naval officer, Phillip had observed slavery at first hand while on a tour of duty to the Caribbean between 1760 and 1762. He had also served in the Portuguese navy, fighting in Brazil against Spain in the Third Colónia War. At this time, Brazil was both a depository for degredados, or convicts, and was permeated by slavery at all levels (Blackburn 1988; McIntyre 1984, pp. 98–101; Frost 1987). In his brief comments, Phillip expressed a somewhat ambivalent view of white convicts as morally undeserving and yet also as British subjects with rights. During the tumultuous 1780s, a decade of change sandwiched between the American Revolution and the French and Caribbean revolutions, debates about slavery, penal discipline, and transportation intersected in important ways, revealing shifting ideas about race, punishment, and rights.

Imperialism and Unfree Labor

Increasingly, scholars have emphasized the ubiquity, longevity, and global reach of the diverse forms of unfree labor “flows” that were key to European expansion overseas, emphasizing the relationship between diverse forms of coerced labor migration, including African and Asian enslavement and indenture. Several historians point out that the Atlantic slave trade, operating from the mid-fifteenth century until the end of the nineteenth century, was only the most visible and well-known of these flows (e.g., Allen 2014; Anderson 2016; Anderson and Maxwell-Stewart 2013; Engerman 1986; Nicholas and Shergold 1988). The British had first entered the Atlantic slave trade during the sixteenth century but from the early seventeenth century enlisted naval and military resources to protect the trade from rivals and the threat of revolt, becoming the world’s leading slave traders (Blackburn 1988). Its most intense phase constituted the “triangular trade,” which involved European ships taking goods to Africa to buy slaves and then transporting enslaved Africans to the plantation societies of the Americas (the Caribbean, the American South, and Iberian America), before returning to Europe with slave-grown products such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton. In consequence, the numbers of Africans imported to the Americas was staggering: by the time the British ended their own slave trade in 1807, they had shipped 3.25 million Africans across the Atlantic (Burnard 2012; Walvin 2001; Beckles 1991).

Alongside slavery, two long-standing labor systems had supported British imperialism: the indentured servant system, in which migrants agreed to work without wages for a number of years in exchange for passage, and the transportation of criminals to North America (Maxwell-Stewart 2007, 2010, 2015; Grubb 2000). Until the late eighteenth century, plantations both in the Caribbean and in Virginia (which was considered part of the West Indies until well into the eighteenth century) fuelled demand for both African slaves and British convicts, although they were worked separately from the early eighteenth century onward (Butler 1896; Ekirch 1990). Nonetheless, over the second half of the eighteenth century, white convicts in the American colonies were increasingly treated like slaves and legally and practically disqualified from membership in civil society (Burnard 2015). Following the loss of her American colonies in 1778, Britain was forced to find alternative destinations for her criminals and for imperial investment. During this decade, as Britain searched for solutions to her perceived problems of overcrowding, poverty, and crime, the status of black people throughout the empire, and the question of penal discipline were especially challenging (Atkinson 2016, pp. 58–59). Reformers rethought the status of slaves and convicts, especially after the 7 Years’ War, as the empire expanded to include various categories of subjects (Brown 2006; Burnard 2015).

By the end of 1775, gaols were overflowing, and Home Office secretary William Eden decided to place felons on hulks moored in the Thames. A series of inquiries addressing the problems of transportation and prisoner accommodation resulted in the continuation of the hulk system and proposals for transportation, despite those who advocated categorization, behavioral monitoring, and reform. From 1784 legislation specified that the transportation contractor was granted a “property and interest in the service of the offender,” referring to a 1717 precedent applied to American destinations (Journal of the House of Commons 1782–1784, p. 844; Brooks 2016, p. 167). Imprisonment with hard labor was first introduced into English law with the Criminal Law Act 1776 (6 Geo III c 43), also known as the “Hulks Act”; however many were concerned about its inhumanity and the infringement of prisoners’ rights (Atkinson 1994, pp. 94–98; Bolton 1980; Gray 2016). By adding bondage to exile, convicts began to look more like slaves – a category increasingly coming under attack.

Many transportation schemes were proposed, and a number of experiments, especially in Africa, were progressively ruled out between 1775 and 1786 (Gillen 1982; Christopher 2010; Christopher and Maxwell-Stewart 2015). In August 1783 James Matra, who had sailed with Cook on the Endeavour, submitted plans to the Home Office for uses for New Holland. The House of Commons committee set up in April 1785 under Lord Beauchamp inquired into the operation of transportation act and sought a destination for settlement which would eventually be of some benefit to Britain. It heard a range of proposals, from figures such as Matra, Wilberforce, botanist Joseph Banks, and naturalist Henry Smeathman, who had visited Sierra Leone and proposed it as a site for African redemption. In 1786 hysteria about the convict problem increased and in August Sydney finally announced the Botany Bay decision (Clark 1999; Frost 2012; Historical records of New South Wales 1892, pp. 14–16).

Almost simultaneously, another colonizing experiment was made, as Smeathman’s proposal of Sierra Leone was seized upon by anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp and the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor in 1786–1787. Sharp’s particular concern was to resettle some of the “Black Poor of London,” comprising black loyalist refugees from the American Revolution. He persuaded the Treasury to finance the ships and embarking settlers and named the settlement the “Province of Freedom”; founded on free black labor, anti-slavery campaigners also believed that the project would refute proslavery arguments and sited in the midst of the slave-trading region might ultimately transform it. Braidwood argues that the government supported the Sierra Leone venture, not to rid itself of an unwanted population of African descent but because the Black Poor were regarded as British subjects with a legitimate claim on the state (Braidwood 1994). About 400 blacks and 60 whites reached Sierra Leone in May 1787, just as the First Fleet left for Botany Bay (Christopher 2010; Coleman 2005; Land and Schocket 2008).

A third British settlement was sponsored at this time: located in the Bay of Honduras in Central America, now Belize, 2214 displaced settlers from the Mosquito Shore in Spanish territory joined a small existing community of timber-getters in 1786. They were superintended by Lt. Colonel Edward Despard, who was instructed to allocate land to the new arrivals and who initially attempted to assign “40 yards of River course for each and every persons of all colours, free or Slaves, Male or female, of which a family consisted” (Bolland and Shoman 1975, p. 21). But the local families ignored him, and Sydney also admonished Despard, responding that “people of Colour, or Free Negroes … [are not] considered upon an equal footing with People of a different Complexion” (Atkinson 2016, p. 63). As Land and Schockert (2008) argue, the many schemes advanced at this time implied “various significantly different destinies for the settlers.” Debates about these various schemes, and especially Sierra Leone and Botany Bay, map the contested and changing contemporary category of race and its relationship to British subjecthood.


In their review of the long-term, global flow of forced labor that formed the background to convict transportation, Emma Christopher and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart note a growing association between race and “unfreedom” at this time, expressed in concerns to maintain racial labor hierarchies (2013, p. 80). The East India Company, for example, refused to accept Irish and English convict labor at the same time that it began to send Indian convicts to tropical sites such as Sumatra and Penang (Yang 2003; Allen 2009). These policies demonstrate the ways in which contemporary ideas about “race” linked to skin color conceived specific “constitutions” to be acclimatized to climatic zone (Christopher 2007, 2008, 2010; Coleman 2005, pp. 57–58.). Many historians have argued that late eighteenth-century concepts of human difference referred not to “scientific sets of physical characteristics” but rather that “savages” in the early modern period, whether African or Irish, were “seen as more culturally than racially different from Europeans.” Skin color was “just one signifier that could be trumped by culture” (Wilson 2003, p. 11; Wheeler 2000).

However, historians of science also identify a shift during the 1770s toward the emergence of recognizably modern ideas of race as fixed inherent differences (Stepan 1982). One prominent response to the Somerset case, for example, was Edward Long’s influential 1774 The History of Jamaica. Or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of that Island, in which he made the polygenist argument that “negro” and “white” constituted distinct species (Bohls 1999; Hall 2002; Long 1774; Meijer 1999, p. 60; Swaminathan 2003). Some scholars have argued that polygenism remained a controversial minority viewpoint in British racial thought into the 1860s (Kidd 2006, p. 85; Stepan 1982, p. 3). However it is clear that by the 1770s identities such as Englishness – while defined through government, institutions, and language – nonetheless included recognizably racialized assumptions (Wilson 2003). During this decade implementing the global labor schemes required for imperial expansion was increasingly structured by ideas about race, labor, and rights.

Race and Class

Sometimes downplayed in accounts of British abolition is the classed nature of the movement, and the way that for the British, race and class were articulated social categories that constituted competing objects of reform. Yet this tension is apparent as early as Long’s 1774 History of Jamaica, which compared the happy situation of West Indian slaves with the wretched state of white British laborers and indentured apprentices (Long 1774, p. 571). This comparison marked the inception of what historian of slavery David Brion Davis termed “the contest between the two systems of oppression” (2014, p. 307). Davis argued that British abolitionism had the dual character of both promoting broader moral progress and providing “moral capital” for the ruling classes but at the same time supporting the status quo by “unintentionally diverting attention from domestic issues like ‘wage slavery’.” (Davis 2014, p. 311). Fuelled by a familial “sort of fascinated antagonism,” Britain and the United States perceived each other as “negative reference” groups (Cunliffe 1979, pp. 37–38). This led to the seeming paradox that abolitionist Britain maintained a highly unequal aristocratic monarchy that employed wage slavery for industrialization – while the world’s leading democracy obstinately defended slavery (McDaniel 2013). After 1833, the success of the abolitionists made them a model for other causes, and the tension between concern either for slaves or for convicts was largely overcome; in addition, alliances were embodied, for example, in the work of Joseph Sturge and the Chartists (Fladeland 1984). However, the association of “levelling” ideals with abolition was very damaging to the cause, particularly after 1793 when the Jacobins provided a terrifying example of what social reform might lead to. Specifically, the increasing opprobrium attached to slavery meant that the treatment of white British convicts during the late eighteenth century was defined in relation to African slavery, even as many aspects of the system endured. The slave-like status of white convicts, overwhelmingly working class, remained a central problem throughout the system’s operation.

Already in the late 1770s, perceptions of transportation as a form of slavery drove opposition to the system’s renewal. Reformer Jeremy Bentham saw felons this way, responding to the Hulks Act by advocating the construction of “hard-labor houses” instead and proposing that in order to “inculcate the justice, to augment the terror, and to spread the notoriety of this plan of punishment,” a sign should be erected above the doors of penitentiaries, reading “Violence and knavery/Are the roads to slavery” (Bentham 1778, p. 32). During the 1780s, as the various African experiments were made, including the disastrous Sierra Leone venture of 1786–1787, and transportation to Botany Bay began, convictism and slavery intersected in complex ways (Christopher 2007, 2010). Transportation provided the proslavery lobby with much ammunition as they sought to emphasize the similarities between slavery and British worker oppression – while abolitionists insisted on the distinction between what Thomas Clarkson (1786, pp. 56, 49) termed the “voluntary slaves” of Botany Bay and the legitimate victims of African slavery. In May 1789 the anti-slavery cause aroused great public attention as Wilberforce gave his first speech attacking the trade and describing the terrible middle passage – 2 months before the notorious Second Fleet, or “death fleet,” sailed for Botany Bay. In April 1792 Wilberforce made a famous speech before calling for a vote on his proposed bill, in which he told the story of Captain Kimber’s brutal treatment of a 15-year-old African girl on the slave ship Recovery: she was suspended by the ankle and whipped and subsequently died from her injuries. Following tremendous public scandal, Kimber was prosecuted in what was a landmark case for the anti-slavery movement: for the first time, the treatment of slaves was framed as “murder” (Cobbett 1806–1820; Pollock 1977; Swaminathan 2010, 490, 495–96). The case was tried over 3 days in June 1792, in the same Admiralty session at the Old Bailey in which Captain Donald Trail and his chief officer were prosecuted for their treatment of convicts and crew aboard the “death fleet.”

Considering these two important trials together reveals the shared status of convicts and slaves at this time, as well as its contestation at a key moment in imperial history. Following the safe passage of the well-funded and carefully monitored First Fleet in 1788, the second fleet was seen as an opportunity to cut costs. Leading slave-trading firm, Calvert, Camden and King was contracted for the voyage, and the six ships that sailed in July 1789 arrived with only 75% of her passengers living, while around 40% more were to die within 6 months of reaching Australia (Flynn 1993). As one observer of the diseased and dying passengers exclaimed, “the slave trade is merciful compared to what I have seen in this fleet” (Hill 1790, p. 2; Christopher 2007). Trail’s trial for the murder of an ‘unknown convict’ revealed many shocking features of the convicts’ treatment that were reminiscent of the Atlantic ‘middle passage’. Witnesses described the harshly restrictive slave shackles that allowed little movement, extreme physical violence, the reeking stench and screams in the night, and starvation (Christopher 2007, pp. 116–120; King V Trail and Elrington 1792).

Both trials were attended by powerful supporters of the West Indian interest: naval hero Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Clarence, Admiral Barrington, and Lord Sheffield – who actively interfered to cause the acquittal of all the defendants (Wilberforce and Wilberforce 1838, p. 357; Sugden 2011, p. 400). At this time there were very strong links between British sea power, national security, and colonial affairs and especially between the Royal Navy and the valuable West Indies plantations. As the possibility of war loomed in 1792, many were concerned to support these interests in the face of French naval power (Petley 2016). Clarence’s maiden speech in the house of Lords just 4 weeks earlier had rejected Wilberforce’s Abolition Bill, and he had suggested that “the proponents of the abolition are either fanatics or hypocrites, and in one of those classes I rank Mr. Wilberforce” (The Parliamentary Register 1792, pp. 1349–1350). Clarence’s close friend and mentor Nelson shared these views, and later, as debate reached a climax in 1807, the proslavery lobby was to publish a letter Nelson had written to a sugar planter promising to protect their interests, while he still had a “tongue to launch in my voice against the damnable and cursed doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies” (Laughton 1902, pp. 438–439; Knight 2005, pp. 26–27, 43–117). Both Kimber and Trail had been employed by Calvert, Camden and King (Sturgess and Cozens 2013), but Trail had also served in the navy, under Nelson, who was there to provide a character reference. Barrington and Sheffield were also outspoken proslavery advocates (e.g., Holroyd 1790). During the trial, Clarence had tried to influence the result by “gestures” and “improper conduct” – and his party also dined with the judges (Sugden 2011). As Wilberforce’s sons later told, the case was lost “through the shameful remissness of the Crown lawyers, and the indecent behaviour of a high personage [Clarence, then King William IV of England] who from the bench identified himself with the prisoner’s cause” (Wilberforce and Wilberforce 1838, p. 357). In both cases, Justices Sir James Marriott and Sir William Henry Ashurst, both strong opponents of reform, dismissed the prosecution as malicious, and in a shocking reversal, the accusers were instead prosecuted for perjury.

In one sense, both trials argued for recognition of the passengers’ humanity, whether slave or convict, in prosecuting their treatment. Despite this setback for reform, the Kimber trial has been argued to mark the inception of using newspaper culture to publicize debate, arouse public feeling, and bring the case to trial in the first place (Swaminathan 2010; Carey 2005) – also applicable to the Trail case. Many officials and members of the public were outraged by the treatment of the convicts, and a long and substantial parliamentary paper was printed in March 1792 providing reports on conditions on board the convict vessels, including letters from senior government officials (Accounts and Papers relating to Convicts 1792). Surely for many, the 1792 report, with its appalling description of shipboard conditions, evoked the terrible “middle passage” Wilberforce and his supporters had publicized to great effect just as the death fleet set sail.

Ending Slavery, 1807–1833

In 1793 the war with revolutionary France began, which hindered all reformist causes, including abolition, as official attention focused on trade and colonial interests (Swaminathan 2009, p. 198). After the ratification of the French Constitution of 1793, marking the onset of the Jacobin phase of the French revolution, the abolitionist cause became divided, as many of the elite saw a connection between abolition and radical republicanism. This “new racism” fuelled arguments for the slave trade, and so for the anti-slavery leaders, it was essential to maintain a sharp distinction between the evils of the colonial slave world and the ostensibly free social institutions that had been imperiled both by French tyranny and English “Jacobins” (Davis 2014, pp. 307–308, 311–312; Lambert 2005; Oldfield 1995). Wilberforce, an ardent anti-Jacobin, acknowledged that their friendliness toward abolition “operates to the injury of our cause” (Blackburn 1988, pp. 146–147). Contemporaries accused him of hypocrisy in his concern for slaves, yet commitment to Britain’s deeply unequal social order: opponents such as William Cobbett accused Wilberforce, “[n]ever have you done one single act, in favour of the labourers of this country; but many and many an act have you done against them” (Cobbett 1823, pp. 516–517). However, despite Cobbett’s accusations, Wilberforce and other members of the anti-slavery movement were in fact very concerned for convicts and for religious life in the new colonies. As his biographer James Stephens later wrote, “While others were regarding the Australian continent only as a vast receptacle for convicts, [Mr Wilberforce’s] Parliamentary influence was used for laying the foundations of the Church which now [1849] occupies every inhabited district of New South Wales” (1849, p. 511).

Finally, as Britain mastered France, and as the effect of events in the Caribbean such as the St. Domingue revolution of 1804 were felt, new pragmatic abolitionist arguments were made for making slave society a productive and loyal workforce of citizens. Following parliamentary debate, the Foreign Slave Trade Bill passed, forbidding British ships to engage in the slave trade after 1 January 1808.

The movement to finally abolish slavery itself across the Empire gathered pace after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. In January 1823 the anti-slavery movement was revitalized when William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, and other veteran abolitionists established the “Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery throughout the British Dominions.” During the 1820s the British anti-slavery movement legitimated the precepts of free-market capitalism, emphasizing the distinction between slave and “free” labor first popularized by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (Turley 1991). Anti-slavery campaigners argued that free labor would expand markets, by allowing the worker to become a consumer – while wage labor would motivate productivity (e.g., Davis 1999; Drescher 2002, p. 54). However in place of the harsh physical constraints of slavery, many advocated the economic, legal, and moral disciplining of workers. As Eric Williams first claimed, and as recent analysis has affirmed, the slave colonies’ economic value to the empire diminished during the 1820s, and only protection ensured the viability of West Indian sugar (Williams 1944; Draper 2009; Blackburn 1988, pp. 433–435). Abolition was not due solely to the moral persuasion of the humanitarians, but was eventually achieved when ending slavery became economically and politically advantageous.

In the decade leading up to the triumph of abolition in 1833, the colonies began to offer an alternative for the investment of capital, goods, and people, as instantiated by the life-journeys of figures moving from the plantations of the West Indies to Australia. As British policy-makers and investors pondered how to colonize, the question of a colonial labor force became pressing. The now-ascendant anti-slavery movement insisted upon the distinction between “black” slavery and free “white” labor. Debates about the establishment of the Swan River Colony on the west coast of Australia in 1829 map the ways in which “free labor” emerged as a central principle in debates about both emancipation and colonization. While Swan River was the first free Australian colony, links to slavery are particularly visible in the form of arguments against free labor and the advocacy of racial, as well as class, labor hierarchies. The failure of laissez-faire at Swan River made it an example of how not to colonize, helping Edward Gibbon Wakefield to argue for the “concentration” – that is, disciplining – of white labor in his formulation of systematic colonization. Concurrent with the making of the English working class, Swan River was formative in the making of a colonial working class, entrenching the principle of regulated but free white labor as constitutive of the settler colony (Lydon forthcoming).

Conversely, in the older penal colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, in spite of Governor Phillip’s early proclamation, by the 1820s, the transportation system was being criticized for its likeness to the slave trade.

In August 1833 British Parliament abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Cape when it passed the “Act for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Colonies, for promoting the industry of manumitted slaves, and for compensating the persons hitherto entitled to the services of such slaves.” In place of slavery the negotiated settlement established a system of apprenticeship and granted £20 million in compensation, to be paid by British taxpayers to the former slave-owners (Draper 2009). Arguments against transportation also strengthened, and the new reformist Whig government immediately lowered the rate of convict transportation to New South Wales. In 1838, the scandalous Molesworth report declared that “[t]ransportation is much more than exile; it is slavery as well.” For critics, opposition to transportation – and especially corporal punishment, and particularly flogging – focused on anxieties about the legitimacy of the wider British imperial project. In 1840 the system was halted altogether in favor of the Probation System in Van Diemen’s Land (Hirst 1983; Maxwell-Stewart 2010; Meyering 2010). Nonetheless, slavery continued to be central to domestic and imperial histories until at least the mid-nineteenth century (Hall et al. 2014).

Slavery in the Colonies During the Nineteenth Century

“Slavery” was frequently invoked in the settler colony of Australia, seemingly so distant from the Atlantic slave trade and its canonical forms of subjection and exploitation. The British anti-slavery campaign accumulated tremendous cultural, moral, and affective power and was subsequently adopted for many different social causes throughout the nineteenth century. Following abolition, the movement’s leaders sought to redirect popular interest toward the empire’s Indigenous peoples, as exemplified by the 1835–1836 “Select Committee on Aborigines” inquiry (Aborigines Select Committee) chaired by abolitionist parliamentarian Thomas Fowell Buxton. The Aborigines Select Committee applied the language of anti-slavery to British settlers and attempted to define principles that would uphold the rights of Indigenous people across the empire (Elbourne 2003). The Aborigines Select Committee represented a high point of humanitarian influence and laid the foundations for the establishment of the Aborigines Protection Society. Yet during the 1830s white settlers in the Australian colonies sought to consolidate their possession of Aboriginal land, prompting tension between colonists and Aboriginal people, and between settlers and British humanitarian interests. Humanitarians deploying anti-slavery rhetoric arguments collided with the realities of the frontier in 1830s New South Wales, and those caricaturing Aboriginal people as inhuman savages. However, focusing blame upon the convict perpetrators also allowed upper-class humanitarians to displace responsibility from the system of colonization itself (Lydon 2018).

Historians have often overlooked popular humanitarian politics during the later nineteenth century, assuming that abolitionist zeal had died out by the end of the American Civil War. However while the older anti-slavery organizations may have declined, they were replaced with newer forms of anti-slavery, sometimes termed an anti-slavery “pluralism,” that were particularly evident in literature and culture (Huzzey 2012). Abolitionist arguments became more diffuse over the second half of the nineteenth century but continued to be drawn upon by a range of social reformers. In Australia, a diverse range of relations between colonists and Indigenous peoples were characterized as slavery, including forced indenture, trafficking, and prostitution. As the frontier moved north, attempts to control violence and the ill-treatment of Indigenous people evoked anti-slavery arguments in Queensland and northwestern Western Australia (e.g., Lydon 2014; Paisley 2014). Like other forms of humanitarian politics, anti-slavery ideals were profoundly imbricated with the apparatus of colonial government, challenging simple oppositions between moral and political, philanthropic, and colonial interests. Conversely, abolitionist and imperial ideologies could be mutually sustaining among the British public and were drawn upon to argue for the expansion of empire. Such analogies reveal how metropolitan ideas about humanity, freedom, and ultimately human rights have been tested against colonial experience, while domestic Australian interests were adjudicated by imperial humanitarianism, in a dialogue that was global in scope.

By the 1890s Britain witnessed the largest revival of anti-slavery protest since the early nineteenth century, focused on condemning the coercive systems of labor taxation and indentured servitude of the so-called new slaveries of European imperialism in Africa. Britain’s identity and imperial reputation were at stake in these debates, as safeguarding free labor assumed central importance as a marker of progressive colonial rule that distanced Britain from an earlier era of slavery. The late nineteenth century was a pivotal period in British anti-slavery protest, bridging the gap between the Victorian era of abolition and the rise of human rights protest under international government (Grant 2005). Regarding Australia, however, accusations of slavery prompted an embarrassed silence, as granting responsible government and federation entailed bargaining away Indigenous people’s rights.


Many important studies of the British anti-slavery movement and its aftermath have focused on European domestic reform (e.g., Drescher 2009). Critics such as Saidiya Hartman, however, have argued for including the colonial dimensions of this global story (Hartmann 2010). On one level, the prominence of the Atlantic slave trade can be linked to the success of the anti-slavery movement and its continuing celebration in collective memory. However, as historians have recently shown, unfree labor “flows” enabled European expansion and comprised diverse forms of coerced labor migration (e.g., Allen 2014; Anderson and Maxwell-Stewart 2013; Anderson 2016). This focus on the category of labor is an important shift in analysis that transcends national and Anglocentric interests. Situating Australia in the context of international anti-slavery networks reveals the importance of colonial experience within the global history of anti-slavery and in shaping post-emancipation racialized labor regimes within a global history of unfree labor.

However it is also important to acknowledge that such distinctions emerged and have remained powerful due to the centrality of racial taxonomies in Western thought and culture and their relationship to definitions of rights. In addition, adding the category of white convict to the broad opposition between British concern for blacks but not for white workers (by contrast with US concern for democracy but adherence to slavery) extends and destabilizes this binary framework. Convicts and their slave-like but contested status reflected a deeply classed British world view. Finally, by including colonial experience, we are reminded of the near-total abnegation of Indigenous rights. Celebration of abolition in the Caribbean has acted to obscure British complicity in invasion and dispossession of Australian Aboriginal people. The inception of Australian transportation and the emergence of the anti-slavery movement at the same time was not a coincidence, but rather expresses the growing concern for the treatment of labor and the rights of British subjects as the empire expanded. Tensions around the status and treatment of white felons were perhaps most visible through the lens of arguments regarding African slaves, but the many shared features of both systems of forced labor generated enduring ideas about race, labor, and rights.



  1. Accounts and Papers relating to Convicts on Board the Hulks and those Transported to New South Wales. (1792). Sydney: Dixon Library.Google Scholar
  2. Allen, R. B. (2009). Suppressing a nefarious traffic: Britain and the abolition of slave trading in India and the Western Indian Ocean, 1770–1830. William and Mary Quarterly, 66(4), 873–894.Google Scholar
  3. Allen, R. B. (2014). Slaves, convicts, abolitionism and the global origins of the post-emancipation indentured labor system. Slavery & Abolition, 35(2), 328–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Anderson, C. (2016). Transnational histories of penal transportation: Punishment, labour and governance in the British Imperial world, 1788–1939. Australian Historical Studies, 47(3), 381–397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Anderson, C., & Maxwell-Stewart, H. (2013). Convict labour and the Western empires, 1415–1954. In R. Aldrich & K. McKenzie (Eds.), The Routledge history of Western empires (pp. 102–117). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Atkinson, A. (1994). The free-born Englishman transported: Convict rights as a measure of eighteenth-century empire. Past and Present, 144, 88–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Atkinson, A. (2016). The Europeans in Australia. volume 1: The beginning. Sydney: NewSouth Books.Google Scholar
  8. Beckles, H. (1991). A history of Barbados. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Bentham, J. (1778). A view of the Hard-Labour bill; being an abstract of a pamphlet, Intitled, ‘Draught of a bill, to punish by imprisonment and Hard-Labour, certain offenders; and to establish proper places for their reception’. London: T. Payne and Son.Google Scholar
  10. Blackburn, R. (1988). The overthrow of colonial slavery, 1776–1848. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  11. Bohls, E. A. (1999). The gentleman planter and the metropole: Long’s history of Jamaica (1774). In G. Maclean, D. Landry, & J. P. Ward (Eds.), The country and the City revisited: England and the politics of culture, 1550–1850 (pp. 180–181). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Bolland, N., & Shoman, A. (1975). Land in Belize, 1765–1871: The origins of land tenure, use and distribution in a dependent economy. Kingston: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies.Google Scholar
  13. Bolton, G. C. (1980). William Eden and the convicts, 1771–1787. Australian Journal of Politics and History, 26(1), 30–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Braidwood, S. (1994). Black poor and white philanthropists: London’s blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement 1786–1791. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Brooks, A. (2016). Prisoners or servants? A history of the legal status of Britain’s transported convicts. PhD thesis, School of Humanities. University of Tasmania.Google Scholar
  16. Brown, C. (2006). Moral capital: Foundations of British abolitionism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  17. Burnard, T. (2012). The Atlantic slave trade. In G. Heuman & T. Burnard (Eds.), The Routledge history of slavery (pp. 80–97). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. Burnard, T. (2015). Freedom, migration, and the American revolution. In E. H. Gould & P. S. Onuf (Eds.), Empire and nation: The American revolution in the Atlantic world (pp. 295–314). Baltimore: JHU Press.Google Scholar
  19. Butler, J. D. (1896). British convicts shipped to American colonies. The American Historical Review, 2(1), 12–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Carey, B. (2005). British abolitionism and the rhetoric of sensibility: Writing, sentiment, and slavery, 1760–1807. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Christopher, E. (2007). The slave trade is merciful compared to [this]’: Slave traders, convict transportation, and the abolitionists. In E. Christopher, C. Pybus, & M. Rediker (Eds.), Many middle passages: Forced migration and the making of the modern (pp. 109–128). Berkeley: World University of California Press.Google Scholar
  22. Christopher, E. (2008). A “disgrace to the very colour”: Perceptions of blackness and whiteness in the founding of Sierra Leone and Botany Bay. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 9(3). Project MUSE).
  23. Christopher, E. (2010). A merciless place: The lost story of Britain’s convict disaster in Africa and how it led to the settlement of Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.Google Scholar
  24. Christopher, E., & Maxwell-Stewart, H. (2015). Convict transportation in global context, c.1700–88. In A. Bashford & S. Macintyre (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Australia. volume 1: Indigenous and colonial Australia (pp. 68–90). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Clark, M. (1999). A history of Australia. Volumes 1 & 2: From the earliest times to 1838. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Clarkson, T. (1786). An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species. London: T. Cadell & J. Phillips.Google Scholar
  27. Cobbett, W. (1806–1820). The Parliamentary History of England. From the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the Year 1803, 36 volumes. London: T. Curson Hansard.Google Scholar
  28. Cobbett, W. (1823). Cobbett’s weekly register (Vol. 46). London: J.M. Cobbett.Google Scholar
  29. Coleman, D. (2005). Romantic colonization and British anti-slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Cunliffe, M. (1979). Chattel slavery and wage slavery: The Anglo-American context 1830–1860. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.Google Scholar
  31. Davis, D. B. (1999). The problem of slavery in the age of revolution 1770–1823. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Davis, D. B. (2014). The problem of slavery in the age of emancipation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  33. Draper, N. (2009). The Price of emancipation: Slave-ownership, compensation, and British Society at the end of slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Drescher, S. (2002). The mighty experiment: Free labor versus slavery in British emancipation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Drescher, S. (2009). Abolition: A history of slavery and antislavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ekirch, A. R. (1990). Bound for America: The transportation of British convicts to the colonies, 1718–1775. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Elbourne, E. (2003). The sin of the settler: The 1835–36 select committee on aborigines and debates over virtue and conquest. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 4(3), 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Engerman, S. L. (1986). Servants to slaves to servants: Contract labour and European expansion. In P. C. Emmer (Ed.), Colonialism and migration; Indentured labour before and after slavery. Comparative studies in overseas history (Vol. 7, pp. 263–294). Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Fladeland, B. (1984). Abolitionists and working-class problems in the age of industrialization. London: Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Flynn, Michael. (1993). The Second Fleet: Britain’s Grim Convict Armada of 1799, North Sydney: Library of Australian History.Google Scholar
  41. Frost, A. (1987). Arthur Phillip, 1738–1814: His voyaging. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Frost, A. (2012). Botany bay: The real story. Melbourne: Black Books.Google Scholar
  43. Gillen, M. (1982). The Botany bay decision, 1786: Convicts, not empire. The English Historical Review, 97(385), 740–766.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Grant, K. (2005). A civilised savagery: Britain and the new slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Gray, D. (2016). Crime, policing and punishment in England, 1660–1914. London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
  46. Grubb, F. (2000). The transatlantic market for British convict labour. Journal of Economic History, 60(1), 94–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Hall, C. (2002). Civilising subjects: Metropole and colony in the English imagination 1830–1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  48. Hall, C., Draper, N., McClelland, K., Donington, K., & Lang, R. (2014). Legacies of British slave-ownership. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Hartmann, S. (2010). Review of Drescher, S. (2002). The Mighty experiment: Free labor versus slavery in British emancipation. The American Historical Review, 115(4), 1103–1106.Google Scholar
  50. Hill, W. (1790). Letter to Jonathan Wathen, colonial office records, original correspondence – Secretary of state, port Jackson, CO 201/5. London: Public Record Office. Available: Scholar
  51. Hirst, J. (1983). Convict society and its enemies: A history of early New South Wales. Sydney: George Allen and Unwin.Google Scholar
  52. Historical records of New South Wales. (1892). Vol. 1, part 2. Phillip, 1783–1792. Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer.Google Scholar
  53. Holroyd, John (Earl of Sheffield). (1790). Observations on the project for abolishing the slave trade. London: Printed for J. Debrett.Google Scholar
  54. Huzzey, R. (2012). Freedom burning: Anti-slavery and empire in Victorian Britain. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Journal of the House of Commons. (1782–1784). volume 39. London: The House of Commons.Google Scholar
  56. Kidd, C. (2006). The forging of races: Race and scripture in the Protestant Atlantic world, 1600–2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Knight, R. (2005). The pursuit of victory: The life and achievement of Horatio Nelson. New York: Perseus Publishing.Google Scholar
  58. Lambert, D. (2005). White creole culture, politics and identity during the age of abolition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Land, I., & Schocket, A. M. (2008). New approaches to the founding of the Sierra Leone Colony, 1786–1808. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 9(3. Project MUSE).
  60. Laughton, J. K. (Ed.). (1902). The naval miscellany. London: Navy Records Society.Google Scholar
  61. Long, E. (1774). The history of Jamaica. Or, general survey of the Antient and modern state of that island. London: T. Lowndes.Google Scholar
  62. Lydon, J. (2014). The Bloody Skirt of Settlement: Arthur Vogan and Anti-Slavery in 1890s Australia. Anti-Slavery and its Legacies, Special Issue of Australian Historical Studies, 45(1), 46–70.Google Scholar
  63. Lydon, J. (2018). Colonial ‘blind spots’: Images of Australian frontier conflict. Journal of Australian Studies, 42(4), 409–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Lydon, J. (forthcoming). Slavery’s swan (River) song: The decline of British slavery and the making of a colonial working class. Unpublished paper.Google Scholar
  65. Maxwell-Stewart, H. (2007). ‘Like poor galley slaves’: Slavery and convict transportation. In M. S. Fernandes Dias (Ed.), Legacies of slavery: Comparative perspectives (pp. 48–61). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.Google Scholar
  66. Maxwell-Stewart, H. (2010). Convict transportation from Britain and Ireland 1615–1870. History Compass, 8(11), 1221–1242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Maxwell-Stewart, H. (2015). Convict labour and extraction and transportation from Britain and Ireland, 1615–1870. In C. De Vito & A. Lichtenstein (Eds.), Global convict labour (pp. 168–196). Leiden: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. McDaniel, W. C. (2013). The problem of democracy in the age of slavery: Garrisonian abolitionists and transnational reform. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.Google Scholar
  69. McIntyre, K. (1984). The Rebello manuscripts: Governor Phillip’s Portuguese prelude. London: Souvenir Press.Google Scholar
  70. Meijer, M. C. (1999). Race and aesthetics in the anthropology of Petrus camper (1722–1789). Amsterdam: Rodopi.Google Scholar
  71. Meyering, I. B. (2010). Abolitionism, settler violence and the case against flogging. History Australia, 7(1), 06.1–06.18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Nicholas, S., & Shergold, P. R. (1988). Transportation as global migration. In S. Nicholas (Ed.), Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past (pp. 8–61). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  73. Oldfield, J. R. (1995). Popular politics and British anti-slavery: The mobilisation of public opinion against the slave trade, 1787–1807. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  74. Paisley, F. (2014). An Echo of black slavery: Emancipation, forced labour and Australia in 1933. Anti-Slavery and its Legacies, Special Issue of Australian Historical Studies, 45(1), 103–125.Google Scholar
  75. Paley, R. (2002). After somerset: Mansfield, slavery and the law in England, 1772–1830. In N. Landau (Ed.), Law, crime, and English society, 1660–1830 (pp. 165–184). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Petley, C. (2016). The Royal Navy, the British Atlantic empire and the abolition of the slave trade. In J. McAleer & C. Petley (Eds.), The Royal Navy and the British Atlantic world, c.1750–1820 (pp. 97–121). London: Palgrave Macmillan Limited.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. ‘Phillip’s Views (1787) ‘Phillip’s Views on the Conduct of the Expedition and the Treatment of Convicts’. Historical records of New South Wales. Phillip, 1783–1792. pp. 50–54. Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer. v. 1, pt. 2, p. 53.Google Scholar
  78. Pollock, J. (1977). Wilberforce. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  79. Stepan, N. (1982). The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800–1960. Hamden: Archon.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Stephen, J. (1849). Essays in ecclesiastical biography. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.Google Scholar
  81. Sturgess, G. L., & Cozens, K. (2013). Managing a global enterprise in the eighteenth century: Anthony calvert of the crescent, London, 1777–1808. The Mariner’s Mirror, 99(2), 171–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Sugden, J. (2011). Nelson: A dream of glory, 1758–1797. Pimlico: Random House.Google Scholar
  83. Swaminathan, S. (2003). Developing the west Indian proslavery position after the Somerset decision. Slavery and Abolition, 24(3), 40–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Swaminathan, S. (2009). Debating the slave trade: Rhetoric of British National Identity, 1759–1815. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  85. Swaminathan, S. (2010). Reporting atrocities: A comparison of the Zong and the trial of captain John Kimber. Slavery and Abolition, 31(4), 483–499.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Temperley, H. (1972). British antislavery 1833–1870. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  87. The Parliamentary Register: or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons: Containing an Account of the Most Interesting Speeches and Motions; Accurate Copies of the Most Remarkable Letters and Papers; of the Most Material Evidence, Petitions, & c., laid before and offered to the House, 45 vols 1781–1796. (1792). XXIX. London: J. Almon and J.Debrett.Google Scholar
  88. Trail, K. V., & Elrington. (1792). NA TS 11/381. London: Public Record Office.Google Scholar
  89. Turley, D. (1991). The culture of English antislavery, 1780–1860. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  90. Walvin, J. (2001). Black ivory: Slavery in the British empire. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  91. Wheeler, R. (2000). The complexion of race: Categories of difference in eighteenth-century British culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Wilberforce, R. I., & Wilberforce, S. (1838). The life of William Wilberforce. London: John Murray.Google Scholar
  93. Williams, E. (1944). Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  94. Wilson, K. (2003). The island race: Englishness, empire and gender in the eighteenth century. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  95. Wise, S. M. (2006). Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Case that led to the end of human slavery. Pimlico: Random House.Google Scholar
  96. Yang, A. (2003). Indian convict Workers in Southeast Asia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Journal of World History, 14(2), 182–191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wesfarmers Chair of Australian HistoryThe University of Western AustraliaWestern AustraliaAustralia