Aboriginal unionists in the 1890s shearers' strikes: A forgotten history

by Jordan Humphreys • Published 20 August 2021

The aboriginal natives do all kinds of station work, such as dipping, shepherding, yarning, wool rolling, and wool pressing for their tucker, with sometimes a shirt or pair of pants thrown in. It’s a wonder they don’t spear more whites than they do, as they are treated worse than dogs by a jugful.

– A shearer’s letter from Western Australia published in The Hummer, 1891.[1]

On 13 August 1894, 90 “free labourers”, the misleading euphemism given to workers willing to scab on strikers, arrived via a special train at Cobar. The shearing season in western New South Wales was about to begin, but this time the station owners were hell-bent on crushing the shearing unions that had called out shearers across the colonies to strike from the beginning of August. Upon arrival the scabs broke up into three groups to travel to sheep stations at Gidgee, Tindarey and Coronga Downs with police escorts. They would have to be taken directly to the stations, as unionists had already convinced all the local hotels not to give them accommodation. Those bound for Tindarey were 10 miles up the Bourke road before they ran into trouble.[2]

A hundred unionists on horseback surrounded the scabs and the police, hooting at Inspector Armstrong, Sergeant Niles and his 17 officers. At the head of the unionists was one of the leaders of the strike camp, Andrew Stuart Stepney, known as “Black Andy”. The police and “free labourers” pushed on ahead only to find that the gate on the road had been tied shut with wire and covered in branches. While the police went to work breaking open the gate, the unionists pushed against the crowd. Some rode their horses aggressively around the vehicles carrying the scabs, shouting at them, while others leaned over to argue with the men to abandon the scabbing operation and join the union. Every couple of miles the crowd paused as another gate had to be opened up and the scene repeated itself. During the delays a few “free men” would jump ship and join the unionists to be “received with cheers”. At one gate a lynch pin of one of the trolleys used by the scabs was removed and the wheels fell off when it started up again. Somewhat humorously, Stepney spent half an hour arguing with a repentant young man – only to discover he was a plain clothes policeman.

The crowd swelled as it got closer to Tindarey. The miners from Villagoe, mostly Cornish, had left work to join the shouting and arguing with the scabbing operation. The union crowd trampled over the fences marking the station as private property, ignoring the warnings of police. It was only at 100 yards from the station sheds that the police formed a line strong enough to stop the unionists from advancing any further.

Despite being a veteran of the 1891 shearers’ strike, the 15-mile battle had clearly shaken Sergeant Niles, who postponed plans to escort more workers to the other stations. Fourteen of the scab crew had already thrown up their hands and joined the union, and Niles could only watch on as several hundred unionists, headed by Stepney, marched back up the road cheering. A week later Stepney and another striker, William Quinlan, were summoned to appear before the Cobar court on charges of “wilfully trespassing on the grounds of Tindarey station”.[3]

The battle between the unionists and the squatters had only just begun. But in the press the fight between the claims of both was joined by a new concern – just who was this “Black Andy”?

The Evening News claimed that he was an “American negro”. A letter sent to The Worker (Wagga) painted a picture of dangerous racial miscegenation at the Billagoe strike camp:

“Black Andy” (Andrew Stuart Stepney) is representative of the union camp at Billagoe, 26 miles from Cobar, on the Bourke Road. A man named Russell, who is a half-caste Maori, is chairman of the camp committee, and for some time a New Zealand shearer, born in Germany, acted as secretary, with an assistant hailing from old Erin. One of the roustabouts on strike has a German father, a French mother, and was born in (Dam) Chicago. How’s that for the brotherhood of Labour, Mr. Editor?[4]

To which the editor replied “That’s all right”.

Andy also appeared a few weeks later, and over 1,000 kilometres away, at Bowen Downs, leading striking shearers against one of the biggest stations in Queensland.[5] His appearance at Bowen Downs sent the conservative press into a frenzy. As a racist poem published in over a dozen papers across the country went:

Feller-toilers, wot’s the matter ? Is the worker goin’ buck,

That we’ve got to find a leader in a pure-bred Yankee black?[6]

The 8 September issue of The Worker (Wagga) reported Andy’s reply to his new found celebrity. He was “very much hurt at the Evening News describing him as an ‘American negro’”; Andy explained that his grandmother was Aboriginal, and claimed his father was a “Zulu chief”. The Worker added that he had been a unionist since 1886.[7]

Stepney had been born in Adelaide around 1850,[8] and spent his early teenage years working on ships but came to hate the sea. He then worked at a pastoral station owned by the famous Chirnside brothers, who were some of the first to employ Aboriginal station hands,[9] but he left after six months because they refused to pay him wages. His mother died from alcohol and Stepney then found himself destitute in Melbourne. He is reported as saying that “whenever he got any little jobs the other boys persecuted his life”, with one other boy cutting his knuckles with a knife for getting a job. At age 15 he appealed to a judge to send him to an industrial school in order for him to learn how to be a tailor. It’s unknown if his request was accepted, but by around 1874 he was back in the country working on paddle ships and is said to have become a “well-known character on the Darling”.[10] Decades later there were several letters in rural newspapers about the “Legend of Black Andy” in which people recalled him performing several amazing physical feats (he was often described as a “giant”). By 1887 he lived in Wilcannia, which one of his friends called his “home”, and as noted joined the shearers’ union. Stepney also participated in a shearers’ strike in Hay, NSW during 1890[11] and amused a shearers’ union meeting with tales about the conditions in the shearing sheds. He appears to have spent some time in Queensland after the 1894 strike, being a regular attendee and personality at the Mutti cricket games in 1898.[12] He died sometime in the late 1910s or early 1920s at Broken Hill.[13]

There are no books that acknowledge Stepney, in fact not a single currently published article even references his existence, and as we shall see he wasn’t the only Aboriginal man caught up in the great shearing wars of the 1890s. In fact some hundreds of Aboriginal workers participated in the shearers’ unions during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. This is a challenge to the stereotypical ideal of the Australian bush worker ingrained in our national culture. For much of the twentieth century the shearer was the epitome of the rugged proletarian White Australian. “The Bushman was not merely a white man of the standardised frontier type”, wrote Vance Palmer who invoked the emotional imagery of a whole tradition of Australian intellectuals, “He belonged to the country he had made his own and no other; he had linked himself to it through his feelings and imagination”.[14]

The participation of Aboriginal workers in the shearing strikes is also a challenge to left historians who have noted the racism of the shearers’ unions and then mistakenly believed that Aboriginal workers played no role within the shearers’ unions. Mark Wisely’s thesis argues that white unionist shearers displayed only “paternal contempt” for Aboriginal workers.[15] This accords with much contemporary writing on the Australian working class and its relationship to Indigenous people. Sai Englert for instance has asserted that in countries with a history of settler colonialism such as Australia, “settler labour movements fought for the intensification of settler expansion and racial segregation…through colour bars, boycott campaigns and demands for expulsion”. Furthermore Englert argues that in periods of heightened class conflict, settler colonial societies can resolve these conflicts by “intensifying the dispossession of Indigenous populations in order to improve the material conditions of settler workers”.[16]

In regard to the unionised shearers and Indigenous people in Australia, all of this is a ridiculous exaggeration that is not backed up by the formal policy of the unions or their actual practice. It is rebutted by looking at the views presented in newspapers published by shearers’ unions or those close to them at the time, such as The Worker, published by the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australasia (ASU) and then the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) in Wagga, NSW, and Worker, edited by the early trade union leader William Lane, who helped found the shearers’ union in Queensland, and which was strongly associated with the shearers’ union.

Englert’s argument that settler societies can resolve periods of class conflict through passing on the benefits of colonisation to non-Indigenous workers doesn’t fit with the actual history of class conflict in 1890s Australia. This was a period of intense class struggle in which tens of thousands of workers challenged the authority of the capitalist class and the state. There was a genuine fear in ruling-class circles that it could lead to a revolutionary situation, particularly following the flying of the Eureka flag at the Barcaldine strike camp in 1891 – which was interpreted as a declaration of insurrection by the Queensland colonial government. One thousand military personnel were mobilised to defeat the strike, and 13 of the strike leaders were arrested and charged with sedition and conspiracy.[17] These fears revived during the 1894 strike, which was even more violent than in 1891, epitomised by the burning of the riverboat, the Rodney, which was transporting scabs up the Darling River.[18] Yet the relationship between those workers and the Aboriginal population was very different from Englert’s argument.

There is plenty of evidence of involvement of Aboriginal workers in rural union battles throughout the 1890s. During the 1891 shearers’ strike in Queensland, an Aboriginal man named Moffat was involved in fighting scabs, another Aboriginal man named Mickey was arrested for shooting at a sentry at the Delta station[19] and Aboriginal workers were a part of the strike camp at Charleville.[20] In NSW there were around 30 Aboriginal workers at the Warri Moffatt strike camp.[21] In 1892 a mass meeting of 50 Aboriginal workers at the Wallaroo Eucalyptus Works in Queensland voted to go on strike against low wages after asking the advice of a white unionist. The strike ended a week later in defeat, but with the workers burning an effigy of the boss.[22] Near Mungindi in the same year an Aboriginal shed worker asked the shearers’ union representative if “it would do his mates any harm for the blackfellows to kick a bit to improve things”. When the union rep assured him it “was all right”, the Aboriginal workers went on strike. The Aboriginal agitator who had started the strike told the union rep that “Blackfeller better sit on bank of a creek for nothing than work for blanky squatters at the same price”.[23]

To understand how these Aboriginal men found themselves in the turbulent union battles at the end of the century we have to put aside some established academic “truths” and try to reconstruct the actual relationship between shearers, their unions and Aboriginal workers in the last years of the nineteenth century.

It is often assumed that the shearers’ unions universally excluded Aboriginal workers from membership.[24] Judith Elton recalls attending a meeting of trade unionists in South Australia in 1997 at which she was shocked to find that most people believed that the AWU “uniformly excluded Aboriginal workers from membership until the 1960s”.[25] The author of a Sydney University PhD thesis from 2009 goes so far as to believe that there were no Aboriginal shearers.[26] The reality is almost the exact opposite. While the early shearers’ unions had racist rules that excluded various so called “foreign aliens” such as the Chinese, South Sea Islanders and “Afghans”, these rules did not apply to Aboriginal workers (and some others like Maori workers and African Americans) in the shearers’ unions of New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland. This was later explicitly clarified when these shearers’ unions amalgamated to form the AWU in 1894, whose rules stated:

The union shall be open to all bona fide wage-earners, male or female, except Chinese, Japanese, Kanakas, Afghans, and other coloured aliens. (This shall not apply to Aborigines, Maoris, American negroes, or to the children of mixed marriages born in Australasia.)[27]

The Australian Shearers’ Union was formed in 1886 in Ballarat, with similar unions being established across New South Wales and South Australia during the same year. Aboriginal workers were involved from the very beginning. As already noted, Andy Stepney had union tickets from 1886. In a series of articles in the Worker, early union leader AJ Sullivan remembers being asked to speak at a massive meeting of shearers in Wagga during 1885 which was run by an Aboriginal shearer named “Tommy”, who had been commissioned to organise the union meeting by mostly white shearers at the Binya station in Merool. The meeting ended in a brawl between Tommy and some others, but laid the basis for the future Wagga branch of the shearers’ union.[28]

An early experience that must have shaped the leaders of the shearers’ unions was an organising tour of New Zealand at the end of 1886. The goal of this trip was to win shearers in New Zealand to unionism so they couldn’t be used as scabs in the Australian colonies. While they initially focused on recruiting white shearers on the South Island, David Temple got into contact with Maori workers, who did the majority of shearing on the North Island, and found them enthusiastic about the idea of unionism. Temple proposed that they would be open to joining en masse once the union’s rules were translated into their own language.[29]

The Australian Shearers’ Union joined with several other unions in NSW and SA to form the ASU in 1887. Throughout the late 1880s the union fought a running battle with the pastoralists, rapidly gaining thousands of members. The issue of Aboriginal workers was discussed in some detail at the 1891 ASU conference.

At this conference there was discussion about a motion moved by the Creswick, Victoria, branch of the ASU that would allow all Aboriginal workers to be admitted as life members of the union without paying any union fees, as long as they refused to work in non-union sheds like other ASU members. Temple supported this motion, arguing that “It is a graceful act to those from whom the country has been taken. No liberal minded man could surely object to this concession to the original owners of the soil”. Cook, a delegate from South Australia, concurred, making the point that it would be a graceful act to allow Aboriginal workers to join without having to pay union fees considering “their circumstances were not the same as white men, and their earnings were not the same”.

Some delegates objected to the motion on the basis that Aboriginal workers were less committed to unionism and so shouldn’t get special treatment for their lack of interest, that “they were not altogether to be depended upon”, and that if “poverty was a justification for free membership, there were numbers of white men who deserved similar consideration”. These arguments were rebutted by delegates who drew upon their experiences organising Aboriginal shearers. Cook stated “there were 60 or 70 in South Australia, all good unionists”. McInerney, from Young, NSW, said “he wished all the white men were as good as the Australian darkies – they were fine fellows as far as he saw. He knew a number who had cleared out of the shed when it was found ‘non-union’”. Percy, from Cobar, NSW, was “in favour of enrolling all the Aboriginals”. He explained that “In one shed in Cobar an aboriginal was the only one of twenty who walked away for unionism”.[30]

In the end a compromise motion was reached which waived the entrance fee for “pure bred aborigines” only. Whatever one thinks about this debate, the significant thing is that it was over whether special measures were needed to recruit more Aboriginal workers, not over whether they should be members or not. As well, at least some of the unionists in the debate articulated an awareness of the dispossession of Indigenous people and its consequences.

These attitudes weren’t limited just to shearers in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. The Queensland Shearers’ Union (QSU), despite complaining that the ASU was too soft on the “coloured question”, also refused to exclude Aboriginal workers in the union rules. Even the short-lived right-wing split from the QSU, the National Union of Labour based at the Wolfang station, supported employment for Aboriginal workers.[31]

It was more difficult in the more recently colonised sections of the continent such as Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In far-flung places like the Kimberley frontier the pastoral industry was much more dependent upon Aboriginal labour. Unionisation was also much slower to develop, with a stable shearers’ union not being formed until 1900 in Western Australia. Here slavery-like conditions for Aboriginal workers were rampant; many station owners were also involved in the “black-birding” trade that would see Aboriginal workers used as forced labour for the pearling industry. They would also “trade” the Aboriginal people who lived on their land with other station owners when they needed them, and were constantly pushing for the police to do more to crush any sign of Aboriginal resistance.[32]

The issue of Aboriginal workers wasn’t confined just to the official rules of these unions or the 1891 ASU conference. A number of articles in the newspapers of the shearers’ unions reveal both the strengths and limitations of the union members’ attitudes to Aboriginal workers.

At the end of the nineteenth century the genocidal wars of conquest that had torn control over the land out of Indigenous hands was still within living memory, and in fact continued in some parts of the colonies. The British colonists had taken control over the whole continent through the use of force. You could try to justify this, ignore it, glamourise, condemn or feel guilty about it, but few at the time, as compared to later generations, really tried to deny the basic fact of what had happened.

While they aren’t free of various racist ideas about Aboriginal people, the general attitude of the vast majority of articles, letters and editorials within the newspapers of the early shearers’ unions that discussed these issues was acknowledgement that the colonisation was based on theft without any moral justification, sympathy for the situation this put Aboriginal people in, and condemnation of the continuation of violent attacks upon Aboriginal communities by the police and pastoralists.

So an 1892 article printed in the Worker (Brisbane) argues:

I’ve yet to learn, don’t you know, that the immortal British Empire or any other speck of country owns by sheer right divine all the land it can get its clutches on. There’s no more natural sense in a bleary-eyed officer with gold lace and a taste for rum, sticking a few feet of stick, with a few square inches of painted calico attached, into the ground and saying “I annex this ’ere country”, than there is in you or me taking a trip across to Europe and going through the same pantomime at Brighton or Monte Carlo. You or I’ve got exactly the same “right” as the gold laced gentleman who appreciates rum. The only thing is that he has a title deed in the shape of a few thousand tons of men of war, with guns enough to blow the unfortunate natives to little small bits if they object. Wonderful justice, isn’t it?… The aboriginals had more right to be in Australia than we had, looking at things justly.[33]

Other articles repeat the same point: “In the long ago a Christian nation crossed the seas and took from a happy race who had never wronged them, their country, out of which they afterwards made many millions of pounds”.[34] “A great deal of nonsense is talked about the benefits white men confer on native races when they conquer them and annex their country. In many cases the whites make the blacks, to all intents and purposes, their slaves.”[35] Another states that the squatters “pushed their civilisation…by the crack of the rifle and flour mixed with arsenic”.[36] A long article about a recent inquiry into the mass killings of Aborigines in Queensland prompted the writer to “remember, in bygone years, men having the mission to ‘disperse’ myalls for the convenience of white settlers, or in plain English, a license to shoot, kill, or frighten away from the path of the white man the lawful owner of the soil”. The writer recommended that the inquiry use as evidence a white settler’s rifle that he claimed had notches in it for each Aborigine he had killed.[37]

Some articles acknowledged not just the initial theft but also the ongoing injustice this created, as in this 1895 article that quoted a recently published pamphlet:

It seems well to consider here our “debtor” account with the aboriginals. Queensland has, so far, alienated about 10,000,000 acres of freehold land, and leased about 300,000,000 acres for pastoral occupation. For the first we have received about £6,250,000 in cash, and for the leased land we receive £332,800 annual rental. Since the year of separation, 1869, or ever since 1842, we have not expended £50,000 for the benefit of the aboriginals, and have never since then, or before, paid them a single shilling of cash, clothes, or food, for even one acre of land.

The article added: “Why? Because they are too weak to compel justice, and we are too unjust to accord it without compulsion”.[38]

There are also constant articles in the shearers’ press about the ongoing massacres of Aboriginal people across the continent. “The natives of Queensland”, one article states, “are treated as veritable outcasts, and their lives are freely taken in certain districts on the smallest provocation, and no questions are asked”.[39] Another explains “The accusations made in the house of commons re outrages on blacks in Queensland are very lightly treated in the dailies, who know very well the solid truth of the charges… The Australian aboriginal has been cruelly shot down in many parts and treated like a beast almost everywhere”. The article ended: “This is the truth which no ignorance or lying can hide”.[40]

While there are many sensationalist articles about the trials of Aborigines for murder and other crimes, the spread of diseases in Aboriginal communities[41] and the impact of alcohol, there are also more sympathetic articles. An article entitled “White and Blackfellow law” protested against the charging of one Aboriginal man for killing another Aboriginal man according to conditions laid out in tribal law. The writer was particularly horrified at the thought that this might end with the Aboriginal man being sent to a “lunatic asylum…where he will be practically caged like a wild animal”, instead arguing: “let us recognise there is Blackfellow law and customs that we need not impinge upon”.[42] The killings of Aborigines by police were regularly reported[43], as were reports which detailed how the police and the local bosses worked together to exploit Aborigines. One describes how the local judge and the police would let Aborigines out of jail early in order to go back to work for the squatters, but if they left of their own accord they would be “handcuffed and leg-ironed” when brought back.[44] Another article reports that an Aboriginal man was kept in jail for six days before seeing a judge, charged with some minor crime.[45] When a unionist was brought before the courts on the charge of “indecent assault” towards an Aboriginal woman the Worker argued it was right that the judge should find him guilty, and urged the shearers not to act like “brutes and beasts” towards Aboriginal people.[46]

The shearers’ papers also had many articles about the exploitative conditions faced by Aboriginal workers, including the reprinting of exploitative contracts Aboriginal workers were forced to sign,[47] the kidnapping of Aboriginal girls by station masters to be used as forced domestic labour,[48] the non-payment of wages to Aboriginal roustabouts,[49] and so on. There is however some ambiguity about the status of the Aboriginal worker.

For instance one article argues that:

[N]o one grudges the aboriginal his minimum wage of half-a-crown a week. His services are probably worth very little more. The gap between his civilisation and ours is a great deal too wide for him to leap across. His old free and easy life of independence was a bad training for the new conditions of wage slavery with which he is expected to grapple, or be wiped out. His great sin against civilisation is that he is not industrious and thrifty, and that he will not work. He has no economic value in a capitalistic state of society. The kanaka is ahead of him in this respect, as also are the other coloured races. The blackfellow is the wild human animal that cannot be economically tamed. He won’t cut cane, he won’t dig in mines, he won’t become a navvy.[50]

While this article expresses the idea that Aboriginal workers were poorly able to participate in the capitalist economy, it also recognises the free and independent life for Indigenous people that existed before their dispossession and the inhumanity of the capitalist work process. It is also in contrast to other images of Aboriginal workers in the shearers’ union press. One article reports that on a station an “aboriginal took the job and did the work well”, but after he finished his work he was paid a lowly 33s. The article commented “so much for the “fair and reasonable” squatter”.[51] There are multiple positive accounts of Aboriginal workers standing up to bosses and demanding better pay or conditions, such as in the strikes already described. As well there are accounts of white unionists interceding in disputes between Aboriginal workers and bosses to demand that the Aboriginal workers get paid the correct amount.[52] At Bundarra station in 1900 white shearers refused to work until Aboriginal shed hands were given a fair wage.[53] Organiser reports published in The Worker made constant reference to the recruitment of Aboriginal shearers and station hands,[54] and a summary of the gains of the labour movement in 1906 noted that “even the Aborigines were taking it up”.[55] One report from a 1902 strike at Booberoi noted the important role that Aboriginal workers played and stated that:

The knock-out to Haley was the unanimous roll up of the aborigines, who are staunch Unionists; and deserve our assistance in other ways. If the whites had been as true to their fellows as the dark skins, Booberoi would be Union today.[56]

An obituary notice for an Aboriginal shearer called “Bundaburra Jack” noted: “Like most aboriginals he was a good Unionist. Bundaburra was always one of the first to nominate for his ticket when an organiser called”.[57]

This doesn’t mean that there are no examples of hostility towards Aboriginal workers. There were concerns raised about the use of Aboriginal workers as scabs during the 1894 strike in Queensland, particularly at the North Yanko station, and condemnation of the government giving them temporary free train passes to get to the stations.[58] However the same paper also reported positively on the Aboriginal shearers at the Weilmoringle strike camp who refused to work under a non-union agreement even when the struggle was clearly lost.[59] Another article noted that during the 1894 strike there was a shed in which all the white shearers scabbed and only the two Aboriginal shearers refused to work under a non-union contract. When the two shearers walked out of the shed, The Worker reported one yelled out “Well, the only thing I’m sorry for is that I have one drop of white blood in me”.[60]

In response to criticism in the daily newspapers that the shearers’ union discriminated against Aboriginal workers, David Temple wrote a widely republished reply, which while expressing his racist opposition to migrant groups reveals a different attitude towards Aboriginal workers:

The bush unionist objects to Chinese, Cingalese, Polynese, Malayese and such, not to the harmless and much injured aboriginal whom if an occasional unionist insults – there are blackguards everywhere – an occasional squatter still more frequently shoots on sight like a dingo. In many of the strike camps were aboriginals who had knocked off with the rest from various stations. At Warri Malaise there were thirty-two whites and as many blacks.[61]

There are even sympathetic articles about Aborigines making more general statements about their dispossession. So one article noted a “well received” speech by Mr Breston, an Aboriginal man, who condemned the government for their treatment of his people and demanded that “the Government should give the aboriginals half the land they had been robbed of”.[62] Another explained that a group of Aboriginal people were demanding the right to attend the Victorian state parliament on the basis that “as their country had been stolen from them by the white fellows they deserved some consideration”.[63]

In 1900 in Breelong, NSW, James “Jimmy” Governor, his brother Joe and another Aboriginal man called Jack Underwood murdered the family of a white station owner for whom the Governor brothers had worked. The three Aboriginal men then went on the run, apparently killing several more people in the process, leading to one of the biggest manhunts in Australian history at this time.[64]

This is how The Worker reported on the events:

Unless the Breelong aboriginals are singularly alert and well mounted, it is not likely that they have committed all the murders which have lately taken place in the Mudgee and Dubbo districts. Indeed, there is reason to believe that this is a preconcerted uprising of the aboriginals against those who have robbed them of their country… But whether these murders are the result of a general rising of aboriginals or committed by two or three blacks only, the moral is the same. The Breelong blacks have charged the whites with taking their country, and say that their crime is caused by a desire for revenge. The charge cannot be rebutted, even though it be no excuse for these murders. We have not only dispossessed them, we have done more than that – we have made these poor benighted savages heirs to all the vices of civilisation and imparted to them little of its protection, none of its guiding, self-restraining influences.

Therefore, we are responsible for this sudden outburst of savagery. And when these ignorant and misguided men stand manacled in the dock, it would be but justice that we should place alongside of them the Nineteenth Century Christianity whose neglect of our aboriginals has now caused the shedding of much innocent blood and is practically responsible for that now and the sorrow also of many bereaved ones.[65]

An update on the events at Breelong a week later noted that “the recent aboriginal uprising was caused by their employment at starvation rates and the continual condemnation of their work”.[66]

Why did unionised shearers have these attitudes to Aboriginal workers?

First of all they faced a common enemy – the pastoral bosses and the police. As Russell Ward has noted, “It may be doubted whether the police force of any English-speaker country, except Ireland, has ever been more thoroughly unpopular than were those of most Australian colonies in the last century…the popular attitude towards policemen in general was one of hatred and contempt”.[67] For the shearers this hatred was hardened during the strikes of the late 1880s and 1890s when the police collaborated with the pastoralists to protect scab labour and break up strike camps. Sometimes the link between the oppressors of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous shearers could be very direct, such as a report that the wife of a anti-unionist station owner also attempted to cover up the murder of Aboriginal people on her land.[68] A review of a book about the role of the Native Mounted Police (NMP) in Queensland in massacring Aboriginal communities ended with the comment:

We may remind our readers that the police “protection” afforded to the “free” labourers during the shearers’ strike was under the command of the most famous inspector of this corps, and that much of interest concerning the working of that branch of the Queensland “force” can be learned by a perusal of Mr. Vogan’s book, which is decidedly rough on the up-country squatters and their friends of the NMP.[69]

The most consistently militant sections of the shearers’ unions were the more proletarianised and landless workers in the Western districts. For them the argument that Aboriginal people had to be wiped out in order for white men to use the land productively often fell on deaf ears, seeing as they were forced to work for the small minority of people who actually owned the vast swathes of profitable land. This is why, while unionised shearers were sympathetic to other shearers or Aboriginal people condemning their dispossession, they were usually cynical about colonial elites making similar statements. When the then ex-premier of Queensland, Hugh Nelson, gave a speech lamenting the fact that the “White people had taken their country from the poor aboriginals”, the Worker commented bitterly about this “maudlin rubbish”, “considering that 70 percent of the people of this country don’t own an inch of land between them”.[70] Or as one of the delegates at the 1891 ASU conference put it, the “shearers had not robbed them of their country, but the capitalists”.[71]

This hatred of a common enemy was then reinforced by the particular place that Aboriginal workers occupied within the structure of the rural workforce. As others have noted, there were specific aspects to Aboriginal labour that made it more likely that European-born workers would have greater sympathy for them than the “foreign aliens” they too often saw as their enemies.[72] The contradictory nature of the Aboriginal worker, as not white but also by their very definition not “foreign”, produced an uneasy conundrum. Their relatively small number, due to the impact of the European invasion, made it harder for white workers to imagine them as an invading horde, particularly when their existence wasn’t tied to a competing national power, and in the shed the Aboriginal shearer could prove their skill in front of everyone, and was often acknowledged as possessing a natural ability. The effect of this on the minds of shearers often with little, or no, land to their name, finding themselves sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home, slaving alongside “the original inhabitants of the soil” is the bedrock upon which the articles and resolutions, multi-racial strike camps and respect, whether begrudging or otherwise, was built.

The most human reason behind the attitudes during the 1890s is that the unionists were responding to that same “whispering in our hearts” that Henry Reynolds argues pricked the guilt of liberal humanitarians and clergymen.[73] Contrary to the stereotyped image of the robotic white worker who only mechanically reacts to his crudest economic needs, many of the accounts of Aboriginal oppression written by shearers are filled with genuine horror at the conditions other humans were forced to live in. In 1891, Walter Bell, a Riverina shearer, went to Western Australia to join the hunt for gold. What he found instead was a land in which all the good prospects were but a fabrication and instead “slavery flourishes”. If an Aboriginal refuses to work for a station owner “he is charged with sheep stealing, chained by the neck to others, and despatched to a place named Rott Nest”. Bell himself saw five Aboriginal men chained together in just this way and heard that squatters stole young Aboriginal girls and sold them to “mean whites” who were working for them. Bell’s letter is a description of a hellscape; it was printed in The Hummer with the warning that this is what happens in lands “where the benevolent squatter can run the show for all its worth”.[74]

The difference between this and the colonial middle-class humanitarian view is that this sympathy was combined with a class instinct rooted in the ideals of the “brotherhood of labour”. The shearing strikes of the 1880s and 1890s sharply divided rural Australian society into opponents and supporters of the shearers’ unions. You could be the whitest Australian worker of all time, but if you refused to support the union movement then you were at the very least an idiot, at worst a scab and a traitor, and therefore outside of the labour movement. On the other hand if Aboriginal workers made the decision to support the class struggle then, whatever other ideas shearers could have about them, they were seen as a part of the labour movement.

The particular contradictions of the development of racial politics made it easier for some shearers, in particular the more militant and politically developed unionists, to break through some of the racist barriers of colonial Australia, and begin to build an alternative culture of mutual respect and even solidarity. This culture was limited by other aspects of the shearers’ union and the broader social context in which it emerged, which was after all a thoroughly racist settler society born out of colonialism and violence. The acceptance by most shearers of the need to exclude “foreign labour” placed certain limits on how far their sympathies for the Aboriginal workers could develop. After all that exclusion was based on the acceptance of a racially hierarchical worldview. In practice and rhetoric such a worldview was adapted in order to allow the Aboriginal worker a place within the movement for the emancipation of labour, but the racism that blinded many shearers to possibilities of solidarity with the Chinese expressed itself in an article mocking the marriage of a white woman to an Aboriginal man,[75] in the paternalism that blighted even the more sympathetic writers and in concerns raised over Aborigines being manipulated into voting for conservative politicians.[76] While it is outside the scope of this article to go into the details, once the shearers’ unions began to be incorporated into the capitalist state through arbitration courts and the forming of Labor governments, this negative aspect became more pronounced.

It would be misleading though to think that sympathy towards Aboriginal workers was simply guaranteed or automatic. Militant unionists had to formulate a political attitude towards Aboriginal workers and make arguments to the rest of the shearers about how they should relate to Aboriginal people. At the 1891 ASU conference the most pro-Aboriginal statements were made by left-wing delegates from the most militant branches of the union, such as W Percy from Cobar, H Langwell and Robert Stevenson from Bourke (who moved the original motion on behalf of the Creswick branch). These branches were in the far-flung western division of New South Wales, and as has already been noted it was here that the membership of the union was much more dominated by propertyless workers from outside the area, unlike the central and eastern divisions which had a greater number of shearers who were also small farmers.

The fact that sympathetic attitudes towards Aboriginal workers wasn’t automatic is also revealed by looking at the later history of the union in Western Australia. In the north-west of the country there were pastoral stations where a significant section of the workforce was Aboriginal. However the AWU failed to organise these workers. This failure was criticised by Mick Sawtell, a rank-and-file AWU activist, young socialist and future stalwart of the militant Industrial Workers of the World, who in 1910 wrote a series of letters and articles arguing that the union should launch an organising campaign among the Aboriginal workers on the Pilbara stations. This was discussed at the 1910 AWU conference. However while AWU members from the eastern states raised positive examples of their own work in organising Aboriginal workers, under pressure from the more conservative members from Western Australia, some of whom wanted Aboriginal workers replaced by white workers, the conference passed a vague motion criticising the exploitation of Aboriginal workers in north-western Australia and praising the work of the WA branch. No organising effort seems to have happened, a failure which would have lasting consequences. When the Aboriginal workers in the Pilbara did start to organise themselves in the 1940s this led to significant conflict with the AWU officialdom.[77]

Racism towards other groups, such as non-white foreign workers like the Chinese, was also not unchallengeable. Several historians[78] have already unpacked how anti-Chinese racism was driven by sections of the ruling class and their middle-class allies rather than some natural and inevitable outgrowth of working-class consciousness. A minority of the more militant shearers did try to push against some of the stream of anti-Chinese sentiment, such as Robert Stevenson and the Bourke branch of the ASU (who also strongly backed Aboriginal workers in the 1891 conference). He moved that Chinese members who joined before the 1888 conference should be allowed to retain their membership because of the “need to act fairly towards men who had done the ASU no harm”.[79] Stevenson and the Bourke branch were criticised by other branches of the ASU and QSU for being too soft on the Chinese. At the founding conference of the General Labourers Union of Australasia (GLU) set up by the ASU to organise shed-hands, and into which it eventually amalgamated, a delegate called Power from Casterton moved that the union should organise Chinese workers, although his motion was defeated.[80]

Despite some limitations, the common experiences of black and white shearers in the battles of the 1890s positively shaped workers’ consciousness for years, and even decades, to come. Aboriginal workers would continue to play an important role within the AWU. In 1913 the Adelaide branch of the AWU reported that out of its 5,000 members, 400 were Aboriginal.[81] Mark Davidson, a Labor MLA, chaired a select committee critical of the abuses of the Aborigines Protection Board in 1937 despite stiff opposition from his own party. When asked why he cared so much about the issue, Davidson reportedly evoked his time working alongside Aboriginal workers as a shearer in Western New South Wales during the 1890s.[82] During the 1891 strike two Aboriginal children, William and Duncan Ferguson, spent their days running about the strike camp at Waddai in the Riverina. “From that time, young Bill Ferguson was tied emotionally to the labour movement.”[83] William Ferguson would go on to be an organiser for the AWU and later both the Ferguson brothers would play a prominent role in Aboriginal activism during the 1930s.[84]

This forgotten history challenges the dominant contemporary view that the Australian working class has been hostile to Indigenous workers due to their supposed position as “settlers”.[85] Rather than seeking “the intensification of settler expansion and racial segregation”, “through colour bars, boycott campaigns and demands for expulsion”,[86] non-Indigenous shearers organised alongside their fellow Indigenous workers in great industrial conflicts and in the process expressed strikingly sympathetic views towards the Indigenous situation – views all the more remarkable considering the context of racism in 1890s colonial society. Together white and black shearers fought against the main forces in society driving Indigenous dispossession and oppression – the pastoral capitalists, the police and the colonial governments. If non-Indigenous shearers actually benefited from Indigenous oppression and settler expansion then this joint struggle would have been impossible. White shearers didn’t need to give up their supposed privileges in order to participate in joint struggles with Indigenous shearers; instead they looked to their common interests as workers exploited by the capitalist system. This history reveals not only the actual struggles and attitudes that existed but also the latent possibilities for more developed solidarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers to emerge, as it did throughout the twentieth century in the post-war Aboriginal strikes in the Pilbara and Darwin, and the land rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s.


Much of the information in this article comes from newspapers published at the time, in particular The Worker published in Wagga, and Worker from Queensland. All the articles I quote can be accessed via trove: https://trove.nla.gov.au

Armstrong, Mick 2007, “Burning the Rodney – dealing with scabs in the shearers’ strikes”, Socialist Alternative. https://www.sa.org.au/node/1573

Biber, Katherine 2008, “Besieged at Home: Jimmy Governor’s Rampage”, Public Space: The Journal of Law and Social Justice, 2008, Vol. 2.

Elton, Judith 2007, Comrades or competition?: Union relations with Aboriginal workers in the South Australian and Northern Territory pastoral industries, 1878-1957, PhD thesis, University of South Australia.

Englert, Sai 2020, “Settlers, Workers, and the Logic of Accumulation by Dispossession”, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 52 (6). https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12659

Griffiths, Phillip 2006, The making of White Australia: Ruling class agendas, 1876-1888, PhD thesis, ANU. https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/data/UQ_265385/Griffiths_thesis.pdf

Hone, J Anee 1969, “Chirnside, Thomas (1815-1887)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chirnside-thomas-3203/text4815

Horner, Jack 1974, Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal Freedom: a biography, Australia and New Zealand Book Co.

Humphreys, Jordan 2021, “Capitalism, colonialism and class: A Marxist explanation of Indigenous oppression today”, Marxist Left Review, 21, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/indigenous_oppression/

Lane, Ernie 1993 [1939], Dawn to Dusk: Reminiscences of a Rebel, SHAPE (Social History of Australia Publishing Enterprise).

Palmer, Vance 1954, The Legend of the Nineties, Melbourne University Press.

Markus, Andrew 1978, “Talka longa mouth: Aborigines and the labour movement 1890-1970”, Who are our enemies? Racism and the Australian working class, Hale and Iremonger.

Merritt, John 1986, The Making of the AWU, Oxford University Press.

O’Malley, Timothy Rory 2009, Mateship and Money-Making: Shearing in Twentieth Century Australia, PhD thesis, University of Sydney.

Owen, Chris 2016, Every Mother’s Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905, University of Western Australia Press.

Reynolds, Henry 1998, This Whispering in our Hearts, Allen and Unwin.

Roe, Jill 2005, “Sawtell, Olaf (Michael) (1883-1971)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sawtell-olaf-michael-13186/text23871

Scrimgeour, Anne 2020, On Red Earth Walking: The Pilbara Strike, Western Australia 1946-1949, Monash University Publishing.

Small, Jerome n.d., “Reconsidering White Australia: Class and racism in the 1873 Clunes Riot”, Marxist Interventions. https://sa.org.au/interventions/raceriots.htm

Stanbrook, Gavin and Diane Fieldes 2019, “William Ferguson: The life of an Aboriginal rebel”, Marxist Left Review, 18, Winter. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/william-ferguson-the-life-of-an-aboriginal-rebel/

Sullivan, AJ 2005 [1916], “Retrospect of a Labourer’s Life, 1872 to 1916”, Hummer, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 4, (4). https://www.labourhistory.org.au/hummer/vol-4-no-4/retrospect/

Svensen, Stuart 1989, The shearers’ war : the story of the 1891 shearers’ strike, University of Queensland Press.

Ward, Russell 2003 [1966], The Australian Legend, Oxford University Press.

Wisely, Mark 2011, The Anarcho-Syndicalist Platform for Indigenous Rights: A Trans-National study of Settler-colonialism, White Labourism and the International Workers of the World in Australia and South Africa, PhD thesis, University of Sydney.

[1] The Hummer, 19 October 1891, p.5. It should be noted that some of the language quoted from primary sources in this period includes terms which would be rejected by Aboriginal people today, such as “aboriginals”, “darkies”, “black fellas”, etc. Contemporary readers should bear in mind that such language was widespread at the time and it is unsurprising that workers, some of whom had poor literacy at any rate, didn’t use more progressive terms. I would urge readers to look at the substance of the arguments that shearers made rather than the outdated terms.

[2] The following is drawn from the account in Barrier Miner (Broken Hill), 14 August 1894, p.2.

[3] Barrier Miner, 21 August 1894, p.2.

[4] The Worker (Wagga), 8 September 1894, p.2.

[5] As reported in The Week, 12 October 1894, p.5 and alluded to in The Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts, 4 September 1894, p.7. The second article also claims that Andy was involved in a previous strike, although it is unclear if this means the strike in Cobar or a previous strike at Bowen Downs.

[6] The Week, 12 October 1894, p.2.

[7] The Worker (Wagga), 8 September 1894, p.2.

[8] Much of the following biographical detail comes from The Age, 24 July 1865, p.6.

[9] Hone 1969.

[10] The Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 2 August 1912, p.23.

[11] The Hay Standard and Advertiser for Balranald, Wentworth, Maude, 4 October 1890, p.2.

[12] The Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts, 6 December 1898, p.5.

[13] The World’s News, 26 September 1925, p.8.

[14] Palmer 1954, p.155.

[15] Wisely 2011, p.58.

[16] Englert 2020, p.12. For a more detailed critique of the pitfalls of settler colonial theory, see Humphreys 2021.

[17] See Svensen 1989. Some socialists at the time also shared the view that the 1890s was a revolutionary period in Australia, see for instance Lane 1993 [1939], pp.35-46.

[18] Armstrong 2007.

[19] The Capricornian, 16 May 1891, p.20.

[20] The Capricornian, 30 May 1891, p.22.

[21] Worker (Brisbane), 27 June 1891, p.3.

[22] Worker (Brisbane), 13 August 1892, p.3 and 27 August 1892, p.2.

[23] Worker (Brisbane), 19 November 1892, p.3.

[24] See the historians quoted in Markus 1978.

[25] Elton 2007, p.2.

[26] O’Malley 2009, p.13, footnote 24.

[27] Printed in the Worker (Brisbane), 20 April 1895, p.3.

[28] Sullivan 2005 [1916].

[29] Merritt 1986, p.96.

[30] All quotes from the record of the conference published in Shearers’ & General Labourers’ Record, 15 June 1891, p.2.

[31] Merritt 1986, p.189.

[32] See Owen 2016.

[33] Worker (Brisbane), 16 July 1892, p.4.

[34] Worker (Brisbane), 26 January 1895, p.1.

[35] The Worker (Wagga), 22 April 1899, p.2.

[36] Worker (Brisbane), 28 May 1892, p.4.

[37] Worker (Brisbane), 9 May 1896, p.10.

[38] Worker (Brisbane), 27 April 1895, p.3.

[39] Worker (Brisbane), 28 May 1892, p.4.

[40] Worker (Brisbane), 4 June 1892, p.1.

[41] Worker (Brisbane), 9 December 1893, p.1.

[42] Worker (Brisbane), 11 March 1893, p.1.

[43] For instance Worker (Brisbane), 29 August 1896, p.12 & 19 June 1897, p.11.

[44] Worker (Brisbane), 15 April 1893, p.3.

[45] Worker (Brisbane), 9 December 1893, p.1.

[46] Worker (Brisbane), 11 July 1891, p.1.

[47] The Hummer, 19 October 1891, p.5.

[48] Worker (Brisbane), 25 June 1892, p.2.

[49] Worker (Brisbane), 17 September 1892, p.3.

[50] Worker (Brisbane), 7 October 1899, p.5.

[51] Worker (Brisbane), 7 February 1891, p.2.

[52] Worker (Brisbane), 17 July 1897, p.6.

[53] The Worker (Wagga), 20 October 1900, p.7.

[54] See The Worker (Wagga), 5 October 1901, p.7, 1 November 1902, p.6, 1 October 1904, p.7, and 21 August 1905, p.6, for a few examples.

[55] The Worker (Wagga), 6 December 1906, p.2.

[56] The Worker (Wagga), 30 August 1902, p.6.

[57] The Worker (Wagga), 3 Feb 1909, p.7.

[58] See The Worker (Wagga), 15 September 1894, p.3 and 18 May 1895, p.1.

[59] The Worker (Wagga), 27 October 1894, p.3.

[60] The Worker (Wagga), 5 October 1901, p.6.

[61] Worker (Brisbane), 27 June 1891, p.3.

[62] Worker (Brisbane), 14 December 1895, p.4.

[63] Worker (Brisbane), 19 February 1898, p.11.

[64] See Biber 2008 for background on these events.

[65] The Worker (Wagga), 28 July 1900, p.4.

[66] The Worker (Wagga), 4 August 1900, p.5.

[67] Ward 2003 [1966], pp.154-5.

[68] Worker (Brisbane), 4 June 1892, p.1.

[69] The Australian Workman, 25 July 1891, p.2.

[70] Worker (Brisbane), 13 May 1899, p.9.

[71] Shearers’ & General Labourers’ Record, 15 June 189, p.2.

[72] In particular Judith Elton in her extensive review of the relationship between the shearers’ unions and Aboriginal labour. Elton 2007.

[73] Reynolds 1998.

[74] The Hummer, 19 October 1891, p.7.

[75] The Australian Workman, 7 December 1895, p.3.

[76] The Worker, 4 June 1898, p.5 and The Worker, 16 June 1898, p.16.

[77] For the 1910 AWU conference discussion see The Worker, 2 February 1910, p.5. For Sawtell’s articles see The Worker, 16 March 1910, p.5, 4 May 1910, p.5, and 5 January 1911, p.3. For the later history of the AWU and Aboriginal workers in the Pilbara see Scrimgeour 2020, in particular pp.440-3.Sawtell is an interesting figure. He learnt some Aboriginal languages during his years in the bush before becoming a socialist and then a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, during which he served several stints in prison for his left-wing activism. In 1921 he rejected the “violence” of the Bolshevik revolution and renewed his interest in theosophy. In the 1930s he was a supporter of Aboriginal activism and advised the Communist Party on Aboriginal issues, before becoming a member of the Aboriginal Welfare Board and drawing criticism from Aboriginal activists for his increasingly conservative and paternalistic views. See Roe 2005.

[78] See Small n.d. and Griffiths 2006.

[79] Merritt 1986, p.148.

[80] Merritt 1986, p.176.

[81] The Worker (Wagga), 19 February 1913, p.3.

[82] Workers Weekly, 22 April 1938, p.4.

[83] Horner 1974, p.3.

[84] Stanbrook and Fieldes 2019.

[85] For an overview and critique of this position see Humphreys 2021.

[86] Englert 2020, p.12.

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