Prisoners of undeclared wars, captured slaves and prisoners of the bush courts
Many of these photographs were taken in Western Australia and the Northern Territory and other regions that settled much later than the Eastern states, One can only imagine what frightening images could have been captured if the camera was in common use during the early settlement years of Tasmania, News South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
Early settlers letters that have since surfaced in Great Britain often tell of outrageous racism and horrific abuse and slaughtering of the First Nations people the settlers encountered.
First Nations people were victims of undisputable bias and prejudice in courts, which were anxious to uphold white dominance and did not acknowledge First Nations peoples title to the land. This left First Nations people confused and very fearful.
In legal proceedings First Nations people were at a considerable disadvantage. Because they were regarded as incapable of understanding the oath in European courts, their evidence was not accepted. When this situation was later corrected, they were still greatly disadvantaged:
... tried and convicted in courts, and because of their perceived 'pagan' nature, they couldn't swear on a bible and thus give evidence.
No First Nations person appeared as prosecutor, juror or judge.
Court procedures and the legal code were European, and bewildering.
Translation of First Nations languages caused problems in court.
Customs and law were not taken into account, except in the negative;
There is a tendency for First Nations people to look for, and give, the answer required by the prosecution.
Some of these issues are still relevant today
In 1889, Samuel McLeod wrote, "On arriving at Roebourne we saw gangs of unfortunate Aborigines chained to wheelbarrows with bullock chains... The effect of the chains can be imagined in a climate where the stones get so hot they cannot be handled. The sight was too painful for most of us from a free land."
Some of the images are of bona fide prisoners of the undeclared wars, however, in the outback, prisoners were usually kept alive and healthy to be used for slave labour by the troopers, settlers, pearling masters, whalers and sealing etc.
The practice of kidnapping and forced labour (slavery) of First Nations people was known as ‘Blackbirding’ and was a profitable business for some of the early settlers who would 'round them up' at gunpoint, when extra hands were required. Many would never see their families again.
"I didn't have time to write by last mail as I was very busy getting my darkies together for pearling. I've got a good crowd this season, nearly 40. Jack has been out after darkies and is expected daily now," Duncan MacRae, pearler & pastoralist, 1881.
Roebourne jail Western Australia
In the nineteenth century each black prisoner carried an iron chain around his neck (weighing approximately 5 pounds) in the open where temperatures usually ranged beween 35 and 45 degrees. It was secured by a padlock and individual prisoners were then chained to another man.
Chains of prisoners had as many as nine or ten men attached to each other.
In 1905 the Roebourne jail housed 69 prisoners and had only four warders so chaining was seen to be a security risk against Aboriginal uprising in the town where they were used on working chain gangs.
Eventually a new method of chaining Aboriginal prisoners was decided upon. They were to be chained from the ankles, the chain was to pass inside the leg of the prisoners trousers and supported by a heavy belt around the waist. Prisoners could then be chained in pairs and 'allowed' to work outside the prison walls.
There were iron rings bolted to the walls of some jail cells where prisoners were believed to be chained for chained for prison discipline.