Links in the Chain: Legacies of British slavery in Australia

August 2020, no. 423

Links in the Chain: Legacies of British slavery in Australia

August 2020, no. 423

In 2007, Britain’s Royal Mint issued a £2 coin commemorating two hundred years since the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the zero in ‘1807’ appearing as if a broken link in a chain. While interrupting the notorious transatlantic trade, the Act did not end slavery itself – that was achieved, at least in parts of the British world, with further legislation in 1833 that outlawed enslavement in the British Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Cape of Good Hope. Emphasis on the dramatic, if illusionary, chain-breaking moment in some bicentenary celebrations extended a tradition of dwelling on Britain’s role in slave emancipation. The years 1807 and 1833 functioned partly within British society to obscure the fact that Britain had been a willing and central player in the cruel transatlantic business for almost four hundred years. What’s more, commemorations often overlooked unfree labour practices that continued to proliferate throughout the British world. Britain brought freedom, the coin seemed to say.

The 1807 Slave Trade 2007 £2 coin, designed by David Gentleman. The year’s zero contains the broken link in ‘the chains of oppression’. Around the perimeter of the coin are the words ‘An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (photograph via the Chancery Collection).The 1807 Slave Trade 2007 £2 coin, designed by David Gentleman. The year’s zero contains the broken link in ‘the chains of oppression’. Around the perimeter of the coin are the words ‘An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (photograph via the Chancery Collection).

In much the same way, the 250th anniversary this year of James Cook’s first voyage, and the defacing of his statues in Hyde Park, Randwick, North Fitzroy, and Cairns, have demonstrated the problematic nature of public commemorations. Few would disagree that Cook’s three South Pacific voyages were instrumental to the character of Australia. The difficulty is in coming to some sort of collective agreement about their precise significance and effectively conveying their complex consequences in a commemoration.

Is it possible in commemorations to accommodate the moving parts? Are coins, plaques, statues, and re-enactments the most helpful ways for us to reflect on our pasts, or are there ways of publicly acknowledging the impact of the past on the language we use or on our psychological habits? Is this the only option when we uncover something about our past that has no clear-cut start or end date; that cannot be commemorated on a day or even quantified in numbers? We might be about to find out.

Australia’s own entanglement in the transatlantic slave business is now emerging, albeit slowly and in ways complicated by its particular relations with nineteenth-century Britain. This is largely thanks to the production of a publicly available database of British slave-owners by the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS), a University College London history project. The database shows that dozens of slave-owning men and women, and their children, travelled to the newly forming Australian colonies to take advantage of their opportunities. The movement of capital and ideas from Britain’s slave colonies to Australia, although far less quantifiable, appears to have been even more effecting, stimulating the growth of settlements, industries, and governance structures. How we tell these stories, and where we place emphasis – on the individual slave-owners, capital flows, policies, labour practices, psychological patterns – will shape how we think about their impact on the society we live in today.


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The transatlantic slave business was, as historian Hugh Thomas once wrote, a vast scheme of things. From the early 1500s to the 1880s, twelve and a half million people were forcibly taken from Africa to the Caribbean, Brazil, Spanish Central America, North America, and Europe. After Portugal, Britain was the second-largest transporter of enslaved people during this period. British ships often moved along a triangular route, transporting goods from Britain to Africa, where they were sold and replaced with enslaved people before advancing to the slave colonies, where people were sold at a higher price and local goods (often slave produced) were purchased for sale back in Europe. 

Britain was substantially altered by its role in a global system of slavery, even if the enslaved people upon whom the system hinged rarely reached its shores. At the point of abolition, about ten per cent of Britain’s population (rising to fifteen per cent of its wealthy class) received significant material benefit from slavery business. ‘Slave-ownership permeated British commercial life’, writes LBS economic historian Nicholas Draper in Legacies of British Slave-ownership (2014). Profits from the business underwrote industries, technical innovations, trading systems, financial institutions, foreign settlements, transport projects, social and familial networks, private bequests – to universities, museums, schools, galleries, and more – maritime endeavours, and even global campaigns of discovery and conquest. Slavery informed Britain’s idea of itself in the world and gave shape and substance to an ideology of white supremacy it harboured. Credible arguments continue to be made that Britain’s industrial revolution, empire, and dominance in world finance sprang from slavery.

Conversely, the poverty, indebtedness, conflict, and corruption plaguing Africa and its diaspora can be traced to one of the largest social upheavals in human history, where generations of adults in the most productive period of their lives were forcibly removed and enslaved for life. Many in fact did not make it to the western side of the Atlantic; the average death rate across all transatlantic voyages was around fifteen per cent, and in some eras this was much higher.1

Thanks to the work of the LBS team, there is now greater awareness of an aspect of Britain’s slave past that had been almost entirely eclipsed: when the British parliament emancipated slaves in the 1830s, it compensated British slave-owners for the loss of their human property. The approximately 800,000 people ‘freed’ by the Act received nothing. Many were apprenticed under new laws designed to expropriate their labour as cheaply as possible. In subsequent years, the British Empire extended unfree labour practices into new parts of the world. Between 1838 and 1922, to take just one example, most of the more than 1.5 million people transported as indentured labourers from India went to British colonies, including Fiji and South Africa. British capital also continued to finance enslavement throughout the world, most especially in Brazil.

For their losses, slave-owners in the British Empire received £20 million (around £300 billion in today’s money), representing about forty per cent of treasury’s income in 1834. As one might expect, the money consolidated existing wealth disparities in Britain. LBS Principal Investigator Catherine Hall notes that almost half of this amount went to just six per cent of the slave-owners: the ‘absentee’ ones.2 The £20 million was in fact loaned to the British parliament by Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Moses Montefiore, and only finally repaid in 2015. Here again, the legacies of British slavery have a salient monetary value and reach materially into the lives of many, often without their knowing it. Generations of taxpayers bankrolled Britain’s largest transfer of public wealth into private hands before the Global Financial Crisis bailouts. The 1834 compensation payments had a similarly stimulating effect, channelling finance into a broad range of capital projects via a burgeoning group of merchants, bankers, insurers, accountants, and solicitors concentrated in Britain’s port cities. London’s emergence as a global financial centre was confirmed.

This compensation payout has received attention in recent years because of the LBS database, which lists around 47,000 individual claims for compensation. People had to apply for compensation and such claims were often contested by business partners or descendants of deceased slave-owners. There is little evidence of potential beneficiaries not claiming compensation, except in instances where travelling to lodge a claim, or engage an agent, proved more costly than the likely award. Some entries in the database include the names, ages, and locations of the enslaved people, as well as compensation amounts and details of any contestation. Type nineteenth-century British surnames into the database and be pulled into the world of 1834 Britain, its clinical rendering of human value in moneys paid for men, women, and children depending on their gender, geographic location, and skill level. A particularly striking example is the entry for John Gladstone, father to British Prime Minister William Gladstone, and members of parliament Thomas and John Gladstone. John Gladstone was part of a compensation claim for eleven plantations, one of which saw him paid more than £20,000 for the loss of 415 enslaved people.

The second phase of the database went further back in time and produced entries for British slave-owners between 1763 and 1833, the pre-compensation period. Overall, the project has made more graspable, as the LBS researchers write, ‘the ways in which empire enabled white Britons to enjoy their vaunted liberties and freedoms’.3 It has prompted new family histories, a renewed focus on legacy and intergenerational inheritance in historical scholarship, alterations to educational curriculums, and the 2015 two-part BBC program Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners (available on YouTube). It has reshaped the story Britain tells itself about itself.

And yet, there are many more stories to be told. The LBS database shows that Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery reverberated around the globe, including in subtle, sometimes invisible, and often now forgotten ways, to wherever Britons ranged within their empire. That empire had a remarkable capacity to circulate people, capital, and ideas within far-flung ranges. High-level colonial administrators and military figures leapfrogged from the Caribbean to Newfoundland, to India and then on to the Australian colonies, and underneath this level of administration and military presence a whole British colonial society bent and swayed according to opportunity.

For the first forty-five years of Britain’s permanent presence in what would become Australia, as it put in place a coercive human-transportation industry, commenced resource extraction, and navigated relationships with a new set of other people, Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery went on. During the 1780s alone, 35,000 enslaved people were transported every year in British ships. Why that involvement mattered to the new Australian colonies, and how, is a story we now need to figure out.



One way in which it appears to have mattered seems counter-intuitive. As anti-slavery movements gained momentum throughout the late-eighteenth-century British world, a utopian framework for imagining new forms of imperial expansion developed alongside them. The first of many anti-slavery petitions to Westminster was circulated in 1783, just five years before the First Fleet arrived on Eora country, in a harbour that James Cook had named Port Jackson; British humanitarianism and the Australian colonies grew up together.

In Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery (2005), Deirdre Coleman provides a compelling account of New South Wales as a sanctuary for disaffected Europeans hoping to establish an egalitarian society free from the inequalities that had led to transatlantic slavery and other repressive regimes. Some early firsthand accounts certainly suggest this. Lieutenant James Tuckey, transporter of convicts, spoke of a second Rome; George Wyndham, wealthy free settler and pastoralist, imagined a society built on principles of Athenian democracy. Romanticised visions of Athens and Rome rippled through eighteenth and nineteenth-century British bourgeois art and literature as symbols of democratic, rational civilisation. (They also represented an earlier instance of selective forgetting, given that Roman plantation agriculture was heavily dependent on slave labour.) The expression of this utopian desire reached its zenith in the poetry of Charles Harpur, son of transported convicts, who imagined the Australian colonies as ‘the cradle of liberty!’

The brutal realities of transportation, drought, starvation, isolation, conflict with Aboriginal people, and labour shortages, while hardening some, like Wyndham, inspired in the colonial centre and its metropolitan outposts a surge in activity – from protectionist movements to systematic colonisation schemes – which attempted to reform Britain’s colonial practice and protect the dream of a more humane civilisation. Even here, transatlantic slavery mattered. The language, networks, and strategies of abolitionism provided these reformist movements, so influential in the Australian colonies, with a model. The concept of freedom itself came to mean, oftentimes, not slavery throughout the British world.

In the Australian colonies, discussion of transatlantic slavery reform enabled colonists to lay claim to a new kind of British imperialism promoting greater universal freedoms. During the 1820s some fifty newspaper articles reported on proposals and petitions to abolish slavery, most lending their support, and provided case studies of slavery and abolition in places as distant as Calcutta, New York, and Mauritius. An 1829 article in The Sydney Gazette deplored the ‘barbarous depredations’ of West Indian planters and slave dealers: to the ‘people of Great-Britain, these inhumane practices were perhaps more peculiarly obnoxious’. Referring to slavery in the Cape of Good Hope, the article reflected: ‘behold the strange anomaly of a system of slavery actually exercised in a British settlement!’ A letter to The Sydney Monitor in 1834 expressed outrage at the decision to award compensation to slave-owners, arguing that ‘a fearful accumulation of debt’ was actually due to centuries of enslaved people.

Strength of feeling around slave emancipation in the Australian colonies was seized on to hasten the end of convict transportation and assignment. In 1838 an article entitled ‘White Slavery’ appeared in Sydney’s Colonist. It asked readers to consider what the British parliament would say when it learnt the ‘monstrous and undeniable fact’ that ‘British born white men … are now openly and notoriously sold in the public slave market of Sydney!  ’ Advocates appealed to an ideology of white supremacy that had underpinned transatlantic slavery, arguing that slavery was a by-product of the transportation system.

Transatlantic slavery mattered to the Australian colonies because it was a point of distinction. It came to represent old imperialism, which Britain had moved away from in favour of a self-consciously humanitarian approach, heavily influenced by Christian narratives and networks. In practice, more granular distinctions existed between old and new imperialism, inhumane practice and humanitarianism: reality on the periphery, intention at the centre. Aboriginal Protectionism would again prove this. A broad set of practices aimed at bringing Indigenous people under British legal protection, it replaced slave emancipation as the guiding humanitarian ethos of Colonial Office policy from the mid-1830s, gaining instrumental force from the late-nineteenth century onwards in a number of Australian colonies and ultimately leading to humanitarian disasters such as the Stolen Generations.4



Transatlantic slavery mattered to the Australian colonies in another way, though this too is a story that is still taking shape. As the LBS database reveals, around 150 individuals who applied for slavery compensation migrated to, or invested in, the Australian colonies – or had descendants who did so. Since it appears that only around fifty direct beneficiaries of slavery compensation moved to the Australian colonies, it cannot be said that these colonies absorbed a significant portion of slave-owners fleeing plantation colonies in the post-abolition period. In the overwhelming majority of cases, beneficiaries in Australia did not attempt to replicate the labour systems that they had benefited from – at least directly. Instead, they filled the ranks of Australia’s professional class in the spheres of governance, law, religion, commerce, and trade.

Stunning exceptions include two pioneers of the Queensland sugar industry: John Buhôt (1831–81), son of a Barbados sugar merchant and slave-owner; and Louis Hope (1817–94), son of the fourth earl of Hopetoun, whose family owned enslaved people in Jamaica. Buhôt, the first person to successfully grow cane sugar in Queensland, was commemorated in 1962 with a memorial in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. Hope, who is said to have coercively transported and enslaved Pacific Islanders to work his plantations, lived ‘as a landed aristocrat’, according to his 1972 Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) entry. Emma Christopher, a historian at the University of New South Wales, is currently interviewing descendants of these Pacific Islander labourers, for whom slavery in Australia is not news.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the overall picture of Australia, and its position in the British world, suggested by the LBS database. As Nicholas Draper from LBS has shown, around half of the total compensation money awarded in 1834, approximately £10 million, actually left the British Isles, a figure consistent with the fact that British international trade quintupled between 1840 and 1870.5 While it is unclear what portion of that £10 million landed in the Australian colonies, via the investments of slave-owning Britons, it was probably not a large one. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, prior to the gold rushes, Britain’s international merchant houses were pivoted mainly towards India, Latin America, South Africa, and Russia, not Australia.6 While New South Wales, Port Phillip, South Australia, and the Swan River settlement were by the late 1830s increasingly attractive investment propositions, they still carried significant risk. Australia, it seems, was spared the tainted capital through timing.

And yet, it may be that the LBS database is giving us an impression that British slave-owners and their families were less influential in the Australian colonies than they in fact were. The database includes those who held slaves, as the British parliament defined them, in 1833. It does not record, at least in its entirety, those who benefited from unfree labour up until 1833, or those who benefited from it after 1833 in the many forms that remained legal. Perhaps most crucially, full biographical details, including investment histories and descendants’ names, are not yet present for many entries in the LBS database.

My sense is that much larger amounts of slave money, for want of a better term, helped establish the Australian colonies than we know, as wealth from slavery business rippled down the generations and across the empire. In the 1870s and 1880s, these colonies received more British capital than any other place in the world. Britons who invested in Caribbean slavery, without necessarily going there, may well have bequeathed wealth to children who invested in the Australian colonies, without necessarily going there. Transfers of capital may have taken the form of family loans or been directed by mutual funds investing in, or loaning money for, projects of exploration, resource development, assisted migration, or construction. The variables are dizzying. And while following the money is a tantalising possibility, the effort might simply prove something that we already know: empires sap the resources of local populations and thus fuel future resource sapping empire-building endeavours.

As you can see, the extent and strength of links between British slavery and Australia remain largely untested, and are certainly far from quantified. I am part of an Australian Research Council Discovery Project, just underway, that will extend the pioneering work of LBS and a handful of Australian historians by using Western Australia as a test case. The Swan River settlement, established in 1829, rode on a wave of British humanitarian movements, commencing as a society free from convict transportation – at least initially. And yet, as we learn more about the profiles of those who were compensated and migrated to Western Australia, we see the limits of this humanitarian influence, or perhaps simply the degree to which humanitarianism was produced by the same social networks, racial conceptions, imperialistic beliefs, and professions that sustained British slavery for so long.


Sugar cane in the garden of Strawberry Hill residence of A.P. Burt, Adelaide Terrace, Perth (photograph by Stone Alfred Hawes, 1862, via the State Library of Western Australia/6923B182)Sugar cane in the garden of Strawberry Hill residence of A.P. Burt, Adelaide Terrace, Perth (photograph by Stone Alfred Hawes, 1862, via the State Library of Western Australia/6923B182)


The first Chief Justice of Western Australia, Archibald Burt, came to the Swan River settlement in 1860 from St Kitts, a Caribbean island where his family had owned enslaved Africans since the seventeenth century. This lineage might reasonably go unnoticed by readers of the ADB, whose 1969 entry describes Burt as the second son of a ‘planter’. In fact, the plantation enterprise generated sufficient wealth to send Burt to London to be educated, after which he established a lucrative St Kitts legal practice, servicing fellow planters. Post abolition, Burt was awarded compensation for ten slaves, three of whom were domestic: Sarah, a washerwoman aged forty; John, a house servant aged twelve; and an unnamed child aged one. Like his father, Burt became Speaker of the House of Assembly in St Kitts but declined the judicial appointments that would have required him to relinquish his practice. When sugar prices and legal business plummeted in the 1850s, Burt became ‘anxious’, lamented his biographer John Bennett in 2002, to secure a judicial position within the British Empire. A well-placed friend lobbied on his behalf, finally procuring him the Swan River offer.

Burt reluctantly accepted the distant outpost, a decision that was ‘forced upon him’, relates Bennett, by ‘the emancipation of the slaves just sixteen years earlier’. From Perth, Burt continued to own St Kitts sugar plantations, presumably worked on by formerly enslaved people under a modified labour model, and oversaw justice throughout Western Australia for sixteen years. Burt came to consider the Swan River a crude setting but found solace in his garden, which he planted around his home, Strawberry Hill, a small portion of which he reserved for sugar cane.7

Children of transatlantic slave-owners became leading figures in other realms of Australian life. Popular writers Adam Lindsay Gordon and Mary Broome (the wife of Western Australian governor Frederick Broome) came from families heavily invested in slavery. It seems clear now that we need to rethink their work from this vantage point. How did this slavery inheritance – intellectual, emotional, material – scaffold their work? What assumptions about race and labour did their writing promote throughout the colonies? While Jamaican-born Broome was the daughter of an Island Secretary, Gordon’s mother was the daughter of the lieutenant governor of Berbice (which became part of British Guiana, or present-day Guyana) and the only living beneficiary in a claim for 285 enslaved people. She bequeathed £7,000 to Gordon, an amount that the 1972 ADB entry for Gordon states brought him ‘relative prosperity’, and represents over £900,000 in today’s money. Nothing about that entry indicates that this prosperity was generated through slavery.

Gaps in the ADB both reflect and extend widespread ignorance of Australia’s links with a vast regime of racialised enslavement. Such gaps have been produced by conscious and unconscious acts of denial and compounded by time: this process is, of course, a characteristic of colonial societies. Today, the ADB is working alongside history projects, such as our own, to restore these pasts.8

There is much work to be done. Throughout the online database, the vast majority of entries written during the 1960s and 1970s are oblique or breathtakingly concise when dealing with slavery. The 1966 ADB entry on Reverend Robert Allwood emphasises his work ethic and humility as the minister at Sydney’s St James Anglican Church between 1840 and 1884 and vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney between 1869 and 1882. Born in Jamaica, where his father was a Supreme Court judge, Allwood was educated at Eton and priested by the bishop of Bristol, a city home to many slave-owning families, including that of Anna Bush, Robert’s wife. In 1834, six years before arriving in New South Wales, Reverend Allwood lodged a claim for 202 enslaved people. His father lodged five separate claims, one of which awarded him over £2,000, for 148 enslaved people. Anna Allwood’s family received compensation for 202 enslaved people; Allwood claimed a portion of this too.

Then there is Sir Henry Barkly, governor of Victoria from 1856 to 1863, who was awarded almost £6,000 for 290 enslaved people in Grenada and Tobago in two bitterly fought compensation disputes. Henry’s father, London sugar merchant Aeneas Barkly, had been successful in twenty-six separate claims across the Caribbean, involving thousands of enslaved people. One claim awarded him £7,000 for 428 people in Jamaica. Despite the eye-watering scale of these compensation amounts, slavery itself produced far more wealth for the family and they believed themselves financially ‘ruined’ by slave emancipation. It may have prompted Henry’s colonial career, which began with his governorship of British Guiana, where a number of the family’s plantation estates had been situated, before postings in Jamaica, Victoria, Mauritius, and the Cape of Good Hope. In Victoria, Sir Henry Barkly helped to establish the Royal Society, the National Gallery, and the National Observatory, and worked to suppress democratic reform. (He was honoured in the naming of several major roads and a smoky pub down the road from my primary school in Heidelberg.)

The more you look, the more you see how Britain’s long history of enslavement travelled with settlers into the colonies, separating those who had capital and could pursue education, professional careers, and capital investment from those who could not. There is the Melbourne lord mayor, Godfrey Carter, born of a line of Jamaican slave-owners. Then there is George Fife Angas, celebrated founder of South Australia, who in his capacity as a financial agent signed compensation claims for more than 100 enslaved people. Successful Port Phillip western district pastoralists Andrew and Celia Scott appear in the database as part of a compensation claim for 107 enslaved people in Tobago. And so on. If there is one shared characteristic of those who came to the Australian colonies from slave-owning families, it is that they were not manual labourers.

And that is what slavery does: it bestows freedom on some, unfreedom on others. This dynamic continues to operate, albeit via chains of supply and corporate structures that make the countervailing weights – the free, the unfree – appear so remote as to be impossibly related. As well as looking to the past, we need to ask: does selective remembering, forgetting, commemorating, and the stories we tell, perpetuate unfree labour practices today in much the same way as they did in post-abolition Britain.



There is much to learn about Australia, and maybe even our own unconscious assumptions or prejudices, from following the nation’s links to transatlantic slavery, even if quantifying its material impact proves elusive. By the time Adam Lindsay Gordon shot himself in 1870, at Brighton Beach in Victoria, he had developed a pronounced ‘melancholia’ and many unpayable debts, wrote Leonie Kramer in Gordon’s 1972 ADB entry. Gordon’s suicide came days after being told that he would not inherit his mother’s estate, Esslemont, in Scotland. As an Argus obituary related in extraordinary detail, Gordon did not sleep between reading the first (very positive) review of his newly published Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes and carefully folding his possessions into his hat on Brighton beach the following dawn. The volume would ignite an ‘Australia-wide craze’ and even earn him the title ‘father of the Australian ballad’.9

Memorial bust of Adam Lindsay Gordon (photograph via Westminster Abbey Library, © Dean and Chapter of Westminster)Memorial bust of Adam Lindsay Gordon (photograph via Westminster Abbey Library, © Dean and Chapter of Westminster)

Both Kramer and the obituarist used the same word to describe Gordon’s life and death: strange. Literary historians have come to similar conclusions about his literary success, which endured into the mid-twentieth century. In 1934, a bust of Gordon was unveiled in Westminster Abbey; he is the only Australian writer to be so commemorated. Dingley Dell, Gordon’s former South Australian home, is today a museum, an honour not casually bestowed on Australian writers. Why did his work – no better in quality than many outback balladeers’ of the time – inspire pilgrimage sites in his memory?

Here is my hunch. Gordon’s popularity appears strange when the story of slave-ownership is left out. Once its implications are considered, this element adds to our understanding of not only Gordon’s enduring appeal but also late-nineteenth-century responses to slave-ownership and its financial legacies.

Australian literary critics have provided the groundwork for this theory. That the legend of Gordon’s life was central to the popularity of his writing suggested something disturbing about the ‘Australian psyche’, wrote Judith Wright in Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965), for that legend spoke powerfully of the brutality of European civilisation. His death, like his poetry, she said, was an expression of the ‘problems’ that he had brought with him from Britain. Wright, interestingly, did not mention Gordon’s links to slavery – perhaps she did not know, or overlooked, them. But the legend of Gordon always pivoted around three points: his aristocratic origins and ‘plantation wealth’, his exile to the colonies, and his spectacular death. Might it be possible that the ‘problem’ of European civilisation that Gordon carried with him was in part a history of enslavement and, further, that this was at some level known by early devotees?

Wright was on to something when she wondered what Gordon, the legend, revealed about Australians. It seems that we have long acknowledged the presence of brutality in Gordon’s story without actually saying it. Gordon’s expulsion to the colonies has been described as the result of ‘some rather mysterious “disgrace” or “scandal”’; ‘a somewhat raffish adolescence’; ‘numerous youthful escapades’. His slavery inheritance is explained with comparable euphemistic shading; after he arrived in South Australia he ‘came into a little money’, literary historians have often said. (The obituarist saw no reason to underplay it: it was a ‘fortune’.) In the frequency and flourish with which such euphemisms have been used, even in recent years, there lingers something more than a gentlemanly permissiveness towards dirty money and extramarital sex – it is a delight in moral abandon. In the nineteenth-century Australian-made Gordon legend, there is the kernel of something ugly: the celebration of an unconstrained, ruthless masculine will to dominate.

Slavery was always present in the story of Gordon in a way that, somewhat perversely, cast the slave-owner as a victim of European markets. (This is redolent of the numerous entries for slave-owners in British and Australian dictionaries of biography that only refer to slavery in relation to the losses it was associated with in the post-abolition period – as if it never also brought material gains.) The extraordinary wealth slavery generated for Gordon, which proved in the end not fully graspable, was a familiar boom-and-bust story for colonial Britons. Though slavery wealth and government compensation went disproportionately to Britain’s wealthy, many in its middle classes moved into and out of this category through their investments in transatlantic slavery, most notably via the South Sea Company. Late nineteenth-century colonials, firsthand witnesses to the gold rushes, were familiar with the tale; the desperation and occasional depravity that came with trying to propel oneself out of the manual classes through what were essentially get-rich-quick schemes: the recklessness of new money, the crash. In Gordon’s trajectory, in the poetic treatment of it, and in the solace he found in the company of a (supposedly) pre-modern, simple, rural, labouring society, there was a cathartic pleasure for colonials touched by it too.

In the post-Federation period, much of this meaning was lost on those who approached Gordon’s work. By then slavery links were not common knowledge and they detracted from the story literary historians wanted to tell about the man as a pioneering Australian who forwent upper-crust British society. Still, the emotional contours of earlier responses to his work and legend remained – most obviously in the euphemisms, reproduced in recent years; the allowance extended to his misdemeanours, and the assumption that wealth and nobility were signs of virtue in the colonial period – not red flags.



By recognising the role that slavery wealth played in Australia’s past, it may be possible to learn something about the psychological habits that have brought us to where we are today. When we turn to the stories of slave-owners and their children in the colonies, slavery is actually everywhere, obscured. Perhaps, then, our task in the first instance is to consider how earlier commemorations – plaques, ADB entries, museums, histories – have been complicit in the psychology of slave-ownership and have used language to dishonour the lives and legacies of those who were enslaved.

There is, of course, a major precedent for this in Australian history. The ADB has already begun adding new entries in place of those written in the mid-twentieth century that eclipsed the lives of Indigenous people, or couched them within the same language and narratives that justified dispossession and attempts at cultural and population decimation. Since it is becoming ever clearer that commemorations of landings, departures, and acts of parliament have done so much to cloak the experience of those millions who have not benefited from them, maybe by the next major landing anniversary in Australia, in 2038, we will think less about the climactic moment and more about history’s long trails.



1. Emery Center for Digital Scholarship, ‘Trans-Atlantic Slave-Trade Estimates, Embarked/Disembarked’, Slave Voyages,, accessed 10 April 2020.

2. Catherine Hall, ‘Writing History, Making “Race”: slave-owners and their stories’, Australian Historical Studies 2016, 47.3, 365–380.

3. Legacies of British Slave-ownership, University College London,, accessed 18 June 2020.

4. Samuel Furphy and Amanda Nettelbeck (eds.), Aboriginal Protection and Its Intermediaries in Britain’s Antipodean Colonies (Routledge, 2020): 3–19.

5. Geoffrey Jones, Merchants to Multinationals: British Trading Companies in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Oxford University Press, 2000), 17.

6. Stanley D. Chapman, ‘British-based investment groups before 1914’, Economic History Review 1985, 38.2, 230–251.

7. John Bennett, Sir Archibald Burt: First Chief Justices of Western Australia 1861–1879 (The Federation Press, 2002).

8. For discussion of slave-owners in the ADB see Clinton Fernandes, Island Off the Coast of Asia: Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign Policy, (Monash University Publishing, 2018); Paul Daley, ‘Colonial Australia’s Foundation is Stained with the Profits of British Slavery’, Guardian, 21 September 2018. For ADB’s ‘decolonisation’, see Shino Konishi, ‘An Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography’, in True Biographies of Nations?: The Cultural Journeys of Dictionaries of National Biography, ed. Karen Fox (ANU Press, 2019); Frank Bongiorno, ‘Reframing Australian Portraits’, Meanjin 78.2 (2019).

9. JS Manifold, Who Wrote the Ballads: Notes on Australian folksong (Australasian Book Society, 1964), 103; HM Green, Australian Literature 1900-1950 (Melbourne University Press, 1961), 2.

Research for this article was supported by the Australian Research Council. Georgina Arnott thanks Clare Corbould, Zoe Laidlaw, Jane Lydon, and Catherine Hall for their comments on this article. Any faults are her own.

This article, one of a series of ABR commentaries addressing cultural and political subjects, was funded by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

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comment (1)

  • An excellent article bringing into focus a topic ignored for far too long. It is very interesting to trace the origin of some of the capital that built Australia. Whilst I was aware of the story of black birding, I was quite ignorant of the effect of Slave Money in the history of our country. I am interested in watching "Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners" on Youtube. Could not believe the amount of money paid out to slave owners and the fact that the British taxpayers finally paid off the loan in 2015. Congratulations, Georgina, I look forward to reading your future research on this topic.
    Posted by David Thummler
    06 August 2020

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