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“We pay our respects and dedicate the Unsettled exhibition to the people and other Beings who keep the law of this land; to the Elders and Traditional Owners of all the knowledges, places, and stories in this exhibition; and to the Ancestors and Old People for their resilience and guidance.
We advise that there are some confronting topics addressed in this exhibition, including massacres and genocide. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be advised that there may be images of people who have passed away.”
Laura McBride and Dr Mariko Smith, 2021.
Missions, reserves and stations
There is a long history of government control over Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives. States had Aborigines Protection/Welfare Boards, established through race-based government legislation, which oversaw policies of segregation including the forced physical relocations of First Nations peoples onto designated parcels of land separate to the Australian population. There are known as missions and reserves.
Missions were operated by missionaries and churches, while reserves were usually government-run. Stations were places where people were put to work, often for little or no pay.
The Boards were also responsible for child removal and the assimilation of Aboriginal peoples into white society through ensuring the restriction of culture, language, relationships and freedoms.
NSW mission and reserves map 1883-1969
Data sourced from the University of Newcastle, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), University of New England, Australian National University, and University of Sydney research.
This map shows the locations of missions, reserves and some stations in New South Wales. Not all locations are recorded.
William McBride, Wailman, Kooma
Glass bottles from Tin Town Reserve, Coonamble NSW: Tin from Pilliga Mission, Pilliga NSW.
On loan for the exhibition.
Fringe camps, missions and reserves were often built on unused government-owned or free land near towns; out of sight and out of mind. People were resourceful and creative; they engineered housing that suited their environment and circumstances, often only with found materials.
These glass bottles came from Tin Town Reserve in Coonamble. This Aboriginal reserve was built on an old site like many other New South Wales reserves of the 1900s. The tin wall display recreates the inside of a home lived in by the maker who was born in a fringe camp named Montkeila Bend near Walgett in 1957.
Stock whip 1978
Made by Ancestor, Hermannsburg Mission, NT
Australian Museum Collection.
Australia’s prosperity is believed to be due to a pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, much of Australia’s early economic growth was built off the backs of forced, unpaid or low-paid labour.  This disproportionately involved exploiting First Nations peoples in unsafe conditions, to work on land stolen from them.
Many Aboriginal people were promised the payment of wages, often a pittance, to be banked into trust accounts held by governments on their behalf. These were rarely paid out, and today people are still fighting to recover their stolen wages. Aboriginal people are now often stereotyped as lazy, especially since they stopped working for free.
Brungle wooden chain, spinner and hook c. 1900
Brungle wooden chain, spinner and hook c. 1900
Made by Ancestor, Brungle Mission, NSW
Australian Museum Collection.
This wooden chain, hand-carved with a pen knife entirely from a single solid piece of wood, was collected by the Brungle mission manager John Hubbard. Less is known about the Aboriginal maker, who was recorded simply as a “full-blooded Aboriginal.”
Chains of this style, typically made of heavy metal, would have been a familiar sight to the maker; neck chains and other restraints were a common form of punishment and control for Aboriginal People. They were often chained when made to work on roads, railway lines and when clearing land for colonisers. Chains were not phased out until the 1940s but were still recorded in use until the 1960s.
The Help, 2015
Slavery existed in Australia. It may be different to the well-known example of the Atlantic slave trade, but in Australia Indigenous and Pacific peoples were forced to work hard for little or no money in dehumanising conditions because of their race. In this way, the treatment of First Nations peoples falls within contemporary definitions of slavery.
During the 1800s and 1900s, many First Nations children were removed from families and trained in institutions or homes in preparation for work as servants and labourers for white families. They were forced to work for strangers, and many suffered terrible physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse. For Aboriginal women put into domestic services, their servitude sometimes extended beyond employment in the home to being married or forced into relationships with non-Indigenous people.
Jack and Jill
(a.k.a. Hung, strung and quartered)
Hold a thought
for the woman
who hid in the long grass
longing to be invisible
With no make-up
to cover the scars
as rivers of grog flowed
she spills an ocean of blood
A workhorse by day
and endless dark nights
an animal for the taking
some called it “assimilation”
There was warmth
glimpses of kindness
confusion of lust for love
Babies to kiss
until the eyes turn
his fists flew
the bottle was empty
no silk scarves
sinking into deep grooves of grief
Houdini would find it hard to escape
One may have a paddle
occasionally a boat
yet the water still smells
up Shit Creek
Straining her heart
bruising her cheeks
knowing “until death do us part”
- Karla Dickens, 2016
Djujuma (dilly bags) 2020
Djujuma (dilly bags) 2020
Nadeena Dixon, Wiradjuri, Yuin, Gadigal, Bidjigal, Dharug, Dharawal.
Hessian, possum, ochre, twine.
Australian Museum Collection Acquisition.
Aboriginal material cultures and creative expressions have adapted over time, in response to available resources and social circumstances. The basic rations given to Aboriginal people as part of paternalistic government policy of the 1800s and 1900s came in hessian bags. Aboriginal people used these hessian bags to make objects like blankets, pillows and insulations for homes.
The creation of these djujuma (dilly bags) pays respects to the resilience of the Old People whose ingenuity and will to survive ensure our bloodlines and cultural knowledges survived despite concerted attempts to erase them.
- Paisley, F., (2014). An echo of black slavery: Emancipation, forced labour and Australia in 1933. Australian Historical Studies, 45(1), pp. 103-125; Miley, F. and Read, A., (2018). This degrading and stealthy practice: Accounting stigma and Indigenous wages in Australia 1897-1972. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 31(2), pp. 456-477.
- Grewcock, M., (2018). Settler-colonial violence, primitive accumulation and Australia's genocide. State Crime Journal, 7(2), pp. 222-250; O’Shane, P. (1995). The psychological impact of white settlement on Aboriginal people. Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal, 19(3), 24-29; Moran, A., (2005). White Australia, settler nationalism and Aboriginal assimilation. The Australian Journal of Politics and History, 51(2), pp. 168-193.
- Hagan, J. and Castle, R. (2011). Settlers and the state: The creation of an Aboriginal workforce in Australia. Aboriginal History Journal, 22, pp. 24-35. See information about the NSW Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme (ATFRS): https://piac.asn.au/project-highlight/669/
- Australian Human Rights Commission. (1997). Bringing Them Home: Report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Chapter 21 (Child Welfare Care and Protection) From: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/bringing-them-home-chapter-21
- Gunstone, A. (2012). Indigenous Peoples and stolen wages in Victoria, 1869-1957. In Fijn N., Keen I., Lloyd C., & Pickering M. (Eds), Indigenous Participation in Australian economies II: Historical engagements and current enterprises (pp. 181-196); Curthoys, A., & Mitchell, K. (2018). Little short of slavery: Forced Aboriginal labour in Western Australia, 1856-1884. In Taking Liberty: Indigenous Rights and Settler Self-Government in Colonial Australia, 1830-1890. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Miley, F. and Read, A. (2018). This degrading and stealthy practice: Accounting stigma and Indigenous wages in Australia 1897-1972. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 31(2), pp. 456-477; Walden, I., (1995). 'That was slavery days': Aboriginal domestic servants in New South Wales in the twentieth century. Labour History, 69, pp. 196-209.
- Kidd, R. (2006). Trustees on trial recovering the stolen wages. Aboriginal Studies Press; Payne, M. (2006). Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages. Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.
- Harman, K. and Grant, E. (2014). ‘Impossible to Detain ... without Chains’?: The use of Restraints on Aboriginal People in Policing and Prisons, History Australia, 11:3, pp. 157-176.
- Curthoys, A., & Mitchell, K. (2018). Little short of slavery: Forced Aboriginal labour in Western Australia, 1856-1884. In Taking Liberty: Indigenous Rights and Settler Self-Government in Colonial Australia, 1830-1890. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Paisley, F., (2014). An echo of black slavery: Emancipation, forced labour and Australia in 1933. Australian Historical Studies, 45(1), pp. 103-125; Slavery and the slave trade in Australia, (1883). The Anti-Slavery Reporter, 3(6), pp. 162-164; Reported outrages on Queensland Aborigines (1891). The Anti-Slavery Reporter, 11(5), p. 232.
- In reference to the contemporary notion of slavery. See for instance: Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. (2017). 3. Defining and measuring modern slavery – Parliament of Australia. From https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/ModernSlavery/Final_report/section?id=committees%2Freportjnt%2F024102%2F25035
- Miley, F. and Read, A. (2018). This degrading and stealthy practice: Accounting stigma and Indigenous wages in Australia 1897-1972. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 31(2), pp. 456-477; Hindman, H. D., & Hindman, H. (2009). The world of child labor: An historical and regional survey. ProQuest Ebook Central; Aboriginal servants (1908, October 21). Examiner (Launceston, Tasmania: 1900–1954), p. 6 (Daily); Aboriginal girls as domestic servants (1922, May 24). Sydney Mail (NSW: 1912–1938), p. 22.