They shew no signs of resistance: Indigenous domestic work in early colonial Australia, 1789 to 1820

A cause de raisons techniques indépendantes de notre volonté, cette communication n’a pas pu être enregistrée. Nous nous en excusons.
Due to technical difficulties beyond our control, this paper could not be recorded. We wish to apologise.

In December 1790, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, returning to England from the fledgling British colony of New South Wales, stoutly denied rumours then circulating of conflict between the British and the native people. On the contrary, a ‘principal chief among the natives’ lived with the Governor in his house, while ‘a native female’ lived ‘as servant’ with the colony’s lone chaplain. ‘They are convinced of the superiority of the British Government, and shew no signs of resistance,’ stated King. Forgotten today, the young girl in the clergyman’s home might be seen as the first of the ‘Stolen Generations’, the generations of Aboriginal children removed from their families and communities to be brought up amongst white people. But in 1790, it was the symbolic role Boorong had as a native servant, signifying the submission of the colonized, that was most important to King. As historians, however, we do well not to take King’s complacent assessment of the colonial project at face value, and not just because by the time King had returned to England, the ‘chief’ King referred to had escaped captivity and returned to his people. By December 1790 Boorong was still with the Johnsons, but she and numbers of other Aboriginal people were now coming and going from the British settlement, and very much on their own terms, it would seem. In this paper, I reconstruct a history of Aboriginal girls and women’s domestic labour in the early colonial period, based on a careful reading of the fragmentary record of colonizers determined to convince themselves of their superiority, and of female, as well as native, subordination. The engagement of Indigenous girls and women in domestic services for colonizers should not, I argue, be mistaken for signs of Indigenous submission or acquiescence. Instead, as the participation of Aboriginal workers in the day-to-day life of the colony and the problems the British had in interpreting such participation reveals, the domestic space of the colonial encounter in settler societies has been fraught with instabilities and ambiguities from the very outset.

Victoria Haskins is Associate Professor in the Research Institute for Social Inclusion and Wellbeing of The University of Newcastle, Australia. She is the author of: Domestic Frontiers: The Home and Colonization (special double issue Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 28: 1-2 (ed. with Margaret Jacobs), 2007 ; One Bright Spot. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005 ; Uncommon Ground: White women in Aboriginal history. Ed. with Anna Cole & Fiona Paisley, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005.

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