We’re often reminded that white Australia has a Black history; but it’s generally ignored that Black Australia includes a non-Indigenous history. Historian Cassandra Pybus describes the erasure of non-Indigenous Black Australians from the Australian narrative. This erasure is the reason why people today mistakenly believe that I am not Black Australian.
In 1912, a young man named Thomas Conquit was shot by police in a remote mining hamlet in the Snowy Mountains. In view of Conquit’s description as part Aboriginal, this was unremarkable. What took the case out of the ordinary was the police explanation that they were arresting Conquit for lunacy because he had declared that he was on a mission to kill the police who were part of a worldwide conspiracy to murder all black people. Putting aside the issue of whether or not this perception was dangerously paranoid, I find it astonishing that in 1912 an Aboriginal person might regard himself as part of a worldwide black community.1
The man’s distinctive name of Conquit makes his ancestry easy to trace in the colonial records. His grandfather was Thomas Conquade, a white convict transported from England to Australia in 1819, whose common-law wife, Frances Martin, was described on his death certificate as Aboriginal. However, Frances was not Aboriginal; she was the third child of John Martin and Mary Randall. Both her father and grandfather were African-American. Her grandson correctly understood himself to belong to the African diaspora, even if the authorities did not. In the year before Conquit was shot John Randall’s youngest child, Ann, died at Windsor, aged 96. She was the last survivor of the foundation generation of African-Australians. Ann Randall had only the faintest memory of her father, who must have died or disappeared when she was six, and she explained her origins as being an ‘islander’, from ‘the French Islands’, presumably exotic Tahiti. A descendant who remembered the old lady from her childhood said that she was as ‘black as the ace of spades’.2
In the early years of the new Federation of Australia there was intense racial anxiety among a majority settler population aggressively determined to define their society as inherently white. With their racial purity felt to be under threat, it was decided that ‘Kanakas’ and Chinese workers were to be expelled, while in future non-European immigrants would be denied entry. The concept of ‘white Australia’ fashioned at the turn of the twentieth century had no capacity to encompass currency lads and lasses who were black, and no comprehension that there might exist Australians of African descent. Between 1788 and the middle of the nineteenth century, almost every convict ship carried people of the African diaspora to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Settlers and soldiers brought African servants, while some settlers were themselves of the African diaspora. Each of the port communities of the colonies included plenty of African-American and Afro-Caribbean sailors. Yet the foundation narrative of the new nation promulgated an uncomplicated racial divide: white settlers (civilisation) displacing black Aborigines (stone-age savagery).3
In this narrative, any black individual in early colonial Australia could only be understood as the despised and excluded other. Therefore, early twentieth-century accounts of Billy Blue entirely overlooked the fact of his African heritage and black complexion, in order that a foundation legend, who lent his name to several Sydney landmarks, could be read as a white man. In the 1970s his first biographer found it impossible to ignore the evidence that Blue was not European, but still she insisted he wasn’t really black. Despite the evidence of three portraits that show Blue to be unmistakably African, she argued that he was ‘not predominantly Negro’ and was perhaps part Carib. For sure, his children must have been white because none of them ‘ever seem to be referred to as coloured’. The daughters, ‘named as among the finest young women in Sydney Town and again as two of the most attractive colonial born young women of their time’ were by implication white. In twentieth century Australia, it was unthinkable that such complimentary remarks could be made about a colonial woman unless she had a European complexion. Even the historian who fully understands Blue as an African-American man persists in reading Blue in early colonial Sydney as ‘the member of a despised and oppressed race’, albeit one who was supremely adept at destabilising his status as the excluded ‘other’.4
The tendency to read late nineteenth- and twentieth-century racial assumptions into early colonial Australia is almost universal among historians and social commentators, regardless of on what side of the history wars they fight. In any discussion of the foundation of Australia it is a given that racialisation was at work from the beginning, with white settlers confronting black Aborigines. A recent, finely nuanced study of early settlement by Inga Clendinnen continues to read early colonial history in terms of the black/white binary. She takes an incident at Port Jackson on 29 January 1788, where a crew of marines and sailors were dancing with Aborigines, to illustrate the book’s theme that the white British invaders and black Aborigines ‘began their relationship by dancing together’. As the watching officer, William Bradley, observed ‘these people mixed with ours and all hands danced together’. The notions of ‘these’ and ‘ours’ in Bradley’s statement has automatically been read as black and white, yet a week before this incident, the same William Bradley described ‘these’ attempting to engage with ‘ours’ in the interchange between the Aborigines and a black convict who was cutting grass at Botany Bay. I would have thought this was at least as telling an interracial exchange as the dancing, although the earlier incident has never commanded attention from Australian historians. Equally, the persistent rejection of Black Caesar by Aborigines, and the almost fatal confrontation between him and the warrior Pemulwuy at the same time that several European convicts were living with the Aborigines, has been passed over without notice. A white game shooter was deliberately speared, but a black game shooter went about his business in Aboriginal territory for many years without incident. The black convicts, John Randall and William Blue, enjoyed a level of patronage and special privilege far beyond the expectation of convicts in general. There is no fixed racial binary to be discerned in any of this.5
As the stories of our black founders reveal, the settlement of Australia was a multi-racial process that took place at a time when the notion of ‘race’ was a highly malleable construct, understood in ways very different from the modern sense of innate nature, and the binary of black or white was not a reliable way of conceptualising difference. Among historians of empire, there is a common view about the elasticity of the concept of race and the prevailing uncertainty about the signifiers of difference. There is a general understanding that the decades between 1780 and 1830 – the formative decades for the colony of New South Wales – witnessed a sea change in attitudes toward race and identity that would solidify into fixed racial categories in the second half of the nineteenth century. Surely it is time that we jettisoned assumptions about the fixed racial boundaries and the naturalness of racialised identities in early Australian history. Such simplification would never be tolerated, let alone go unremarked, if it were applied to class. To paraphrase Edward Thompson: race is a relationship and not a thing.6
Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia’s First Black Settlers, Cassandra Pybus, pp 179 – 182 (footnotes original).
Unlike Cassandra Pybus, I do not consider Thomas Conquit’s claim (that ‘the police [were] part of a worldwide conspiracy to murder all black people’) to raise an issue as to whether he was ‘dangerously paranoid’. In an Australian context at least, it is quite sane to assume that there was a conspiracy to eliminate Black people. Thomas’ death at the hands of the police is further testament to this fact.
Earlier in Black Founders, Pybus makes observations about Bradley’s positioning of Australian Blackness as he regards the interchange between the Aboriginal people and a Black convict. While the white Bradley projects his association between those whom he perceives as Black people, the Aboriginal people in question do not yet perceive themselves to be Black:
The naval officer William Bradley felt that the Aborigines were ‘much pleased’ to see a ‘man of their own complexion’ and he thought they were puzzled that the black convict failed to understand their language. This was Bradley’s fanciful rendering of the unintelligible behaviour of the indigenous people. For the Eora someone from Africa dressed in a convict uniform would have appeared no less alien than those with pale faces dressed in the same peculiar clothes.
1 I am indebted to Dr Michael Powell of the University of Tasmania for this story. In 2003, The Tracker, starring David Gulpilil, was the headline film in the African Diaspora Film Festival in New York, but this was an aberration. As a rule, Aboriginal people in Australia have not perceived any commonality with people of the African diaspora. [guantai5: This claim is open to question. I know of at least two other showings of Australian Aboriginal work in African Diaspora forums: that of Aboriginal woman, Bindi Cole, exhibiting in the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in New York; and the screening of Black Voices (1974), an Australian Aboriginal documentary, at the Black Film Festival in Los Angeles. Aboriginal political and artistic movements have been strongly connected to the African diaspora. For example, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, the Freedom Rides and the foundation of the Black Panthers in Redfern; and contemporary Indigenous dance and music from Bangarra Dance through to The Sapphires.]
2 Information on Ann Randall comes from a Randall-Martin descendant, Ray Fairall, communication with author.
3 For a discussion of the Immigration Restriction Bill and the Pacific Island Laborers Bill introduced in 1901 and racial ideas at the time of Federation, see Reynolds, 85–96.
4 Swords, 19–20; Duffield, ‘Billy Blue’, 6.
5 Clendinnen, 8.
6 Recently, Wheeler argued forcefully that earlier scholars have placed too much emphasis on skin colour as encoding difference in the eighteenth century, while, as Hudson, Bayly, Drescher and Kathleen Wilson all argue, the idea of inherent racial difference was not fixed in public discourse and social behaviour until well into the second half of the nineteenth century. Thompson’s famous formulation that class is a relationship comes from the ‘Preface’ (written in 1963) to The Making of the English Working Class, 9.