Scott Morrison has declared there was 'no slavery in Australia' sparking claims he doesn’t know his country’s history.
Scott Morrison has declared there was 'no slavery in Australia' sparking claims he doesn’t know his country’s history.

PM’s 'no slaves in Australia' claims sparks huge backlash

Scott Morrison's declaration that there was "no slavery in Australia" has sparked claims he doesn't know the history of the country he leads.

As the history wars over Black Lives Matter protests intensify around the globe, the Prime Minister has called for future protesters in Australia to be charged for breaching COVID-19 health orders.

Defending British explorer Captain Cook's record in Australia amid activists' call for historical statues to be defaced and removed he said Australia's record was better than many countries at the time.

"Well, when you're talking about Captain James Cook, in his time he was one of the most enlightened persons on these issues you could imagine,'' he told 2GB radio.

"I mean, Australia when it was founded as a settlement, as New South Wales, was on the basis that there'd be no slavery.

"And while slave ships continued to travel around the world, when Australia was established yes, sure, it was a pretty brutal settlement. My forefathers and foremothers were on the First and Second Fleets. It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia."

Captain James Cook was murdered in Hawaii in 1779 when relations between his crew and islanders soured. After the theft of a longboat, Cook attempted to kidnap Kalani'ōpu'u, the ruling chief. During the ensuing fight he was fatally stabbed. The islanders treated his body as a chief, carefully cleaning his bones for preservation as religious icons.

The Prime Minister's critics have leapt on his remarks that there was "no slavery in Australia" on social media, pointing out a long history of forced labour.

The history includes many of the convicts transported to the Australian penal colonies who were, some would argue, treated as slave labour and described as "slave traffic" by officials on the Second Fleet.

From the 1830s/1840s as convict transportation stopped to the New South Wales settlement (it continued until 1853 to Van Diemen's Land and to Western Australia until 1868), a Committee on Immigration discussed importing "coolie labourers" from India and China.

Thousands of Chinese coolies were shipped into Australia in the 1850s prompting an inquiry after it was found that 70 coolies had died during the voyage to Sydney.

Aboriginal men and women were also used as unpaid slave labour for decades, deployed as prostitutes and household servants.

Children were also stolen from Aboriginal communities or traded for a "tin of jam" and used as personal servants or child labour.

Pacific islanders were shipped to Australia, a practice known as "blackbirding" to provide cheap labour, with some kidnapped before the journey.

For nearly 40 years, sugar cane farmers in Queensland engaged labour firms to obtain young men from Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.

It was a tragic history that former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's wife, Lucy, referred to on Twitter in response to Mr Morrison's comments today when she said: "We called it blackbirding."

Critics have leapt on the Prime Minister’s remarks that there was ‘no slavery’ in Australia. Picture: Sam Mooy/Getty Images
Critics have leapt on the Prime Minister’s remarks that there was ‘no slavery’ in Australia. Picture: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

The Prime Minister accused the Black Lives Matters protests of delaying the reopening of the economy.

"The timing has been complicated, frankly, by these rallies last weekend. We don't know what the health impact of that is," he told Radio 2GB.

"And while I think people were respectful of the issue that was being raised, broadly, I think the double standards that they allowed themselves to perpetrate by turning up has offended, rightly, I think Australians right across the country.

"There's no disagreement about the importance of the issue that they were talking about. But, you know, the way that was done and the suggestion that they might do it again, sort of, I think, risks public support for even the issue they raise. And so I think they need to think carefully about that and again, I say don't do it."

Mr Morrison said it was clear similar rallies had spread the virus in the past.

"And we do know that in other countries where there have been these sorts of rallies, that they have led to those sorts of outbreaks and if there's, you know, it just puts a massive spanner in the works,'' he said.

"And that's why it's so frustrating. By all means, raise your issue. But by doing this, they have put the whole track back to recovery at risk. People going out and going to mass rallies puts that at risk. Just do the right thing by each other."

Originally published as 'No slavery': PM's claims spark backlash