Pastoralism, Aboriginal labour and the shift towards convict transportation in Western Australia

By the end of the 1830s, the bloody conquest of the Avon valley east of Perth was largely complete. A years-long campaign of state sanctioned violence against the Ballardong Noongar, which reached a climax in 1837, firmly established settler sovereignty over a fertile and well-watered region that had already become the centre of Western Australia’s expanding pastoral industry. In July 1839 the Perth Gazette remarked that the York district, which had ‘been lately disturbed by the aggressions of the natives’, was now ‘partially restored to a state of tranquillity’. Even so, ‘some caution and vigilance in the intercourse with the natives’ was still required, for the

scarcity of labour in the colony renders it necessary to employ the aborigines in herding cattle and tending sheep. We hear with pleasure that their services are considered valuable, and that no apprehensions are entertained by the settlers of their abusing the confidence reposed in them. These blacks are, however, a singular race, and it will require many years of experimental suffering and forbearance on both sides — on the part of the whites as well as the blacks — to bring them to any conception of our laws, or adherence to our habits.

This paper examines the Western Australian pastoral industry’s demand for and dependence on Aboriginal labour from the late 1830s until the mid-1840s, in the immediate aftermath of the conquest of the Avon valley. Pastoralists frequently cited the shortage of cheap, reliable labour as the main impediment to the expansion of their industry; and it was in this context that significant attempts were made from the late 1830s to recruit Noongar workers, from both the Swan coastal plain and the Avon valley itself. It was the failure to enlist, retain and discipline a sufficiently large and dependant Indigenous workforce during the 1840s that led pastoralists instead to lobby the colonial government to recruit labourers that would be more easily controlled; an effort that included calls for indentured workers from Asia and, from the mid-1840s, a campaign led by the York Agricultural Society to introduce convict transportation to Western Australia.

This talk is part of the Western Australian Legacies of British Slavery project, being undertaken in collaboration with the National Centre of Biography.

* The talk will commence at 3 pm AEST (12 pm AWST) and go for about an hour.

Date & time

Thu 11 Mar 2021, 3pm




Jeremy Martens


National Centre of Biography



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