Aboriginal child labor in colonial Australia

Date of this Version


Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Details

Interim status: Citation only.

Robinson, S. (2009). Aboriginal child labor in colonial Australia. In H. D. Hindman (Ed.), The world of child labor: An historical and regional survey (pp. 953-955). Armonk: M. E. Sharpe.

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2009 HERDC submission. FoR code: 2103

© Copyright 2009 by M. E. Sharpe, Inc.




Thousands of Aboriginal child workers, like adult Aboriginal workers, provided much essential labor in Australia's colonial past. Across the continent, female Aboriginal children, some as young as three years of age, were employed as domestic servants. Male Aboriginal children, mostly aged between ten and twelve years, labored predominantly in the burgeoning pastoral industry. A substantial number of Aboriginal children were also employed in the pearling and beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) industries off the coasts of Queensland and Western Australia. There are also accounts of Aboriginal children working as guides and interpreters, on the gold fields, as errand boys, as laborers, in circuses, and as jockeys.

Although it is apparent that large numbers of Aboriginal children worked for Europeans in colonial Australia, it was not until the sweeping social changes of the 1960s that historians began to consider the experiences of Aboriginal workers. Until recently, however, very little attention has been paid to the employment of Aboriginal children. This void is attributable to the disregard that Australian historians have generally shown toward children and childhood. Since the turn of the millennium, though, this historiographical trend has started to change, with greater numbers of historians recognizing the importance of Aboriginal child labor in Australia's past. Following convention, Australian scholarship treats people under the age of eighteen as children (Read 1981).

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