History Council of Victoria 25 November 2021
available online here: https://youtu.be/CPA_7m2XGEw
This seminar looked at the issue of child labour and slavery from three different perspectives, countries and time periods. Jane Lydon (University of Western Australia) spoke about the Swan River Colony, which commenced at much the same time (1829) as Caribbean slavery was coming under scrutiny in Britain. Swirling around the anti-slavery debates of the time was the trope that slavery and child labour in factory were analogous. In Swan River, land grants were made available on the basis of the number of people in the settler’s family, with wife and children of various ages being ‘worth’ a certain number of acres. The ongoing labour shortage in Western Australia meant that the most vulnerable children were targetted: child labour schemes and industrial schools were a source of young labourers, and indigenous children, especially girls, were taken into pastoral stations as domestic labour.
Claire Lowrie (University of Wollongong) took us to British colonies in the ‘Far East’ – Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia where the practice of Mui Tsai where young girls from impoverished Chinese families were taken far from their families and sold into a family to work as a servant. At the age of 18 they were either married off, became concubines, or went into prostitution. In 1878 the Po Leung Kuk (Society for the Protection of Women and Girls) was established in Hong Kong but it was only in the 1920s and 1930s that the League of Nations and the International Labour Organizations brought pressure to bear on Britain to bring an end to the practice.
Susie Protschky (Deakin University) used the photograph albums that Dutch soldiers were encouraged to create and send home to the Netherland from Indonesia during the Indonesian National Revolution (1945-9). Amongst these amateur photos could often be detected “Henkie”, the Dutch name given to young boys whose work as domestic servants around the barracks sometimes crossed the line to child soldier or army mascot. These photos were often taken to depict a form of domestic paternalism to their families back home.
A good final question to the panel went to the issue of agency (or lack thereof) amongst these children. Jane Lydon noted that Dr Shino Konishi is leading a project to develop an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography, which will seek to recover many of these stories. Claire Lowrie observed that in many cases agency was limited, although building emotional connections, particularly with the woman of the house in the case of the Mui Tsai girls might bring some protection. Susie Protschky noted that the Indonesian boys could obtain food for their families from the Dutch, and that the practice of ‘swapping sides’ (which the Dutch saw as particularly dishonourable) was a way of maintaining agency.
An interesting panel, although unfortunately the sound quality was poor for Jane Lydon’s contribution. The perils of the webinar.