‘Few who have not tried it know how useful a well-trained child of 12 or 14 is in a house, and how easily moulded to its employer’s requirements – Ellen Barlee, 1885’.
Settlers, Servants and Slaves documents the exploitation of both Aboriginal and European children by the settler elite of nineteenth-century Western Australia. In a struggling colony desperately short of labour, early settlers relied on the labour of children—their own and other people’s.
Convicted and neglected children from the poorest sections of this divided society were placed in institutions, where they were trained to become a useful part of the work force. Education services developed only slowly, and there was no system of secondary education provided by the government in the nineteenth century.
From the 1870s, Aboriginal children were widely ‘employed’, in a complex web of contract and apprenticeship law, in the pastoral and pearling industries in the North West. Often kidnapped by ‘blackbirders’, these children received no wages and had no opportunity to attend school.
Settlers, Servants and Slaves also shows how concern over ‘the problem’ of children of mixed descent in the last decade of the nineteenth century was to provide the rationale for infamous twentieth-century ‘solutions’: the removal of children from their parents and the establishment of Aboriginal Reserves.