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Issue #1729      May 4, 2016

Taking Issue – Nick Schadegg

Convict labour in the objective world

Before the formation of the Soviet Union, before the October Revolution, before Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, and before Marx was even born, Australia (or at least the bit where all the white people lived) was already a Communist society. And this on top of the Aboriginal nations of mostly hunter gatherers that had lived here sustainably for around 60,000 years.

Well, sort of. It was a Communist society in a I-hope-you-history-nerds-are-using-your-imagination-while-you’re-reading-this kind of way.

Between 1788 and 1792 about 4,300 convicts landed at Port Jackson. Their custody was handed from the contractors which sailed them there across half a world of oceans to the New South Welsh government of Governor Arthur Phillip. By all accounts, the burden on responsibility for the welfare of these convicts was something that Arthur took very seriously, even personally.

And why wouldn’t he? After all, he was the main guy tasked with a huge responsibility given to him by his British masters; they established a new colony on a vast land that was to go on to become a country, and it was all up to him to make it work.

That being said, the British government could not have made his job any more difficult if they tried. Food and building materials were in short supply from day one. The convicts were to have been put to use by private business and land owners to work off their sentences, as had been common practice in American colonies (we weren’t the only convict colony out there). But, much like food and building supplies and virtually everything else promised to Phillip, private business and land owners were in very short supply.

Additionally, Arthur made it known that he abhorred the idea of slavery; “The laws of this country [England] will of course, be introduced in [New] South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves.”

OK, so no slaves then. But the convicts were still unwilling participants in this colonial experiment. Many were hardened criminals, and few possessed agricultural or technical know-how. They were hardly the ideal folk to be relied upon to build a yet-to-be nation. Second and third fleets eventually arrived with more convicts. More mouths to feed. Large numbers perished on their journey to Australia, and the physical state of the ones that made it to the new land appalled Phillip. Ships scheduled to bring supplies to the new colony ran late, and at a critical moment one of them (called the Guardian, funnily enough) sank off the coast of Africa. No one was certain if the New South Wales colony would succeed, or perhaps even survive.

Through the necessity of self reliance, convicts worked to produce their own food. Arthur encouraged them to garden like crazy, as they couldn’t rely on imported sources of food. And here’s where Communism kicks in...

While food and materials were in short supply, there was one thing that was even scarcer; money. It was scarce in a sense that New South Wales had no monetary system at all for the first 20 years of its existence until in 1812 Governor Macquarie imported £10,000 worth of Spanish dollars to use as a surrogate currency. Until that time, people were paid in food and other necessities - rum included. Governor Phillip diligently ensured that everyone was given equal rations regardless of the crimes they had committed, their status as a free citizen or prisoner, or their position or job title. In other words, Arthur received the same rations as the prisoners he watched over. There are probably two reasons for this; he wanted to exhibit a we’re-all-in-this-together vibe to avoid mutiny, and, by most accounts, he was a genuinely egalitarian person.

Now, let’s strip away the criminal background of those involved in the new colony, and the virtual prison bars that kept them there. This was a moneyless egalitarian system – albeit for reasons of necessity rather than ideology – that truly embodied a notion that Marx wrote 100 years later; “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

It was hardly a poster-child system for Communist utopia, but that’s not the point. My point is that the principles of Communism can rightly stake a claim to a part of Australia’s history. And next time you hear one of those neo-liberal types banging on about Australia being established on capitalist principles you can at least say “I once read an article about this, and nah, that’s not entirely true”.

Next article – Culture & Life – Vietnam and the legacy of “continuous war”

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