Aboriginal people played a key role in the development of the cattle industry in central and northern Australia. They were highly valued and respected workers who provided the essential labour for its growth.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many cattle stations employed only a handful of white people – all the essential tasks and services were performed by local Aboriginal men and women. Many station lessees conceded that the stations could not survive without Aboriginal labour (McGrath 1997).
With the early spread of pastoralism, Aboriginal people were confronted with a strange industry comprised of small groups of white men tending mobs of peculiar animals. While many Aboriginal clans violently resisted the invaders, in other parts of the country Aboriginal people welcomed the invaders into their world, sharing their land, pathways, water and food.
From the 1830s and earlier, in South Australia, Victoria and NSW, Aborigines worked in a variety of jobs for Europeans. Aborigines became sought-after workers, especially as stockmen and as mounted messengers. In north Western Australia and elsewhere, pastoralists were willing to pay more for land which came with an Aboriginal work force.
When the white intruders arrived with large numbers of stock, Aborigines resisted by spearing cattle, sheep and horses. Frontier warfare sometimes continued in some pastoral areas for over a decade with Aboriginal people suffering a terrible toll. In other areas Aboriginal peoples voluntarily agreed to cease warfare, deciding to ‘come in’ to stations and work for the settlers. Motivation varied among clans: from a desire to stop fighting, to ensure community survival, to maintain access to their land, to acquire new products, or to ‘help out’ the lonely white man (McGrath 1997).
In Queensland, around 55% of the pastoral workforce was black in 1886 and by 1901 at least 2000 Aborigines were employed as stock workers and domestics, with many more working in the industry. By around 1937, 3000 Aboriginal people were employed on Northern Territory cattle stations.
Aboriginal men and women worked in every aspect of stock work. While most worked as stockmen, they were also in demand for other more specialised jobs. Managers often preferred women as stock workers because of their reliability in procuring bush foods and as importantly, for sexual services and female companionship. Due to racist attitudes and legislation concerning mixed unions, including child-removal policies, very few white men entered a legal marriage with an Aboriginal woman.
On larger stations with more complex domestic needs, Aboriginal women not only managed the cooking and cleaning, but also carried out numerous other tasks. White women relied heavily on Aboriginal women’s skills: they performed most of the domestic work and also acted as midwives. The remoteness of cattle stations and their husbands’ frequent absence created a trusting reliance and often strong personal bonds (McGrath 1997).
Before World War II, Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory and Western Australia were usually paid only in clothing, equipment and rations, with occasional pocket money. They were generally supplied with only basic accommodation and food. On Territory stations during the 1920s and 1930s, the government required that pastoralists not paying wages must feed workers and their dependants. Although station wages were meagre, many Aboriginal workers liked the excitement of working with horses and cattle, taking pride in their strenuous work.
When wage scales were introduced in Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, a large proportion was compulsorily saved into government trust accounts. The system was never properly explained to workers and Aboriginal workers lost large amounts of money because they had restricted access to their earnings. Significant proportions of the trust account monies were used either to subsidise the pastoral industry or for general government expenditure.
Aborigines preferred to negotiate with people in their own traditional country, from within their own extended kin networks, into which they had incorporated many of the non-Aboriginal station residents. They valued employers who treated them with respect as fellow men, who recognised their different cultural priorities and the demands of their ceremonial cycle. A high priority was for their relatives and old people to be permitted to stay on the stations, to be fed well, and provided with clothing and other needs. With the introduction of welfare policies, the government rather than employers increasingly maintained worker’s dependants.
Like trust accounts and improved welfare, the introduction of equal wages was intended to provide greater security for Aboriginal workers. Up to 1968 it was against the law to pay Aboriginal workers more than a specified amount in goods and money. They were housed in corrugated iron humpies with iron shutters for windows, without floors, lighting, sanitation, furniture or cooking facilities. Social welfare payments were paid to the pastoral company together with a Federal Government subsidy for the worker’s dependents (McGrath 1997).
In 1965 the North Australian Worker’s Union argued a case for Northern Territory Aboriginal workers to receive the same wages as other pastoral workers. In March 1966, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission handed down a decision which put Aboriginal employees in the NT on the same basis as non-Aboriginal employees. However, the Commission also accepted the argument put by pastoralists that introduction of award wages should be delayed until December 1968 to allow them to prepare for the change.
In Aboriginal stockmen and domestics on Newcastle Waters station were upset by the delay and went on strike in May 1966. Soon after 200 people, mainly Gurindji, left the Wave Hill station and camped on traditional land at Wattie Creek (Daguragu) from where they petitioned the Governor General for the return of 1290 square kilometres of their traditional land.
The strikes and walk-offs by the Gurindji supported not only the equal pay case but also voiced concern over the importance of land rights and the exploitation of women by white employees. The Gurindji strike was not the first demand by Aborigines for the return of their lands – but it was the first one to attract wide public support within Australia for Land Rights.
However, the substantial loss of employment arising from equal pay in the pastoral industry was devastating to many Aboriginal communities. Whole communities were forced or ‘persuaded’ off the stations. Many pastoralists refused to employ them under the changed conditions and a large number of Aboriginal workers not only lost their jobs but also the right to stay on their own land (McGrath 1997).
The displacement was made worse by diminishing employment opportunities due to rural recessions, low beef prices, increased fencing and technology and the introduction of road-trains and helicopter-mustering. Aborigines were also encouraged to seek medical help from urban hospitals and education for their children from local towns. Many station managers refused to install water systems and other necessities. Newly arrived managers sometimes had little respect for the achievements of local Aboriginal communities in pioneering the stations and were either ignorant of, or uninterested in, the generations who had long provided loyal service, generosity and hard work.
Despite the dislocation associated with this major change, and the often exploitatitive nature of their employment, many older Aboriginal people look back with pride on their work in the cattle industry and sadness at the loss of much of this sort of work.