Tabi on racial matters: Black African communities have deeper connections to Australia’s history than we realise

| January 25, 2021

With Australia Day approaching, I’ve been reflecting a lot about being a Black African born, Australian woman, living on land taken from Aboriginal Peoples, and what I feel about the celebration of the day, and where I fit in.

But I’m not here to engage in a public debate on what date is correct for Australia Day nor which words are more appropriate for the National anthem. These are important points of discussion for another day, and with the people who are most affected by it.

We recently heard the apology from our own Prime Minister about his previous comments of denying that slavery is part of Australia’s history. We know that Aboriginal Peoples were used as “slave” labour for many years.

But there is another early connection to slavery that many may not be aware of.

The Tran-Atlantic Slavery past

Due to the Tran-Atlantic slave trade  many Africans were captured, tortured and taken from their country of birth and dispersed to parts of America and Europe. The impacts of slavery on Black Africans around the world continues to wreak havoc through our lives, cultures and traditions.

We have come a long way in restoring hope, dignity and future prospects for Blacks around the globe, but we still have a long way to go.

The idea that Africans in Australia are new and emerging communities may not be so true.

Did you know that there were 12 people of African descent who were among the convicts who arrived in the first fleet?

Many Black Africans came to Australia to complete their prison sentences and to work in the colony and were amongst the first convict labourers of the country that we know today.

One particular African descendant was named William (Billy) Blue who it is believed was born in Jamaica. It is written that he served with the British army in the American war of independence, and he may have been a freed-African-American slave from colonial New York.

In 1796, however, he was living at Deptford, London, working as a chocolate-maker and a labourer on ships on the River Thames. Billy was convicted of stealing raw sugar and sentenced to seven years transportation. After over four years in convict hulks, he was transported to Botany Bay with the men and women who arrived on the convict ship Minorca in 1801.

Black African convicts landed in Sydney in 1801

Billy Blue served the remainder of his sentence in Sydney and went on to marry and raise a family of six children. I believe his descendants will still be in Australia today.

His family lived around the Rocks in Sydney where he also found paid work. Apparently, he came to know Sydney harbour very well. He used his navigation and sea knowledge and skills to ferry citizens across the harbour earning a living for his growing family.

Perhaps it was his skills, wit, or just pure hard work, because Billy Blue found favour in Governor Macquarie, who officially appointed him as the water bailiff, and gave Billy wider powers of supervision of ships and traffic in and around the Harbour. Along with this role, he was given a home to live in with his family, which is believed to be in the grounds of Government House.

It is also known that due to Billy’s excellent work as a harbour watchman, Governor Macquarie in his appreciation, gave him an allotment of land of around 80 acres where Billy would build a home for his family; an Aussie dream – one may think, on the northern side of the harbour. This site is recognised and now known to be Blue’s Point.

Where is the history of African convicts in the Australian settlement story?

Representation matters, as a Black African woman who came to Australia to live over two decades ago, I find it amazing to know that somewhere in the history of Australia I can identify with my people who were forced into the slavery and convict trade and were amongst those who landed on the shores of Australia as far back as in the First fleet and many other convict ships.

The knowledge of Africans transported to Australia as convicts is scarcely known. Like our First Nation Peoples have often said, truth telling is the heart of true reconciliation.

African convicts did come to Australia and recognising them along with all the European convicts is vital for the Australia story. To change the facts of history with omission and different emphasis ignores stories that are a part of the identity of our country today.

The Tran-Atlantic slave trade  caused Black Africans to be dispersed around the world and used as free labour to build countries for the wealthy and powerful. The convict trade to Australia, like the slave trade, resulted in the destruction of ancient cultures and communities in both Australia and Africa.

As a Black African-Australian woman, what strikes me most from learning that there were African Convicts sent to Australia, is what may have been in the minds of the Aboriginal Peoples seeing Black coloured people from another shore; or what was in the minds of the Black Africans witnessing the heartless destruction of an ancient culture and communities, and the brutal treatment of Black people all over again.

Was there some form of recognition between them that these people shared similar fates and were seen equally as inferior by white people? Was there a common bond built on the colour of their skin?

These are questions that remain unanswered because the history books are scant in information about the people who were sentenced to what amounts to legalised slavery, particularly those who were and still are marginalised and unrecognised because of the colour of our skin.

As we celebrate Australia Day, I urge you to reflect on all that we know about the destruction that has come with enslavement and colonisation, and if we have the capability to construct our new world post the pandemic, what will our guiding principles be?