Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History

“Making the Native a Useful Person”: Indigenous Labour in Twentieth-Century Australian Leprosaria

Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History (2018), 114, (1), 131–151.

Abstract

From 1930, Commonwealth and state governments established institutions (leprosaria) in the north of Australia for Indigenous people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy). At each leprosarium, all able-bodied inmates were expected to contribute their labour. This work was vital for the maintenance of these institutions, but doctors also prescribed work as therapy. Yet, no such mandatory policy existed at separate institutions for European-origin inmates. This article analyses work policies for Indigenous leprosaria inmates from the 1930s to 1950s. It argues that administrators also valued labour for its potential to produce inmate compliance and institutional order. With Western cultural paradigms framing regular work as morally uplifting and signifying civic responsibility, leprosaria labour regimes became mechanisms for training purportedly “uncivilised” Indigenous inmates to become cooperative leprosarium citizens. Although offered only a limited citizenship, some inmates adopted a sense of their own rights and, paradoxically, borrowed Australian trade union methods to contest the financial terms of their employment.

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Footnotes

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Robson, Charmaine