When the British Empire invaded Australia in 1788, the colony’s new ruling class had a problem – there was no pre-existing working class in Australia waiting around to work for them. Governments and employers could establish all of the farms, workshops, factories and other workplaces that they liked, but without people who had no alternative but to work for them, they were never going to get very far.

Aboriginal people had little inclination to spend all day working to enrich white masters when they could simply work for themselves and their communities, and while a vast and dispossessed English working class existed, the wages needed to entice workers to the opposite end of the world would have been prohibitively high. The authorities’ solution was to to bring over 160,000 convict prisoners to Australia against their will in order to form the colony’s initial labour force, and they subjected them to brutal working conditions and punishments to secure their obedience.

Convicts, however, rebelled on a massive scale against their conditions. In spite of incredible risks, they rioted, went on strike, ran away and became bushrangers, carried out sabotage, and engaged in hundreds of thousands of low-level acts of individual and collective resistance. In the process, they made convictism so expensive that it could no longer be continued, and they laid the basis for unions and for the workers’ movement in Australia.

In this episode, we interview Michael Quinlan, an academic at the University of New South Wales and co-author with Hamish Maxwell-Stewart of Unfree workers: insubordination and resistance in convict Australia, about the resistance of convict workers to the regime they worked under. Michael and Hamish’s work represents the culmination of decades of research, and is one of the only books to cover such a momentously important topic.

You can buy Unfree workers online here, and you can also purchase Michael’s (more affordable) Origins of worker mobilisation here.

Opening and closing music courtesy of Glitter Rats. People’s History of Australia logo design courtesy of Nissenbaum Design.