Michael Quinlan on Unfree Workers

Wednesday 30 March 2022, 6.00 – 7.00 pm via ZOOM

Zoom link: https://unsw.zoom.us/j/83088203715

Michael Quinlan and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart ‘s recent book Unfree Workers: Insubordination and Resistance in Convict Australia, 1788-1860 is the first attempt to document how the use of unfree labour contributed to both Australian and global capitalism.

The book compares convict labour to other forms of unfree labour like slavery and draws out the links between Caribbean slavery and the deployment and treatment of convict labour in eastern Australia, including the leading role of slave island administrators like George Arthur and Thomas Bigge and also major landholders who came from the Caribbean.

Michael and Hamish’s work establishes the critical contribution of convict labour to the growth of Australian capitalism (by building essential infrastructure, working in key industries and as consumers) such that the globally significant spurt of economic growth began in the 1820s not following the discovery of gold in the early 1850s.

Of particular interest to all labour historians, Unfree Workers rewrites Australian labour/working class history by focussing on the previously overlooked fact that both male and female convicts engaged in strident resistance to their exploitation at a scale that alarmed state and capital and literally reshaped the colonial society. 

Between 1788 and 1860 convicts were tried for work-related dissent on at least 500,000 occasions, there were more than 11,000 instances of collective (including mass absconding, strikes, go-slows, riots and sabotage) involving at least 45,000 convicts (over 4,700 of who were flogged for taking part).

Unfree Workers also reveals considerable qualitative detail on the machinations of the state apparatus and the motives and effects of convict action. The book shows how this heritage struggle and convicts themselves shaped union organisation, industrial campaigns and political mobilisation by the working class.

In his talk Michael will outline the book’s methods and identify broad patterns of dissent. In doing this he will provide examples of action relevant to a Sydney/NSW audience including unrest on Cockatoo Island and at the Parramatta Female Factory, sabotage at Milson’s Point, strikes on rural estates in the Hunter Valley and dissent in road/labour gangs and Penal Stations south-west, west and north of Sydney.

Unfree Workers can be ordered online as an e-book and in print at: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-7558-4

Danny Blackman

Secretary, Sydney Branch ASSLH

The event is finished.


Mar 30 2022


6:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Zoom Meeting


Australian Society for the Study of Labour History,
Sydney Branch


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ASSLH & Labour History Office

Carl Power
Faculty of Law
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University of Technology Sydney
Broadway NSW 2007 Australia
Tel. 0415 191 715

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