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Fact sheet

Fact Check: Scott Morrison says the colony of New South Wales was founded on the basis there would be no slavery. Is he correct?

Colonisation Slavery Australian history Aboriginal people (Australia) Australia

The death of George Floyd in the United States at the hands of police prompted Australia to once again reflect on race, discrimination and its own often troubled history.

As Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets, Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined the debate.

Asked by 2GB radio host Ben Fordham how he felt about the possible removal of statues memorialising historic figures such as James Cook, Mr Morrison said Australia needed to be honest about its history, including the positive aspects.

"I mean, Australia when it was founded as a settlement, as New South Wales, [it] was on the basis that there'd be no slavery," Mr Morrison said.

"And while slave ships continued to travel around the world, when Australia was established yes, sure, it was a pretty brutal settlement. My forefathers and foremothers were on the First and Second Fleets. It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia."

Is it correct that there was no slavery in Australia when NSW was founded as a colony?

His claim goes to the question of whether there was slavery when NSW was founded as a colony.

As harsh as the new settlement undoubtedly was, the preconditions for slavery — including the treatment of individuals as property — were not met, at least not in the early years of NSW.

Arthur Phillip, the first governor of the new colony, declared that among the first laws he would like enacted was that there could be no slavery and no slaves.

The first governor of NSW, Arthur Phillip, established the colony on the basis that there would be no slaves.(Supplied)

As experts consulted by Fact Check pointed out, convicts sent to NSW had many legal rights not typically afforded to slaves.

Although they were "lent" out to private settlers under a model known as the "assignment system", unlike convicts sent to other parts of the world, they could not be privately traded.

Punishment could only be legally inflicted by the state, having firstly been ordered by a magistrate.

Convicts could, among other things, appear as witnesses in court and petition the governor.

They were freed after the expiry of their sentences, and their children were born free in the eyes of the law.

Moreover, convicts could, with some constraints, sell some of their labour to the free market, and were encouraged to grow food in their private time.

The question of whether or not Australia had slavery when NSW was founded as a colony does not take into account other aspects of Australia's often troubled history spanning more than two centuries.

That history is replete with examples of practices that might be regarded as forms of slavery, including forcibly removing Indigenous people from their families and incarcerating them in institutions where they were trained to labour for colonists, among other things.

The verdict: Mr Morrison's claim checks out.

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