Aboriginal people played a key role in the development of the
cattle industry in central and northern Australia. They were
highly valued and respected workers who provided the essential
labour for its growth.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many
cattle stations employed only a handful of white people - all
the essential tasks and services were performed by local Aboriginal
men and women. Many station lessees conceded that the stations
could not survive without Aboriginal labour (McGrath 1997).
With the early spread of pastoralism, Aboriginal people were
confronted with a strange industry comprised of small groups
of white men tending mobs of peculiar animals. While many Aboriginal
clans violently resisted the invaders, in other parts of the
country Aboriginal people welcomed the invaders into their world,
sharing their land, pathways, water and food.
From the 1830s and earlier, in South Australia, Victoria and
NSW, Aborigines worked in a variety of jobs for Europeans. Aborigines
became sought-after workers, especially as stockmen and as mounted
messengers. In north Western Australia and elsewhere, pastoralists
were willing to pay more for land which came with an Aboriginal
When the white intruders arrived with large numbers of stock,
Aborigines resisted by spearing cattle, sheep and horses. Frontier
warfare sometimes continued in some pastoral areas for over
a decade with Aboriginal people suffering a terrible toll. In
other areas Aboriginal peoples voluntarily agreed to cease warfare,
deciding to 'come in' to stations and work for the settlers.
Motivation varied among clans: from a desire to stop fighting,
to ensure community survival, to maintain access to their land,
to acquire new products, or to 'help out' the lonely white man
In Queensland, around 55% of the pastoral workforce was black
in 1886 and by 1901 at least 2000 Aborigines were employed as
stock workers and domestics, with many more working in the industry.
By around 1937, 3000 Aboriginal people were employed on Northern
Territory cattle stations.
Aboriginal men and women worked in every aspect of
stock work. While most worked as stockmen, they were
also in demand for other more specialised jobs. Managers
often preferred women as stock workers because of their
reliability in procuring bush foods and as importantly,
for sexual services and female companionship. Due to
racist attitudes and legislation concerning mixed unions,
including child-removal policies, very few white men
entered a legal marriage with an Aboriginal woman.
Screenprint by Josephine Kenny, 2004
On larger stations with more complex domestic needs, Aboriginal
women not only managed the cooking and cleaning, but also carried
out numerous other tasks. White women relied heavily on Aboriginal
women's skills: they performed most of the domestic work and
also acted as midwives. The remoteness of cattle stations and
their husbands' frequent absence created a trusting reliance
and often strong personal bonds (McGrath 1997).
Before World War II, Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory
and Western Australia were usually paid only in clothing, equipment
and rations, with occasional pocket money. They were generally
supplied with only basic accommodation and food. On Territory
stations during the 1920s and 1930s, the government required
that pastoralists not paying wages must feed workers and their
dependants. Although station wages were meagre, many Aboriginal
workers liked the excitement of working with horses and cattle,
taking pride in their strenuous work.
When wage scales were introduced in Queensland, Northern Territory
and Western Australia, a large proportion was compulsorily saved
into government trust accounts. The system was never properly
explained to workers and Aboriginal workers lost large amounts
of money because they had restricted access to their earnings.
Significant proportions of the trust account monies were used
either to subsidise the pastoral industry or for general government
Aborigines preferred to negotiate with people in their own
traditional country, from within their own extended kin networks,
into which they had incorporated many of the non-Aboriginal
station residents. They valued employers who treated them with
respect as fellow men, who recognised their different cultural
priorities and the demands of their ceremonial cycle. A high
priority was for their relatives and old people to be permitted
to stay on the stations, to be fed well, and provided with clothing
and other needs. With the introduction of welfare policies,
the government rather than employers increasingly maintained
Like trust accounts and improved welfare, the introduction
of equal wages was intended to provide greater security for
Aboriginal workers. Up to 1968 it was against the law to pay
Aboriginal workers more than a specified amount in goods and
money. They were housed in corrugated iron humpies with iron
shutters for windows, without floors, lighting, sanitation,
furniture or cooking facilities. Social welfare payments were
paid to the pastoral company together with a Federal Government
subsidy for the worker's dependents (McGrath 1997).
In 1965 the North Australian Worker's Union argued a case for
Northern Territory Aboriginal workers to receive the same wages
as other pastoral workers. In March 1966, the Conciliation and
Arbitration Commission handed down a decision which put Aboriginal
employees in the NT on the same basis as non-Aboriginal employees.
However, the Commission also accepted the argument put by pastoralists
that introduction of award wages should be delayed until December
1968 to allow them to prepare for the change.
In Aboriginal stockmen and domestics on Newcastle Waters station
were upset by the delay and went on strike in May 1966. Soon
after 200 people, mainly Gurindji, left the Wave Hill station
and camped on traditional land at Wattie Creek (Daguragu) from
where they petitioned the Governor General for the return of
1290 square kilometres of their traditional land.
The strikes and walk-offs by the Gurindji supported not only
the equal pay case but also voiced concern over the importance
of land rights and the exploitation of women by white employees.
The Gurindji strike was not the first demand by Aborigines for
the return of their lands - but it was the first one to attract
wide public support within Australia for Land Rights.
However, the substantial loss of employment arising from equal
pay in the pastoral industry was devastating to many Aboriginal
communities. Whole communities were forced or 'persuaded' off
the stations. Many pastoralists refused to employ them under
the changed conditions and a large number of Aboriginal workers
not only lost their jobs but also the right to stay on their
own land (McGrath 1997).
The displacement was made worse by diminishing employment opportunities
due to rural recessions, low beef prices, increased fencing
and technology and the introduction of road-trains and helicopter-mustering.
Aborigines were also encouraged to seek medical help from urban
hospitals and education for their children from local towns.
Many station managers refused to install water systems and other
necessities. Newly arrived managers sometimes had little respect
for the achievements of local Aboriginal communities in pioneering
the stations and were either ignorant of, or uninterested in,
the generations who had long provided loyal service, generosity
and hard work.
Despite the dislocation associated with this major change,
and the often exploitatitive nature of their employment, many
older Aboriginal people look back with pride on their work in
the cattle industry and sadness at the loss of much of this
sort of work.
Note: the text above is based on the article
history of pastoral co-existence by Ann McGrath and in a
number of places is an edited or exact quotation.
McGrath, A., ed., Contested Ground, Allen & Unwin,
McGrath, A., 'Born in the Cattle': Aborigines in Cattle Country,
Allen & Unwin, 1987
May, D., Aboriginal Labour and the Cattle Industry, Cambridge,
Reynolds, H., Frontier, Allen & Unwin, 1987
Reynolds, H., The Other Side of the Frontier; Penguin,
Reynolds, H., With the White People, Penguin, 1990
For more see on Native Title see:
Native Title and Land Rights
What are Native Title Rights?