A History of Forced Removal: Diminishing Returns in the Northwest of Western Australia

From the Series: The Pilbara Crisis: Resource Frontiers in Western Australia

Photo by David Caloren, licensed under CC BY NC.

At the time of writing in mid-2015, the Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott and the premier of Western Australia are attempting to justify the inappropriate withdrawal of funding for towns in the northwest of Western Australia (McGuire 2015). Some 250 Aboriginal communities are at risk of being forced to relocate or be removed.

Resource extraction in its various manifestations in the northwest of Western Australia, and particularly the Pilbara, has had a long and murky history. Yet this history has only become known in the last thirty years, showing that Aboriginal people’s experiences of colonialism in the north have revolved around a brutal history of resource extraction. The current crisis is repeating the Pilbara’s long history of dispossession and exploitation of its Indigenous peoples. This latest tactic of the federal government to remove Aboriginal people from their land allows the resource industry greater freedom and access to Aboriginal land and resources, coupled as it is with the new weaker state legislation for Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act. The current federal and state government actions can be seen as an extension of the 2007 Northern Territory intervention, which needed five bills to enable an “emergency response” and to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 (Toohey 2008; Moreton-Robinson 2009).

The term removal in the historical context of Australia is usually understood in terms of stolen indigenous children under state-sanctioned assimilation and eugenics programs and policies. However, removal can be seen in a broader historical framework. By taking a long view it is possible to see how recent attitudes toward Aboriginal people in the context of resource extraction reflect nineteenth-century attitudes toward Aboriginal people in the pearling and pastoral industries of the northwest. Undergirding these key industries was the enslavement of Aboriginal people, under various guises, as yet another form of resource extraction.

Aboriginal prisoners outside Roebourne Gaol. Photo in the State Library of Western Australia, image no. 303666PD.

The first known forced removals of Aboriginal people in the northwest were by massacre; the first was recorded in 1865 at La Grange, a coastal site in the Kimberley (Scates 1989). The next was in 1868 near the present town of Roebourne—this one known variously as the Flying Foam or Murujuga massacre, which virtually wiped out a complete tribe (Gara 1983). The next known massacre was at Minderoo near Onslow in 1869 and is mainly known through a poem signed W. E. B. (1918), which did not come to light until nearly fifty years after the event when a copy was found in an office safe (Forrest 1996). Given the number who died in the earlier Flying Foam massacre and given that it was carried out by the same colonists, intent on a punitive expedition, it can be assumed that the number of dead was significant.

Moving north another significant massacre occurred in 1881 at La Grange, directly connecting violence, pearling, slavery, pastoralism, and government. This massacre was committed by unknown people from the De Grey station in the Pilbara region, “killing all they found 20–30 had been killed” (Walcott 1881). According to Edward Laurence, the Government Resident in Roebourne at the time, conflict among Aboriginal people was blamed upon failure to meet pearl-shell quotas (Forrest 1996). Included in the inspector’s correspondence is a report that two pearlers, Joshua Woods and Peter Hedland, were killed further north at Roebuck Bay. These murders were likely in retaliation for the La Grange massacre. Nine Aboriginal men were found guilty of the murder of Woods and eleven were found guilty for the murder of Hedland, but no one was held responsible for the La Grange massacre.

When Edward Laurence was appointed as the Government Resident in Roebourne in 1881, he was ordered by the London Colonial Office to suppress the slave trade in the northwest (Forrest 1996). Laurence’s attempt to quell the slave trade saw the slavers go further afield, from the Pilbara into the La Grange area in the Kimberley. Even as Governor Robinson was trying to protect Aboriginal people through legislative changes, two colonists with investments in pearling, McKenzie Grant and Maitland Brown, successfully opposed these protections. Grant was infamous for his brutality against Aboriginal people in the north and would later wage a vendetta against the defenders of the rights of Aboriginal people.

Most of the nineteenth-century northern pastoralists were pearlers and, as such, appropriated Aboriginal labor as a natural right. The pastoralist/pearler/politician needs to be held accountable and foregrounded in our histories. Slave-owning colonists with personal interests in the pastoral and pearling interests in the northwest brutalized Aboriginal people, and through that process became brutes or unchristianized, as one commentator of the time noted (Special Correspondent from Roebourne 1875). Many elements of this Pilbara history continue today in the practices of extractive industries, aided by the sanction of federal and state government.


Forrest, K. 1996. The Challenge and the Chance: The Colonisation and Settlement of North West Australia, 1861–1914. Carlisle, Western Australia: Hesperian Press.

Gara, Tom. 1983. “The Flying Foam Massacre: An Incident on the North-west Frontier.” InArchaeology at ANZAAS 1983, edited by Moya Smith, 86–94. Perth: Western Australian Museum.

McGuire, Amy. 2015. “Barnett Plays ‘Abuse Card’ To Defend Closure of Remote West Australian Communities.” New Matilda, March 10.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. 2009. “Imagining the Good Indigenous Citizen: Race War and the Pathology of Patriarchal White Sovereignty.” Cultural Studies Review 15, no. 2: 61–79.

Scates, Bruce. 1989. “A Monument to Murder: Celebrating the Conquest of Aboriginal Australia.” Studies in Western Australian History, no. 10: 21–31.

Special Correspondent from Roebourne. 1875. “North-West Pearl-Shell Fishery.” The Inquirer and Commercial News [Perth, Western Australia: 1855–1901], April 28: 3.

Toohey, Paul. 2008. “Last Drinks: The Impact of the Northern Territory Intervention.” Quarterly Essay, no. 30.

[W. E. B.] 1918. “Pioneering in the Ashburton: The Battle of Minderoo Perils and Hardships of the Past.” Sunday Times [Perth, Western Australia: 1902–1954], October 20: 8.

Walcott, Pemberton. 1881. Letter to the Colonial Secretary’s Office. Perth: State Records Office, Western Australia.