In chains: Aboriginal prisoners' bleak history

Friday, 9 January 2015

University of Adelaide researchers have carefully traced the history of restraining Australian Aboriginal people, revealing that chains were used on them in policing and prisons from the early colonial period well into the twentieth century.
The compelling paper, Impossible to detain…without chains?, published in the journal History Australia details the painful sordid history of the use of neck chains and other restraints.

Co-author, Dr Elizabeth Grant, says the first instances of Australian Aboriginal people being restrained using chains dates back to the foundation of the New South Wales colony.

“In 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip instructed that an Aboriginal person (Arabanoo) be captured after he rejected Phillip’s offer to live with him. Arabanoo was caught in December 1788 and held in restraints for up to three months. He spent the final two months of his life ‘freed… from all restraints’ and lived with Phillip before dying of smallpox in May 1789,” says Dr Grant, Centre for Housing, Urban, and Regional Planning researcher at the University of Adelaide. 
Dr Grant says with the expansion of pastoralism in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory in the 19th century, incarceration was used as a tool to dispossess Aboriginal people.

“Aboriginal people were denied their land and traditional food sources and were frequently arrested for offences such as cattle stealing and killing. Police were paid an amount per prisoner, and brought in prisoners, witnesses and children using chains,” Dr Grant says.

“Once imprisoned, the use of chains was seen as ‘essential’ due to the high rates of escape – in Western Australia in 1901 when only 10% of the prison population in gaols was classified as Indigenous, 96 out of 99 prison escapes were by Aboriginal prisoners.

“Between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, an Aboriginal prisoner could anticipate being ‘neck chained’ from the day they were arrested until the day they left prison, sometimes for two to three years or longer,” she says.

Dr Grant says that by the twentieth century, the contentious practice of neck chaining Aboriginal people in policing and prisons became a point for concern about, and criticism of, the treatment of Aboriginal people.

“Despite repeated public condemnation, and a recommendation to replace neck chains with handcuffs by Royal Commissioner Dr Walter Roth in 1905, the use of neck chains on Aboriginal prisoners was not phased out until the 1940s, and was still used informally in some areas until the 1960s,” Dr Grant says.

Dr Grant, who researches the design of prisons and their impact on Aboriginal people, became interested with the use of neck chains and other restraints when reviewing prison and police documents, realising that the use of restraints was not uniform, consistent or well documented.

“It is vitally important that the practices and policies of the past are understood as they inform the solutions that we offer for existing problems,” she says.


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Dr Elizabeth Grant
Architectural anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 4908
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