Labour relations on northern cattle stations: Feudal exploitation and accommodation

Thalia Anthony, University of Sydney


The co-existing land interests of Aborigines and colonisers on northern Australian cattle stations had feudal qualities that helped sustain the cattle industry for over a century. The feudal form of labour relations made otherwise incompatible land claims compatible, and thus functioned to buttress pastoralists’ power and to allow Aboriginal people to maintain connection with their land. It also meant that Aboriginal workers could be exploited on large scale. To gain the labour force they needed, the pastoralists did not allow Aboriginal workers freedom of mobility, but neither did they require the force of slavery. Thus, the freedom/slavery dichotomy that traditionally frames scholarly debate does not apply to labour relations on northern cattle stations. Only since the Equal Wage decision of 1966 has the significance of these feudal land relations been realised: although arising from pastoralists’ exploitation, these relations raise possibilities for Indigenous title in Australian property law, which continues to privilege European claims.

Thalia Anthony is completing her PhD in the History Department and is enrolled in Graduate Law at the University of Sydney. Her thesis—Mabo and the Ghost of Feudalism—has combined her legal and socio-economic interests to examine northern Aboriginal land, law and labour. In 2001 she organised the cross-campus Aboriginal Studies Postgraduate discussion group. She received the 2003 Venour V. Nathan Prize for Australian History. Her email address is <>.

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