Kristyn Harman – ‘Suffering from long imprisonment’: Mickey’s petitions in the context of Aboriginal deaths in custody in colonial New South Wales

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney


Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Bristol, UK

Kristyn Harman (University of Tasmania)
‘Suffering from long imprisonment’: Mickey’s petitions in the context of Aboriginal deaths in custody in colonial New South Wales

By the mid-nineteenth century, the colonial authorities in New South Wales had become aware that Aboriginal men transported as convicts were dying at a much higher rate than other convicts. Following an investigation in 1851, an official circular was sent to the various colonial gaols directing surgeons to ‘watch carefully the state of health of any Aborigines who may be imprisoned’ and instructing them to ‘immediately report… the case of any Aboriginal Native whose life you may consider to be endangered by longer confinement in order that the necessary steps may be taken for his liberation’. It was against this backdrop that a remarkable series of documents were produced.

In September 1853, an Aboriginal man known by the English name ‘Mickey’ was sentenced to three years hard labour at Bathurst Gaol. Between November 1854 and July 1856, Mickey petitioned the Governor on four separate occasions seeking to be released from custody. In doing so, this Aboriginal prisoner was utilising colonial technology to unlock the doors of the colonial prison within which he had been incarcerated and put to labour.

Mickey’s petitions raise questions concerning authorship. These documents are significant for a number of reasons, including the way in which they demonstrate acts of collaboration between an Aboriginal prisoner and his colonial overseers. An added dimension of interest is the intriguing intersection that is revealed between colonial perceptions of Aboriginal people and the mobilisation (or possible internalisation) of these perceptions by Mickey.

Kristyn Harman, University of Tasmania, email
Dr Kristyn Harman lectures in Aboriginal Studies at the University of Tasmania where she recently completed her PhD ‘Aboriginal Convicts: Race, Law, and Transportation in Colonial New South Wales’. Her research interests include colonial contact on the Australian and New Zealand frontiers, impacts of colonisation and colonial law on indigenous peoples, pioneering women’s experiences in NZ, and the history of plant collecting, naming, and illustration.





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