Project Title

‘Impossible to detain them without chains’: Unearthing the History of Chains in Australian Colonialism


Not long after the British invaded the Australian mainland in 1788, chains and other forms of restraint began to be used as a means of attempting to assert control over First Nations people. This is a practice that has continued throughout Australia’s history in various forms. This thesis attempts to unearth as much of this ‘history of chains’ as possible, which spans and parallels the 230 years of colonial occupation of the Australian continent and its islands. Although other models of historical inquiry have identified that restraints have been used on First Nations people in different colonial settings, how restraints have permitted the operations of colonialism throughout Australia’s history has been largely overlooked. However, despite this silence within the Australian academe, the reality of this history of chains is one that many First Nations people are all too familiar with.

This thesis will begin by addressing the use of chains on First Nations people by settlers on the “frontiers” and in various industries throughout Australia from 1788-1888 and beyond. This section will pay particular attention to Western Australia’s slave trade; where First Nations men, women and children were captured, restrained, sold and traded in pearling and pastoral industries through the last half of nineteenth century and part of the twentieth century. Following this, the thesis will continue by examining a sequence of largely ineffective and destructive Royal Commissions held in Western Australia between 1884 and 1927, which discuss the use of “neck chains” and other devices in the restraint of First Nations people. The thesis will then move eastward from Western Australia to Queensland, examining the first half of the twentieth century and the use of restraints on First Nations people within the removal programs instituted under the Act. Following this, the thesis will address the use of restraints on First Nations people within the contemporary prison system.

This research is intended to destabilise and challenge the continuation of not only the prolific use of restraints, but the very institutions that deploy them. Child and adult prisons in Australia now detain so many First Nations people that the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ population has become the most incarcerated population in the world. Why have chains and other forms of restraint continued to be so central to the operations of colonialism? Could it be that Australia would not have been able to become what is today without their use on First Nations people? Perhaps this entire “society”, and all that exists within it, rests, as a matter of contingency, upon this long and brutal history of chains. It is this history, and the ramifications that it holds for us in the present, that this research attempts to unearth.


Researcher biography

Max is a proud descendent of the Kullilli people from what is now considered south-west Queensland. He also has European and Chinese ancestry. He has spent much of his life living in Brisbane. Max is currently in his second year of a PhD through the School of Political Science & International Studies at UQ. After he completes his degree he plans to continue to pursue a career as an academic in Australia and abroad.