Enough is enough: Action on Bathers Beach

DANIEL ELIAS is a local historian and unionist. He is writing his PhD on the History of Fremantle through the Perspective of Maritime Workers. This short piece draws from a section of the introduction, which was cut out from the final version. Consider it a preface, perhaps.

AS we see industrial action re-emerge as a means of improving workers’ rights and quality of living – from Inghams workers in the South-West to university workers across Australia striking over deep wage cuts and job security, and famously, the writers and actors striking out against Hollywood’s major studios – it is salient to remember that such industrial unrest has a precedent. 

Strikes were a part of day-to-day life from the 19th to the mid-20th century. 

A worker stoppage by the sun-bleached cliffs of Bathers Beach, Fremantle, 1845, marks one of the earliest records of a premeditated walkout in Western Australia. 

It was not simply a moment of workers absconding from their master but rather an attempt by a party of seafarers to collectively improve their lot.

For most of the 1800s, as economic liberalism began to take hold, laws dictating employment relations in the British Empire were the Master and Servant Acts. 

The laws gave disproportionate powers to the masters over their servants. 

They were a set of statutes created before the Trade Union Act of 1871, which legalised the formation of worker associations, unions, or ‘combines’ as the legislation refers to them. 

Punishment for insubordination under the Master and Servant Act however, handed down caning, lashing, or periods of hard labour.

• A Whale Hunt, Retrieved from Martin Gibbs. “The Shore Whalers of Western Australia: Historical Archeology of a Maritime Frontier.” Studies in Australasian Historical Archeology.


Whaling in Western Australia marks a desperate chapter in Fremantle’s history, although it was pivotal to its development. 

From a European perspective, the colony was a sandy non-starter. 

The grounds were exhausted, and crops were failing, leading colonial authorities to contemplate abandoning the Swan River. 

What’s more, tillable soil was deep in Noongar country, and the process of violent expropriation was still underway. 

Put simply, the colony needed an industry to keep it afloat, and in whaling, they thought they found a reprieve.

Whalers themselves were a force to be reckoned with, and one may imagine the classic novel Moby Dick within an understanding of whaling. 

But more relevant to Western Australia is Kim Scott’s novel That Deadman Dance, where First Nation people were kidnapped to work on vessels. 

During the mid-19th century, American whaler William Whitecar observed the double standard of the law’s application toward First Nation people in Western Australia, stating, “a word and blow; the blow, which is generally fatal, coming first”.

Seafarers and boat hands have been described as vagabonds and outsiders living a transient debt-ridden life, flitting from job to job, often finding themselves in the Swan River Colony after being enticed off American and French whaling ships. 

Derisively called deserters, these men skipped vessels because they were usually overworked, underpaid, or not paid at all. 

Moreover, many historical vignettes seem to indicate seafarers were fleeing from abusive captains and station owners.

In this context, at Bathers Beach, a party of seafarers working for the Fremantle Whaling Company initiated a work stoppage because they had been “ill-treated on the supply of provisions.” 


Starving, they had had enough. 

The walkout was a scandal in the Swan River Colony. 

The reaction of colonial authorities was to call for harsher discipline and punishment.

The magistrate who oversaw the whalers’ dispute spoke with faux horror, stating, “Neither conscience nor taste will suffer me to fight one class or interest against another, for separate benefit, or to take the narrow ground of undeviating panegyric.” 

Despite his pontifications about perceiving a classless society, he ruled that the working seafarers be incarcerated for three months of hard labour.

In 1847, the Legislative Council passed the Breach of Contracts Ordinance. 

Its function was to hamper any agitation by workers and extend the jurisdictional reach of the Master and Servant Act to seaborne whaleships and remote stations. 

In effect, it provided greater legal prescriptions and punitive intervention into the lives of seafarers. 

For example, if a contract was broken, the Breach of Contracts Ordinance made them liable to forfeit their wages and pay a debt double any advance they received. 

An additional three months of hard labour was stipulated to add insult to injury.

But it would turn out that the Ordinance was not necessary. 

On an isolated beach station in the South-West in 1856, a seafarer protested at the conditions he found himself in. 

Crewmen often had little by way of fresh water, food, and, critically for the British, tea. 

Even so, the captain threatened to sail away, leaving the protestor behind. 

Australia’s vast geography, as archaeologist Martin Gibbs observed, “made an effective disciplinary threat”.

In simple terms, throughout the 19th century, labour relations during ‘high liberalism’ triggered the establishment of labour organisations and elicited strikes to improve their common welfare. 

The late maritime historian Frank Broeze diplomatically comments, “Issues such as class, race, politics, religion and gender [are] often divisive, and however one may interpret historical situations, there is no point in closing one’s eyes to what is unpalatable.” 

Whaling marks an episode of aggression – toward Australia’s First Nations, the poorest of British society, and to nature itself. 

Of course, in Fremantle, we find some of the earliest stories of a collective worker push-back.

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