Miracle or Parasite: The Rabbit Industry in South-Eastern Australia 1788 - 2000
The rabbit industry changed rural Australia. Rabbits arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. Settlers and officials in colonial New South Wales imported rabbits and maintained warrens or released them in the bush. Later, their counterparts in the other colonies did likewise. The rabbit’s amazing fecundity and a favourable environment ensured numbers multiplied exponentially. Over time, large tracts of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland were infested.
Over 20,000 full-time rabbiters and tens of thousands of other men, women and children trapped or poisoned the rabbits. Newspaper reports in the late 1920s claimed that the rabbit industry was one of the largest employers of labour in Australia, and it was an economic force in the bush. Working as independent suppliers, many full-time trappers made up to ten times the wages paid to skilled tradesmen. This financial ‘miracle’ made them independent and provided them with freedoms other workers could only dream of.
The rabbit industry could not have survived if its products did not sell. Up to 20 billion rabbits were trapped or poisoned for commercial purposes – skins from 1830, preserving from 1870, frozen carcase exports from 1890 and local consumption of rabbit meat.
A number of secondary industries used parts of the rabbit to make fur felt hats, furs, meat extract, smallgoods and gelatine, and they flourished after 1870. Rabbit plagues made farming stressful and increasingly uneconomic. Unable to eliminate the rabbits from their properties, landholders could either condemn the industry, calling it a parasite, or start rabbiting themselves. They also had to confront a severe shortage of labour as the rabbit industry attracted workers and essentially eliminated the reserve army of labour in the bush.
MIRACLE OR PARASITE is a new and radically different history. Warwick Eather is an independent historian. He has written extensively on Australian political, labour and capital history.