Hazardous commodities: Australian live animal export from the long nineteenth century to today

In today’s blog Nancy Cushing discusses the contemporary inspiration for her new paper in Environment and History, ‘ “Few Commodities are More Hazardous”: Australian Live Animal Export, 1788–1880’, now available through Ingenta FastTrack.

My scholarly interest in Australia’s live animal export trade can be traced back to a very specific event: the 2011 exposure of the treatment of Australian-bred cattle in Indonesian abattoirs. This issue came to national prominence after investigation by Animals Australia’s intrepid Lyn White who secretly filmed footage of slaughtering practices. Her images were made public on the ABC’s investigative journalism program Four Corners on 30 May and caused an outcry from other animal welfare and animal rights organisations, Green and Independent politicians and the general public, expressed in rallies and the then relatively new device of the online petition which collected 200 000 signatures in 3 days.[1]

Still from trailer for Four Corners program “A Bloody Business”, aired 30 May 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYVaEqoobCU

The industry body LiveCorp tried to calm matters by suspending trade to just three of the eleven abattoirs involved and sending expert trainers to another.[2] Under continuing pressure, the Gillard Labor government introduced a ban on the live export of cattle to Indonesia in June, cutting off Australia’s largest market for live cattle. Although it only remained in place for six weeks, it was highly contested by the cattle industry which became the beneficiary of assistance packages and later launched a court action for compensation.

Lyn White
Animals Australia’s campaign director Lyn White at the Ban Live Animals Export Rally at the federal Parliament House, Canberra, August 2011. Source: Lyn White, “Continuing the live trade in animal cruelty is offensive”, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 August 2011, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/continuing-the-live-trade-in-animal-cruelty-is-offensive-20110822-1j6l4.htm

Of course, I had known about live animal export and the earlier scandals, such as the 2003 Cormo Express tragedy when 57,500 Australian sheep remained at sea for 80 days, having been rejected by Saudi Arabia as diseased, with almost 5,700 dying on board. But it was the 2011 events, and the staunch defences of live animal export they triggered, that made me consider this trade in historical perspective and wonder how it could be sustained given that the protection of animals had ostensibly so greatly improved. I noticed that many newspaper and government reports seemed to assume that live export had started in the 1970s or gave only very sketchy references to the longer history of the trade. When I conducted scholarly searches, I found that the export of horses had drawn some attention, as had the export of cattle from northern Australia, but otherwise there was little to help put the contemporary trade in an historical context.

The MV Cormo Express docks in Kuwait in October 2003, after having been turned away from Saudi Arabia with its cargo of almost 58 000 sheep in August. The sheep were purchased by the Australian government and ultimately accepted as aid by Eritrea . Posted 6 Oct 2003, 3:34pm by Stephanie McGehee: Reuters. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2003-10-06/the-mv-cormo-express-docks-in-kuwait/116460

I decided to look into the earliest live animal exports from Australia I could find, with a focus on activity out of the oldest colony, New South Wales, and to focus on the animals currently exported in very large numbers: sheep and cattle. The first arrival of these animals in Australia can be dated with unusual precision to January 1788. Like the convict workforce who made up the bulk of the human cargo on the First Fleet, the sheep, cattle and other livestock, purchased mainly at the Cape of Good Hope, were considered necessary to transplant a British society and economy in antipodean soil. The inward movement of live animals – from other colonies including India and Batavia, and from Europe – marked the first decades of colonisation. Varieties which suited the climate and the roles cast for them in the colony, including helping to displace native plants and animals and Indigenous peoples, were sought and nurtured.

Although animals being brought to Australia by settler colonists for breeding received more attention than did those who were later exported, many of them did not survive the intercontinental voyage. Charles Stanley’s puppy, Rattle, on board H.M.S. Windermere, 23 January 1847, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-138514215.

My article takes up the beginnings of the reversal of this flow, as flock and herd numbers increased to the point where some could be sent on to other destinations. Initially, this was to the new colonies Britain was establishing in the region – Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Western Australia, New Zealand and South Australia – and the primary purpose was not as now for immediate consumption, but to establish new populations. Animals from NSW were also sent to the French colony of New Caledonia, and in small numbers farther afield to Russia, Japan and India.

With the original impetus for the research coming from my concern over the welfare issues which are inseparable from the contemporary live export trade, I wanted to find out about the experience of live export for animals in the nineteenth century. Did the smaller scale of the ships involved and generally shorter distances mean it was less traumatic for the animals? Were keepers better acquainted with sheep and cattle and more conscious of their needs? Or were animals treated entirely instrumentally and being without the vocal advocates of the present, made to endure even more difficult conditions?

Animals were seen, heard and smelled as they travelled to the point of export. Source: Sheep being loaded onto a freighter at Sydney’s Darling Harbour, c1930, Sam Hood photograph, State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away – 3831.

Just as recent activists have found, I discovered that there are distinct phases in live export, some more visible than others. The process began where the animals were raised, which in Australia was generally on lightly stocked pasturelands in the interior. They were then driven on foot or loaded onto rail carriages to be taken to ports. At the point of disembarkation, they waited in open yards before being loaded onto ships. Thus far, the animals were moving through public spaces, where their treatment and conditions were observable and in some cases recorded. Disinterested members of the public could register their concerns and seek to have mistreatment addressed.


Hoists were used to load and unload live animals in the absence of purpose built ramps. This photograph demonstrates the then current practice in India in 1895. Source: William Henry Jackson, World’s Transportation Commission photograph collection. Library of Congress, wtc 4a02965 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/wtc.4a02965.

As soon as they were hoisted or walked onto ships, however, the animals became invisible. No outsider could see them and only those involved with the voyage knew how densely they were packed, how secure their pens were, whether their dung was cleared away or how much food and water they received. In many cases, the animals were barely seen at all, being left to their own devices on short voyages, or during longer ones, tended to only minimally because of the toxic environment that was created below decks by their ‘exhalations of carbonic gases’.[3] Even the evidence of how many died on the voyages was hidden, with their bodies thrown overboard before they reach port.

Animals carried on open decks could be seen while at the docks, and had access to better quality air, but were also vulnerable to high seas and inclement weather. Source: Sheep in pens on a ship’s deck, Sydney Harbour, c1929. Sam Hood photograph, State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away, 4066.

At the other end of the journey, the exported animals came back into view and this was often when the most useful accounts were recorded. Complaints about their poor condition, reduced numbers or the loss of entire shipments of animals were considered worthy of writing about in local newspapers by those who had eagerly awaited their arrival. It is at the receiving end of the export process that accusations of flimsy partitions, overcrowding or the loading of animals that were not fit for the voyage can be found.

The limits on the available evidence on the voyages themselves led to some discussions with the referees and editors. They encouraged me to try to say more – to recover the animal experience, even to reveal any agency the sheep and cattle were able to demonstrate.   I wanted to, but the nature of my sources meant that it was impossible.   I had wonderful examples of cattle just off a ship in Hobart, running wild in the Domain, causing fear and wreaking havoc but during export, the same beasts were contained and confined objects.[4] In the case of sheep, the advice was to pack them like wool bales, so tightly pressed together that they prevented one another from falling over. This led to my title, “Hazardous Commodities”, a description used for animals by a participant in the live export trade in 1863.[5] The sheep and cattle were cargo to be transported between ports and while feeding and watering them on longer voyages demonstrated a minimal recognition that they were animate beings, there were few concessions to their sentience.

[13 April 2018. This blog post has been developed on Australian website The Conversation]


[1] Claire Petrie, Live export: a chronology to 18 July 2016 (Canberra: Parliament of Australia 2016) https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1617/Chronology/LiveExport

[2] http://www.smh.com.au/environment/animals/severe-cruelty-exposed-in-slaughterhouses-20110530-1fcuo.html

[3] The Cattle Trade by Sea’, from Southern Cross, 29 December 1863 in Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter District News, 13 January 1864, 4.

Newcastle Chronicle, 13 January 1864, 4.

[4] Wayne Caldow, ‘Gippsland and the Van Diemen’s Land Livestock Trade: Log of the Dew Drop, 1847 – 49’, The Great Circle 34 (2) (2012).

[5] ‘Cattle Trade by Sea’, Newcastle Chronicle, 13 January 1864, 4.

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