Neck chains were a cruel and harsh tool adopted by the police in the North West to restrain prisoners. Used only on Aboriginal men, and at times women and children, the practice continued for nearly a century.
As European settlers moved north in the 1840s, local Aboriginal people began being charged with crimes, particularly the killing of cattle. A royal commission in 1905 suggested that many of these prisoners were wrongfully charged. Nonetheless, the suspects were arrested and placed in neck chains, as seen in this image from the early 1900s.
So far as I can understand the custom of chaining blacks has been practised from time immemorial. . . If the natives had any more liberty than they have at present they would run away. . . Under the present system the man is in chains from the time he comes into the gaol until the time he leaves it, sometimes from two to three years.
William Paterson, Gaoler, Broome, 26 September 1904 (Roth Royal Commission)
As a result of numerous Aboriginal people escaping from police custody, authorities argued that neck chains were necessary to secure these prisoners. Neck chains, like these ones used in Broome, were particularly useful when transporting prisoners from remote areas to the courthouse.
Chains in the Northern, not in the Southern, portions of this State are fixed to the necks instead of to the wrists of native prisoners. . . There are no regulations as to the size, weight, mode of attachment, or length of the chain connecting any two prisoners. When the prisoner is alone, the chain is attached to his neck and hands, and wound round his body; the weight prevents him running away so easily.
Walter Roth, ‘Royal Commission on the Condition of the Natives: Report’, 1905
Although the 1905 royal commission recommended that neck chains should be replaced with handcuffs, the practice continued in Western Australia until well into the 1940s. Some argued that neck chains were preferable as they kept the prisoners’ hands free, which allowed them to work and bat away insects.
These chained prisoners are on work duty, fixing the roads in Broome around 1905.