The Guardian • Issue #2050

Sugar and blackbirding

Indentured labour in the Colony of Queensland

Sugar cane plantation, c 1923.

Sugar cane plantation, c 1923. Photo: Queensland State Archives (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Queensland sugar industry annually generates $2 billion, and this industry began with indentured labour. In July 2021 the mayor of Bundaberg, Jack Dempsey, made a historic apology for the town’s Pacific Islander labour trade, called “blackbirding,” in the 19th century.

He was the first elected leader to formally say sorry, following Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s insensitive remarks, made on radio in June 2020, that slavery never existed in Australia. At the time there were marches around the world supporting Black Lives Matter. This use of cheap imported labour has a long history in Queensland.

The two important sugar towns of Townsville and Mackay derived their names from wealthy “Blackbirders,” Robert Towns and John Mackay. Their wealth and political influence had been derived from the trade.

Queensland separated from the Colony of New South Wales in 1859. Four years later, the first group of 67 South Sea Islanders arrived in the colony of Queensland on the ship Don Juan to work in the sugar, cotton, and tobacco industries.

The following year Queensland’s first industrial-scale sugar plantation commenced in Moreton Bay. While the practice of blackbirding was eventually banned in the Colony of NSW, the colonial government of Queensland allowed its citizens to benefit from the practice until the “White Australia” policy forced the return of the islanders to their home islands in 1904.

Blackbirding replaced the slave trade after slavery was abolished in the British Empire, when the House of Commons passed the Abolition Act in July 1833. The US Civil War, 1861 to 1865, created a strong demand for cotton and sugar in Europe, as the war had stopped exports from the Confederate States.

Convict labour was slave labour in the Australian colonies until transportation ended in 1868. “Blackbirding,” the kidnapping of islanders as labour, replaced convict labour. To circumvent the accusation of slavery South Sea Islanders, called “Kanakas,” were paid a minimal wage of £5 per annum.

Blackbirding saw 62,500 South Sea Islanders sent to Queensland and northern New South Wales to work in sugar cane fields, and the pastoral, and maritime industries. They came from Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Fiji and German New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea). Legally they were known as “indentured” labourers as they had signed contracts of employment. It did not matter that the islanders could neither speak English nor read.

They were paid a small fraction of the market wages of the time and worked in slave-like conditions. The abuse of islanders included corporal punishment administered by overseers for failure to meet targets, being deprived of food and leisure time, medical neglect, married couples could be separated. They were segregated from the rest of society, provided with a weekly food ration and worked unlimited hours.

The mortality rate of 30 per cent was similar to the 33 per cent death rate of African slaves, who died within the first three years of being transported to the USA. An estimated 15,000 islanders died within the first year of their arrival in Queensland due to European diseases, mistreatment, malnutrition, and suicide.

These workers were banned from organising as a group and were forbidden by law from striking. Workers who left a plantation without permission, “absconding,” faced three months imprisonment. The deceased were buried together in unmarked mass graves, which continue to be uncovered up to this day.

In 1867, the slave ships King Oscar, Spunkie, Fanny Nicholson, and Prima Donna, holding over 1,000 Kanakas, were offloaded in the ports of Brisbane, Bowen, and Mackay. The labourers were sold for £2 each, raising fears of a burgeoning new slave trade. The following year Captain McEachern of the Syren anchored in Brisbane with 24 dead islanders. The remaining 90 on board had been taken by force and deception.

No legal action was taken against McEachern. This trade soon became an established industry, with labour vessels from eastern Australia obtaining workers for the Queensland and Fiji colonial markets. Captains of labour ships were paid five shillings per worker, “head money,” and each worker was sold for between £4 to £20 each. [1 shilling became 20 cents, £1 (20 shillings) became $2 at time of conversion to decimal currency in 1966.]

Those on board the Bobtail Nag had metal discs imprinted with a letter of the alphabet hung around their neck making for the ease of identification of each worker. The tag had replaced the branding iron used in the slave trade.

Maryborough and Brisbane became important centres for the trade with vessels such as Spunkie, Jason, and Lyttona making frequent “recruiting” journeys. Captain Winship of the Lyttona was accused of kidnapping and importing Kanaka boys under 15 years of age for the plantations of George Raff at Caboolture in Moreton Bay.

Queensland Governor George Augustus Constantine Phipps, the Marquess of Normanby, made enquiries into the trade and found that the islanders were “engaged without any pressure and were perfectly happy and contented.”

To stop the kidnapping of labourers, the British government passed the Pacific Islanders Protection Act in 1872. Queensland then enacted complementary legislation. Islanders put up with the harsh conditions because they could return home with high status objects, such as metal axes, knives, guns, saucepans, and European clothing.

Today CSR is synonymous with sugar. The purchaser at the supermarket is unaware how the company’s fortune began from islander labour. The CSR (Colonial Sugar Refining Company) was founded in 1855, Sydney, then set up refineries in other British colonies in Australia and in Fiji.

Sugar plantations were set up in the 1860s in Brisbane at Cleveland, Beenleigh, and Caboolture. CSR soon dominated the processing of sugar cane in Queensland, with small sugar refineries in Maryborough, Bundaberg and Mackay districts.

In 1874 Qld began exporting sugar to other colonies. By the 1880s the Burdekin River, Herbert River, and Cairns had sugar plantations, with the industry dominated by large companies and wealthy landowners.

The Commonwealth of Australia decided to deport most Pacific Islanders, as part of the implementation of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, known as the White Australia policy. The Pacific Island Labourers Act was the first law passed by Australia’s first federal government, under Prime Minister Edward Barton, a Protectionist. It prohibited any South Sea Islanders from entering Australia after 1904.

The deportation of Islanders residing in Australia began in 1906 and continued until 1908. More than 7,500 South Sea Islanders returned to their home islands, even though some had arrived in Australia as children and had no memory of their homeland.

Three opposing views faced the Islander labour trade and the White Australia policy. The famous British anthropologist, WHR Rivers, in his Essays on the Depopulation of Melanesia (1922) writes that the Queensland labour trade was “one of the blackest of civilisation’s crimes.” It had created numerous problems and deservedly ended.

In contrast, was the view that the trade attracted the worst type of workers. WG Ivens in his Dictionary and Grammar of the language of Sa’a and Ulawa, Solomon Islands (1930) writes that it attracted islanders who wanted “to be freed from the likelihood of punishment.” These undesirables were understandably repatriated.

The third argument was that the islanders living in Australia wanted to stay. They challenged their expulsion, with 3,000 signing a petition to King Edward VII, resulting in the federal government expanding the categories of exemption.

In 1994, the findings of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission led to the federal government recognising the community as a disadvantaged ethnic group. The state governments of Queensland and New South Wales have since followed suit. Today, the Australian South Sea Islander community numbers 300,000.

For those who returned home, blackbirding had a major socio-economic impact. For those who returned to Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides), their experience impacted their national identity. Although there were no formal written records, their stories survived through the oral traditions. It even impacted the national language, Bislama, which “was developed in the cane fields of Queensland.”

This marginalised group, like the other modern island nations, suffer from the intergenerational trauma produced by the legacy of kidnapping, slave-like labouring conditions, segregation and forced deportation. The impact of being incorporated into the capitalist system under 19th century British colonialism can be felt to this day: widespread poverty and social dislocation that tears apart communities.

Further Reading:

Denoon, D. et al. (eds). 2004. The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders. Cambridge University Press.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More