Sugar production is synonymous with forced labour and enslavement in the Caribbean and the Americas, and it is often associated with a high degree of exploitation. The production of the crop in Australia and the Pacific was no exception: and although it is not widely acknowledged, Australia’s sugar industry came about because parts of the sugar – and other key Australian industries – were developed by people who were kidnapped and who worked under forced labour conditions.
The island relied on a mixture of indentured and kidnapped people to develop their sugar and cotton estates at the time of European colonisation. Unlike other areas, where sugar labourers came from Africa and Asia, in Australia, these workers were part of the Pacific Passage, which describes the movement of people from Asia to the United States and the rest of the Americas, but which also applies to Australia.
The Pacific Islands were the source of labour for Australian sugar and cotton, including people from New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Pacific Islanders also provided labour to Fiji, parts of Samoa as well as Peru. Besides working on Australia’s sugar plantations, the South Sea Islanders also worked on cotton farms, cattle stations, in pearling and as household servants.
The pearling industry was indigenous to Australia and northern coastal Aboriginal communities had dived and traded pearls in the Asia-Pacific for centuries. Sulawesi in Indonesia was a primary point of the pearl trade for Aboriginal groups for more than 500 years. Pearling would eventually lead to Aboriginals being forced into unpaid labour in the 1800s.
From 1862-68, local Aborigines worked ‘dry shelling’ without wages, collecting oysters in the shallow waters of Shark Bay. Within three years, the supply was so low that larger boats were sent out two kilometres off shore to collect oysters in deep water. Six to eight Aboriginal men and women in a boat would ‘naked dive’ for shell. This meant they had to dive down deep with no oxygen, no snorkel and no mask.
According to historical records, a significant number of people who provided the labour were indentured for specific time periods. But at the same time, there was a significant number of islanders who were either forced or at times enslaved under a system known as blackbirding. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines the practice as:
the 19th- and early 20th-century practice of enslaving (often by force and deception) South Pacific islanders on the cotton and sugar plantations of Queensland, Australia (as well as those of the Fiji and Samoan islands). The kidnapped islanders were known collectively as Kanakas.
Children were kidnapped along with adults, and parts of Polynesia and the Micronesian islands had their male population significantly depleted because of Peruvian blackbirders in 1862-1863. In the instances where the Australian labourers were paid wages, these were extremely low, even for the times.
The history of blackbirding is not widely known in Australia, but lives on in the memory of descendants of Pacific Islanders both in Australia, as well as in the places where people were kidnapped from. Until Pacific Islanders start writing their own history, the true extent of blackbirding will likely continue to be silenced or underestimated, including the fact that children from the Pacific Islands were forced to work on Australia’s sugar plantations.
As in many other countries, forced labour developed not only key local industries, but also provided the capital for some of the Australia’s largest businesses.
Burns Philp & Co was one of Australia’s largest shipping and merchant lines, operating in the South Pacific, before the company became a very large food manufacturing business. In the Pacific the company has been implicated in blackbirding:
“These ships were managed by Burns, Philp & Co – the same company that operated over labour recruiting and trading ships throughout the Pacific. CSR and Burns Philp were companies built on the backs of kidnapped Islander labourers. Notorious blackbirders Robert Towns and John Mackay both have cities – Townsville and Mackay – dedicated in their names. Benjamin Boyd was another in this history who has been commemorated, with the naming of Ben Boyd Road on Sydney’s north.”
Between fifty- to sixty thousand people from the Pacific were brought to Australia to work in agriculture. An estimated 807 voyages were undertaken covering 80 islands.
Blackbirding firmly challenges Australia’s founding myth that it was built by white settlers and white convict labour, who eventually outnumbered and supplanted the Aboriginal population. (This myth in turn is challenged by the numbers of political prisoners exiled to Australia from across the world and the African and Asian people transported there from the first colonial ships that arrived on the island.)
The history of blackbirding also firmly situates Australia as part of the larger Pacific and Asian region, rather than its political image as a political outpost of Europe and north America, situated by coincidence in the Pacific.
Sugar continues to be a major part of the Australian economy, and is the second largest export crop in the country after wheat. (Australia is also the world’s second largest exporter of raw sugar.) The historical impact of blackbirding and indentured labour in the sugar industry is evident in that approximately 95% of Australian sugar continues to come from Queensland.
Up to a third of labourers are believed to have died on the estates, including from lack of immunity to common European diseases. The wages owed to the dead were put in public trust, and were supposed to be sent to their families. However, various arms of the Australian government stole about 85% of the money, using it to fund their administration and also later to fund the deportations of South Sea Islanders.
The money was supposed to be returned to the families’ next of kin in the islands on the ships that were going over. In fact the Queensland Government only returned about 15 per cent(sic) of the money, kept 85 per cent(sic) of the money, which they used to help run the administrative system around the labour trade and then eventually in 1901 gave the money to the Commonwealth Government to pay for the deportation. So the wages of deceased islanders paid for the deportation of thousands in the 1900s. – Historian Clive Moore
Between 1863 and 1904 nearly 60 000 Pacific Islanders were brought mainly to Queensland. In the early 1900s as the White Australia policy took hold, the Australian government passed a law to force all Pacific Islanders to leave the country. This is regarded as the only time that Australia passed and enforced legislation with the aim of deporting an entire ethnic group of people. Although a sizeable number were forced out of the country (those who did not die on the plantations) some people escaped and about a thousand were also allowed to remain in Australia, even though they were effectively barred from working by laws and white trade union activity. The current Australian Rugby League coach, Mal Meninga, is a descendant of South Sea islanders who came to Australia during the blackbirding era.
In recent years the Pacific islands such as Vanuatu have called on the Australian government to officially apologise for the events that started with the arrival of the ship, the Don Juan, in Queensland on August 14, 1863. The ship was carrying 64 men from Vanuatu, ostensibly to work on the cotton plantations.
As in much writing about indentured labour, there is the theoretical dissonance between a history where people were abducted, transported across an ocean to a place that they had never seen, forced to do manual labour in extreme weather and social conditions, and the insistence by researchers that people who were the victims of blackbirding, were in fact working under contract.
This, however, is disputed by the descendants of people who were blackbirded and who want the Australian authorities to undertake restitution for wages stolen from the workers. Researchers have estimated that the government owes descendants of the Pacific islanders millions of dollars mostly from deceased estates.
Despite the construct of Australia’s founding racial myths, about 40 000 descendants of the South Sea Islanders continue to live in the country where they have started a nascent movement for their history to be acknowledged as having been critical to the multi-racial contribution that developed Australia into the land that so many white Australians constantly refer to as “paradise”.
It is always striking to me how often white Australians use the word ‘paradise’ in reference to their country. It is the counterpart to the construct of a ‘multi-racial Australia’, which in reality is a country with a huge white hegemony with a recent Asian immigrant underclass and minimal presence of Aboriginal people in official public life. It is also often very shocking to hear white Australians who are leftists or guests on television programmes using racial identifiers for Aboriginal people not heard since the days of slavery, for example mulatto, quadroon, half-caste, quarter-caste etc.
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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.
Indian Ocean Slavery is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.