Despite some historical disagreement over the nature of blackbirding in Queensland, it is without doubt that Pacific Islanders were taken advantage of in Australia in a systematic and exploitative way, Sue Thompson writes.
When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently claimed that there had been no history of slavery in Australia, he quickly apologised in the face of countless claims that convincingly showed otherwise.
One particular activity raised in the discussion was the practice of ‘blackbirding’ – a system whereby Pacific islanders were kidnapped or coerced into the labour trade that was used widely across the Pacific in the 19th century.
The Pacific Island labour trade involved the transportation of Pacific islanders by European settlers for agricultural and pastoral work in Queensland, Fiji, New Caledonia, the then-New Hebrides – now Vanuatu – then-German New Guinea, Samoa, and Hawaii. By far, the biggest use of this labour trade was the importation of Pacific Islanders into Queensland.
The Queensland labour trade operated from 1863 until 1906, and it brought tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders to Australia. In the early days, there were unscrupulous labour ship captains who took advantage of the Pacific islanders.
Indeed, there were some well publicised scandals at the time, such as in 1867 when a Brisbane-based ship kidnapped 282 labourers in the New Hebrides and the Loyalty Islands using intimidation and violence, such as burning local islanders’ houses and crops.
At the time, complaints from missionaries about the kidnapping of islanders by labour trade ships led to Britain applying pressure on the Queensland Government to introduce new regulations for the labour trade.
In 1870, the presence of government agents on ships became a legal requirement. Further complaints resulted in a strengthening of the regulations to be observed by these agents, such as informing the recruits of the conditions of their service.
Incidents of kidnappings dropped as islanders became better acquainted with the trade, and this experience, along with the acquisition of firearms, meant that islanders were generally able to ensure that their labour had to be negotiated rather than taken by force.
These changes led some historians to revise the traditional interpretation that the Queensland labour trade involved a continuous period of kidnapping.
There is little dispute that kidnapping was common in the early years of the labour trade, but in the latter years, a combination of legislative changes in Queensland and a build-up of islander experience with the traders resulted in changes to the practice.
Indeed, islanders started to have reasons for offering their services, such as the money they earned and the products they could buy with this money. The steel axes, knives, and firearms they acquired for their labour resulted in significant technological and social changes in the Pacific Islands.
That said, while those Pacific Islanders in the Queensland labour trade were not always necessarily coerced into service against their will, or at least the will of the communities to which they belonged, the poor treatment of the islanders once they arrived in Australia is without doubt, and the treatment of these workers was hardly equivalent that of white workers in Australia.
Islanders were paid just six pounds per year, a low wage for the time, and were required to work under harsh conditions for three years. During this period of indentured labour, they were at the mercy of their employers, and many died due to their treatment.
The labour trade ended with the introduction in 1901 by the new Commonwealth Parliament of the Immigration Restriction Act, which began what became known as the White Australia Policy.
A related law was the Pacific Island Labours Act, which banned importation of island labour from 1904. All Pacific Islanders in Australia were deported in 1906, except for a few thousand longer term islander residents.
Whether this trade was a form of slavery whereby islanders were kidnapped into service, or whether they were willing participants to an indentured labour system has been an ongoing debate for decades.
Indeed, since the trade was conducted over a long period of time, there are many examples of kidnapping, slavery, and some islanders coming by choice. However, for the descendants of those Islanders who came to Australia, it hardly makes much difference what it was called. For them, the legacy of discrimination and exploitation cannot be erased through historical debate.