This article by Prof. Clive Moore was originally published on the Queensland State Archives website, November 2013.
Over a period of 40 years from the early 1860s, tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders worked on Queensland plantations. They were often underpaid, treated harshly and many died, yet they contributed greatly to the growing state and founded the Australian South Sea Islander community in Queensland today.
Over 62,000 indenture contracts were issued for Pacific Islanders to work as labourers in Queensland between 1863 and 1904. They travelled to Queensland on 807 voyages involving 80 islands in what is generally known as the Queensland labour trade from Melanesia. Given the rate of re-enlistments from the islands it seems likely that there were about 50,000 individuals involved. The vast majority (95 per cent) were adolescent and young adult males. The terms ‘South Sea Islander’ or ‘Kanaka’ were used to describe the labour recruits who came from islands within present-day Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Loyalty Islands (New Caledonia), Fiji, Kiribati and Tuvalu. The vast majority came from Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. The whole process was supervised by the Queensland Government through the Pacific Islanders branch of the Immigration Department. Queensland State Archives has substantial holdings on their history, with the best details surviving from Maryborough and Port Douglas, along with central immigration registers and supporting files such as those of the Colonial Secretary and the Governor.
Throughout the labour trade there were allegations of kidnapping and slavery, which have some foundation. Today’s Australian South Sea Islanders refer to themselves as the descendants of slaves and it is clear that the community harbours a deep sense of injustice. Estimates vary as to the number of Islanders who were physically forced into the labour trade: most historians would say 10 to 15 per cent; the Islanders suggest a larger percentage. All of them were ‘culturally kidnapped’, meaning that Europeans took cultural advantage of their small-scale societies and enticed them to come to Australia under circumstances they did not understand. Once indentured in Queensland they were servile bonded labour, paid poorly (by comparison with European labourers), often held in circumstances that can be described as slave-like, and subjected to the same level of racial discrimination as faced by Indigenous Australians.
Four categories of Islander immigrants emerged: first-time indenture labourers who had never left their islands before; re-enlistments; time-expired labourers; and ticket-holders. Re-enlistments occurred from the late 1860s onwards, and by the early 1890s more than one-quarter of the newly arriving labourers were re-enlisting: in 1897, 230 of the 934 new recruits had previously served terms of indenture in Queensland, Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa. Time-expired labourers were those who had completed one three-year agreement but opted to stay in Queensland and entered new agreements. The time-expired segment of the Islander workforce grew increasingly important over the four decades of immigration. By 1895 time-expired Islanders made up 65 per cent of the Melanesians. Ticket-holders were the 835 Islanders who had resided in Queensland for five years before September 1884 – they had no restriction on the types of work they undertook. In 1892 there were 716 ticket-holders, 704 in 1901 and 691 in 1906. Expressed as a proportion of the overall Islander population in Queensland from 1885 to 1906, in any one year ticket-holders constituted between seven and 11 per cent of the Islander population.
These categories are important for three reasons. First, from the 1860s onwards the standard rate of pay was £6 per year for first-indentured labourers. Re-recruiting labourers received around £10 a year, and between the mid-1880s to the 1900s re-enlisting labourers in Queensland earned £16 to £23 a year. Several hundred others, the ticket-holders, were outside the indenture system and could earn independently, some running small businesses and farms.
Second, government records show that in excess of 14,564 Islander labourers died in Queensland between 1868 and 1906, with around another 100 deaths between 1863 and 1867. This is by far the highest death rate for any group of immigrants in Australia. Pacific Islanders lived in an isolated environment lacking many of the common diseases found on large land masses. For those newly arrived in Queensland, the common cold, tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis and pleurisy were major killers. The Islanders also had no immunity to measles and chicken pox, which caused large numbers of deaths. Dysentery also occurred, particularly on plantations where public health standards were often low. The estimated death rate of Islanders in the first year of their indenture was 81 per 1000 – over three times the estimated death rate for the rest of the Islander population, which was 26 per 1000. If an Islander survived the first three years in Queensland, he or she would probably have lived until old age, remembering of course that in the nineteenth-century people died much younger than today. The upper band of the death rate for ticket-holders was 14 per 1000 – a similar rate to Europeans in Queensland. It was always the newcomers, the first-indenture labourers, who suffered worst in Queensland. The third reason that the categories are important is that the present-day Australian South Sea Islander population is largely descended from the time-expired and ticket-holder Islanders.
The Islanders worked six days a week on plantations and farms, able to wander the districts in their spare time. From the 1880s onwards they began to attend Christian missions, predominantly run by the Anglicans, Presbyterians and the Queensland Kanaka Mission. Their accommodation was either barracks or island-style houses which they constructed themselves and preferred.
gar industry the Australian Government introduced an embargo on all ‘foreign’ sugar and introduced a bonus for sugar produced using only white labour. Under 1906 changes, Islanders were exempt from deportation if they had lived continuously in Australia since 31 December 1886, were aged or infirm, had children educated at state schools, owned freehold land, were (before 31 October 1906) married to a person not from their own island, or could prove that they would be in danger if they returned home. The majority of present-day Australian South Sea Islanders are descended from this group.
Forced deportation began in late 1906 and continued until mid-1908. Families were ripped apart and property was forfeited. On return to the islands many faced severe problems readjusting to their old lives and some were killed. The official number allowed to remain was 1654, but later estimates suggest that around 2000 remained. Today 20,000 to 40,000 people make up the Australian South Islander community, the numbers depending on self-identification, particularly for the 40 to 50 per cent of those who have Australian Indigenous ancestry.