South Sea Islanders – kidnapped, enslaved, deported: the tragedy of Queensland sugar workers

Media release: Monday, 12 August 2013

From the 1860s until 1903 many thousands of South Sea Islanders were kidnapped, lured or indentured to work on Australian sugar plantations, a practice known as 'blackbirding'. Their story – and the history of their eventual inhumane deportation as part of the White Australia policy – is being told in two public lectures at the National Archives in Brisbane this week.

'In the 1860s when the tropical north was opening up, it was commonly believed that Europeans could not safely labour in the tropics,' said Greg Cope, director of the National Archives Brisbane office. 'The wages demanded by white workers also encouraged plantation owners to import labourers from the South Seas.'

In the early years South Sea Islanders were brought by force or trickery.  But even those who were later indentured faced great hardship and poverty. 'Kidnapping was common in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the 1860s and in the Solomon Islands in the 1870s,' said Greg. 'Sometimes men who were fishing or trying to barter with large ships were abducted from their canoes and forced on board.'

'Even those who came willingly had no idea of what lay ahead. The 1868 Polynesian Labourers Act (Queensland) established a system of indentured labour, with 3-year contracts and a minimum wage of six pounds per year. But some descendants of the original workers say it was a form of slavery, not properly policed and claim that many labourers were never paid.'

By the time of Federation in 1901 there were 9000 Pacific Islanders working the cane fields of Queensland and growing concern from unions about non-white labour.  As part of the White Australia policy, the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901 aimed to deport nearly all Pacific Island workers in Australia. They could be deported, regardless of whether they were married to an Australian or feared death in their home country.

In April 1906, a Queensland Royal Commission reported the deportations were inhumane and that some Pacific Islander workers had been in Queensland so long they would be complete strangers in their country of origin. This resulted in changes to the act and 1,600  South Sea Islanders being granted residency in Australia. More than 7000 were deported between 1904 and 1908.

The free talks are on at the National Archives, 16 Corporate Drive, Cannon Hill, on Saturday 17 August and Wednesday 21 August from 10 to 11.30am. Bookings are welcome on (07) 3249 4226.

Contact information

  • Greg Cope (Director, Queensland State Office)
    t (07) 3249 4224 m 0400 753 854
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