In the 1850s, Britain stopped transporting convicts to Australia, but large numbers of manual labourers were still required to work the farms. Many landowners in the area, such as Captain Robert Towns (a cotton plantation owner after whom Townsville is named), started looking towards the Pacific Islands to fill the labour gap. At the time, many people called the Pacific Islanders 'Kanakas', a Polynesian word for 'people' or 'boy'. This term is now considered offensive.
Recruitment of Pacific Islanders
Between 1863 and 1904, about 55,000 Pacific Islanders came to Australia to work on the sugar plantations and farms of northern Queensland. They came from many islands, including Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Kiribati, and worked mainly in the sugar growing areas around Maryborough, Bundaberg and Mackay.
Story of Cissy Tarryango (circa 1880)
They were on the beach and a recruiting boat sailed up and had all pretty things on the deck, and her father paddled his canoe out to see what was there. While he was there they pushed his canoe away from the ship and the ship started to sail. Only then, too late, did her father see what they were doing. She said they were crying on the beach, watching him go, thinking they were taking him. But he jumped off the boat and as he was swimming and diving they were shooting at him.
Story of Willie Ebeda from the Solomon Islands (circa 1870)
... Afio and Tobebe ran and ran but it was hard because the crew, I think 12 men in all, chased them. They were caught and held, everybody had a hand in it, and tied their legs, tied their hands, and put them in the dinghy and took them out to the ship. When the crew put them in the ship they put them down below. Then they shut them in down below and departed, off they went.
Na Loot, Bundaberg (circa 1892–95)
Na Loot was a Solomon Islander. He was a 'bushman' living inland on Malaita Island. In 1892, the Helena sailed along the Malaita coast. On board were 64 Malaitans who were being brought home. The Helena was also recruiting a new group of Islanders to start work in Queensland. Na Loot gave his ornaments and carry bag to his friends and went on board. His father was paid the usual trade goods of knives, fishhooks and other items in return for permission for his son to travel to Queensland for three years.
Na Loot worked as a field labourer at Bundaberg on a sugar plantation for three years. Work included clearing, ploughing, harvesting, leading horses and wagons and other jobs such as ditch making, bridge building, cutting firewood and general plantation maintenance. An overseer controlled his daily working life, with each day's passage signalled by a bell or siren to start, rest and knock off. Saturday afternoons and Sundays were free days. His annual wage was A$12 plus food, accommodation and a clothing allowance. In 1895 he returned home with a trade 'box' full of gifts. He then collected his ornaments and carry bag and returned to the village life he had left behind three years before.
Source: Australian South Sea Islanders: A Curriculum Resource for Secondary Schools, © AusAID, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1997
The Para was chartered by the Colonial Sugar Refinery from 1882 into the 1890s to recruit labourers for its plantations and sugar mills in Queensland and northern New South Wales. The English artist who produced this drawing, William Twizell Wawn, captained ships between 1875 and 1891.
This posed shot shows more than 60 Pacific Islander men, women and boys and one European on the deck of a schooner at the dock. The Islanders are dressed in Western-style clothes. The women, numbering around ten, are clothed in modest smocks. Women never made up more than 9 per cent of the Islander total at any one time because the Queensland Government had insisted that female recruits must be accompanied by their husbands and have obtained their chief's consent. This ruling protected the families of unmarried women who would lose their bride-price and suffer economic disadvantage if they were recruited from the islands before marriage.
This period in Australia's history causes much debate. To some people, the Pacific Islanders came of their own free will (indentured labourers who signed contracts voluntarily), while others say they were tricked or kidnapped ('blackbirded') and compare the conditions under which they worked to slavery (which the British had abolished in 1833). Two groups who opposed the practices during this time were the missionaries and the labour organisations.
Immigration Restriction Act
After Federation in 1901, the Australian Government passed the Immigration Restriction Act and Pacific Island Labourers Act, which ordered the deportation of Pacific Islanders to their home islands. These Acts, along with other events at the time, have come to be known as the White Australia policy. Many Pacific Islanders lobbied against deportation, arguing that they had married local residents, had children at school, owned farms and horses and were Christian, hard-working and law-abiding. The forced deportations began in 1904.
This Bulletin cartoon was intended to show support for the Pacific Island Labourers Bill, ending the recruiting and setting a timetable of deportations of Pacific Islanders. Prime Minister Edmund Barton (1849–1920) was introducing the Bill into federal parliament. At the time, Islanders were campaigning against the Bill's harsh provisions, largely through petitions.
From the mid-1880s, with the rise of organised labour unions and the consolidation of the racist view that Australia was for the 'white man', white Australian workers opposed the importing of Asian or Pacific Islander labour. Their unions believed that white labourers were being deprived of work, wages were being maintained at artificially low levels and a non-white underclass was being created. In the lead-up to Federation in 1901, the six Australian colonies agreed that the trade would stop and all Pacific Islander labourers would be deported. From 1904 to 1908, about 7,000 Islanders were deported.
Recognition of Australian Pacific Islanders
Only about 2,500 remained in Australia but today the 25,000 descendants of the Pacific Islanders are known as Australian Pacific Islanders or South Sea Islanders. In 2000, Mal Meninga, one of the more famous members of the Australian Pacific Islander community, launched the Queensland Government Recognition Statement at Parliament House in Brisbane. This was a formal attempt by the Queensland Government to recognise the contribution of Pacific Islanders to the development of the farming, mining and pearling industries, acknowledge the Islanders as a distinct cultural group and recognise the unjust treatment experienced by them.
Adapted from: Pacific Neighbours, Understand the Pacific Islands, Chapter 4, (p38, 39)