Why Australia Had No Slavery: The Islanders Part 1
the three-part series of articles by Keith Windschuttle, ‘The Myths of Frontier Massacres in Australian History’, Quadrant, December 2000
This is the story of my father, Wacvie Mussingkon who, in June 1883, was kidnapped from Craig Cove, a village on the coast of Ambrym Island in the New Hebrides. He was sold as a slave in Mackay, Queensland, and worked on the sugar plantations until he escaped in 1897. — Faith Bandler, Wacvie, 1977
These are the opening words to Faith Bandler’s book, Wacvie. She wrote it in 1977 partly as a tribute to her Melanesian father and partly to put an end to the ignorance of Australians about their terrible past. Few knew that slavery was once practised in this country, Bandler said, and fewer still knew of the appalling human suffering it caused. She blamed historians for not letting the victims speak for themselves and for distancing themselves from the emotions involved.
The slave trade of Australia has never been included in school curricula. I have found that most Australians do not believe that slave labour was used to develop the sugar cane industry. Those who were enslaved did not have the opportunity to tell their story. The story has only been told by historians with a detachment from the thoughts and feelings of the people concerned.
Bandler designed her project to overcome these deficiencies. To record the suffering of her father’s people from Ambrym Island in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), she engaged in some imaginative recreation. Apart from her father, she said the other characters in her book were ‘composites’ of real people. Nonetheless, she assured her readers ‘the main events are true’.
The first major response to the book, however, severely questioned this assertion. One of the historians Bandler no doubt had in mind for his detachment, Peter Corris, wrote a review in The Australian. He said it was hard to see how any native of Ambrym Island could have been kidnapped in 1883. By then, the Ambrymese had been active participants in the Pacific Island labour trade for more than twenty years. In that time, thousands of people had gone from the island to Queensland, Fiji and New Caledonia to work as plantation labourers. In the two and a half years between 1880 and June 1883, when Wacvie was allegedly kidnapped, some 700 Ambrymese had gone to Queensland alone. Moreover, in the decade of the 1870s, several hundred of them had returned to their island, departing from the ports of Maryborough in Queensland, Levuka in Fiji and Noumea in New Caledonia, to tell of their experiences. The evidence for this two-way traffic was not just statistical. Corris quoted examples of earlier incidents when the island community had refused to give permission for some of its members to be engaged by the visiting recruiting ships, and had driven off some ships because they rejected their terms or because their captains had not observed the long-accepted civilities of the trade. Corris wrote:
… by 1883 the Ambrymese were not the passive victims of Queensland ‘blackbirders’. Like other Melanesians they had entered actively into the labour trade, allowing some people to depart and not others, rationing the supply and driving hard bargains in trade goods for the recruits… The Pacific labour trade lasted for more than 50 years. Without the compliance of the islanders it could have not lasted for ten.
Bandler did not describe Wacvie’s kidnapping, but Corris said it was hard to see how it could have happened on a stretch of coast much frequented by labour ships and where there must have been many ex-labourers wise in the ways of the trade. ‘They were certainly not simple enough,’ Corris wrote, ‘to stand about on their own beaches, decade after decade, allowing themselves to be kidnapped by a handful of white men in rowing boats.’ Bandler did, however, describe how Wacvie was auctioned off at Mackay.
A big man with deep blue eyes and pink skin walked to the only empty dray and pulled himself onto it. Using a wooden hammer on an upturned timber box, he began to auction the new arrivals as he would auction horses and cows. He never thought of these men as people for fear of loosing his perspective. He had to think of them as animals. For months now hardly a week had gone by that he had not auctioned slaves…
The buying was keen and the bidding high because harvests were heavy. The biggest men were offered first. Seven pounds, ten pounds! Twelve pounds! And all the men from Tanna were sold. Another dray was driven forward. Wacvie felt Weloa’s body move closer to his own and some small comfort passed from one to the other. Now it was their turn to be bought.
This scene, Corris said, was pure invention. Such a procedure was as illegal then as it would be now. He also wondered why Wacvie had to serve fourteen years of his alleged slavery before he escaped, penniless, over the border to New South Wales. Under the government-controlled terms of engagement in Queensland, Melanesian labourers signed on for three years and, at the end of that time, they received a pre-paid passage home. They had accumulated savings which they collected before departure from their bank savings accounts to spend on prized manufactured goods. Bandler did not say what would have prevented Wacvie from claiming his pay and passage home but, with hundreds of experienced ‘old hands’ from the New Hebrides and Mackay to instruct him, Corris said it was hard to imagine what the reason could have been. He also disputed Bandler’s portrait of the islanders as downtrodden chattels. Many renewed their contracts and returned to Queensland several times. The Pacific labour trade, Corris acknowledged, was not a gentle, orderly business. Employers were frequently brutal and uncaring, food, accommodation and medical facilities were sometimes poor and death rates on the plantations were high.
But life in the villages was not idyllic either and young, adventurous islanders took the risk… Many Melanesians made a life-long career of working abroad; most returned content with the rewards — firearms, tobacco, axes, knives, calico — if not with the treatment they received.
Despite her claim to rescue her forebears from the condescension of historians, Bandler’s book depicted them as simpletons, possessing only the most rudimentary emotions and psyches. Presented as a piece of social history as much as a work of fiction, Corris said the book was misleading and did a great injustice to the independence of mind displayed over several decades by the Ambrymese warriors.
Uncompromising as it was, Corris’s review was not designed as a political hatchet job. He described Bandler as a ‘noted humanist and activist’ and said she had been an effective personal advocate for the black cause in Australia. He put down the failings of her book to her lack of experience as a researcher and writer, and he declined to mention that for most of her adult life she had been a communist, in fact, an active supporter of the Stalinist brand of communism in Australia. At the time, Corris himself was a well-known identity in left-wing academic and literary circles in Sydney and Canberra. He based his critique on his Australian National University PhD thesis about the Melanesian labour trade, which he wrote in the late 1960s, and which in 1973 became the book Passage, Port and Plantation: A History of the Solomon Islands Labour Migration 1870–1914. Soon after writing his critique of Bandler, he gave up academic life to become a full-time, professional writer.
More than twenty five years later, Corris’s exposé obviously still stung Bandler. Her biographer, the feminist historian Marilyn Lake, recorded in 2002 that Bandler was astonished at Corris’s ‘patronising’ tone. She complained that white academics became jealous of blacks who wrote their own histories.
There’s almost a resentment by many of the authors — they feel as if we’re intruding on their territory. And they become quite angry with us, you know, because it’s been their territory for so long.
Lake’s account of this incident portrayed Bandler as the victim — ‘it now seemed as if her fellow writers were trying to put her in her place’ — and reproduced several letters from readers who found Wacvie’s story ‘compelling’. Even though the book claimed its main events were true, Lake rationalised Bandler’s inventions by arguing that Corris had made ‘an odd criticism of a novel’. Lake also justified Wacvie as a work of history by quoting the University of Sydney historian, Richard White: ‘stories about the past do not all speak the same language or follow the same rules’. This trite observation hardly warrants an author inventing facts to mislead her readers.
In this case, the notion that the truth can be manipulated at will has prevailed. The Australian popular mentality, fuelled by repetitions in the media and the school curriculum, has widely accepted the story that the Melanesian labourers were kidnapped to become slaves. It is repeated in the press and on television whenever the issue is discussed. Journalists such as Tony Stephens, Kerry O’Brien, George Negus, Stuart Rintoul and Leisa Scott, oblivious to any alternative version, repeat the Bandler’s story as if it were true. Her views are now widely taught to school children. The ABC’s educational website claims Bandler’s father “was one of thirty thousand South Sea Islanders who for over thirty years were kidnapped and brought to work as slave labour in Queensland’s cane fields”. The National Museum of Australia perpetuated a similar tale in 2004 by staging the exhibition, Refined White. The museum’s text is more circumspect in its claims than the ABC, arguing that how many of the labourers were kidnapped, ‘black-birded’ and enslaved is not known. It is a controversial topic, the exhibit said, and government documents conflict with stories passed down by the islanders themselves, most of whom suffered a sense of ‘destruction and despair’. The museum also wags its finger at those who ‘belittled’ the islanders by calling them Kanakas, ‘as well as other abusive and racist terms’. The exhibition was the subject of a secondary school education resource kit, produced by the Australian Sugar Industry Museum, replete with leading questions and teacher exercises designed to persuade children aged thirteen to seventeen that they are heirs to a shameful, slave-holding, racist history.
Labour recruiting in the Pacific islands
The history of the Kanakas, to use their commonly accepted nineteenth century name, is the one example where academics have not been responsible for perpetuating the worst of the distortions about race relations in our history. Corris’s 1973 book was one of the founding texts of an interpretation that other academic historians have since confirmed in even greater detail. This reading of Kanaka history is even one that some overtly leftist authors, like Henry Reynolds, have since grudgingly acknowledged. In North of Capricorn, Reynolds does not debate the issues of kidnapping and slavery. He simply presents a straightforward summary of historical studies that show the story told in our news and entertainment media and in our schools and museums is largely wrong.
The common term now used for the process of recruiting South Pacific islanders for the Queensland sugar fields in the nineteenth century is ‘blackbirding’. The word appears today in the several hundred articles, books and encyclopaedia entries that discuss the topic. As the cover blurb of one of these publications, an ABC book of transcripts of interviews with descendants of the Kanakas, described it:
The amazing story of Australia’s own slave trade — the ‘blackbirding’ days when thousands of South Sea Islanders were put to work as ‘kanaka’ labourers in the Queensland sugar plantations.
The term ‘blackbirding’ originated in the African slave trade and still bears connotations of innocent islanders being lured on board sailing ships which make off with them against their will. It conjures up a lawless era in a wild part of the world where ruthless sea captains made their fortunes from a business every bit as brutal as the middle passage across the Atlantic at the height of the slave trade to the Americas. In reality, the recruitment of islanders for Queensland was one of the most government-regulated and bureaucratically-supervised programs of labour migration of all time.
Between 1863 and 1904 some 50,000 Kanakas signed a total of 62,000 indentured labour contracts to work in Queensland. The great majority of the labourers were Melanesians from the New Hebrides, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and New Guinea. At first their agreements were made under the auspices of the Masters and Servants Act that applied to all contract workers. After 1868, a series of regulations and legislation were introduced by both the Queensland and British parliaments to oversee the process. From then until 1906, the Kanakas were governed by thirteen specific Acts of Parliament, fifty regulations and forty instructions. After 1871, all the recruiting voyages to Queensland and the return journeys that took the labourers home had government agents on board to ensure all relevant laws and regulations were observed and all health and medical standards were enforced. The hundreds of government agents who filled these positions had the power to halt recruiting, to refuse recruits or to turn the vessel home if they decided. They had to keep a daily official log of each voyage. The ships were also inspected frequently by captains of Royal Navy Australia Station vessels. Once in Queensland, magistrates, government agents, immigration officials and Inspectors of Pacific Islanders supervised their contracts, payments and conditions of employment. They were responsible for overseeing the arrival of recruits, ensuring they had entered contracts voluntarily, were of legal age, and were healthy enough to work for the term of their contract. Before it ended, the trade was subject to innumerable parliamentary debates plus several Select Committees and Royal Commissions.
All this bureaucratic activity arose precisely because both the British and Queensland governments had suspicions that the trade might involve kidnapping and slavery, and to ensure that neither took place. The recruiting of Kanakas for Queensland was one part of a process of the mass migration in the second half of the nineteenth century of at least 200,000 Pacific Islanders. At least 100,000 of them went to British colonies around the Pacific, and most went to work in plantation agriculture. In the mid-1860s, a number of companies established large-scale sugar cane plantations in both Queensland and Fiji. For the rest of the century, labourers from various parts of Melanesia provided most of the labour force for these plantations, as well as for the smaller-scale sugar cane farms that eventually replaced them. In the 1860s, the first labourers were recruited from the New Hebrides. By the end of that decade about 3000 had been engaged to work on three-year contracts. By 1870, the islanders had become sophisticated enough to drive hard bargains for their recruitment. Most preferred to work in Queensland where the wages were a government-decreed minimum of £6 per year, twice that of Fiji. Recruiting was then extended northwards to the Solomon Islands and by 1871 hundreds of these islanders were employed in both colonies. By the 1880s, at the height of the labour trade, more than thirty ships made two or three round trips each season transporting labourers to and from their island homes to Queensland and Fiji.
Since the late 1960s, every scholarly historian who has examined the primary source evidence has concluded that the great majority of these labourers left their homes willingly. Some put different emphases on the degree to which many made informed and genuinely free choices, and most acknowledge there were a small number of genuine kidnapping cases in the early years. Nonetheless, the finding that the Kanakas wanted this employment is inescapable. This is true even of Marxist historians who want to argue that the labourers were grossly exploited by the plantation owners.
The people of the New Hebrides had been dealing with Europeans since the first sandalwood traders arrived in the 1840s. For the next twenty years, they had learned to bargain for the wood from their beaches. They also acquired a taste for European goods, especially knives, axes, fabrics and tobacco. When the sandalwood petered out in the mid-1860s, the labour recruiters came instead, promising to maintain the supply of these goods for permission to recruit their kinsmen. The recruiters from Queensland also promised each labourer on a three-year contract a lump sum payment of £18 in wages at the end of their service. Three years later, when the recruits returned home with boxes laden with the familiar trade goods of axes, tobacco, pipes and European clothes, but now also with firearms and ammunition, other members of their communities were sorely tempted to do the same.
Those most attracted to work abroad were the young men of the islands. In Melanesian society, little was required of them between the ages of puberty and marriage. They were not old enough to be involved in decision making and other men’s business. This suited the labour recruiters perfectly. Young men were their prime targets because of their strength and health and, at the same time, had the strongest predisposition to pursue the adventure and rewards on offer. The older men of the islands, on the other hand, were often reluctant to endorse the process, especially because it weakened their communities through the constant emigration of the young. Elders often tried to control the numbers who went. This meant that the recruiters had to offer them goods such as axes and firearms to secure their approval of the engagement of their younger kinsmen. By the late 1870s, the Queensland government tried to forbid inducements such as presents to elders for fear they might emulate the African tribes’ practice of raiding other communities for prisoners to sell to the visiting ships. The incentives, however, were still offered behind the scenes because they fitted the Melanesian cultural code of reciprocity.
On some islands, a number of the recruits were runaways from their communities. They were usually teenage boys defiant of the authority of their elders or those who had fallen foul of tribal laws and customs and saw the recruiters as a means of escaping their punishment. This practice was disapproved by the tribes and meant that the ships had to arrive after dark to let the offenders come aboard. Some young women were in a similar position. In most Melanesian tribal societies, young women usually married polygamous older men, who alone could afford the parents’ bride price. This left a pool of frustrated young bachelors trying to coax into adultery the young women of either their own or neighbouring villages. The recruiting ships gave both sexes the alternative opportunity of slipping away together. Some women, especially ill-used wives, were recruited alone but most went with men who would otherwise have had no right to them in tribal society.
There is no doubt that the myth that the islanders were the victims of kidnapping had some basis in reality. But the number of cases was small and confined to the early years of the trade. The offending ships disqualified themselves from ever recruiting from that location again. Indeed, they ran the risk, like the crews of the Cambria in 1871 and the Lady Darling in 1875 of becoming victims themselves of native reprisals. In contrast, the ships involved in the regular recruiting trade were able to return time and again. All told, there were 807 round trips made from Queensland ports to the Pacific islands. All were under the supervision of government agents, and had the approval of the island communities concerned. In the 1860s, there were nine verified accounts of kidnapping from southern Melanesia by Queensland ships and eight other allegations of kidnapping on ships licensed by the New South Wales government or flying British colours. In Queensland, after 1868, masters of ships had to be licensed to import labourers and each had to post a £500 bond against kidnapping. Missionaries or other Europeans living on the islands had to sign forms vouching that the islanders were volunteers who understood the terms of their contracts.
The most infamous case of kidnapping was committed in September 1871 by the ship Carl, out of Fiji. On the east coast of Malaita in the Solomons, the Carl attracted canoes alongside the vessel and then dropped lumps of pig-iron, cannon balls and harpoons into the canoes to sink them. The crew hauled the islanders aboard, shooting any who resisted. Locked in the hold, the Malaitans later made an escape attempt, during which the crew shot seventy and threw them overboard. They transferred the surviving twenty-five to the schooner Peri, which was to take them and another thirty labourers from Leli Island, also in the Solomons, to Fiji plantations. However, the Malaitans captured the Peri and killed the crew. The ship subsequently drifted 2900 kilometres across the Pacific where weeks later it ran aground on the Queensland coast, north of Townsville. On this passage, the ship’s provisions soon ran out, so the Malaitans killed and ate all thirty of the Leli islanders. Sensational stories of this kind, not surprisingly, were recounted for decades afterwards across the Pacific and gave rise to the notion that incidents like this characterised the whole trade.
Some of the accusations of kidnapping were made by island missionaries and other members of the anti-coloured labour lobby, who were hostile to the recruiters and trying to discredit them. Peter Corris says the missionaries were ‘irate at seeing the attractiveness of the labour ships to young men and finding difficulty in coping (and in some cases competing) with sophisticated returned labourers’. The historian Clive Moore argues that a Queensland Royal Commission in 1885 into allegations of kidnapping made against the ship Hopeful, accepted statements from recruits from New Guinea who concocted their evidence in order to earn a reward. However, Moore also acknowledges that in the early, unregulated years of the trade, it was likely that cases of kidnapping did occur on islands remote from European settlement. Corris said that in the early years of the trade in the Solomons, many of the islanders did not know what was expected of them, had no idea they were engaged for three to five years and were upset when the reality finally dawned on them. To get their complements, Corris says, many of the early recruiters probably did resort to deceit and violence. Kay Saunders, one of those historians seeking to paint the trade in as unsavoury terms as possible, nonetheless estimates that probably less than five per cent of recruitment involved kidnapping. After 1885, she concedes, the trade was predominantly legal.
Corris argues that it was not government regulation that made kidnapping and other illegal practices rare. Until 1874, when Queensland reformed its regulatory system, many of the government agents aboard the recruiting ships had been incompetent. Some were drunken, insane or in the pockets of the shipowners. Instead, Corris says it was the growth in the awareness of the islanders themselves that made kidnapping at once unnecessary and impossible. The appeal of labour migration was established by the men who returned home satisfied with the treatment and rewards they had received in Australia. They usually took home with them prized possessions such as parasols, musical instruments, clocks, Bibles, guns and bicycles, thereby advertising to their kinsmen the attractions to be acquired in the modern world. Compared to the constrictions of island village life, ruled by subsistence agriculture, a fixed social hierarchy and frequent inter-tribal violence, the freedom and prosperity of Australia proved irresistible. Many islanders who returned to their islands were later recruited for Australia a second and third time. By the 1890s, one quarter of the new arrivals in Australia had already worked on the cane fields of Queensland, Fiji or Samoa.
In her book Wacvie, Faith Bandler claimed her father was transported to Australia in the hold of the ship — ‘the dark, foul-smelling bowels of the vessel’. She says it took ‘four moons’ or four months to sail from Ambrym to Mackay. Some of his fellow Melanesians, assaulted beyond recovery by the ship’s crew, died on board and their bodies were thrown overboard. She was clearly trying to compare conditions aboard the Queensland recruiting ships to the notorious African slavers of the middle passage across the Atlantic. In reality, according to Clive Moore, government regulations specified that the space allocated to a Melanesian labourer on a ship to Queensland was the same as the amount of space per passenger on vessels carrying British emigrants to the Australian colonies. To get a licence from the Queensland government, a ship could carry one adult for every twelve superficial feet allocated to their use. Minimum height between decks was six feet six inches (two metres) and berths were limited to two tiers, at least two feet six inches (0.7625 of a metre) apart. Each vessel also had to have exercise space for passengers on its upper deck. The wooden ships took not four moons but two to three months to sail from Melanesia to Australia.
Bandler’s claim that when they arrived in Queensland, the Melanesian labourers were sold at a slave market is equally false. In this case, however, she is not alone in her belief. A number of Queensland identities, including two parliamentary candidates, have left evidence about what they thought were slave auctions taking place on the docks at Mackay in the 1880s. Clive Moore has examined these claims, however, and says what they saw would have been the transfers of indentured labour contracts from a ship’s captain to a plantation owner or from one plantation owner to another. In the first twenty years of the labour trade, newly arrived recruits were transferred on arrival. Some employers also hired out their own contract labourers to other employers. If this involved a transfer out of the district, the employer could only legally act with the labourer’s permission. These transactions involved money changing hands and some observers who did not investigate the matter, plus others who wanted to exploit it for political purposes, presumed the labourers themselves were being sold. Transfers of labour contracts were sometimes made with callous disregard for the labourers themselves. But the transfer of a labour contract was legal and subject to government regulation, and bore no relation to the sale of a slave, which was always illegal in Australia. From the mid-1870s onwards, the allocation of recruits to plantations was handled by a government Immigration Department inspector. Employers specified the number of labourers they required and the inspector allocated individuals to fill the employers’ quotas. The inspectors were required to consult the labourers about their allocation to ensure that relatives or close friends were not separated. The transfer system also allowed labourers to themselves initiate requests to move to other plantations, especially to be with newly arrived family members or relatives.
Wages and conditions on the sugar plantations
School children today can be easily shocked to learn that Melanesian plantation workers had to toil for six days of the week for two shillings and six pence at a time when white labourers were earning seven to nine shillings a day.  There was, however, more to it than this. There were three categories of islanders in Queensland: first indenture labourers, time-expired labourers, and ticket holders. The first indenture labourers earned a minimum of six pounds a year, or 2s 6d a week. On top of this, their employers provided their food, clothing accommodation and medical care. Employers also paid the cost of their passage to Queensland and return, plus various government bonds and levies. In the early years of the trade, the recruiting ships normally paid island elders and kinsmen of the labourers an enlistment bonus, worth between ten shillings and five pounds per head in goods or cash. By the 1880s, most first indenture labourers were themselves paid the enlistment bonus, in cash. At first, labourers were paid their wages yearly, but after a parliamentary enquiry this was reduced in 1880 to half-yearly.
At the end of their three year contracts, the Melanesians had the choice of returning home or staying in Queensland as time-expired labourers. This type of labourer still signed contracts but they varied in length from one month to three years. A re-enlisting labourer could choose his employer and could be paid up to twelve pounds a year. The short-term contracts of one to three months were usually taken up by labourers who specialised in cane harvesting. Long-term contracts for both new and re-enlisting labourers could involve clearing and ploughing land, weeding and cutting cane, and working in sugar mills. After 1884, government regulations controlled the occupations they were permitted to enter, which were confined to sugar and other forms of tropical agriculture. Ticket holders were those labourers who had entered Queensland before the 1884 Act and remained there for five years. Once a ticket holder’s initial contract was served, he was essentially a free labourer who could work wherever he liked. Both time-expired labourers and ticket holders moved freely up and down the Queensland coast, sometimes engaged by agents for plantations, at other times going to new districts and finding their own employment. By the 1890s, time-expired labourers in Queensland were earning wages of from £23 to £25 pounds a year.
As time went by, the proportion of time-expired labourers formed an increasing proportion of Queensland’s Melanesian labour force. Between 1888 and 1892, they comprised about one-third of the Melanesian population, and between 1893 and 1899 they made up between half and two-thirds of the population. In other words, by this time the majority were freely choosing re-employment in Australia. Their terms of employment were anything but slavery. They bargained for higher wages and shorter contracts and took time off for holidays. They were just as likely to work for small farmers as on large plantations. Indeed, the longer they remained in Australia the more canny they became at wage bargaining. They negotiated for improved pay and conditions and moved from district to district in search of better terms. They organised trade unions before European sugar workers did. Melanesian sugar workers formed the Johnstone River Field-labourers’ Union in 1898. That year they went on strike in the Bundaberg area. “They never undersell one another,” the Sugar Journal and Tropical Cultivator noted, and had “a kind of unionism among them which worked wonderfully smoothly”.
Those historians who realise the kidnapping and slavery myth cannot be sustained but who still want to tell a bleak story, in most cases draw their conclusions from Marxist theory. Kay Saunders has examined the Queensland plantation system to demonstrate the exploitation and oppression of the Kanakas. Adrian Graves has studied the transition of the Melanesian subsistence economy into a capitalist mode of production. Both sets of arguments, Clive Moore has suggested, are based more on theory than on hard evidence. He argues that Marxist economics fall down when they attempt to put capitalist labour and commodities into other cultural logics. ‘From the point of view of indigenous people,’ Moore writes, ‘their exploitation by the world system may well be a welcome enrichment of their local system.’
The strongest argument for the bleak view comes from the state of the islanders’ health. Both their morbidity and mortality rates were much higher than for any other population group in Queensland, except the Aborigines. The death rate for Melanesians between 1867 and 1907 averaged fifty per thousand per year, compared to the European death rate of fifteen per thousand per year. Since the Melanesian population was composed mainly of people aged sixteen to thirty-five, they suffered an exceptionally high mortality rate.
Both Saunders and Graves put this down to the greed of the plantation owners who fed them an inadequate diet. Saunders claimed the officially sanctioned daily diet — one pound of beef or mutton or two pounds of fish; one pound of bread or flour; five ounces of molasses or sugar; two pounds of vegetables or four ounces of rice or eight ounces of maize meal; half an ounce of tea — was not nutritionally balanced and not sufficient to sustain men and youths doing hard manual work. She uses this to explain their high mortality rate. Graves supports her assessment. Moore disputes this argument, pointing out that, despite the high mortality rate, the majority of Kanakas in fact survived. Although different to their island fare, the official diet was well in excess of the kilojoule energy value needed by an adult male doing strenuous physical labour. Moreover, Moore points out the prescribed diet was only a rough guide to that provided by employers and the islanders supplemented their food supply with produce from their own gardens and their own hunting and fishing. ‘Employers were not blind to the logic that the better fed the islanders were the better they worked’, Moore writes. ‘Starving Melanesians into submission when surrounded by the bountiful Australian bush would have been difficult’. Instead of the Melanesians’ lack of food or physical mistreatment, Moore attributes their high mortality rate primarily to their lack of immunity to European and Asian diseases. This was not just a Queensland phenomenon. The opening up of the Pacific Islands to the rest of the world in this period saw a range of disease epidemics sweep through the whole region, devastating previously isolated populations that had developed no immunity to them. In Queensland, the Melanesians died primarily from respiratory diseases: tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis and pleurisy. The newcomers, the first-indenture labourers, suffered most from these diseases. Those who died from them mostly did so in their first year in the Queensland. Had poor diet or overwork been responsible, the death rate would have increased with length of residence, but it did not. One small consolation was that their exposure to malaria on their home islands gave them some immunity to this disease in Queensland, and a lower death rate from it than white labourers in tropical Australia.
Another problem for the Kanakas was the high rate at which they fell foul of the law. Charges against them for various forms of physical assault were always high, and in the 1890s offences against property increased noticeably. Their arrest rate for offences against the Masters and Servants Act were ten times that of other population groups. This last figure obviously relates to their distinct status as indentured labourers. Most of these charges were for desertion from service and disobedience. Most of the cases of assault were for work-related incidents, including attacks on employers and attacks on European labourers working for the same employers. The Melanesians were not notable for alcoholism, nor did their offences amount to a significant social problem for the European population. Moore points out that by the late 1880s and 1890s, the Melanesians were able to turn the operation of the legal system to their own purposes, especially in cases of non-payment of wages. Half the cases of this kind they brought in the Bundaberg Summons Court resulted in verdicts in their favour. ‘Melanesians in such cases demonstrated agency, conscious of their rights and interests,’ Moore writes, ‘and were not just passive victims of an inequitable labour process.’
By the turn of the twentieth century, when political agitation to end the contract labour system was at its height, the Melanesians in Queensland had become much more than a socially isolated group of indentured labourers, dependent upon their employers. Some had saved enough money to become landowners, farmers, gardeners and boarding house keepers. Some grew sugar to sell to the mills, employing fellow islanders and pooling savings to buy stock and equipment. By 1906, some 46 per cent of islanders in the Proserpine district were small farmers. In the Mackay district, 17 per cent were farmers. They married, built houses and sent their children to local schools. The 1901 Census showed that 40 per cent of islanders had converted to Christianity. They abstained from alcohol, put their money in savings banks and adopted European manners and dress. The books by Clive Moore and Henry Reynolds reproduce photographs of islander men in this period, many taken in professional photographic studios, wearing suits, ties, waistcoats, striped trousers, boaters, blazers, sporting gold fob watches, and of islander women wearing fashionable hats, embroidered dresses, lace and jewellery.
The black-birding myth and islander oral history
If the islanders at the time apparently did so well out of the system in their own terms, why has the myth of their kidnapping and slavery persisted? It is not only political activists like Faith Bandler who repeat it. Interviews with the Australian-born descendants of the islanders themselves have long insisted on a similar version of events. In 1978, broadcaster Matt Peacock of ABC Radio made a series of programs, which were eventually compiled into the book The Forgotten People. The programs comprised interviews with the descendants of those islanders who remained in Australia after 1906. Those interviewed were unwavering in their belief that their parents and grandparents had been kidnapped from their islands. Some also insisted that when they arrived in Queensland they were sold at slave markets.
Clive Moore has speculated on why this view is so widely held in the face of historical accounts that contradict it. He suggests four reasons. First, those who gained the right to remain in Australia were those who had been here longest. Hence some of them would have been among the first recruits from the early days before the trade was regulated and when some islanders actually were kidnapped. So it is likely that a small proportion of the stories told to their children would have been true. Second, some of the Kanakas found their departure from their close-knit tribal societies highly traumatic and they seemed not to have fully comprehended the nature of the migration they undertook. The stories they told their children seemed to contain evidence of their incomprehension. In particular, the transfer system that operated on the Queensland docks when the recruiting ships arrived might have given the appearance of a slave auction. This interpretation thus still holds its place in the memory of the labour trade.
Third, the media and education system have continued to perpetuate the myth, and it finds willing listeners among some of the islanders’ descendants. The news and entertainment media still sensationalise the labour trade and take almost no notice of the academic consensus on the subject that has now existed for thirty years. The education system, especially at primary and secondary school levels, still does not present the historians’ view that the participation of the islanders in the labour trade was largely voluntarily. Educational materials produced for teachers, might observe in passing that this topic is controversial, but then go on to present a story of racism, kidnapping and slavery as if nothing else is worth recording. The Australian Sugar Industry Museum’s educational resource kit published in 2000 suggests the following exercise for teachers of children in years 8–12: ‘Write down the words or phrases from [the following] extract that you believe the writer is using to illustrate how South Sea Islanders are being badly regarded and treated’.
So it came to pass that citizens who were religious men; officers of churches; nay, even ministers of religion, saw no shame in availing themselves of the labour of poor helpless savages who have been inveigled from their native homes, or in many, perhaps most instances, who had been sold at the island by their chiefs and bought by white men and bought and sold a second time at our wharves in Brisbane, Maryborough, Rockhampton, and Mackay. Our newspapers contained advertisements that these injured helpless creatures could be bought on application to agents. They were carried by our steamers, not as passengers, but as freight, like horses, cattle and sheep.
— Statement by W. Brookes to Select Committee on the General Question of Polynesian Labour, Legislative Assembly, Queensland, 1876
Indoctrination at this level in schools, where there are no countervailing views presented, is bound to have a long-term effect, especially on children with a direct family connection to the subject. Hence much of the testimony collected from the islanders’ descendants in the 1970s and 1980s was not undiluted oral history. It was already deeply contaminated by tales told in the media and the formal education system.
Finally, Moore suggests that the eventual alienation of the islanders from mainstream Australia generated the need for a historical myth of this kind. The worst period for those who remained in Australia was not when they were employed on the plantations but after 1906, when legislation that accompanied the White Australia policy barred them from work in the sugar industry. For the next fifty years, the coasts of Queensland and northern New South Wales were dotted by towns and villages where the Kanakas lived apart from white society, having more in common with fringe dwelling Aborigines than Europeans. Some did assimilate, like Faith Bandler’s father who had his own farm in the prosperous Tweed Valley and married out of the islander community to a woman of Scottish-Indian descent, while others gained social mobility as sporting heroes, especially by playing Rugby League. But most, until at least the 1960s, lived as a separate class on the lowest stratum of society. This alienation, Moore suggests, required the balm of a kidnapping myth. As Patricia Mercer has observed, the view that their forebears were abused and exploited became an essential component of contemporary islander attitudes to white Australia: ‘so psychologically imperative is it, that ‘blackbirding’, if it did not exist, would have to be created’.
On the other hand, some of the oral testimony recorded not in Australia but among the descendants of those Kanakas who returned to their Melanesian islands, tells a different story. In the late 1960s, Peter Corris recorded a number of interviews on Malaita in the Solomons, an island that provided about 15 per cent of all Melanesian recruits to Australia. One interview recorded the story of two men, Afio and Tobebe, who apparently were kidnapped by an early recruiting ship but who were subsequently not unhappy at the outcome.
Now Afio and Tobebe, the pair of them, spoke about Queensland:
We have always been frightened about this. We said devil, this is no devil, this is something excellent, excellent people. They give you food, good food. They give you beds, good house. Everything is first rate. This place, this Queensland, is very good indeed. Suppose Queenslanders come here, it’s a good idea for us, all us young fellows, to go there, to get lots of things.
The deportation of the Kanakas
In North of Capricorn, Henry Reynolds accepts the scholarly consensus that blackbirding was largely a myth. He does not argue that Australia committed any offence by bringing the Kanakas here. Rather, our crime was to send them back. The Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901–1906 decreed that no Pacific Islander could enter Australia after March 31, 1904. Those who remained were to be deported after 1906. Reynolds says that after Federation, and as part of the racism inherent in the White Australia policy, the Commonwealth parliament decided to put an end to island recruiting in order to reserve employment exclusively for white labourers. The government’s real reasons, however, were more complicated than Reynolds’s simple tale allows. One cannot explain what happened without providing at least some outline of the economics of the sugar industry and the politics involved.
The North Queensland sugar industry was established in the 1860s on the plantation system. This was in contrast to the earlier industry in New South Wales where most producers were small farmers. Plantations were large establishments that could each employ hundreds of labourers in the fields and which crushed cane in their own mills. Part of the thinking behind the heavily-capitalised plantations lay in the belief inherited from Britain’s earlier Caribbean sugar industry that white workers were congenitally incapable of labouring outdoors in the tropics. Black labourers born in those latitudes were preferred instead. The plantations’ aim was also to get economies of scale through the vertical integration of growing, processing and marketing. By the early 1880s the Colonial Sugar Refining Company had become the major North Queensland plantation operator. It tried to inhibit the growth of smallholders in the region by refusing to crush their cane.
At the same time, however, the sugar fields emulated the pastoral industry with a political campaign to ‘unlock the lands’. Individual smallholders took up homesteads in North Queensland and tried to enter the industry. Queensland’s Liberal Party under Samuel Griffith eventually took up their cause and supported the establishment of large central mills that could service the small farmers of a whole district. Throughout the 1880s, Griffith campaigned for smaller scale settlement and an end to plantations and their dependence on Melanesian labour. Griffith also took up the politics of the southern labour movement’s opposition to coolie labour. He compared the indentured Kanakas to the indentured Chinese. He promised a vision of the Queensland sugar fields populated not by big capitalists and a servile labouring class but of independent farmers living on their own lands, earning fair incomes by selling their produce to centralised, co-operative mills, which his government would finance.
Griffith’s campaign was not only based on unlocking the lands. The emerging economics of the sugar industry were on his side. Around the world, plantations were become uneconomical and were losing out to competition from small, independent cane farmers. In the mid-1880s, when a world-wide glut caused the price of sugar to fall by one-third, the vertically-integrated plantation system fell into financial crisis. Independent farmers showed they could sell cane to mills more cheaply than a mill owner could grow it on a plantation with Kanaka labour. In both 1885 and 1892 Griffith foreshadowed an end to Melanesian immigration, though in the end it was the Commonwealth not the Queensland parliament that did this. By 1891, Colonial Sugar Refining had accepted the new industry economics. It abandoned much of its plantation system in the far north, cut up its estates into farm-sized blocks and sold them to farmers. Other large plantation owners in the region followed suit.
By 1901 Griffith’s vision of an industry dominated by yeoman farmers was almost fully realised. This did not mean, however, that all Melanesian labourers were unemployed. Those who remained in Australia found that small farmers still wanted them as contract and casual labourers. From the mid-1880s onwards, from forty to sixty per cent of the Melanesian workforce was composed of re-engaging labourers and ticket holders. Some Melanesians saved enough capital to become farmers themselves. By the time the Pacific Island Labourers Act was mooted in the new Commonwealth Parliament, the days of indentured, imported islander labour were largely over. The recruiting of islanders for the plantation system had ended not because of white racism but primarily because of the economics and politics of sugar farming and processing. While the Melanesians lost out on employment opportunities they valued, it is hard to argue that the overall outcome was not a progressive development. The low wages paid to the islanders had perpetuated a low technology, labour-intensive, hoe culture on the plantations. Technological innovation and the greater use of highly-paid white, short-term contract cane cutters working the sugar fields in efficient, hard-working teams allowed much greater productivity and guaranteed the survival of the industry.
The deportation of the Kanakas, on the other hand, was a different matter. Apart from those who were registered as ticket holders under the 1884 Act, the rest were to be sent back to their island homes permanently. Most federal parliamentarians had assumed that, since the great majority of the 50,000 labourers recruited since the 1860s had returned to their island homes, the end of contract labour would not cause any great hardship or objection. They were surprised to see the emergence of an organised reaction by the islanders. In 1901, Melanesians in Mackay formed the Pacific Islanders’ Association to fight the deportation. With assistance from Christian missionaries and other white supporters, this association and others organised at least eight petitions 1903 and 1906, sent variously to the Queensland Governor, the Australian Prime Minister, the Governor-General and the King. Some petitions were small and were requests from groups of twenty to seventy islanders for exemption from deportation on the grounds of their long residence in Australia and their fear their families would be broken up. Some of the men had married women from islands other than their own and they had children born in Queensland. So they either had no obvious home to return to or else their Australian-made family would not fit into their village’s traditional social hierarchy. One petition was from twenty six Australian-born children who knew no other home but Queensland. The biggest petition was signed by 3000 islanders and sent to the King in 1903. Federal Attorney-General Alfred Deakin told the Governor-General that many signatories were ‘nominal petitioners’. This was probably true. Many of those deported who were later interviewed by Peter Corris in 1968 did not comprehend the reason nor understand those political activists who campaigned for their right to remain in Australia. Among those who loaded their prized possessions about the repatriating ships, Corris writes, many were confused and disgruntled, but they left Queensland quietly enough. But the articulate and literate minority demanded the right to remain in Australia. In 1902 those at Rockhampton persuaded their local MLA, K. M. Grant, to write to the Prime Minister on their behalf. Grant said they had established farms, paid rates and led settled, married lives: ‘these Kanakas are civilised, their children are educated, they have made this their home, [and] they have all a great hatred to be sent back.’
In 1906 a revived Pacific Islanders’ Association got up another 427-name petition to present to then Prime Minister Deakin, who assured them the repatriation would be attended with humanity and compassion. At the time, a Royal Commission was sitting to investigate labour problems in the sugar industry. The islanders appealed to the commission and eventually fifty one of them gave evidence. Most had been in Australia for decades, were literate and practising Christians. Many were married, either to islander or European women. Their children had been educated at state schools. They leased farms and rented or owned houses. They said they would no longer fit into islander lifestyles. Their alienation from island society was complete. Some said that if they returned home they would be killed for transgressing tribal laws, especially those about marriage. Some were so desperate to remain in Australia, and so anxious not to be seen to be taking employment from the white population, that they proposed the government provide them with a special reserve, like those for Aborigines, where they could make their own living as farmers.
The Royal Commission gave its recommendations in June 1906. It judged the 1901 Act was deficient in its definition of those due to be deported and said the action would be inhumane. It recommended the following exemptions:
# those who arrived in Australia before 1879 and who had neglected to be registered as (already-exempt) ticket holders;
# those so old or infirm that they would be unable to work in the islands;
# those married to, or living as man and wife with, someone from an island other than their own, and who could not be deported without risk of life to them or their families;
# those married to or living with someone not a native of the Pacific Islands;
# those whose children had been educated in state schools;
# those who owned freehold land in Queensland;
# those who held an unexpired leasehold;
# those who had been continuously resident in Australia for at least twenty years prior to 1806.
In the end, the Commonwealth government accepted all the Royal Commissioners’ recommendations, except those relating to children educated at state schools and holders of leasehold land. The official estimate of those who remained under these exemptions was 1654. However, a number escaped the deportation round up and either hid in the bush or gained the support of friendly white farmers. Most historians accept the true figure of those who remained was around 2000. Nonetheless, the deportation that went ahead was on such a large scale it caused considerable logistical problems. Between 1904 and 1908, a total of 7068 islanders were repatriated, mostly to the Solomons and the New Hebrides. The British High Commissioners in both colonies complained about the lack of concern shown for the labourers’ well-being, the seaworthiness of the returning vessels and the illegal supply of arms and ammunition the ex-Queenslanders took with them. The Resident Deputy Commissioner on the New Hebrides, Captain Ernest Rason, declared: ‘It is an outrageous act for Australia to return these men to barbarism after civilising them’.
Though expressed in terminology that would today be regarded as racially insensitive and unacceptably patronising, Captain Rason’s objection caught the truth of the matter. The deportation decision was harsh and treated many islanders unjustly. It was one thing to stop recruiting them from their villages when demand for their labour collapsed with the end of the plantation system; it was quite another thing to deport those who had established themselves in Australia, who had adapted to modern life, and who remained productive and law-abiding citizens. Many more should have been given the option to remain. Those who were sent home against their will and those who remained but were subsequently barred from employment in the sugar industry were genuine victims of the White Australia policy.
Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant. This essay is extracted from his book, The White Australia Policy , which can be purchased here
 Faith Bandler, Wacvie, Rugby, Adelaide, 1977, Introduction 1
 Bandler, Wacvie, Introduction 2
 Peter Corris, ‘Social history of Queensland’s slave trade’, The Weekend Australian, 20–21 August 1977, Magazine p 12
 Bandler, Wacvie, pp 21–2
 In 1980 he published the first of his Cliff Hardy detective novels. The catalogue in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, now lists 119 works under his name.