THE PRACTICE OF RECRUITING Islander labour for the Queensland’s nascent sugar industry has come into focus in PNG Attitude recently.
The trade has always been regarded as controversial, at first because of feeling running high against the importation of low-paid foreign labour from the islands or from China and Asia.
Later, condemnation in Australia and elsewhere turned on the presumption that much brutality had accompanied the recruitment of Islander men and women.
Semantics play a part here. In the days of the labour-trade, the use of the word “blackbird” or ‘blackbirding” was not pejorative.
Of course, in recent decades the terms have assumed a pejorative and even highly-emotional resonance, where the whole issue is deplored and stated as having been both illegal and “shameful.”
This view has been intensified over the years by various pulp-history writers of the “bushrangers, pirates and shipwrecks” variety. Hector Holthouse’s Cannibal Cargoes is an example.
There certainly were abuses in the early days before the recruitment trade was brought under control.
Men and women were forcefully removed from their homes; many were tricked; and island “bigmen” who became involved with the traders connived in raiding known enemy and weakened groups, capturing these people and passing them on to the traders for a fee paid in guns, ammunition, rum and trade-goods.
From around 1873, however, the trade came under Queensland State government control.
Officers under the Inspector of Pacific Islanders travelled on board licensed recruiting boats. The trade and the conditions of assignment, pay, work, housing and entitlements were subject to the same sort of control as applied to rural contract workers signed on and employed under the Highland Labour Scheme and the Native Labour Ordinance of the TP&NG Administration in decades prior to independence.
Clive Moore is a native of Mackay, which was the centre for the arrival and repatriation of the Kanaka or Islander labourers. At time of writing he was working as a senior lecturer at UPNG and, I may be wrong, but I think he is back there again right now.
The book was published in Port Moresby in 1985 by the Institute of PNG Studies and UPNG, and is available second-hand. I’m sure the various university libraries have copies. They should have. My first view of the book was by courtesy of the then Goroka Teachers College’s excellent library in the late eighties.
Moore confined his research and his story to the experience of Islanders from Malaita who were recruited to work in and around Mackay, his own home-town.
What emerges from the story is that whilst early mistreatment and dishonest practices, episodes of which became notorious and are still occasionally featured in commentary are shameful, it is later events and discrimination which is the real nub of the wrongs done to these Australians.
Forget about the Queensland “slave-trade” It never existed. One must remember that slavery was outlawed throughout the British Empire in 1834, three decades before “blackbirding” came into being, and that Her Majesty’s Navy’s Sydney garrison was actively involved in policing such marine crime.
Hundreds of Islander men and women signed on time and time again after repatriation from their first three-year contract in Queensland. A number intermarried with white Australians, both Islander men and women.
When the axe fell in 1906, the only exemptions allowed were for Pacific Islanders, full-blood or mixed-race, born in Australia or resident in Australia from 1879. These were given citizenship and allowed to remain after the 1906 deadline elapsed.
This in itself was an act of brutality, separating father from mother, child from family, and is the initial blow resulting in an open wound which has never been examined.
The great injustice done was not that alleged by the pulp-history accounts.
It was done to the “stayers-on” - the grandfathers and grandmothers and great-uncles and aunts of the likes of famed Australian football stars Mal Meninga and Sam Backo. Also the well-known writer and political activist Faith Bandler, and writer and inaugural Commissioner for Pacific Islanders Noel Fatnowna.
And the elders of the Bobongie family, descendants of whom I met many years ago in Mareeba, North Queensland.
Queensland’s sugar industry was born as a small number of large plantation enterprises established by capital-rich pioneers, some with experience gained in Jamaica and Barbados.
Very near to the my present home is historic Ormiston House, built in the 1860s by Captain Louis Hope and named for his home estate in Scotland. Hope planted the first commercial stands of cane in Queensland in the late 1850s and eventually employed Islander labourers on his estate.
It was impossible to find sufficient indigent white men who would do this work for the wage available, Aboriginal men were not interested in regular day-labour work, and the Chinese were either hell-bent for the North Queensland goldfields or aimed only to go into business themselves as vegetable-growers or shopkeepers.
Thus arose the concept of recruitment of sturdy Melanesians, settled agriculturalists and fishermen, who proved adaptable and amenable to this work and their new lifestyle.
For Hope and those capitalists who followed him to open large plantations north of Brisbane in Bundaberg, Mackay, Ayr, Ingham, Tully and Cairns, Jamaica and Barbados were well-known as places where sugar plantations had employed both black and white slaves for two centuries at this time.
Before British slavers travelled to Africa's western coast to buy black slaves from African chieftains, they sold their own white working class kindred ("the surplus poor" as they were known) from the streets and towns of England, into slavery.
Tens of thousands of these white slaves were kidnapped children. In fact the very origin of the word kidnapped is “kid-nabbed”, the stealing of poor white children off the street in London, Manchester and Bristol for enslavement in the British West Indies.
Slavery was the future for British criminals shipped to the American colonies for one hundred and fifty years before a new, subservient and far-away penitentiary in the shape of Botany Bay became available.
Fortunately the influence of the evangelist William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect influenced thinking in the ruling classes in Britain early in the nineteenth century. Slave-trading from Africa was proscribed and terms of servitude for transported convicts were reduced. It became possible for convicts conforming to the rules to become free.
The writer’s own ancestor, Francis Greenway, was an English architect who was transported to Australia for the crime of forgery. In Australia he worked for Governor Macquarie as the colonial architect and became the first notable architect in the colony.
But the day of the plantations was numbered, both because of the cessation of recruitment from the Pacific Islands as of 1906, and because of the absence and often the death of a great many of the labour-force in the tragic Great War in far-away Europe.
Added to this was the rising political clout of the working-man and small businessman and the desire of a great many to “do something for meself.”
Thus it was that many small cane farms began to be established. As time went on the combined voice of their small-farmer-entrepreneur owners, backed by the RSSIL (ancestor of the RSL) saw to the institution of quotas allocated to individual farms and obligatorily to be bought by the established mills.
The mills began to pass from private ownership into the realm of the agricultural co-operative. This change was gradual, and it took place from the end of the Great War, through the nineteen-twenties, and into the thirties.
Of course, being natural-born farmers with a love and a respect for the soil, and as much knowledge of sugar-cane culture as anyone else, the remaining Australian Islanders, or Queensland Kanakas as they were known, tended to fall naturally into the role of small cane grower.
But all was not well. The antipathy for “the other” - namely coloured Asian or migrant people remained as strong as ever among the Australians.
The push was to allocate all cane quotas to whites only. And this is what happened.
And so, in Bundaberg, Mackay, Ayr, Ingham, Tully and Cairns, those stalwart sons-of-the-soil, the Kanakas or Pacific Islanders, were relegated to work as day-labourers on the local councils, and to the pursuit of age-old farming techniques, raising taro, sweet-potato, pawpaw, pineapple, banana, chickens and pigs; the lifestyle of their island-bound ancestors reconstituted to support them in their new land.
And all the while living upon what they had hoped would be profitable little family income-centres as canefarms.
The sons of these black Australians served shoulder-to-shoulder with their white brothers in World War II and in Malaya, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. And they are still with us.
Doing pretty well. But no thanks to anyone but themselves.