ONE WONDERS AT THE VALUE of spending time putting together factual and objective commentary and opinion pieces for PNG Attitude when other contributors seem to be locked into personal concepts and prejudices narrow, not necessarily valid and apparently immovable.
Peter Kranz, Erasmus Baraniak and some others are erudite, energetic and interesting, but often a little annoying in this way.
I’m not sneering nor being difficult; just suggesting that we all reflect our own empirical knowledge and experience in the stories we tell, and we also reflect statements and prejudices we have absorbed and not bothered to examine or check for validity.
Put-downs and controversial expressions are easy and attractive to many who aspire to be noticed as outspoken men of ideas.
Personally I’m content to be thought opinionated and even dogmatic, but I only write in inspired rhetorical and bombastic flourishes to close friends.
We don’t want this blog, which has a noble and valuable reason for its existence and an increasingly wide positive reputation, to show signs of going the way of one or two other popular Papua New Guinea-based blogs. Spaces in which bile, racist comments and libellous allegations often flow
Peter Kranz and others who may not be able to get the “Queensland sugar slavery" bug out of their brains should scroll back to my piece published in PNG Attitude only a few scant weeks ago, The blackbird era: Queensland labour trade, 1863-1906, for a summary of the real nature of the recruitment and employment of Melanesian islanders in the early years of Queensland and northern NSW sugar plantations.
And for a full-length and erudite exposition, borrow from the UPNG library or purchase second-hand via Abebooks.com or Addall.com, Professor Clive Moore's excellent work Kanaka published in Port Moresby back in the eighties. It’s a good read.
Slavery was proscribed throughout the British Empire some 20 years before the period we are discussing, and parliamentary proscription was preceded by a period of active campaigning against the slave-trade and for universal emancipation beginning with the rise of evangelical Christianity in Britain in the late eighteenth century.
There was very wide acceptance and respect for William Wilberforce and the Wesley family as social leaders and opinion-makers. In fact slavery was abolished within Britain itself in 1807.
As soon as rumours of the brutality of the first two or three "blackbirding" expeditions conducted by the notorious sandalwood trader, Ross Lewin, and his associates began to spread, the Royal Navy's Sydney squadron began regular patrols between Australia's east coast, the islands of Melanesia and the sugar-growing districts in Fiji, where a similar phenomenon had arisen.
Laws governing recruitment, repatriation and conditions of employment were promulgated and an Inspectorate of Pacific Island Labour was created.
Much as the PNG Labour Department’s industrial inspectors travel to and check the remaining plantations in PNG today, so the Queensland inspectors used to travel on the ships licensed to recruit and to repatriate labour from the islands, carrying out inspections and interviews on the sugar plantations.
During the period of the recruiting trade in Queensland-NSW - roughly 1863-1906 - conditions of recruitment, work, accommodation, food, clothing and other entitlements including monthly wage and repatriation at the end of the generally three-year-long contract bore an almost exact similarity in nature to the still-current conditions of PNG's Highlands Labour Scheme encapsulated within the overarching employment ordinance and the various industrial awards.
Naturally there were abuses on both sides but as the Islanders almost universally joined and thus formed a substantial part of various Protestant church congregations in the areas in which they were employed, I should be very surprised if such a slaughter as is alleged and as is referred to by Peter Kranz really took place in secrecy.
Nor do I believe that it could have remained a secret for so long. The Islanders formed their own representative groups in Mackay and Rockhampton and developed rudimentary community representation to address communal concerns.
The great tragedy suffered by the Queensland Kanakas, now known as the Pacific Island community, was by no means the fact of their recruitment and deployment in the sugar industry.
Over the years of the scheme’s official operation more than 80,000 Islanders signed on, many of them time after time. Some remained permanently, intermarrying in many cases.
Those who were allowed to remain after 1906 and the implementation of the White Australia Policy automatically became Australian citizens and have always possessed the same rights and played the same part in the life of Queensland as their white neighbours.
Whilst there has always been the presence of racist, anti-foreigner prejudice in sectors of the Australian community, the Islanders were not looked upon in the same largely patronising and derogatory light as the Aboriginal population.
This was simply because, as members of an agriculture-based society used to a settled farming and fishing lifestyle, and keen to earn, save and advance now they were presented with the opportunity, the Islanders fitted in, becoming a valuable, stable and productive unit of society in the region where they lived.
The same may be said of the Torres Strait Islanders who have historically been regarded as the go-to people for the rugged lonely job of building outback railways in Australia.
There is a large Torres Strait community in Townsville and, when I lived there in the seventies, they seemed to be well-settled, respected and to hold jobs such as machinery-operators and heavy-transport drivers. Their adherence to their church and associated social activities was renowned.
Again, these people are from a settled farming and fishing society and a style of life very far removed from the peripatetic hunter-gatherer ways of the Aborigines. The Aboriginal culture was and still remains in remote places, one of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age, a glimpse of how we all lived more than 30,000 years ago.
The Queensland Kanakas’ tragedy arrived in two episodes. Firstly, they suffered immensely when the White Australia Policy was implemented.
Families established for decades as Queensland residents, and for all intents as British citizens, were torn apart when those members not actually born in Queensland - the majority of the middle-aged and elderly - were forcibly repatriated against their wishes and put ashore at points where their clans had often written them off.
It was difficult for them to resume or re-enter the usufructary rights to garden and fish and harvest within their clans' domains.
Their return was not that of prodigal sons. Many were made to feel unwelcome, and they missed the way of life and the goods and services they had become used to in Australia.
Families were ripped apart because older people, regardless of their own fate and the fact that they would be deprived of association with their children and grandchildren in many cases, nonetheless with sadness and reluctance bid those born-in-Queensland members of their families a firm farewell, believing that the young ones would do far better by remaining, in spite of their own prospect of a lonely and impoverished old age.
Those who remained continued to work as they always had, but the era of the big plantations was soon to end. By the end of the 1914-18 war the industry had converted to one based largely on small family-owned and operated cane farms.
The more energetic and business-minded Islanders followed this trend, buying land and planting cane. Then, in the twenties discrimination reared its ugly head.
With the return of the soldiers from the battlefields of France there was great competition to enter the cane-farming industry. Because of the proliferation of farms and ruling market conditions at this time, the mills began to introduce purchase-quotas.
It soon became clear that Islander cane-growers would not gain quotas whilst white growers remained unsatisfied.
Unable to make a living from their land many Islander families were forced to adopt an almost exactly-similar lifestyle to that of their relatives back in the islands.
Living under thatch and growing a familiar range of foods, sweet-potato, taro, bananas, and raising chickens and pigs for family consumption these people languished in comparative poverty whilst their white neighbours enjoyed reasonable prosperity.
Managing in this way, and finding the cash necessary for clothing and what could not be grown or obtained in the bush, the Islanders were to be seen working for the Shire Councils on the roads and cutting cane in season for their cane-grower neighbours.
Along came the World War II and, as Australian citizens, the young Islanders were duly called up for military service just like the white people
The story of the slave-trade was taken up in the thirties by writers of popular history, of the gold-rush days, the bushrangers, the Kelly Gang and of the pioneer cattle-barons of the far west of Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberleys.
Popular writers like Hector Holthouse and Frank Clune took up the largely mythical theme of Islander slavery in Queensland and wrote emphasising the excesses of the early voyages of Ross Lewin and one or two others like him.
This became popular history, reinforced and becoming believed as fact by repetition down the years. It became an article of faith for many members of today’s Islander community.
The true and quite tragic story of the Queensland Kanakas has been told by Clive Moore, but, being less spectacularly evocative than the slaving theme, it has largely been ignored outside academic circles.