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The true story: Slavery and blackbirding in Queensland


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 or, 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.


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Peter Kranz

A correction, the Brisbane Times article, though noteworthy for bringing this to the public's attention, is in some respects inaccurate and superficial.

"About 15,000 perished, largely from starvation."

No, some died from natural causes, some from disease and some from accidents. Where's the evidence they died of starvation?

"Those still alive in 1906 were deported as part of the White Australia policy."

No, only those not born in Australia were deported. Otherwise we wouldn't have Mal Meninga.

Still it's a sorry episode in Australia's history.

And why a mass burial in an unmarked grave?

Peter Kranz

Keith - I know this has been debated at length on PNG Attitude before, but it does coincide with an interesting exhibition at the State Library.

"About 15,000 perished, largely from starvation. Those still alive in 1906 were deported as part of the White Australia policy.

Unlike many, former Bundaberg politicians Brian Courtice does not believe the little-known chapter of Australian history should be swept under the rug.
"It was on their sweat and toil that the sugar industry in Queensland was developed – it is tied directly to the history of Queensland," he said.

Mr Courtice has made it his mission for the past 20 years to ensure South Sea Islanders' contribution to Queensland's early development get appropriate recognition.

"It is front and centre in 19th century history and the biggest part of that has been airbrushed," he said.
Not anymore.

"The 150th anniversary of the arrival of South Sea Islanders in Queensland is also being commemorated this weekend at Brisbane's State Library of Queensland as part of the exhibition Memories from a Forgotten People: 150 years of Australian South Sea Islander contributions to Queensland."

Kate Campbell-Loyd

I have only just found you and, to defy that notion that ignorance 'can be bliss', I want to write a poem for the 2013 April Feast of the Senses, in which Innisfail and surrounds are celebrating 150 years of South Pacific peoples in Australia.

I am finding your articles most interesting and your hearfelt sincerity right there.

I have many friends in that generation that live on today. By weaving their lives into mine, through traditional and cultural coconut leaf weaving events and in schools and in friendship, my life is richer because of it.

Thank you. I am using your material to enlighten my migratory ignorance, so I can at least offer this celebratory year my poems!

Ross Wilkinson

When we look at some of these stories from both sides we should also consider the politics behind them.

Several of the commentators here and in other associated stories are ex-kiaps (including me) who were intimately involved in the alleged "slavery" of PNG villagers that built national infrastructure projects like the Highlands Highway and the Kundiawa airstrip.

We were field officers with a variety powers and functions.

At times, and simultaneously, we would sit in Council meetings as the Legal Advisors to advise the councillors that they had (or not) the power to make local laws and the extent of those local laws.

“Kiap, ananit dispela local lo, mipela Kaunsila, mi gat paua o nogat?” “Yes, Kaunsila, yu gat paua.” And with that, the local law usually got passed unanimously.

At the same meetings we were also the Administrative Advisors to assist the Council and its Kuskus give effect to the local laws once passed.

That role extended beyond the meetings to the field to give practical assistance to capital projects implemented from the Council works (Capital and Maintenance) program.

For example, council submissions for capital works grants from the central government to enable major infrastructure projects to commence would include a total project cost funded by a requested government grant figure and made up by a council cash sum and balanced by an estimated “self-help” sum that represented the village labour component.

A local law, common to all councils, was the self-help or village labour contribution necessary to provide the self-help contribution that was written into the submissions for project grants.

In other words, to ensure that the self-help contribution could be met, the Council local law made the power to enable this. Also, once a project was completed, it had to be maintained for its projected lifetime.

So, once the grant was approved and the project commenced, it was the kiap Administrative Advisor who went out to activate the project. This often meant weeks on patrol to survey and mark roads and airstrips and then to camp out and supervise actual construction.

The kiap could not do it on his own. He needed village advice to ensure that the project did not intrude upon traditionally significant areas, and then, he needed actual labour to do the physical things necessary to clear a line for the road survey or airstrip alignment.

Then, when the actual project commenced, the provision of physical labour, as promised in the grant submission, had to be guaranteed and this is where the local law came into effect.

If the project was road construction then labour provision was assigned according to the village areas and land ownership as the road construction progressed.

If it was an airstrip, then the labour had to be rostered amongst the villages in the benefit area of the airstrip.

On a personal note, I have had positive and adverse experiences with both road and airstrip construction and maintenance that provide examples of potential accusations of slavery but were “protected” under the respective councils’ local laws on self-help.

On many occasions I was instructed to visit areas either daily or to camp in the area, to ensure that villages were maintaining their section of a road. On other occasions it was to ensure that rural airstrips away from the district centre were being kept navigable to a minimum standard.

Once, I was sent out to supervise an airstrip under construction including the local labour component. I was there for six weeks with six different villages contributing to the construction on a weekly (5 day) rotation with weekends off.

One Monday morning, the rostered village had not appeared. After waiting a couple of hours to allow for reasonable travel time, the village had still not appeared so I called for the ward councillor.

I both reminded him of the local law requirement and introduced the element of shame to suggest that the village had let the area down by not pulling its weight with this potential for economic development.

By one o’clock on the Monday afternoon the village had appeared and worked through until Friday afternoon. On the Saturday rest day people started to appear from the “shamed” village and held a sing sing to appease me and presentations were made to me to ensure I did not report them for failing to comply with the local law.

What they didn’t understand was that it was the councillor who had the power to take action against them under the local law, not me.

On another occasion, the project was road construction where I had not been responsible for the original survey and, therefore, did not recognise that the villagers had shifted the approved survey line for the proposed road before a contracted bulldozer arrived and caused several thousand wasted kinas of construction before the fault was discovered.

The “approved” survey went through a coffee garden so changed it for a short term benefit instead of the long term goal.

So, to look at the slavery theme, we have to look at the causes of the “slavery work” and to understand the reasons for that to then decide if it was slavery or not.

I am sure that there was an agreement in place between the local leaders and the government for labour to be provided for the construction of the Highland Highway, just as I am sure that there was a similar agreement for the construction of the Kundiawa Airstrip.

However, were those agreements fair or were they slavery, we have to understand a range of conditions and agreements, and measure those against what the definition of slavery was then and not now.

Harry Topham

John - I would have to agree.

It is pointless to carry back modern liberal thinking to moralise and editorialise events that happened in taim bipo as the mindset in those time was flavoured by prejudices and ignorance, which hopefully now we have outgrown.

Tony Flynn

In the early 60's my mother worked in the South Brisbane Fish Market with a friend, a lady descended from Malaita, I later got to know the family.

Her Malaita grandfather married a white wife, a daughter married a Malaita man and later married a white man. There were networks of relationships that the average Australian never saw.

I had never noticed anyone other than dysfunctional "dark people" as we used to describe them. I visited neat farms belonging to South Sea Islanders,

I met an Australian who had been machine gunned in the back in Wau and had been carried out to Salamua. He was full of praise for the carriers who had the job of carrying him out. "They were alone and could have thrown me over the side to join the other bodies below".

He told a story about how he and his mate on night sentry duty shot up Mick Leahy's cows. They thought that the moving shadows were Japanese.

It was as if there were two Australian parallel societies in those days, doing the same things, fishing, barbecues, trips to the country, touching only slightly.

Peter Kranz

And if I am prejudiced (to which charge I freely admit) it is because I well remember sitting in a dark hut for hours listening to the stories of Bubu Pius about the recruitment of local workers to build the Kundiawa airstrip and their ill-treatment at the hands of the Australians.

His memories should be treated with respect.

Peter Kranz

John - your article is excellent and historically accurate and well detailed. I don't mean to criticise you personally, even if I am a 'bit annoying' at times.

But I think we need to consider the evidence and memories of the 'kanakas' themselves and their descendants.

They have a voice which should be heard. And what about the recent discovery of an unmarked mass grave near your neck of the woods?

As I remarked before, it was the white Australia policy which marked the end of blackbirding, which is a great historical irony.

PS. I never said their was a 'slaughter', simply that people were buried unnamed and unmarked and in a mass grave - which suggests no individual recognition of their identity.

Draw you own conclusions.

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