Blackbirding involves the coercion of people through deception and/or kidnapping to work as unpaid or poorly paid labourers in countries distant to their native land. The term has been most commonly applied to the large-scale taking of people indigenous to the numerous islands in the Pacific Ocean during the 19th and 20th centuries. These blackbirded people were called Kanakas or South Sea Islanders. The owners, captains and crew of the ships involved in the acquisition of these labourers were termed blackbirders. The demand for this kind of cheap labour principally came from European colonists in New South Wales, Peru, Queensland, Samoa, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, Mexico and Guatemala. Labouring on sugarcane, cotton and coffee plantations in these lands was the main usage of blackbirded labour, but they were also exploited in other industries.
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Blackbirding ships began operations in the Pacific from the 1840s and continued into the 1930s. In the 1860s, Peruvian blackbirders sought workers at their haciendas and to mine the guano deposits on the Chincha Islands. From the late 1860s, the blackbirding trade focused on supplying labourers to plantations, particularly those producing sugar-cane in Queensland and Fiji.
Examples of blackbirding outside the South Pacific include the early days of the pearling industry in Western Australia at Nickol Bay and Broome, where Aboriginal Australians were blackbirded from the surrounding areas.
The practice of blackbirding has continued to the present day. One example is the kidnapping and coercion, often at gunpoint, of indigenous peoples in Central America to work as plantation labourers in the region. They are subjected to poor living conditions, are exposed to heavy pesticide loads, and do hard labour for very little pay.
The term may have been formed directly as a contraction of "blackbird catching"; "blackbird" was a slang term for the local indigenous people.
New South Wales
The first major blackbirding operation in the Pacific was conducted out of Twofold Bay in New South Wales. A shipload of 65 Melanesian labourers arrived in Boyd Town on 16 April 1847 on board the Velocity, a vessel under the command of Captain Kirsopp and chartered by Benjamin Boyd. Boyd was a Scottish colonist who wanted cheap labourers to work at his large pastoral leaseholds in the colony of New South Wales. He financed two more procurements of South Sea Islanders, 70 of which arrived in Sydney in September 1847, and another 57 in October of that same year. Many of these Islanders soon absconded from their workplaces and were observed starving and destitute on the streets of Sydney. Reports of violence, kidnap and murder used during the recruitment of these labourers surfaced in 1848 with a closed-door enquiry choosing not to take any action against Boyd or Kirsopp. The experiment of exploiting Melanesian labour was discontinued in Australia until Robert Towns recommenced the practice in Queensland in the early 1860s.
The Queensland labour trade in South Sea Islanders, or Kanakas as they were commonly termed, was in operation from 1863 to 1908, a period of 45 years. Some 55,000 to 62,500 were brought to Australia, most being recruited or blackbirded from islands in Melanesia, such as the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), the Solomon Islands and the islands around New Guinea. Although the process of acquiring these "indentured labourers" varied from violent kidnapping at gunpoint to relatively acceptable negotiation, most of the people affiliated with the trade were regarded as blackbirders. The majority of those taken were male and around one quarter were under the age of sixteen. In total, approximately 15,000 Kanakas died while working in Queensland, a figure which does not include those who expired in transit or who were killed in the recruitment process. This represents a mortality rate of 30%, which is high considering most were only on three year contracts. It is also strikingly similar to the estimated 33% death rate of African slaves in the first three years of being imported to America.
Robert Towns and the first shipments
In 1863, Robert Towns, a British sandalwood and whaling merchant residing in Sydney, wanted to profit from the world-wide cotton shortage due to the American Civil War. He bought a property he named Townsvale on the Logan River south of Brisbane, and planted 400 acres of cotton. Towns wanted cheap labour to harvest and prepare the cotton and decided to import Melanesian labour from the Loyalty Islands and the New Hebrides. Captain Grueber together with labour recruiter Henry Ross Lewin aboard the Don Juan, brought 73 South Sea Islanders to the port of Brisbane in August 1863. Towns specifically wanted adolescent males recruited and kidnapping was reportedly employed in obtaining these boys. Over the following two years, Towns imported around 400 more Melanesians to Townsvale on one to three year terms of labour. They came on the vessels Uncle Tom (Captain Archer Smith) and Black Dog (Captain Linklater). In 1865, Towns obtained large land leases in Far North Queensland and funded the establishment of the port of Townsville. He organised the first importation of South Sea Islander labour to that port in 1866. They came aboard Blue Bell under Captain Edwards. Towns paid his Kanaka labourers in trinkets instead of cash at the end of their working terms. He claimed that blackbirded labourers were "savages who did not know the use of money" and therefore did not deserve cash wages. Apart from a small amount of Melanesian labour imported for the beche-de-mer trade around Bowen, Robert Towns was the primary exploiter of blackbirded labour up til 1867.
Expansion and legislation
The high demand for very cheap labour in the sugar and pastoral industries of Queensland, resulted in Towns' main labour recruiter, Henry Ross Lewin, and another recruiter by the name of John Crossley opening their services to other land-owners. In 1867, the vessels King Oscar, Spunkie, Fanny Nicholson and Prima Donna returned with close to 1000 Kanakas who were offloaded in the ports of Brisbane, Bowen and Mackay. This influx, together with information that the recently arrived labourers were being sold for £2 each and that kidnapping was at least partially used during recruitment, raised fears of a burgeoning new slave trade. These fears were realised when French officials in New Caledonia complained that Crossley had stolen half the inhabitants of a village in Lifou, and in 1868 a scandal evolved when Captain McEachern of the ship Syren anchored in Brisbane with 24 dead islander recruits and reports that the remaining ninety on board were taken by force and deception. Despite the controversy, no action was taken against McEachern or Crossley.
Many members of the Queensland government were already either invested in the labour trade or had Kanakas actively working on their land holdings. Therefore, the 1868 legislation on the trade in the form of the Polynesian Labourers Act that was brought in due to the Syren debacle, requiring every ship to be licensed and carry a government agent to observe the recruitment process, was poor in protections and even more poorly enforced. Government agents were often corrupted by bonuses paid for labourers 'recruited,' or blinded by alcohol, and did little or nothing to prevent sea-captains from tricking islanders on-board or otherwise engaging in kidnapping with violence. The Act also stipulated that the Kanakas were to be contracted for no more than 3 years and be paid £18 for their work. This was an extremely low wage that was only paid at the end of their three years of work. Additionally, a system whereby the Islanders were heavily influenced to buy overpriced goods of poor quality at designated shops before they returned, robbed them further. The Act, instead of protecting the South Sea Islanders, actually gave legitimacy to a kind of slavery in Queensland.
Certain officials in London were concerned enough with the situation to order a vessel of the Royal Navy based at the Australia Station in Sydney to do a cruise of investigation. In 1869, The Rosario under Captain George Palmer managed to intercept a blackbirding ship loaded with Islanders at Fiji. This ship, the Daphne under command of Captain Daggett and licensed in Queensland to Henry Ross Lewin, was described by Palmer as being fitted out "like an African slaver". Even though there was a government agent on board, the Islanders recruited appeared in poor condition and, having no understanding of English and no interpreter, had little idea of why they were being transported. Palmer seized the ship, freed the Kanakas and arrested both Captain Daggett and the ship's owner Thomas Pritchard for slavery. Daggett and Pritchard were taken to Sydney to be tried but all charges were quickly dismissed and the prisoners discharged. Furthermore, Sir Alfred Stephen, the Chief Justice of the New South Wales Supreme Court found that Captain Palmer had illegally seized the Daphne and ordered him to pay reparations to Daggett and Pritchard. No evidence or statements were taken from the Islanders. This decision, which overrode the obvious humanitarian actions of a senior officer of the Royal Navy, gave further legitimacy to the blackbirding trade out of Queensland and allowed it to flourish.
The Kanaka trade in the 1870s
Recruiting of South Sea Islanders soon became an established industry with labour vessels from across eastern Australia obtaining Kanakas for both the Queensland and Fiji markets. Captains of such ships would get paid about 5 shillings per recruit in "head money" incentives, while the owners of the ships would sell the Kanakas from anywhere between £4 to £20 per head. The Kanakas were sometimes offloaded at the ports in Queenlsand with metal discs imprinted with a numeral hung around their neck making for easy identification for their buyers. Maryborough and Brisbane became important centres for the trade with vessels such as Spunkie, Jason and Lyttona making frequent recruiting journeys out of these ports. Reports of blackbirding, kidnap and violence were made against these vessels with Captain Winship of the Lyttona being accused of kidnapping and importing Kanaka boys aged between 12 and 15 years for the plantations of George Raff at Caboolture. The crew of the Spunkie were involved in shooting dead recruits, while charges of kidnap were made against Captain John Coath of the Jason. Only Captain Coath was brought to trial and despite being found guilty, he was soon pardoned and allowed to re-enter the recruiting trade. Up to 45 of the Kanakas brought in by Coath died on plantations around the Mary River. Meanwhile, the famous recruiter Henry Ross Lewin was charged with the rape of a pubescent Islander girl. Despite strong evidence, Lewin was acquitted and the girl was later sold in Brisbane for £20.
By the 1870s, South Sea Islanders were being put to work not only in cane-fields along the Queensland coast but were also widely used as shepherds upon the large sheep stations in the interior and as pearl divers in the Torres Strait. They were taken as far west as Hughenden, Normanton and Blackall. In these isolated places the Kanakas were at even more risk of being subjected to violent and neglectful treatment. For instance, a number of Islanders died of malnutrition and scurvy on the long journey from Rockhampton to Bowen Downs Station. Beatings of the Islander shepherds were condoned by the police and on occasions when the Kanakas would fight back and kill their overseers, they were hunted down and shot by the Native Police. When the owners of the properties they were labouring on went bankrupt, the Islanders would often either be abandoned or sold as part of the estate to a new owner. In the Torres Strait, Kanakas were left at isolated pearl fisheries such as the Warrior Reefs for years with little hope of being returned home. Many of the pearling operations and associated labour vessels such as the Woodbine and the Christina in this region were owned by James Merriman who held the position of Mayor of Sydney.
Poor conditions at the sugar plantations led to regular outbreaks of disease and death. The Maryborough plantations and the labour vessels operating out of that port became notorious for high mortality rates of Kanakas. Ships such as the Jason would arrive with Islanders either dead or infected with diseases such as measles which would spread to the labourers at the plantations. From 1875 to 1880, at least 443 Kanakas died in the Maryborough region from gastrointestinal and pulmonary disease at a rate 10 times above average. The Yengarie, Yarra Yarra and Irrawarra plantations belonging to Robert Cran were particularly bad. An investigation revealed that that the Islanders were overworked, underfed, not provided with medical assistance and that the water supply was a stagnant drainage pond. At the port of Mackay, the labour schooner Isabella arrived with half the Kanakas recruited dying on the voyage from dysentery, while Captain John Mackay (after whom the city of Mackay is named), arrived at Rockhampton in the Flora with a cargo of Kanakas, of which a considerable number were in a dead or dying condition.
As the blackbirding activities increased and the detrimental results became more understood, resistance by the Islanders to this recruitment system grew. Labour vessels were regularly repelled from landing at many islands by local people. Recruiter, Henry Ross Lewin, was killed at Tanna Island, the crew of the May Queen were killed at Pentecost Island, while the captain and crew of the Dancing Wave were killed at the Nggela Islands. Blackbirders would sometimes make their vessels look like missionary ships, deceiving then kidnapping local Islanders. This led to violence against the missionaries themselves, the best example being the killing of Anglican missionary John Coleridge Patteson in 1871 at Nukapu. A few days before his death, one of the local men had been killed and five others abducted by crew of the Margaret Chessel who pretended to be missionaries. Patteson may also have been killed due to his desire to take the Islanders' children to a distant mission school and that he had disrupted the local patriarchal hierarchy. At other islands blackbirding vessels, such as the Mystery under Captain Kilgour, attacked villages, shooting the residents and burning their houses. Ships of the Royal Navy were also called upon to deliver severe summary punishment upon islands involved in killings of blackbirding crews. For instance, HMS Beagle under Captain de Houghton and HMS Wolverine under Commodore John Crawford Wilson conducted several missions in the late 1870s that involved indiscriminate bombardment of villages, raids by marines, burning of houses, destruction of crops and the hangings of Islanders from the yardarms. One of these expeditions involved the assistance of the armed crew of the blackbirding vessel Sybil commanded by Captain Satini. Violence was not just isolated to the islands, with Kanakas being used by plantation owners such as John Ewen Davidson to kill and remove Aboriginal Australians from the land. Additionally, two South Sea Islanders were hanged in Maryborough for the rape of a white woman, these being the first legal executions in that town.
1880–1885: Intense conflict and shifting of recruitment to the New Guinea islands
The violence and death surrounding the Queensland blackbirding trade intensified in the early 1880s. Local communities in the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands had increased access to modern firearms which made their resistance to the blackbirders more robust. Well known vessels that experienced mortality amongst their crews while attempting to recruit Islanders included the Esperanza at Simbo, Pearl at Rendova Island, May Queen at Ambae Island, Stormbird at Tanna, the Janet Stewart at Malaita and the Isabella at Espiritu Santo amongst others. Officers of Royal Navy warships attempting punitive action were not exempt as targets with Lieutenant Bower and five crew of HMS Sandfly being killed in the Nggela Islands and Lieutenant Luckcraft of HMS Cormorant being shot dead at Espiritu Santo. Reprisals from British naval ships based at the Australia Station were frequent and substantial. HMS Emerald under Captain W.H. Maxwell went on an extensive punitive expedition, shelling and destroying numerous villages, while marines of HMS Cormorant executed various Islanders suspected of killing white men. Captain Dawson of HMS Miranda led a mission to Ambae Island, killing native people and burning villages, while HMS Diamond went on a "savage-hunting expedition" throughout the Solomon Islands. At Ambrym, the marines of HMS Dart under Commander Moore, surrounded villages and massacred locals for the killing of Captain Belbin of the blackbirding ship Borough Belle. Likewise, HMS Undine patrolled the islands, protecting the crews of blackbirding vessels such as the Ceara from mutinies of the labour recruits.
The usual recruiting grounds of the New Hebrides and Solomon Islands were therefore becoming too dangerous and too expensive to obtain labour from. However, the well-populated islands around New Guinea were soon targeted for recruiting as these people were less aware of the blackbirding system and had less access to firearms. A new rush for labour from these islands began, with James Burns and Robert Philp of Burns Philp & Co. purchasing several well-known blackbirding ships to quickly exploit the human resource in this region. Plantation owners such as Robert Cran also bought vessels and made contact with missionaries like Samuel MacFarlane in the New Guinea area to help facilitate the acquisition of cheap workers. Kidnapping, forced recruitment, killings, false payment and the enslavement of children was again the normal practice. Captain William T. Wawn, a famous blackbirder working for the Burns Philp company on the ship Lizzie, freely acknowledged in his memoirs that he took boatloads of young boys with no information given about contracts, pay or the nature of the work. Up to 530 boys were recruited per month from these islands, most of whom were transported to the new large company plantations in Far North Queensland, such as the Victoria Plantation owned by CSR. This phase of the trade was very profitable, with Burns Philp selling each recruit for around £23. Many of them could not speak any English and died on these plantations at a rate of up to 1 in every 5 from disease, violence and neglect.
In April 1883 the Premier of Queensland, Thomas McIlwraith attempted to annex New Guinea to be part of Queensland. This was rejected by the British Colonial Secretary mostly because of fears that it would expose even more of its inhabitants to be forcibly taken to work and possibly die in Queensland. The large influx of New Guinea labourers also sparked concern from white supremacist anti-immigration groups, which led to the election in late 1883 of Samuel Griffith on an anti-Kanaka policy platform. Griffith quickly banned recruitment from the New Guinea islands and spearheaded a number of high-profile criminal cases against blackbirding crews operating in the area. The crew of the Alfred Vittery were charged with the murder of South Sea Islanders, while Captain Joseph Davies of the Stanley, Captain Millman of the Jessie Kelly, Captain Loutit of the Ethel as well as the owners of the Forest King were all charged with kidnapping. All of these cases, despite strong evidence against them, resulted in acquittal. Charges of neglect resulting in death against plantation managers were also made. For example, Mr Melhuish of the Yeppoon Sugar Plantation was tried, but even though he was found responsible, the judge involved imposed only the minimum £5 fine and wished it could be an even lesser amount. During a riot at the Mackay racetrack, several South Sea Islanders were beaten to death by mounted white men wielding stirrup irons. Only one man, George Goyner, was convicted and received a minor punishment of two months imprisonment.
However, in 1884, in one specific case, a significant judicial punishment was imposed on the blackbirders. This was in regards to the crew of the Hopeful vessel which was owned by Burns Philp. Captain Lewis Shaw and four crew were charged and convicted of kidnapping people from the Bismarck Archipelago, while the recruiter Neil McNeil and the boatswain were charged and convicted of murdering a number of Islanders. The kidnappers received jail terms of 7 to 10 years, while McNeil and the boatswain were sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. Despite evidence showing that at least 38 Islanders had been killed by the Hopeful crew, all the prisoners (except for one who died in jail) were released in 1890 in response to a massive public petition signed by 28,000 Queenslanders. This case sparked a Royal Commission into the recruitment of Islanders from which the Premier of Queensland concluded that it was no better than the African slave trade, and in 1885 a ship was commissioned by the Government of Queensland to return 450 New Guinea Islanders to their homelands. Just like the global slave trade, the plantation owners, instead of being held criminally responsible, were financially compensated by the government for the loss of these workers. Regardless of these outcomes, the Kanaka trade still continued in Queensland in much the same manner as it did previously.
The later years of recruiting
Forceful recruitment of South Sea Islanders in the New Guinea region, as well as in the Solomons and the New Hebrides islands persisted, as did the high death rates of these labourers at Queensland plantations. At the Yeppoon Sugar Company, deliberate poisonings of Kanakas also occurred and when this plantation was later put up for sale, the Islander labourers were included as part of the estate. Resistance and conflict also continued. For instance, at Malaita three crew members of the Young Dick recruiting vessel were killed together with about a dozen Islanders in a skirmish, while at Paama a large gun battle between the residents and the crew of the Eliza Mary occurred. This ship later sank during a cyclone causing the drowning deaths of 47 Kanakas. The policy of extensive punitive expeditions carried out by the Royal Navy against the Islanders persisted as well. The official report of the lengthy mission of HMS Diamond which left a trail of destruction throughout many islands in 1885 was kept secret. HMS Opal also delivered severe reprisals which elicited condemnation from some sections of the media.
Legislation was passed to end the South Sea Islander labour trade in 1890 but it was not effectively enforced and it was officially recommenced in 1892. Reports such as those by Joe Melvin, an investigative journalist who in 1892 joined the crew of Queensland blackbirding ship Helena and found no instances of intimidation or misrepresentation and concluded that the Islanders recruited did so "willingly and cannily", helped the plantation owners secure the resumption of the trade. The Helena under Captain A.R. Reynolds, transported Islanders to and from Bundaberg and in this region there was a very large mortality rate of Kanakas in 1892 and 1893. South Sea Islanders made up 50% of all deaths in this period even though they only made up 20% of the total population in the Bundaberg area. The deaths were due to the hard manual labour and diseases such as dysentery, influenza and tuberculosis.
In the 1890s other important recruiting vessels were the Para, the Lochiel, the Nautilus, the Rio Loge, the Roderick Dhu and the William Manson. Joseph Vos, a well known blackbirder for many years and the captain of the William Manson, would use phonographic recordings and enlarged photographs of relatives of Islanders to induce recruits on board his vessel. Vos and his crew were involved in killings, stealing women and setting fire to villages and were charged with kidnapping. However, they were found not guilty and released. The Roderick Dhu, a vessel owned by the sugar magnate Robert Cran, was another ship regularly involved in blackbirding investigations and conflict with Islanders. In 1890, it was involved in the shooting of people at Ambae Island, and evidence of kidnapping by the crew was later published. In 1893, conflict with Islanders at Espiritu Santo resulted in the death of a crew member of the Roderick Dhu.
In 1901, the government of the newly federated British colonies of Australia legislated the "Regulation, Restriction and Prohibition of the Introduction of Labourers from the Pacific Islands" bill, better known as the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901. This Act, which was part of a larger White Australia policy, made it illegal to import South Sea Islanders after March 1904 and mandated for the forcible deportation of all Islanders from Australia after 1906. Strong lobbying from Islander residents in Australia forced some exemptions to be made, for example, those who were married to an Australian, who owned land or who had been living for 20 years in Australia were exempt from compulsory repatriation. However, many Islanders were not made aware of these exemptions. Around 4000 to 7500 were deported in the period 1906 to 1908, while approximately 1600 remained in Australia. The Burns Philp company won the contract to deport the Islanders and those taken back to the Solomon Islands were distributed to their home islands by vessels of Lever's Pacific Plantations company. Deported Solomon Islanders who were unable to go to their villages of origin or who were born in Australia, were often put to work in plantations in these islands. In some localities, serious conflict between these workers and white colonists in the Solomon Islands ensued. Around 350 of the South Sea Islanders banished from Queensland were transferred to plantations in Fiji. At least 27 of these died while being transported.
Today, the descendants of those who remained are officially referred to as Australian South Sea Islanders. A 1992 census of Australian South Sea Islanders reported around 10,000 descendants living in Queensland. In the 2016 census, 6830 people in Queensland declared that they were descendants of South Sea Islander labourers.
Seasonal workers in the 21st century
In 2012 the Australian government introduced a seasonal worker scheme under the 416 and 403 visas to bring in Pacific Islander labour to work in the agricultural industry performing tasks such as picking fruit. By 2018, around 17,320 Islanders, mostly from Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga, had been employed with the majority being placed on farms in Queensland. Workers under this programme have often been subject to working long hours in extreme temperatures and being forced to live in squalid conditions. Poor access to clean water, adequate food and medical assistance has resulted in several deaths. These reports together with allegations of workers receiving as little as $10 a week after rent and transport deductions resulted in the "Harvest Trail Inquiry" into the conditions of migrant horticultural workers. This inquiry confirmed widespread exploitation, intimidation and underpayment of workers with at least 55% of employers being non-compliant in regard to payments and conditions. It found many workers were contracted under a "piece rate" of pay with no written agreement and no minimum hourly rate. Even though some wages were recovered and a number of employers and contractors were fined, the inquiry found that much more regulation was needed. Despite this report, the government expanded the programme in 2018 with the Pacific Labour Scheme which includes three year contracts. Strong parallels have been drawn with the working conditions observed under this programme to those of blackbirded Pacific Islander labourers in the 19th Century. The introduction of the Modern Slavery Act of 2018 into Australian law was partly based upon concerns of slavery being evident in the Queensland agricultural sector. Some commentators have also drawn parallels between blackbirding and the early 21st century recruitment of labour under the (unconnected) 457 visa scheme.
Before annexation (1865 to 1874)
The blackbirding era began in Fiji on 5 July 1865 when Ben Pease received the first licence to transport 40 labourers from the New Hebrides to Fiji in order to work on cotton plantations. The American Civil War had cut off the supply of cotton to the international market and cultivation of this cash crop in Fiji was potentially an extremely profitable business. Thousands of Anglo-American and Anglo-Australian planters flocked to Fiji to establish plantations and the demand for cheap labour boomed. Transportation of Kanaka labour to Fiji continued up until 1911 when it became prohibited by law. A probable total of around 45,000 Islanders were taken to work in Fiji during this 46-year period with approximately a quarter of these dying while under their term of labour.
Albert Ross Hovell, son of the noted explorer William Hilton Hovell, was a prominent blackbirder in the early years of the Fijian labour market. In 1867 he was captain of the Sea Witch, recruiting men and boys from Tanna and Lifou. The following year, Hovell was in command of the Young Australian which was involved in an infamous voyage resulting in charges of murder and slavery being laid. After being recruited, at least three Islanders were shot dead aboard the vessel and the rest sold in Levuka for £1,200. Hovell and his supercargo, Hugo Levinger, were arrested in Sydney in 1869, found guilty by jury and sentenced to death. This was later commuted to life imprisonment but both were discharged from prison only after a couple of years.
In 1868 the Acting British Consul in Fiji, John Bates Thurston, brought only minor regulations upon the trade through the introduction of a licencing system for the labour vessels. Melanesian labourers were generally recruited for a term of three years at a rate of three pounds per year and issued with basic clothing and rations. The payment was half of that offered in Queensland and like that colony was only given at the end of the three-year term usually in the form of poor quality goods rather than cash. Most Melanesians were recruited by combination of deceit and violence, and then locked up in the ship's hold to prevent escape. They were sold in Fiji to the colonists at a rate of £3 to £6 per head for males and £10 to £20 for females. After the expiry of the three-year contract, the government required captains to transport the surviving labourers back to their villages, but many were disembarked at places distant from their homelands.
A notorious incident of the blackbirding trade was the 1871 voyage of the brig Carl, organised by Dr James Patrick Murray, to recruit labourers to work in the plantations of Fiji. Murray had his men reverse their collars and carry black books, so to appear to be church missionaries. When islanders were enticed to a religious service, Murray and his men would produce guns and force the islanders onto boats. During the voyage Murray and his crew shot about 60 islanders. He was never brought to trial for his actions, as he was given immunity in return for giving evidence against his crew members. The captain of the Carl, Joseph Armstrong, along with the mate Charles Dowden were sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment.
Some Islanders brought to Fiji against their will demonstrated desperate actions to escape from their situation. Some groups managed to overpower the crews of smaller vessels to take command of these ships and attempt to sail back to their home islands. For example, in late 1871, Islanders aboard the Peri being transported to a plantation on a smaller Fijian island, freed themselves, killed most of the crew and took charge of the vessel. Unfortunately, the ship was low in supplies and was blown westward into the open ocean where they spent two months adrift. Eventually, the Peri was spotted by Captain John Moresby aboard HMS Basilisk near to Hinchinbrook Island off the coast of Queensland. Only thirteen of the original eighty kidnapped Islanders were alive and able to be rescued.
Labour vessels involved in this period of blackbirding for the Fijian market also included the Donald McLean under the command of captain McLeod, and the Flirt under captain McKenzie who often took people from Erromango. Captain Martin of the Wild Duck stole people from Espiritu Santo, while other ships such as the Lapwing, Kate Grant, Harriet Armytage and the Frolic also participated in the kidnapping trade. The famous blackbirder, Bully Hayes kidnapped Islanders for the Fiji market in his Sydney registered schooner, the Atlantic. Many captains engaged in violent means to obtain the labourers. The crews of the Margaret Chessel, Maria Douglass and Marion Renny were involved in fatal conflict with various Islanders. Captain Finlay McLever of the Nukulau was arrested and tried in court for kidnapping and assault but was discharged due to a legal technicality.
The passing of the Pacific Islanders Protection Act in 1872 by the British government was meant to improve the conditions for the Islanders but instead it legitimised the labour trade and the treatment of the blackbirded Islanders upon the Fiji plantations remained appalling. In his 1873 report, the British Consul to Fiji, Edward March, outlined how the labourers were treated as slaves. They were given insufficient food, subjected to regular beatings and sold on to other colonists. If they became rebellious they were either imprisoned by their owners or sentenced by magistrates (who were also plantation owners) to heavy labour. The planters were allowed to inflict punishment and restrain the Islanders as they saw fit and young girls were openly bartered for and sold into sexual slavery. Many workers were not paid and those who survived and were able to return to their home islands were regarded as lucky.
After annexation (1875 to 1911)
The British annexed Fiji in October 1874 and the labour trade in Pacific Islanders continued as before. In 1875, the year of the catastrophic measles epidemic, the chief medical officer in Fiji, Sir William MacGregor, listed a mortality rate of 540 out of every 1000 Islander labourers. The Governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Gordon, endorsed not only the procuring of Kanaka labour but became an active organiser in the plan to expand it to include mass importation of indentured coolie workers from India. The establishment of the Western Pacific High Commission in 1877, which was based in Fiji, further legitimised the trade by imposing British authority upon most people living in Melanesia.
Violence and kidnapping persisted with Captain Haddock of the Marion Renny shooting people at Makira and burning their villages. Captain John Daly of the Heather Belle was convicted of kidnapping and jailed but was soon allowed to leave Fiji and return to Sydney. Many deaths continued to occur upon the blackbirding vessels bound for Fiji, with perhaps the worst example from this period being that which occurred on the Stanley. This vessel was chartered by the colonial British government in Fiji to conduct six recruiting voyages for the Fiji labour market. Captain James Lynch was in command and on one of these voyages he ordered 150 recruits to be locked in the ship's hold during an extended period of stormy weather. By the time the ship arrived in Levuka, around fifty Islanders had died from suffocation and neglect. A further ten who were hospitalised were expected to die. Captain Lynch and the crew of the Stanley faced no recriminations for this disaster and were soon at sea again recruiting for the government.
This conflict together with competition for Pacfic Islander labour from Queensland made recruiting sufficient workers for the Fiji plantations difficult. Beginning in 1879 with the arrival of the vessel Leonidas, the transport of Indian indentured labourers to Fiji commenced. However, this coolie labour was more expensive and the market for blackbirded Islander workers remained strong for much of the 1880s. In 1882, the search for new sources of Islander labour expanded firstly to the Line Islands and then to New Britain and New Ireland. The very high death rate of Line Islanders taken for the Fiji market quickly forced the prohibition of taking people from there. Although the death rates of recruits from New Britain and New Ireland were also high, the trade in humans from these islands was allowed to continue. The Colonial Sugar Refining Company made major investments in the Fijian sugar industry around this time with much of the labour being provided by workers from New Britain. Many of the recruits taken from this island on the labour vessel Lord of Isles were put to work on the CSR sugar mill at Nausori. The Fijian labour report for the years 1878 to 1882 revealed that 18 vessels were engaged in the trade, recruiting 7,137 Islanders with 1270 or nearly 20% of these dying while in Fiji. Fijian registered ships involved in the trade at this stage included the Winifred, Meg Merrilies, Dauntless and the Ovalau.
By 1890 the number of Melanesian labourers declined in preference to imported Indian indentured workers, but they were still being recruited and employed in such places as sugar mills and ports. In 1901, Islanders continued to be sold in Fiji for £15 per head and it was only in 1902 that a system of paying monthly cash wages directly to the workers was proposed. When Islander labourers were expelled from Queensland in 1906, around 350 were transferred to the plantations in Fiji. After the system of recruitment ended in 1911, those who remained in Fiji settled in areas like the region around Suva. Their multi-cultural descendants identify as a distinct community but, to outsiders, their language and culture cannot be distinguished from native Fijians. Descendants of Solomon Islanders have filed land claims to assert their right to traditional settlements in Fiji. A group living at Tamavua-i-Wai in Fiji received a High Court verdict in their favour on 1 February 2007. The court refused a claim by the Seventh-day Adventist Church to force the islanders to vacate the land on which they had been living for seventy years.
In 1863, British capitalist William Stewart set up the Tahiti Cotton and Coffee Plantation Company at Atimaono on the south-west coast of Tahiti. Initially Stewart used imported Chinese coolie labour but soon shifted to blackbirded Polynesian labour to work the plantation. Bully Hayes, an American ship-captain who achieved notoriety for his activities in the Pacific from the 1850s to the 1870s, arrived in Papeete, Tahiti in December 1868 on his ship Rona with 150 men from Niue. Hayes offered them for sale as indentured labourers. The French Governor of Tahiti, who was invested in the company, used government ships such as the Lucene to recruit South Sea Islanders for Stewart. These people were unloaded in a "half-naked and wholly starved" condition and on arrival at the plantation they were treated as slaves. Captain Blackett of the vessel Moaroa, was also chartered by Stewart to acquire labourers. In 1869, Blackett bought 150 Gilbert Islanders from another blackbirding ship for ₤5 per head. On transferring them to the Moaroa, the islanders, including another 150 already imprisoned on the vessel, rebelled killing Blackett and some of the crew. The remaining crew managed to isolate the islanders to a part of the ship and then used explosives to blow them up. Close to 200 people were killed in this incident with the Moaroa still able to offload about 60 surviving labourers at Tahiti.
Conditions at the Atimaono plantation were appalling with long hours, heavy labour, poor food and inadequate shelter being provided. Harsh punishment was meted out to those who did not work and sickness was prevalent. The mortality rate for one group of blackbirded labourers at Atimaono was around 80%. William Stewart died in 1873 and the Tahiti Cotton and Coffee Plantation Company went bankrupt a year later.
Mexico and Guatemala
In the late 1880s a worldwide boom in coffee demand fuelled the expansion of coffee growing in many regions including the south-west of Mexico and in neighbouring Guatemala. This expansion resulted in local labour shortages for the European plantation owners and managers in these areas. William Forsyth, an Englishman with expert knowledge on tropical plantations, promoted a scheme of recruiting people from the Gilbert Islands to counteract the shortage of workers in Mexico and Guatemala. In 1890, Captain Luttrell of the vessel Helen W. Almy was chartered and sent out to the Pacific where he recruited 300 Gilbert Islanders. They were offloaded in Mexico and sent to work at a coffee plantation near Tapachula owned by an American named John Magee. By 1894, despite supposedly having a three-year contract, none had been returned home and only 58 were still living.
In 1891, the barque Tahiti under command of Captain Ferguson was assigned to bring another load of Gilbert Islanders to Tapachula. This ship acquired around 370 islanders including about 100 children. While bringing its human cargo to the Americas, the Tahiti suffered storm damage and was forced to anchor in Drakes Bay north of San Francisco. Amid accusations of slavery and blackbirding, Ferguson transferred command of the ship to another officer and abandoned the islanders in what amounted to a floating prison. Repairs were delayed for months and in early 1892, the Tahiti was found capsized with all but a few survivors drowned to death.
Despite this tragedy another ship, the Montserrat, was fitted out to contract more Gilbert Islanders, this time for coffee plantations in Guatemala. Ferguson was again employed, but this time as recruiter not as captain. A journalist aboard the Montserrat described the recruiting of islanders as clear slavery and even though British naval officers in the region boarded the vessel for inspection, an understanding existed whereby the process was legitimised. The Montserrat sailed to Guatemala with around 470 islanders and once disembarked they were sold for $100 each and force marched 70 miles to the plantations in the highlands. Overwork and disease killed around 200 of them.
Approximately 1200 Gilbert Islanders were recruited in three shiploads for the Mexican and Guatemalan coffee plantations. Only 250 survived, most of these being returned to their homeland in two voyages in 1896 and 1908. This represented a mortality rate of 80%.
Blackbirding and recruitment of South Sea Islanders as labourers to the French colony of New Caledonia began in 1865 and lasted until the 1930s. Around 15,000 people were transported during this period, the vast majority coming from the New Hebrides. In 1865 the French colonial government contracted sandalwood merchant Andrew Henry to bring 33 people from Erromango. Henry had previously been involved in sending labourers to Queensland for the cotton plantations of Robert Towns. Another recruiter, John Higginson, entered the trade in 1868, and by 1870, around 720 Islanders had been brought to labour in New Caledonia. A mining boom in 1873 saw a large increase in labour demand and many more ships became involved in the blackbirding trade with 900 Islanders being recruited in 1874 alone. Apart from some early government controls in the 1860s, the recruitment of Islanders was highly unregulated and open to abuse. Children as young as six years old could be legally recruited on lengthy contracts of up to twelve years. These children could also be legally paid at only half the rate of adults and given only half the required rations. Somewhere between a quarter and half of all the Islanders transported and forced to labour at New Caledonia were children.
The blackbirded labourers in New Caledonia worked in the plantation, mining, pastoral, domestic servant and sailing industries. Approximately 33% of these workers died while in New Caledonia and around half of those who survived did not receive any payment for their toil. They were often not returned to their islands of origin and of those who were, about a third died in the first year of returning from poor health acquired from working in terrible conditions at New Caledonia. The labourers were subjected to inadequate food, poor shelter and harsh punishments whilst in New Caledonia. They could be imprisoned for not working to their employer's satisfaction, where the colonial government exploited them further as unpaid prison labour. They were also sold-on and transferred to other colonists upon the death or bankruptcy of their original employer. Well-known blackbirding vessels involved in the labour trade to New Caledonia were Aoba, Annette, Venus, Aurora, Ika Vuka, Idaho, Ambroua and the Effie Meikle. Captains and recruiters notorious for kidnap and blackbirding for the New Caledonia market included James Toutant Proctor, "Black Tom", Jean-Louis Villedieu, Martial Briault, Charles Peterson Stuart, Walter Champion, Gabriel Madezo and Captain H. McKenzie. The company Joubert & Carter run by Didier Numa Joubert and Douglas Carter owned many of the blackbirding vessels in the early years of trade. Recruiting to New Caledonia continued well into the 20th Century but at a much lower rate and less violent manner. It was only brought to an end in the 1930s with the approach of World War II.
For several months between 1862–63, crews on Peruvian and Chilean ships combed the islands of Polynesia, from Easter Island in the eastern Pacific to the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) in the west, seeking workers to fill an extreme labour shortage in Peru. Joseph Charles Byrne, an Irish speculator, received financial backing to import South Sea Islanders as indentured workers. Byrne's ship, Adelante, set forth across the Pacific and at Tongareva in the northern Cook Islands he was able to acquire 253 recruits of which more than half were women and children. The Adelante returned to the Peruvian port of Callao where the human cargo were sold off and sent to work as plantation labourers and domestic servants. A considerable profit was made by the scheme's financiers and almost immediately other speculators and ship owners set out to make money on Polynesian labour.
Easter Island mass-kidnapping
Eight Peruvian ships organised under Captain Marutani of the Rosa y Carmen conducted an armed operation at Easter Island where, over several days, the combined crews systematically surrounded villages and captured as many of the Islanders as possible. In these raids and others like them that occurred at Easter Island during this period, 1407 people were taken for the Peruvian labour trade. This represented a third of the island's population. In the following months, the Rosa y Carmen together with about 30 other vessels involved in recruiting for Peru, kidnapped or deceptively obtained people throughout Polynesia. Captain Marutani's vessel alone took people from Niue, Samoa and Tokelau, as well as those that he kidnapped from Easter Island.
In June 1863 about 350 people were living on 'Ata, an atoll in Tonga. Captain Thomas James McGrath of the Tasmanian whaler Grecian, having decided that the new slave trade was more profitable than whaling, went to the atoll and invited the islanders on board for trading. However, once almost half of the population was on board, he ordered the ship's compartments locked, and the ship departed. These 144 people never returned to their homes. The Grecian met with a Peruvian slave vessel, the General Prim, and the islanders were transferred to this ship which transported them to Callao. Due to new government regulations in Peru against the blackbirding trade, the islanders were not allowed to disembark and remained aboard for many weeks while their repatriation was organised. Finally on 2 October 1863, by which time many of the imprisoned 'Ata people had died or were dying from neglect and disease, a vessel was organised to take them back. However, this ship dumped the Tongans on uninhabited Cocos Island. A month later the Peruvian warship Tumbes went to rescue the remaining 38 survivors and took them to the Peruvian port of Paita, where they probably died.
Deception at Tuvalu
The Rev. A. W. Murray, the earliest European missionary in Tuvalu, described the practices of blackbirders in the Ellice Islands. He said they promised islanders that they would be taught about God while working in coconut oil production, but the slavers' intended destination was the Chincha Islands in Peru. Rev. Murray reported that in 1863, about 180 people were taken from Funafuti and about 200 were taken from Nukulaelae, leaving fewer than 100 of the 300 recorded in 1861 as living on Nukulaelae.
Extreme death rate
The Peruvian labour trade in Polynesians was short-lived, only lasting from 1862 to 1863. In this period an estimated 3,634 Polynesians were recruited. Over 2,000 died from disease, starvation or neglect either aboard the blackbirding ships or at the places of labour they were sent to. The Peruvian government shut down the operation in 1863 and ordered the repatriation of those who survived. A smallpox and dysentery outbreak in Peru accompanied this operation resulting in the death of a further 1,030 Polynesian labourers. Some of the islanders survived long enough to bring these contagious diseases to their home islands causing local epidemics and additional mortality. By 1866, only around 250 of those recruited had survived with about 100 of these remaining in Peru. The death rate was therefore 93%.
In the late 1850s, German merchant Johann Cesar VI. Godeffroy, established a trading company based at Apia on the island of Upolu in Samoa. His company, J.C. Godeffroy & Sohn, was able to obtain large tracts of land from the indigenous population at times of civil unrest by selling firearms and exacerbating factional conflict. By 1872, the company owned over 100,000 acres on Upolu and greatly expanded their cotton and other agricultural plantations on the island. Cheap labour was required to work these plantations and the blackbirding operations of the Germans expanded at this time. After initially utilising people from Niue, the company sent labour vessels to the Gilbert Islands and the Nomoi Islands, exploiting food shortages there to recruit numerous people for their plantations in Samoa. Men, women and children of all ages were taken, separated and sent to work in harsh conditions with many succumbing to illness and poor diet.
In 1880 the company became known as Deutsche Handels und Plantagen Gesellschaft (DHPG) and had further expanded their Samoan plantations. Labour recruitment at this stage turned to New Britain, New Ireland and the Solomon Islands. The German blackbirding vessel, the Upolu, became well known in the area and was involved in several conflicts with islanders while recruiting. Imported Chinese workers eventually became more favourable but labour recruiting from Melanesian islands continued til at least the transfer of power from the Germans to New Zealand at the start of World War I.
Large British and American plantations which owned blackbirding vessels or exploited blackbirded labour also existed in colonial Samoa. The W & A McArthur Company representing Anglo-Australian interests was one of these and recruiting vessels such as the Ubea, Florida and Maria were based in Samoa. In 1880, the crew of the British blackbirding ship, the Mary Anderson, was involved in shooting recruits on board, while in 1894 the Aele was involved in recruiting starving Gilbert Islanders.
United States of America
The sugar industry in Hawaii was expanding rapidly during the early 1870s and despite over 50% of all male able-bodied Indigenous Hawaiians being utilised as workers on these plantations, there were an insufficient number to keep up with production. From 1868 to 1872 around 200 people from places such as Tahiti, Caroline Islands and the Line Islands were recruited to work on the Hawaiian plantations owned by European colonists. Most of these people died and the operation was considered a failure. However, in 1877 British officials in Hawaii planned a more organised system of Pacific Islander recruitment. Captain H.W. Mist of the Royal Navy was employed to arrange a large shipment of Islanders to be recruited for Hawaii. Mist bought the vessel Stormbird in Sydney and appointed another ex-navy officer in Captain George Jackson to conduct the expedition. On this first voyage the Stormbird recruited 85 people from Rotuma, Nonouti, Maiana and Tabiteuea. Jackson called in at Pohnpei on the way to Hawaii where he chained up a local headman and shot another trying to attempt a rescue. During the voyage, Jackson had attempted to kidnap at gunpoint a number of young women from Maiana but was interrupted by the presence of another ship.
The Stormbird made around another five recruiting voyages involving further violence and kidnapping, mostly sailing to the Gilbert Islands. On one occasion, the government agent aboard the vessel, Henry Freeman, bought a boatload of Gilbert Islanders from another blackbirding vessel named the Sea Waif. By 1880 the labour trade to Hawaii expanded to the New Hebrides. Captain Cadigan of the Pomare took people from these islands via night raids, armed attacks and firing canon at canoes. The death rates of the recruits on board the Pomare as they were transported to Hawaii were as high as 20%. Captain Tierney of the labour vessel Hazard was paid by the Planters' Labour and Supply Company of Hawaii $15 per recruit and consequently used much deception in obtaining a profitable quota of human cargo. Other ships involved were the Kaluna, Elsinore, Hawaii, Nickolaus, Mana and Allie Rowe. The Allie Rowe undertook the last recruiting voyage to the Pacific Islands for the Hawaiian plantations in 1887. This vessel, commanded by Captain Phillips, proceeded illegally without a license and Phillips was also later charged and convicted of kidnap in relation to this final voyage.
From 1868 until the year 1887 when the recruiting of Pacific Islanders to Hawaii was largely replaced with the more cost effective Japanese immigration scheme, some 2,600 Islanders were recruited. From 1880 to 1883 these people were protected by strong government measures which included an appointed Protector of Pacific Islanders, routine checks of worker conditions and the ability of the labourers to take employers to court for maltreatment. These workers, usually on 3 year contracts, were also paid cash wages at the end of each month which amounted from £10 to £16 per annum. In spite of these conditions during these years, the mortality rate of the workers was still over 10% for each year. Outside of these years, where protections were less, the death rate was much higher.
When recruiting ended in 1887, 650 Pacific Islander workers remained or were left abandoned in Hawaii and by 1895 this number had reduced to less than 400. In 1904, 220 mostly Gilbert Islanders continued to live in poverty at Honolulu and at Maui. These people were gathered together and repatriated in that same year to the Gilbert Islands where they faced further destitution in a land they had been absent from for twenty years.
Other examples of blackbirding
Since colonial times in the United States, the Reverse Underground Railroad existed to capture free African-Americans and fugitive slaves and sell them into slavery, being particularly prevalent in the 19th century after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed. People of African and mixed ancestry commonly took part in these operations in order to make a living. Some worked under white employers, playing instrumental roles in deceiving fellow African-Americans and luring them into traps, while others pointed slave owners to the location of their escaped slaves to catch the bounty on the slave's head. The kidnappers were recorded to have acted against their own family members in addition to other members of their community. Their careers also tended to be long, due to African-Americans, particularly children, being more inclined to trust them than white people. Successful kidnappings mainly relied on the blackbirders developing a connection to their target by using their shared racial and cultural identities. New York City and Philadelphia were particularly prominent places for these kidnappers to work, causing fear of being kidnapped by anyone to become prevalent.
Representation in popular culture
... still bore the tomahawk marks where the Malaitans at Langa Langa several months before broke in for the trove of rifles and ammunition locked therein, after bloodily slaughtering Jansen's predecessor, Captain Mackenzie. The burning of the vessel was somehow prevented by the black crew, but this was so unprecedented that the owner feared some complicity between them and the attacking party. However, it could not be proved, and we sailed with the majority of this same crew. The present skipper smilingly warned us that the same tribe still required two more heads from the Minota, to square up for deaths on the Ysabel plantation. (p 387)
In another passage from the same book, he wrote:
Three fruitless days were spent at Su'u. The Minota got no recruits from the bush and the bushmen got no heads from the Minota. (p 270)
Georges Baudoux’s Jean M’Baraï the Trepang Fisherman, a semi-fictional novella, relates the brutal history of the Kanaka trade and highlights 19th century imperial connections between the French and British Pacific. Translated from the original French by Karin Speedy, it offers a French/New Caledonian perspective on blackbirding for an Anglophone audience. First published in 1919, based on the real lives of three métis or “half-castes” of the New Caledonian bush and on the oral histories of author Georges Baudoux's New Hebridean mining employees, themselves former Queensland Kanaka workers, the book describes a time when anglophone, francophone and Pacific peoples interacted, exchanged, and moved in and out of each other's lives perhaps more frequently than today. The major interest of this book for historians is its detailed account of all aspects of blackbirding in the Pacific, a history written on the basis of eye-witness accounts.
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