We easily associate countries like Africa and America with slavery, but Australia?
If you read it up in the dictionaries, slavery is “the condition in which one person is owned as property by another” and the owner has “absolute power” over their “life, liberty, and fortune”. Such people are usually forced into work “in harsh conditions for low pay”.
Australia’s slaves worked in all essential industries, from the 1840s through to the 1970s:
- The first slaves to reach Australia from the South Sea were used as shepherds on properties in southern New South Wales, but died from the cold.
- When the American Civil War cut off the world’s cotton supply, Australian slaves were used to establish cotton plantations in southern Queensland. A strong male would cost the modern equivalent of between $5 and $19, while women, particularly Tahitians, who were regarded as the most attractive, often fetched $32.
- Between 1842 and 1904 more than 60,000 men and boys from the South Pacific islands, and an unknown number of women and girls, were kidnapped and brought to Australia to work as slaves on the sugar plantations that still dot the country’s north-east coast.
- Between the 1860s and the 1970s, Aboriginal people of all ages were taken from their homes and sent to work on cattle and sheep properties all across Australia. Several such schemes were run by colonial and state governments, theoretically to protect Aboriginal Australians from mistreatment.
And mistreatment was rife. Queensland government files show that, from the early 1900s, for 20 years there were no limits on how many hours Aboriginal people worked, how hard was the labour, how bad was the treatment or the provision of food and living quarters. Minimum conditions, introduced in 1919, were wildly ignored in the absence of any inspections.
As fewer and fewer convict labourers were available in Queensland, a preferred method of ‘recruitment’ between the 1860s and 1904 was blackbirding. This involved white ships arriving on an island during the daytime to discuss trade, leaving peacefully, then returning at night dressed in all black to take people by force who would then be used as slaves on Australian sugar plantations.
Numerous decoys were used: lure islanders with trinkets, entice trusting and curious people into the ship’s cargo hold, pose as missionaries only to reveal their guns during assembly, or give tribal leaders guns, alcohol or other goods in exchange for a few prisoners of rival tribes. Many died during the 4-month journey to Australia.
Origin of the term ‘Blackbirding’
The term may have been formed directly as a contraction of ‘blackbird catching’. ‘Blackbird’ was a slang term for the local South Pacific indigenous people. It might also have derived from an earlier phrase, ‘blackbird shooting’, which referred to recreational hunting of Aboriginal people by early European settlers.
About 62,000 South Sea Islanders (or ‘Kanakas’ as there were colloquially known) were shipped to Australia, but records remain poor as many were destroyed by land holders.
Once in Australia, they were sold to plantation owners. A strong male would cost the equivalent of between A$5 and A$19 while women, particularly Tahitians, fetched around A$32.
Fact The official name of the blackbirded slaves was ‘indentured labourers’, a term used to “soften” the reality of what happened. Today we would replace it with ‘contractors’.
Faith Bandler, famous for her relentless campaigning for the rights of Aboriginal Australians and South Sea Islanders, is the daughter of a blackbirded slave. Bandler’s father, Wacvie Mussingkon, was kidnaped in 1883 at age 13 from the island of Ambrym in what is now Vanuatu. He escaped in 1897.
The life of a slave on an Australian sugar plantation was little different from that on the American cotton plantations. Brutality and deprivation were the daily ritual, Bandler says.
It appears the South Sea Islander slaves were sometimes buried in mass graves, one of which was discovered in Queensland in 2012. Hidden under an old cane plantation outside Bundaberg, beyond weeping fig trees, the bodies of 29 South Sea Islanders were buried in what is believed to be the first confirmed mass grave on an old sugar plantation.
Members of cane farming families are still reluctant to admit that graves exist on their properties, yet graves are a crucial piece of evidence consistent with slavery, and there was evidence to suggest Islanders working in the cane fields were often buried “where they fell”, or executed for minor crimes.
When slavery was outlawed in 1901, unions banned Pacific Islanders from working on farms and many were simply deported. Those who stayed were denied welfare and citizenship. 15,000 to 20,000 descendants of the ‘sugar slaves’ are now living in Australia, mainly along the Queensland coast, but mostly unrecognized and without equal opportunities.