Gapps, Stephen: Blackbirding: Australia’s slave trade?

Stephen Gapps

Blackbirding: Australia’s slave trade?Australian National Maritime Museum blog, 25 August 2017 updated

Update 30 October 2017: (Waskam) Emelda Davis, president of Australian South Sea Islanders, writes in The Conversation:

“Blackbirding” comes from the African slave trade and truly expresses the violence of what happened. There were 870 voyages back and forth to the islands that brought my people to Australia. Some were kidnapped, but it is also undeniable that our warriors chose to return more than once.

Nonetheless, the treatment of the Islanders was atrocious, exploitative and akin to slavery. When plantation owners went bankrupt, the workers were transferred as an asset with the sold property.


A brief summary of the history of the taking of South Sea Islanders to North Queensland in the 19th and 20th century and the survival of an SSI community there and beyond.

In the 1860s [for example], the demand for labor in Queensland, particularly in the burgeoning sugar cane industry, saw trading ships turn into labour “recruitment” vessels across the Pacific. While some workers were indentured, brought to work in Queensland and returned to their homelands, many were not. Unscrupulous traders resorted to kidnapping and all sorts of tricks to entice people on board their vessels. Once on board, many had no idea of where they were headed and many died en route.

Tens of thousands of islanders came from 80 Pacific islands, were often underpaid and worked in poor conditions. The historian Clive Moore has used the term ‘culturally kidnapped’. After Federation in 1901, under the White Australia policy, thousands were deported back to the islands.

South Sea Islander Recognition Day is 25 August and a symposium was held on 8 September in Sydney to discuss and commemorate this history. Dr Evelyn Scott, who died recently, was a distinguished member of the SSI community.

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4 comments on “Gapps, Stephen: Blackbirding: Australia’s slave trade?
  1. Waskam says:

    Prisoners of Frontier Wars – Blackbirding & Chain Gangs
    Many of these photographs were taken in Western Australia and the Northern Territory

  2. Waskam says:

    In addition, 2017 is 110 years since the masse deportation of some 7000 sugar slaves back to their respective islands under the White Australia policy supported by both governments. How many other democratic countries have done this to a race of peoples under the same conditions I am not sure. My grandfather walked from QLD to NSW in escape of deportation. Many families were torn apart after a 40 yr period, the scenes at the docks were horrific! many were taken back to islands where cannibalism and complete disconnect and displacement occurred all over again for them. Bondage to a 3 – 5-year contract (in English) of which monies for many were not seen. Thirty % of the trade died from common disease and despite the authorities knowing the trade continued to its fullest capacity. Wages of deceased estates not returned to the families but absorbed into the commonwealth and funded the ongoing management of the trade and deportation. On top of the deportation, our people had to pay a minimal fee, of their pittance of a wage that was significantly less to any white labourer, to go back to their ‘islands’. I am proud of my grandfather’s contribution along with the many descendants that remain in Australia. Records kept by government archives thinly veil the truth or many that have lived to tell the tale within our communities. South Sea Islander descendants of the trade are known today as Australian South Sea Islanders who are evidently a gracious and accommodating community by nature, in more recent years, we have been prolific in taking responsibility for maintaining our truth in whatever form it takes and no one’s story is more important to another. As in all human trafficking, some may have had a less horrific experience than others, either way, the laws accommodated a new framework for slavery. Today we speak about Modern slavery! abuses.

  3. Waskam says:

    My grandfather’s (mums dad) oral testimony is that of slavery being kidnapped off the beach on Tanna Island Vanuatu at the age of 12 and put down the hole on a ship and fed flour like stodge. Arriving in QLD our forefathers slaved in the cane fields morning to night and treated as slaves, kept and managed in segregation in many cases. Fact is those plantation owners that went bankrupt properties were sold with the sugar slaves. Not allowed to speak their native tongue my grandfather never taught his children his native tongue due to force assimilation. He didn’t speak English when he was stolen from his family and he didn’t sign a contract! The fact that the government change the legal framework of a policy/legislation due to the abolishment of slavery in other parts of the continent to ‘Indentured labour’ doesn’t mean it wasn’t slavery (one human controlling another, involuntary subjection to another). Blackbirding actually started in New South Wales in 1847 by politician Benjamin Boyd to Eden which is documented as a human disaster, but as the Queensland and New South Wales descendants/communities would soon tell any inquirer, our people object to the use of ’Indenture’ as a description of the process. First and second generation oral histories and evidence-based treatment demonstrate slavery, people tied to trees and starved. Conditions for our people were a disgrace. This is document by historians from written sources and by ASSI oral testimony. Let’s tell the truth about a nation and get on with our shared history. Australia was not discovered. History is and can be subjective yes!

  4. Lyndon Megarrity says:

    The term “slavery” is inappropriate when it comes to meaningful discussion of South Sea Islanders recruited for the Queensland sugar industry between 1863 and 1904. The islanders were not bought and sold as slaves, with their children also becoming slaves. They were indentured labourers who generally came of their own free will, and were sent home after three years. Many chose to remain in the Queensland sugar industry as labourers under short-term contracts. The deportation of islanders under the White Australia Policy was traumatic for many South Sea Islanders.

    The South Sea Islanders did it tough in Queensland. They were subject to racism, poor working conditions and were paid exploitative wages. However, they did also have some agency. There are a large number of journal articles and scholarly books which trace the Islander experience, using the extensive government records available. For example, the work of Clive Moore on this issue is well known. The publications of Patricia Mercer and Ralph Shlomowitz are also worth investigating. And of course there are many others who have made a contribution to this field of study.

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