Blackbirding refers to the recruitment of people through trickery and kidnappings to work on plantations, particularly the sugar cane plantations of Queensland (Australia) and Fiji. The practice occurred primarily between the 1860s and 1901. Those 'blackbirded' were recruited from the indigenous populations of nearby Pacific islands or northern Queensland. In the early days of the pearling industry in Broome, local Aboriginal people were blackbirded from the surrounding areas, including aboriginal people from desert areas.
The term may have been formed directly as a contraction of blackbird catching; blackbird was a slang term for the local indigenous people. It might also have derived from an earlier phrase, blackbird shooting, which referred to recreational hunting of Australian Aboriginal people by early European settlers.
Queensland was a self-governing British colony in northeastern Australia until 1901 when it became a state of the Commonwealth of Australia. Over a period of 40 years, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, native non-European labourers for the sugar cane fields of Queensland, were "recruited" from Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia as well as Niue. The "recruitment" process almost always included an element of coercive recruitment (not unlike the press-gangs once employed by the Royal Navy in England) and indentured servitude. Some 62,000 South Sea Islanders were taken to Australia.
These people were referred to as Kanakas (the French equivalent Canaques still applies to the autochthonous Melanesians in New Caledonia) and came from the Western Pacific islands: from Melanesia, mainly the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with a small number from the Polynesian and Micronesian islands such as Samoa, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Loyalty Islands. Many of the workers were effectively slaves, but since the Slavery Abolition Act made slavery illegal, they were officially called "indentured labourers" or the like. Some Australian Aboriginal people, especially from Cape York Peninsula, were also kidnapped and transported south to work on the farms.
Theres many methods of blackbirding that are varied. Some labourers were willing to be taken to Australia to work, while others were tricked or even forced. In some cases blackbirding ships (which made huge profits) would entice entire villages by luring them on board for trade or a religious service, and then setting sail. Many died during the voyage due to unsanitary conditions, and also in the fields due to the hard manual labour.
The question of how many Islanders were actually kidnapped or "blackbirded" is unknown and remains controversial. Official documents and accounts from the period often conflict with the oral tradition passed down to the descendants of workers. Stories of blatantly violent kidnapping tended to relate to the first 10–15 years of the trade. The majority of those abducted to Australia were repatriated between 1906-08 under the provisions of the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901; but there are ~20,000 descendants of the blackbirded labourers living in Queensland coastal towns.
The blackbirding era began in Fiji in 1864 when the first New Hebridean and Solomon Island labourers arrived in Fiji to work on cotton plantations. Cotton had become scarce, and potentially an extremely profitable business, when the American Civil War blocked most cotton exports from the southern United States. Since Fijians were not interested in regular sustained labour, the thousands of European planters who flocked to Fiji sought labour from the Melanesian islands.
Attempts were made by the British and Queensland Governments to regulate this transportation of labour. Melanesian labourers were to be recruited for three years, paid three pounds per year, issued with basic clothing and given access to the company store for supplies. Despite this, most Melanesians were recruited by deceit, usually being enticed abroad ships with gifts and then locked up. The living and working conditions in Fiji were even worse than those suffered by the later Indian indentured labourers. In 1875, the chief medical officer in Fiji, Sir William MacGregor, listed a mortality rate of 540 out of every 1000 labourers. After the expiry of the three-year contract, the labourers were required to be transported back to their villages but most ship captains dropped them off at the first island they sighted off the Fiji waters. The British sent warships to enforce the law (Pacific Islanders' Protection Act of 1872) but only a small proportion of the culprits were prosecuted.
With the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in Fiji from 1879, also the number of Melanesian labourers decreased but they were still being recruited and employed, off the plantations in sugar mills and ports, until the start of the First World War. Most of the Melanesians recruited were males and after the recruitment ended, those who chose to stay in Fiji took Fijian wives and settled in areas around Suva. Their descendants still remain a distinct community but their language and culture cannot be distinguished from native Fijians.
Descendants of Solomon Islanders 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.
"..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)
"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. We towed out with a whaleboat and ran along the coast to Langa Langa, a large village of salt-water people built with labour on a sand bank - literally built up"
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