The Australian label South Sea Islanders refers to the Australian descendants of people from the more than 80 islands in the Western Pacific – including the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) in Melanesia and the Loyalty Islands, Samoa, Kiribati, Rotuma and Tuvalu in Polynesia and Micronesia – who were recruited between the mid to late 19th century as labour in the sugarcane fields of Queensland. Some were kidnapped or "blackbirded" into long-term indentured service. At its height, the recruiting accounted for over half the adult male population of some islands.
These people were generally referred to as Kanakas, although many Islander descendants now regard the term as pejorative and an insulting reminder of their ancestors' exploitation at the hands of white planters.
Of the 62,000 Islanders recruited, the majority were repatriated by the Australian Government in the period between 1906-08 under the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 , a piece of legislation related to the White Australia Policy. Those exempted from repatriation, along with a number of others who escaped deportation, remained in Australia to form the basis of what is today Australia's largest non-indigenous black ethnic group.
The question of how many Islanders were "blackbirded" is unknown and remains controversial. The extent to which Islanders were recruited legally, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced to leave their homes and travel to Queensland is difficult to evaluate and also 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 tend to relate to the first ten or so years of the trade.
In recent generations, facing many similar forms of discrimination in Australia as Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Australian South Sea Islanders have been prominent figures in civil rights and politics. Faith Bandler, Evelyn Scott and Bonita Mabo (widow of Eddie Mabo) are prominent Indigenous activists who are also descendants of Pacific Island plantation workers. Another area Australian South Sea Islanders have excelled in is sport, especially the game of rugby league. State of Origin and Australian representatives Mal Meninga, Sam Backo, Gorden Tallis and Wendell Sailor are all members of the Australian South Sea Islander community.
- Background and history of the South Sea Islanders at the Queensland Department of Premier and Cabinet website.