New Internationalist

Refined White

Issue 363

Michael Berry tells the untold story of the South Sea Islanders who built the sugar industry in Australia.

Slave-like labour helped establish many of Australia’s primary industries, and the sugar industry was no exception. The promise of free transported labour that was provided by convicts to early Australian kings of commerce ceased in 1853, before the Australia sugar industry started. So, as the first white squatters moved into North Queensland in 1861 and established vast sugar plantations, they sought – and found – cheap indentured labour to replace convict workers.

Ship captains trading in the South Pacific quickly saw the easy money to be made from providing South Sea Islanders for this emerging industry: a potentially cheap labour force that, they argued, was better able than Europeans to endure the climate and the backbreaking work.

Queensland sea trader Ross Lewin advertised on 26 April 1867 ‘that he intends immediately visiting the South Seas and will be happy to receive orders for the importation of South Sea natives to work on the cotton and sugar plantations rapidly springing up in [Australia]’. Those willing to pay seven pounds ($10) for each man ‘may rely on having the best and most serviceable natives to be had among the islands’.

That same year 1,200 South Sea Islanders were shipped to Australia: almost 10 times the number of those introduced in any previous year. Another 61,300 would follow. Most came from Melanesia – Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides.

Some Australians argue against claims that this was a trade in human slavery. Pointing to contracts that would bind the Islanders to a particular plantation for at least three years, they say that the Islanders were ‘indentured’ (a form of contract) – not slave – labour, and that many returned to their island once their term was completed.

Whatever the characterization, many of the conditions endured by the Islanders were indisputably slave-like. Some were captured or kidnapped by ships’ crews. Most were carried like livestock. Once contracted to a plantation, the Islanders worked long continuous hours under the supervision of overseers, and received a pittance compared to the amount that white labourers were paid at the time. Kanaka (a term of belittlement meaning ‘Boy’) rarely escaped some form of physical or mental violence from Europeans – beatings, medical neglect, withdrawal of food rations, forced separation from a spouse. Throughout this 40-year-long trade, 1 in 20 Islanders (who were mainly aged between 16 and 35) died every year.

Before South Sea Islanders arrived there were 20 acres of land under sugarcane in Queensland and New South Wales. By 1900 there were around 135,000 acres, producing 140,000 tonnes of sugar.

This was accompanied by a highly visible fear about the number of black and Asian ‘immigrants’ working in the country at the turn of the 19th Century. During the 1890s most members in the Queensland Parliament had decided that the use of black labour was not in the best interests of their colony: a colony that saw its future in offering a second home for the British (white) race. The future of South Sea Island labour became a major issue in the election campaign for the first Commonwealth Government of Australia. The majority of politicians who took their seats in the first Federal Parliament of 1901 promised to end the labour trade and passed legislation to return Pacific Islanders to their place of origin. Of the 9,324 Melanesians in Queensland in 1901 only 1,654 were given permission to remain.

At the same time as the new Commonwealth moved to deport South Sea Islanders, it also started to shut the gate on future non-European immigrants. ‘I do not think that the doctrine of the equality of man was ever really intended to include racial equality,’ explained Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmond Barton. His words haunt Australian immigration policy to this day.

This is an edited extract from Michael Berry, Refined White (Australian Sugar Industry Museum 2000): a comprehensive schools resource written to accompany ‘The Refined White’ photographic exhibition, which celebrates the culture and contribution of Australian South Sea Islanders. The exhibition will be displayed at the National Museum of Australia from March to August 2004 as part of the tenth anniversary of the Commonwealth’s recognition for Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct culture.

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