The Sugar Industry on the Capricorn Coast
Blackbirding and indentured labour
 
 
 
Between 1863 and 1904, over 62,000 people from the Melanesian archipelagos provided the colony of Queensland with indentured labour for its emerging agricultural industries. A Sydney parliamentarian and merchant, Captain Robert Towns, first arranged for a sandalwood trader operating from Tanna, Henry Ross Lewin, to recruit islanders from the Loyalty and New Hebrides Groups in 1863. They were employed at Towns’ cotton plantation on the Logan River; and cotton growing, with the sheep, cattle, pearl shelling, fisheries and domestic service industries became significant employers of island labour over the next 15 years. However, the sugar plantations on the river plains around Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Mackay, Bowen and Cairns led the demand for indentured labour over the next 40 years. From 1880, when Melanesians were restricted to employment in ‘tropical and semi-tropical agriculture’, island labour was effectively concentrated in the cane-fields.
     
 
Workers were recruited in a variety of ways; some of them lured on board the ships by trickery, some were simply shanghaied, while others went willingly to work for three years and the guarantee that they would be returned to their island at the end of that time. In the early years conditions on board the blackbirding schooners were appalling with poor food, no sanitation and brutal treatment the norm.
 
     
 
In response to this the British Government passed two Pacific Islanders Protection Acts and Queensland laws were implemented making it necessary for shippers to be licensed as well as regulating conditions on ships and in areas. In 1880 the Pacific Islander Labourers' Act sought better conditions and in 1885 the Act was amended so that no more licences were to be issued after 31 December 1890. But in 1892 because of a depression in the sugar industry the Pacific Islander Labourers Extension Act allowed the trade to resume.
 
 
Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901
 
 
The Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 was designed to facilitate the mass deportation of nearly all the Pacific Islanders working in Australia. Along with the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, enacted six days later, it formed an important part of the White Australia policy, the Act ultimately resulted in the deportation of approximately 7,500 Pacific Islanders.
 
     
 
The Provisions of the Act prohibited any Pacific Islanders from entering Australia after March 31, 1904 and required all those entering before then to have a license. The maximum number of licences that could be issued was limited to three-quarters of the number of Pacific Islanders who left Australia in 1901,this license quota lowered even further, to half of the total departures in 1902. Any person who brought a Pacific Islander into the country contrary to the Act could be fined 100 Pounds.
 
     
 
Any Pacific Islander found in Australia after December 31, 1906 could be deported immediately by order of the Minister for External Affairs, and any Islander found in Australia before that date, who had not been employed under an indentured labour agreement at any time in the preceding month, could be deported immediately. It was an offence to employ a Pacific Islander in any other way than an indentured labour agreement, punishable by a fine of 100 Pounds. All Indentured Labour agreements were cancelled on December 31 1906.
 
 
Blackbirding refers to the recruitment of people through trickery and kidnappings to work on plantations, particularly the sugar cane plantations of Queensland and Fiji. The practice occurred primarily between the 1860s and 1901. 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 murder of Australian Aboriginal people by early European settlers.
 
     
   
 
Image provenance unknown
A blackbirding schooner careened for repairs
 
  Blackbirding and the Australian Courts  
 
There were several cases involving blackbirding in Australian Courts, these helped to define the difference between free labour, indentured labour and slavery, perhaps the most famous began when the schooner Daphne was apprehended by a man-of-war: HMS Rosario, on patrol from Sydney, although the Captain produced the relevant Queensland licences for importing indentured labour, the ship itself did not comply with the Queensland legislation and was not carrying sufficient food, clothing or supplies for the passengers. The licences were made out to Ross Lewin, who was not on board, and showed that the Daphne was to take 58 labourers west to Brisbane when it was taking 108 east towards Fiji. Palmer later testified that his suspicions were really aroused by the references to Lewin on the Queensland licences, as he had learned of Ross Lewin as a ‘man-stealer and a kidnapper’. He concluded that the Daphne was a slaver, detained Pritchard, and had him taken with the Daphne to Sydney,  the islanders were placed under the care of the resident British consul in Fiji.
 
  For a comprehensive article on the Daphne case, and others go to;  
  SLAVING IN AUSTRALIAN COURTS:
BLACKBIRDING CASES, 1869-1871 
 
 
 
 
 
Image is in the Public Domain
 
  Seizure of the blackbirding schooner Daphne and its cargo by the HMS Rosario in 1869.  
     
     
 
     
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