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Blackbirding | Queensland’s Shameful Past, 1860s-1901

Blackbirding refers to the recruitment of people through trickery and kidnappings to work on the sugar cane plantations of Australia and Fiji.

300px-Seizure_of_blackbirder_Daphne

The blackbirding schooner Daphne was seized by the HMS Rosario in 1869, and its passengers freed

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.


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.

Etymology

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.

The methods of blackbirding 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.

RECRUITING ROUTES, 1863 - 1904

RECRUITING ROUTES, 1863 - 1904

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.

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.

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.

THOSE WHO LEFT AND THOSE WHO STAYED

Even though recruitment of labourers for contract work in Queensland eventually ended, many Islanders opted not to return home. They, and their families, remained in Queensland at the time of Australian Federation in 1901.

Many still worked on farms, negotiating their wages with their employers, and often earning about the same as European employees. Other Islanders had acquired their own small farms; several operated their own businesses. With their families, they had invested their futures in Queensland, and expected to be treated the same as all Australians in the new Commonwealth.

The new federation of six Australian colonies had been achieved, however, at a price. Queensland had reluctantly agreed to end all recruitment of non-European labour, as part of the Commonwealth’s new White Australia Policy. By the end of 1906, all indentured labourers were to be deported to their home islands. There was even a real threat of deportation for those who had made their lives in Queensland for over a quarter of a century.

A Few More Photos

A Few More Photos - SUPER ZOOMED

Ultimately, even though appeals to the British government were partially successful and those Islanders who had been in Australia for over 20 years were allowed to remain, mass deportation took place from late 1906 to mid 1908. There were many tragic stories of broken families, as some more recently arrived men left loved ones they were never to see again.

It is thought that about 4,500 South Sea Islander Australians stayed on after the deportation period. They and their descendants formed the small percentage of non-European Australians living in Australia before the White Australia Policy was finally relaxed after 1970. South Sea Islander Australians have contributed greatly to the development and progress of many parts of Queensland since the late nineteenth century; some fought in defence of their nation in two world wars; others are prominent today in public life and in the struggle for equitable rights for all Australians, no matter what their ethnic group. Their contribution to multiculturalism and racial tolerance is now, finally, being officially recognised.

However, for many years South Sea Islander Australians, like all other Australians without a white skin, were subject to intolerance and racial prejudice. This meant inequality in education, employment opportunities, public housing, and social services. They were also the victims of cultural oppression, as governments deliberately ignored or belittled the rich cultural heritage of Pacific peoples resident in Australia.

Thankfully, times have changed, as witnessed on 7 September 2000 when the Queensland Government officially recognised South Sea Islander Australians as a distinct ethnic group, at a ceremony at Parliament House, Brisbane.

However, so much cultural memory has been lost and it is only now that many South Sea Islander Australians are finally making contact with the families their great-grandparents left behind in the nineteenth century.

*******

It is hoped that this exhibition will raise community awareness of the important contribution made by those of South Sea Islander descent or background.

35 Comments»

  Tobaea Steva wrote @

Thanks alot for the information about our people in Queensland.

I’m so sad as many of my tribesmen have never returned from plantations in Queensland. I still wonder if some are still alive out there or been lost somewhere along the way.

What a sad history for all Melanesians.

  Tobaea Steva wrote @

Hello once again. Can you please post out some of the photos taken of our Solomon Islands brothers taken during the blackbirding days?

  Mr. Anonymous® wrote @

hello Tobaea:

not sure what you mean… plz elaborate.

deb

  enneth Ilaisa wrote @

my families too were taken during blackbirding I am desperate to find them.
I am family yassol

  peter ranbel simon wrote @

still look for my family ,my grandfather went for sugar worker ,,came back ,need to know if any generation left behind

  Mr. Anonymous® wrote @

Peter. You’re breaking my heart with this. PLEASE write me for a 4th time, only INCLUDE an EMAIL ADDRESS so people can connect to you if they have anything to tell you! Keep the faith.

  peter wrote @

My email address is ranbelpeter@gmail.com

  wilson wrote @

My great grand fathers worked in queensland plantation. Two returned and one did not. Can i know where about their generations.

  Mr. Anonymous® wrote @

Wilson:

So sorry that i can’t help you – at all. The article is INFORMATIONAL and supplied as a journalistic in piece. This is NOT a census. Please contact the Australian Government for further information. Nothing would make them happier than to participate in helping you find your history.

  L.Newham wrote @

Hello Mr. Anonymous:

I was born to the Eastern Band Of Cherokee Indians. My Grandfather’s parents were indigenous slaves which there is not much written about that in the American history books either, as so many country’s dark pasts of slavery issues.

When I was 17 (after 14 years of foster care,) I was finally able to trace my family history with the help of a retired social worker and local retired nurse in Georgia USA who was familiar with the history of my family.

I was lucky, my Grandfather began to teach me the family history, and explained to me about our horrible past on his and his wife Alice’s (my biological grandmother) side of the family. their daughter Loretta was my mother. My grandfather spoke of my grandmothers black history and told me some children in the family would vary in skin colour and he spoke of her homelands in Australia where her people were from, he unfortunately left out the details of how she ended up on the East coast of the United states except she was born to the chastain family plantation during the end of the slave era like him, and thats how they met and got married.

So I came to Australia six years ago to search for my ancestors, but could not find anything because of the name changes of her parents, one was Obadiah Chastain which there are many different spellings of the last name, meaning chestnut colour.

I was offered the opportunity to participate in the National geographic DNA study of Indigenous people worldwide and found that my ancestry is actually from North Queensland/Tores Strait Island area….. this was determined by the matrial lineage mtDNA (womens side of the family.)

i was classified as Haplogroup (P) … which was explained to me a ancestry line of 40,000 years plus back in that area.

Q: Do you know how I can find different information on the ships that sailed to or near the Americas?

I have not been able to find anything related to this.

Thank you for anything you can do,

L.Newham

  Mr. Anonymous® wrote @

Hello Mr./Mrs. Newham?

Will post your comment in the hope that someone may be able to recognize and add to your search. We have a wide readership – many Australians – and the possibilities are endless. Good luck in your quest.

  Anonymous wrote @

Hi. my greatgrand papa was taken from the shores of Bougainville to work in the plantations in Australia His name is Ondo I believe there are some relatives of my ggrand pa are alive today in Australia

JOHNSON APIP.
johnsonapip@gmail.com
SOUTH AFRICA

  Phil Jamie wrote @

Hi i witnessed the visit by some of the descendants of our people from my village in Ngella/Gela/Tulagi in the 90’s. About six of the Viti families members visited my village. The Viti Family in MacQay as well as the Viti family (natives) in Gela have had their connection re-attached during that Visit with many more members span the Vanuatu, Australia and Solomon Islands (Gela) seas. If you know or have heard of Viti elsewhere in the Islands and particularly in Queensland, you may have had a connection to the native Vitis in Gela Islands in the Solomon Islands. Sadly, few others were returned some 40 or 50 years later with the majority taken from the surrounding villages were not. However, some of those returned to the villages have chosen to be taken back to the plantations and cotton fields as members of their close families on the villages have died while they were away.

Just a few weeks ago, I have discovered a few of the Vitis who tried to discovered their roots in Gela/ Tulagi on facebook. I was surprised that the name and place this Viti decadent mentioned are those of my distant family members and of coarse the very name of the place i grew up. I immediately contacted those in the remote villages on the Islands. This Vitis in is currently Queensland and is surely the member of the same Vitis who visited the Islands in the 90’s (without him). Good news is, we are now establishing contacts. The bad news is, those on the Islands are still searching for any Norisi/ Ngorisi descendants (assume some still live) who may still live to date. For your information, the information I got from my village is that Norisi or Ngorisi was a person taken along with Viti on the same boat. They were both from the same village and both had not returned too. The search much go on, someone is still out there.

  Edward Fa’atafa wrote @

I am also looking for information regarding my grandfather who was taken during the black birding. I believe he was taken to work in Queensland and could not return.

The name of my grand father is Talaimamu. He is originally from the land of Funa’au in east kwaio, Malaita Province, Solomon Islands.

I am interest to know if his descendents are still alive and how can i find them.

  mary savage wrote @

Hi I would like to see most of your pictures for my grate grandfather was taken from one of the south sea islands

  Mr. Anonymous® wrote @

Hi Mary. Unfortunately, those photos were not part of a collection. The fact that your great-grandfather appears in one is purely coincidental. I will ask my source to contact you as soon as possible. Peace.

  L. Newham wrote @

just to let you all know, I am still looking for information on my great grandparents Obadiah and Dali, I do know factually I am of Aboriginal ancestry from Australia, not South Sea’s Islander, I went to Mitchel Libray and looked up the Schooner Daphne and found what my Grandparents and Mom told me was spot on about this small ship, thanks for the posts and info leads it has helped but i still got a long way to go Im close to 50 now and this has been a life long search for me, I hope someone comes forward soon with info im not getting any younger =) hugz to everyone and peace be with you and may your ancestors spirits guide you home safely. xo
Mrs. L. Newham

  Leigh Gribble wrote @

My Uncle Henry Couchman was supposedly a “blackbirder” but I am unable to confirm this. anyone know the name in connection with this?

  Denison Gannon wrote @

Dont know that name but I am also researching a Jack or Jock Cromar who supposedly was involved in the trade. I would be interesrted if anyone has any knowledge of this man

  Norris Tanna wrote @

hi hi,am norris tanna,I am one of the descedent of jack tanna from tanna island.he was one of the lobour in queensland kanakas.he was name after his island.

  hebore wrote @

Hi noris im a great grand daughter of jack tanna of papua new guinea. I am also looking for mary tannas generation in australia.

  Anonymous wrote @

Hi Norris please can you tell me more about yourself please I’m also a tanna. Lost

  Geloma Selibu wrote @

I have just started researching about my great grand uncles and relatives who were taken to Queensland during the Blackbirding days… and am wondering if there is anyone currently living in Queensland that has a heritage from Basilaki Island, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. The routes on the blackbirding maps indicate that they may have landed them in far north so the probability would be from Central Qld to the FNQ.
Need to find out. Any information is good for me because a group of men from my village and bay were taken to Queensland.

Geloma.

  jale torauruta tora wrote @

hi,my name is jale torauruta tora.my grand-father who is my namesake is one taken from my village of Masupa. I need concrete evidence.please I want to know my roots.
lost.

  Trish Frank wrote @

I’m looking for my great grand mother Lessy from PNG married to my great granpa from Vanuatu Tenningkon, did somebody from PNG knew the relate family close to Lessy ? thank you for keeping me updates.

Iam Also Looking For information regarding My Great Great Grand Mother And Father who taken to queensland during the black birding period. they had two daughters,marrie shella and emily or cecilia. marrie shella came back to the solomon islands after she got married to luke suka a man who work in the plantation and they came back after the contract is over. and my great great grandparents did not return with cecilia or emily. my great great grandfather’s surname is poisengena.reply for any information found.

  PeterJohn Hauvari Bogembo wrote @

Its a sad story though,Im enquiring on any imformation on my grand father who worked in the sugar farm in Queensland around the 1930’s.his name was Mr Bob Bogembo.I would appreciate any information on him.thankyou.

  Patrick Heromate wrote @

There has been no information on person taken from Bougainville to Queensland Sugarcane labour . TheName is Waraus. can you tell me what happend to this person?

  Stephen wrote @

Hello all,

I am searching for any ties to my great great grand dad a Fijian who settled in Rabaul during the blackbirding era.

His name was Lote and names passed down to my grand mother was Tele and down to my cousins include Mariken & Saraima. I am told that these names were ties to hold sternly family that my great/great grand father might have had in Fiji.

I am keen on trying to find out if I can bridge that gap left by blackbirding with any Fijian family in Queensland and Fiji by way of the routes that the trade took.

Stephen Lote

  nevol.poloso wrote @

My great great grandfather went for a sugar worker.He than married to a woman from Queensland and had one male child.A time came he left his dear wife and child and came back home to choiseul island of Solomon island safely. I wonder where about his descendant.my great grandfathers name is peter komoki

  Ray Osborn Ketjanbisu wrote @

It is a sad history we read about the black birding era. We are all connected to it since it is our past. My great grandpa was also deceived on board a recruiting ship and taken to work in the sugar cane plantation in Queensland. He was taken on the west coast of the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. His melanesian name was Ketjanbisu and he was nickname Billy after proofing to poses extra ordinary physical strength when punching the boxing machinery where they fought with in those days. He return home but sure left a good narative behind. Can anyone help with some information on my grandpa such as families he left behind;photos ; place he worked etc.

  Andrew Fuato’o wrote @

Still searching for a relative’s linage believed to be in Queensland, of Abarafi ancestry in Malaita, Solomon Islands.

  Enoch naomane wrote @

Sad memories, am looking for a ggrdfather by the name of Inasimae. He was taken under the recruitment program (blackbirding) days. Never returns. He is from masupa village, malaita, Solomon islands. Can anyone give direction of his whereabouts?

Email-enochnaomane@yahoo.com.au

Enoch

  Ruth Ila Mearu wrote @

I am searching for my great grandfather by the name Jack Tanna, if there are any information about him please do let me know about it..


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