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A history of South Sea Islanders in Australia

1860s – Opening up the tropical north
It was commonly believed at this time that white people could not labour safely in the tropics.[1] White labour was also scarce in the period after convict transportation ended and was expensive [2] : its use would limit the competitiveness of Australian tropical industries in comparison with those based in Indonesia or South Africa where labour was much cheaper. The idea of using ‘coloured’ labour to expand the north grew from these considerations. A Mackay plantation owner commented:

“It has been conclusively proved … that white men cannot and will not do the work done by niggers in the field, and … that if white labour were available, it would only be at wages which the planters could never afford to pay. The sugar industry is entirely dependent upon coloured labour.” [3]

1863 – ‘Coloured’ labour
The first group of 67 South Sea Islanders were brought to Queensland to work on a cotton plantation. [4] However, as cotton proved unviable, the sugar industry began developing around this time and most South Sea Islanders brought to Australia worked as manual labourers in the sugar cane fields. [5] Others worked as domestics or shepherds on grazing properties, while some were transported into the west of the state to work on cattle stations. In this early period they were usually brought to Australia by force or trickery.

“Kidnapping was common in the Solomons in the 1870s, mirroring the initial phase of the labour trade in the New Hebrides [now Vanuatu] in the 1860s … The Islanders often thought the men on the big ships wanted to barter … but when they tried to trade … their canoes were smashed and they were forced on board … Others were kidnapped from their canoes while they were fishing.” [6]

For the first five years or so, many recruits had no legal protection in Queensland law and employers were largely free to exploit them at will. Only those few on formal labour contracts were protected by the Queensland Master and Servants Act 1861. [7]

1868 – Polynesian Labourers Act (Queensland)
This was the first legislation introduced to regulate labour trafficking of Pacific Islanders into Queensland. It aimed to stamp out the practice of kidnapping South Sea Islanders. One estimate is that about 5% of Islanders were actually abducted, with at least another 20-25% procured by other illegal methods. [8]

The 1868 Act established a system of indentured labour for South Sea Islanders. They were supposed to sign up to three year contracts on a minimum wage of £6 per year, payable at the end of the contract plus rations. However, some Australian South Sea Islanders today report that the system was not policed and that their forebears were not protected by contracts and did not receive any wages.

“I maintain that it was a form of slavery. It is true that some people in the later years signed a contract to work for three years. But my father didn’t, neither did his brother and neither did their sister. They were paid nothing whatsoever.” [9]

Islanders could often re-enlist at the end of their first contract. Those who did could earn up to £12 a year - still less than the minimum for other workers. A few indentured labourers were introduced from Ceylon in 1882 and received a minimum of £20 a year plus accommodation, food, clothing, medical care and return passage under different legislation. [10]

1880 – Pacific Island Labourers Act (Queensland)
This was the first comprehensive legislation regulating all aspects of the trafficking and employment of labour from the Pacific Islands, with inspectors appointed to enforce it.

A licence was needed to import labourers, but would only be granted for labourers working in tropical or semi-tropical agriculture. They could not be recruited for pastoral work and could only be employed within 30 miles of the coast. An 1884 amendment explicitly banned them from domestic work, jobs in sugar mills and maritime industries, and confined them to menial jobs in agriculture such as clearing, planting and weeding. These provisions protected the more skilled jobs for white workers, such as engine-drivers, blacksmiths, mechanics and fencers.

The Act imposed minimum living standards on board ship and ships’ masters had to post one bond against kidnapping and another to guarantee the return passage of labourers. The ships were supposed to return each recruit to his or her home island. However, it is believed that many were simply dumped closer to Queensland in the islands of the Torres Strait. [11]

Under this law, wages had to be paid at the end of each six months in the presence of an inspector. Other provisions banned the sale or supply of alcohol, firearms and ammunition to Pacific Islanders and imposed a limit of three years on their contracts (although re-enlistment was still allowed).

The legislation divided Islanders into three categories:

1. Those on first contracts whose labour was restricted to menial agricultural labour.

2. Time-expired labourers who re-enlisted but were still not permitted to undertake skilled work.

3. Exempted - those who had lived in Queensland since before 1 September 1879. There were only about 500 people in this category and they could take work wherever they found it, but could never acquire citizenship. [12]

Living and working conditions for the labourers were extremely harsh - perhaps one in every five died during their three year contract. [13]

“Poor food, inadequate housing, and medical neglect meant that the Islanders, supposedly adapted to the exigencies of a tropical climate, had a death rate four times higher than that of Europeans in the north.” [14]

Mortality rates averaged 51.1 per 1,000 between 1868 and 1904, peaking at 147.7 in 1884. The rate for Anglo-Australians in tropical Queensland at the same time was 15-17 per 1,000.[15]

1883-85 – New Guinea labourers brought in illegally
With the supply of Pacific Island labour dwindling and white workers still extremely scarce, some 5,000 New Guineans were trafficked illegally and with considerable violence during this period. Many of these workers died soon after their arrival in Queensland, being entirely unsuited to the rigours of the work involved. [16]

1885 – Queensland bans future importation of South Sea Island labourers
Importation of labour was opposed by Australian unions on the ground that it deprived white labour of work and by conservative political forces on the ground that it was creating a non-white underclass. The White Australia movement was underway and there was a widespread feeling in the south of the country that there should be no ‘coloureds’ or ‘Asiatics’ in Australia. Plantation owners, on the other hand, wanted continued access to cheap labour. The Liberal Government of the day imposed a ban on indenturing South Sea Islanders from 1 January 1891. However, just as the ban was due to come into force, it was postponed for 10 years because of the economic recession in the sugar industry. [17]

1896 – Coloured Races Restriction and Regulation Act (NSW)
NSW was the first colony to ban non-white immigration. Having restricted the entry of Chinese immigrants to the colony in 1881, NSW extended the restriction in 1896 to “all persons belonging to any coloured race inhabiting” Africa, Asia, or any island in the Indian or Pacific Oceans. This Act was the blueprint for the nation-wide White Australia policy, implemented principally through the Immigration Restriction Act by the new federal Parliament in 1901.

1901 – Pacific Island Labourers Act (Australia)
This Act was modelled on Queensland’s 1880-84 legislation.

“The [Act] ordered the recruitment of the Pacific Islanders to cease after 1903 and gave the federal authorities the power to deport any Islander found in Australia after December 1906. The only Pacific Islanders allowed to stay were those who had arrived in Queensland prior to September 1, 1879, those working in crews on ships and those granted certificates of exemption under the Immigration Restriction Act. The [Act] granted compensation to the sugar industry and ordered the introduction of white labour on a just wage.” [18]

At this time, about 10,000 Pacific Islanders were living in Queensland and northern New South Wales. [19]

1904 – Commonwealth deportations begin
A total of 7,068 Islanders were deported between 1904 and 1908 and another 194 between 1909 and 1914. [20] The impact was dramatic - in 1902, 85.5% of Queensland sugar was produced by ‘coloured’ labour, whereas by 1908, 87.9% was produced by white labour. [21]

1906 – Royal Commission into repatriation of Islanders
In response to humanitarian concerns about the forced deportations and to investigate whether there would be sufficient replacement labour for local industries, the Commonwealth established a Royal Commission.

“As a result of the Commission's investigation, the Pacific Island Labourers Act was amended. It exempted from deportation all who were in Queensland before [1 September] 1879, those who had lived continuously in Queensland for 20 years or more, those whose return because of marriage involved risks to themselves or their families, the old or the infirm and owners of freehold land.” [22]

In 1906, 1,200 South Sea Islanders were granted residency in Australia (in total 1,380 were able to stay) [23] and an estimated 1,000 others stayed illegally. [24]

1909 – A remnant community facing severe discrimination
From 1909 until 1942 South Sea Islanders living in Australia experienced considerable hardship. Legislation prohibited their employment in the sugar industry, unions resisted their employment elsewhere and they could not obtain financial assistance from banks. Without extended family in Australia to assist and support them, the ageing original South Sea Islanders faced a great deal of hardship in the lead-up to the Second World War.

Islanders were usually treated with discrimination similar to that faced by Aboriginal people.

“In Central Queensland, Islander women were relegated to the ‘black ward’ at Rockhampton Base Hospital, which was separated from the main maternity section and overlooked the morgue. Islander and Aboriginal women gave birth in their beds, while the labour ward was the preserve of white women. Isolated and out of earshot, at the end of the veranda, they found the experience frightening.” [25]

One historian has counted at least 40 pieces of discriminatory Queensland legislation between 1900 and 1940, which applied to South Sea Islanders who stayed on in Australia. [26] Most of these laws restricted their employment and income-earning opportunities. The Liquor Act 1912 prohibited the supply of alcohol to Islanders. Unions refused their membership applications and industrial awards restricted employment to union members.

Islanders who associated with Aboriginal people were usually treated as Aboriginal under Queensland law. One member of the community tells of his ten years of incarceration at the Aboriginal leprosarium on Fantome Island near Ingham from the age of seven. Other non-Indigenous people with leprosy were hospitalised on Peel Island near Brisbane. [27]

1942 – Age pension granted
In 1908 the age pension was the first national social security benefit established in Australia. South Sea Islanders and Aboriginal people finally became entitled to the pension in 1942. Prior to this ‘alien Melanesians’ could receive an ‘indigence allowance’ of five shillings a week (one-quarter the value of the pension). [28]

1950s and 1960s – Fighting for Indigenous justice
Australian South Sea Islanders, including Faith Bandler in NSW, [29] were active in the movement for Indigenous people’s equality and in the successful campaign which resulted in a constitutional amendment recognising their full citizenship in 1967.

1964 – The ban on coloured labour in the sugar industry ends
The prohibition of ‘coloured’ labour in the sugar industry was finally abolished as late as 1964.

1970s – Organising the community
The Australian South Sea Islanders United Council was formed in the early 1970s in the Tweed region, with networks extending to North Queensland. The Council’s aim was to improve housing, health and education services for the Australian South Sea Islander community.

1977 - Royal Commission into Human Relationships
Research by the Royal Commission found that South Sea Islanders were not eligible for benefits specifically for Aboriginal people unless they identified as being Aboriginal and therefore gave up their South Sea Islander origins. Many Australians at the time did not differentiate between South Sea Islanders and Aboriginal people – discriminating against both groups equally. The lack of differentiation has caused tensions over the years between the communities.

The Royal Commission recommended that “action should be taken to extend to them eligibility for benefits now available to Aboriginals.” [30] The recommendation was not accepted. [31]

1991 – Support from the ACTU
The Congress of the Australian Council of Trade Unions committed itself to assist South Sea Islanders to be recognised as a group in their own right.

1992 - Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission research
This research made significant detailed findings about the ongoing disadvantage faced by Australian South Sea Islanders due to discriminatory practices by governments and the general community over the previous century. In many respects, Australian South Sea Islanders were still significantly disadvantaged. For example, although more than two-thirds of Australians at the time were home-owners, this was the case for less than one-third of Islanders.

In addition, the incidence of diabetes for Islanders was three times the national average. And while for all Australians aged 15 and over, three in every ten had a tertiary qualification, the figure was only two in ten for Australian South Sea Islanders. [32]

At the same time, Australian South Sea Islanders were generally less disadvantaged than Aboriginal people. For example, labour force participation was higher (74.8% for Islander men compared with 66% for Aboriginal men) and high school retention was more than double (73% of 16 and 17 year old Islanders were in high school compared with only 30% for Aborigines). [33]

The Call for Recognition report set out a range of recommendations, starting with official recognition by governments to begin improving the access and equity of this community.

1993 – Queensland community summit
In response to the Call for Recognition report, the Queensland Bureau of Ethnic Affairs convened a summit of more than 30 Australian South Sea Islander community representatives across Queensland to discuss community needs and develop a proposal for action. Funding was provided by the Bureau to develop a newsletter to meet the communication needs of the community and a second summit was planned for 1994. [34]

1994 – Recognition by the Commonwealth Government
In response to the Call for Recognition report, the Commonwealth Government officially recognised the Australian South Sea Islander community as “a distinct ethnic group in Australia with its own history and culture”. The government acknowledged the injustices of the indentured labour system, the severe disadvantage suffered by the South Sea Islanders and their descendents, and their contribution to the culture, history and economy of Australia. The response included a number of initiatives especially designed for the Australian South Sea Islander community, including several projects to strengthen community members’ awareness of and pride in their culture. [35]

The major Commonwealth Government initiatives have been:

  • Australian South Sea Islander community development project
    A community development project was established by the former Office of Multicultural Affairs and administered by the Queensland Bureau of Ethnic Affairs to help Australian South Sea Islanders access government services. [36] This project received $240,000 in federal funding over three years. [37]
  • Cultural awareness
    The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sponsors six Australian South Sea Islanders each year to visit Pacific Islands and study their culture. [38] This scheme has now ceased.
  • Australian South Sea Islander history in schools
    The Commonwealth Government, in conjunction with the Queensland Education Department, funded the development of curriculum on the history and culture of Australian South Sea Islanders to be taught in Queensland schools. [39]

1995 – NSW Premier’s memo to Ministers
Premier Bob Carr wrote to his Ministers in November 1995 advising of the 1994 Commonwealth Government recognition and asked them to ensure their departments were aware of the community in NSW and adequately reflected their needs in government programs and services. [40]

1996 – Commonwealth Government consultations with Australian South Sea Islander communities in Queensland and northern New South Wales
These consultations were necessary because of a lack of progress on the community development project. The consultations found:

  • As a result of recognition by the Commonwealth in 1994, many Australian South Sea Islanders were unable to access the Indigenous services they had used prior to recognition. It was understood that exclusion from these services would further disadvantage Australian South Sea Islander people unless mainstream services could accommodate their special needs.
  • Recognition raised unrealistic expectations among the Australian South Sea Islander community, such as the creation of an equivalent body to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) specifically for the Australian South Sea Islander community, which would include the associated funding and community power. The community development project also fuelled these expectations and increased already existing factionalism within the community.
  • There was a real need to improve access and equity measures for the community, which could be done through a revamped community development project, with a refocus on frontline community development objectives. [41]

1996 – After Recognition: Access and Equity for Australian South Sea Islanders
This report, commissioned by the Commonwealth Government, focussed on issues of access, equity and the identity of Australian South Sea Islanders by Commonwealth Government agencies post-recognition in 1994. The report made a number of recommendations for action by the Commonwealth Government to improve access and equity to services for Australian South Sea Islanders, as well as promoting the adoption of the following definition for consistent use across all agencies.

“Australian South Sea Islanders are the descendents of Pacific Islander labourers brought from the Western Pacific in the Nineteenth Century who were not repatriated, who identify as Australian South Sea Islanders, and who are accepted as such by the communities in which they live, or have lived.” [42]

1998 –Report on the health of Australian South Sea Islanders in the Tweed Valley
A study on the health of Australian South Sea Islanders living in the Tweed Valley region of northern NSW was a joint initiative of the Tweed Valley Health Services and the Tweed-Northern Rivers NSW Branch of the National Federation of Australian South Sea Islanders. [43] The Tweed has the fourth largest community of Australian South Sea Islanders in Australia and the largest outside Queensland. The study was a needs assessment to assist future health service planning. The report finalised in 1998 recommended culturally appropriate health programs to assist with a number of health risks facing the Tweed community including high levels of smoking and weight problems. [44]

2000 – Recognition by the Queensland Government
In July 2000, the Queensland Government formally recognised Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct ethnic and cultural group and acknowledged their contribution to Queensland’s development. The government also recognised the discrimination, injustice, disadvantage and prejudice experienced by Australian South Sea Islanders throughout history and the significant disadvantage the community still faces today. [45]

2001 – Queensland Government’s action plan
In July 2001 the Queensland Government endorsed an action plan designed to ensure Australian South Sea Islanders have the opportunity to “participate in and contribute to the economic, social, political and cultural life of Queensland”. [46]

The action plan aims to:

  • Coordinate the actions the government will take to improve the community’s access to services.
  • Increase the awareness of Australian South Sea Islander issues within the government and enhance the capacity of agencies to address these issues in a culturally appropriate way.
  • Improve the knowledge, understanding and acceptance within the broader Queensland community of the history, culture and current circumstances of the Australian South Sea Islander people.
  • Assist community development in the Australian South Sea Islander community.
  • Address discrimination and prejudice against Australian South Sea Islanders. [47]

The action plan is a whole-of-government initiative and Queensland Government agencies must report on their progress every year.

The major Queensland initiatives are:

  • Australian South Sea Islander Community Foundation
    The Foundation provides scholarships for Australian South Sea Islanders at Queensland tertiary institutions. The value of each scholarship is $5,000 per year estimated to extend over a three-year period. In 2002 two scholarships were awarded at Central Queensland University and two at James Cook University (which also provided one extra scholarship). [48]
  • Public sector traineeships
    As part of the Public Sector Employment Initiative established to create additional apprentices and trainees in the Queensland public sector, 39 traineeships were offered to Australian South Sea Islanders in 2001-02. [49] The traineeships primarily aim to improve “engagement between government and this community”. [50]
  • Employment initiatives
    The Department of Education and Training provided $60,000 to the Mackay and District South Sea Islander Association Incorporated for a 12-month intensive employment and training project in 2001-02. A similar project was undertaken by the Australian South Sea Islander United Council – Independent Rockhampton and District Incorporated which commenced in September 2001. [51]

1. W. Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia, Melbourne University Press, 2002, pp.85-86.
2. Evans, Saunders & Cronin, p.158.
3. Harold Finch-Hatton in 1886 quoted in Evans, Saunders & Cronin, p.158.
4. The first South Sea Islanders were imported by Benjamin Boyd to work as shepherds in the Riverina in 1847: B. H. Molesworth, ‘Kanaka Labour in Queensland’, paper presented to the Ryal Historical Society of Queensland on 6 July 1916 and held in the Society’s archives. See also the entry on Benjamin Boyd at http://www.bendigolive.com/links/notedaussies9.htm . The ‘failed NSW experiment’ (many of the Islander shepherds died in the first winter and the remainder, released by the NSW government from their obligations, escaped back to Sydney thereafter) was well known in Queensland which only became a separate colony from NSW in December 1859. A Queensland commentator in 1863 referred to the ‘deluge’ of South Sea Islanders brought into NSW: quoted by Kay Saunders in ‘The Kanakas are coming’ in Evans, Saunders & Cronin, p.149.
5. The Call for Recognition, p.75.
6. Moore, pp.39-40.
7. Evans, Saunders & Cronin, p.170.
8. Evans, Saunders & Cronin, p.167.
9. Faith Bandler interviewed by Paul Kelly and quoted in ABC Online.
10. Masters and Servants Act 1861 (Qld).
11. Personal communication from Mr Joe Eggmolesse, 28 October 2003.
12. Evans, Saunders & Cronin, pp.153-154.
13. The Call for Recognition, p.85. Evans, Saunders & Cronin documents deaths from overwork, exposure, malnutrition, scurvy, TB, insanity, dysentery, physical discipline and assaults such as beatings and floggings by supervisors, inter-tribal and inter-Island fighting, denial of medical treatment, drinking contaminated sly grog (Islanders were not permitted to obtain alcohol legally) and drinking contaminated water on the job as fresh water was not supplied during the working day.
14. W. Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia, Melbourne University Press, 2002, p.85.
15. The Call for Recognition, p.85. Slightly different figures are provided by ABC Online: ‘The death rate in the Queensland colony for non Pacific Islanders was 13.03 per 1000, whilst the Islander mortality rate was 62.89 per 1000.’
16. This scandal was investigated by a Royal Commission in 1885: Evans, Saunders & Cronin, p.161.
17. The Call for Recognition, p.15.
18. ABC Online.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid.
21. Richmond River Historical Society, The Sugar Industry on the Richmond River, 1978, p. 5, quoted in The Call for Recognition, p.19.
22. ABC Online.
23. The Call for Recognition, p.17.
24. ABC Online. Note too that this source indicates 1,500 were granted exemptions after 1906.
25. Gistitin online resource.
26. P. Mercer, White Australia Defied: A Centennial History of Pacific Islander Settlement in North Queensland, James Cook University, Townsville, 1992, p.140 cited in The Call for Recognition, p.18.
27. Personal communication from Mr Joe Eggmolesse, 28 October 2003. The Peel Island lazaret was converted for whites only in 1940.
28. The Call for Recognition, p.89.
29. Faith Bandler is best known for the 10 years of her life she devoted to the May 1967 referendum which enabled indigenous Australians to come under Commonwealth law. Faith co-founded the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship in 1956 and later was NSW secretary, then General Secretary of (FCAATSI) Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. She served State and Federal governments in a variety of roles and was vice-president of the Evatt Foundation for many years. It was the lobbying of the Evatt Foundation in the early 1990s which induced the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to undertake the project reported in The Call for Recognition, 1992 (from Brisbane Institute People: http://www.brisinst.org.au/people/bandler_faith.html).
30. Royal Commission into Human Relationships, 1977, pp.46-47, cited in The Call for Recognition, p.2.
31. The Call for Recognition, p.2.
32. The Call for Recognition, Chapter 5. Note that the data for all Australians are from the 1986 national population census.
33. Ibid. Note that the data for Aborigines are from the 1986 national population census.
34. Commonwealth Government Consultations with Australian South Sea Islander Communities in Queensland and Northern New South Wales, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 1996, p.10.
35. Id, p.12.
36. Id, p.5
37. Id, p.5.
38. Id, p.45.
39. Id, p.45.
40. Premier Carr’s memo is online at http://www.premiers.nsw.gov.au/pubs_dload_part4/prem_circs_memos/prem_memos/1995/m95-42.html
41. Commonwealth Government Consultations with Australian South Sea Islander Communities in Queensland and Northern New South Wales, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, 1996, pp.5-6.
42. After Recognition: Access and Equity for Australian South Sea Islanders, Rural Social and Economic Research Centre, Central Queensland University, 1996, p.iv.
43. Australian South Sea Islanders in the Tweed Valley, Northern Rivers Area Health Service and Tweed Shire Council, 1998, p.4.
44. Queensland Government Action Plan – Australian South Sea Islander Community, 2001, p.3-5
45. Id, p.1.
46. Id, p.2.
47. Id, p.2.
48. Implementation of the Multicultural Queensland Policy 2001-2002, Report to the Premier, pp.19-20.
49. Id, p.20. The traineeships were located as follows:

Agency

No.of Trainees

Arts Queensland

2

Department of Emergency Services

3

Department of Employment and Training

9

Department of Housing

2

Department of Industrial Relations

2

Department of Innovation and Information Economy, Sport and Recreation Queensland

1

Department of Main Roads

1

Department of Natural Resources and Mines

2

Department of the Premier and Cabinet

2

Department of Public Works

2

Department of State Development

1

Education Queensland

1

Hervey Bay Shire Council

1

Livingstone Shire Council

1

Johnstone Shire Council

1

Queensland Health

2

Queensland Transport

4

Queensland Treasury

2

50. Queensland Government Action Plan – Australian South Sea Islander Community, 2001, p.1.
51. Id, p.22


© Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Last updated 2 December 2003.


Contributing Authors: Tracey Flanagan, Meredith Wilkie, Susanna Iuliano