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Australian South Sea Islanders
A century of race discrimination
under Australian law

The role of South Sea Islanders in Australia’s economic development

The Australian South Sea Islander community played a significant role in the development of Australia’s sugar and cotton industries.

Between 1863 and 1904, an estimated 55,000 to 62,500 Islanders were brought to Australia to labour on sugar-cane and cotton farms in Queensland and northern New South Wales. [1] These labourers were called ‘Kanakas’ (a Hawaiian word meaning ‘man’) and their recruitment often involved forced removal from their homes. This practice of kidnapping labour was known as ‘blackbirding’ (‘blackbird’ was another word for slave).

They came from more than 80 Pacific Islands, including Vanuatu (then called the ‘New Hebrides’) and the Solomon Islands, and to a lesser extent, from New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Most were young men and boys aged from 9 to 30 years. There were relatively few women and girls. [2]

When the first Islanders were brought to Queensland in the early 1860s, there were no laws or labour contracts to protect them from the most extreme kinds of exploitation by their employers. Many were abducted then paid nothing for their labour and were effectively treated as slaves. Later in the 1860s, a law was passed to regulate labour trafficking into Queensland and establish an indentured (contract) labour system. Under this system, Islanders signed three year contracts and were paid a meagre wage. Even under the indentured labour system Islanders continued to be exploited.

"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." (Faith Bandler, interviewed by Paul Kelly for the television series '100 Years: The Australian Story'.)

Most Islanders left Australia at the end of their contracts, although many died here. By 1901 there were 10,000 Pacific Islanders left working in the Queensland cane fields. Between 1904 and 1908, most of these workers were deported in an effort to ‘racially purify’ the new Australian nation and ‘protect’ white Australian workers from the threat of cheap labour. The Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901 authorised these deportations and banned further recruitment after 1903. Only a minority of Islanders were permitted to stay in Australia and a few hid from authorities and stayed illegally.

A history of race discrimination

The history of South Sea Islanders in Australia reveals a system of labour conditions and treatment in Queensland which discriminated on the basis of race. An estimated one-third were kidnapped or lured to Australia by trickery. Few of those signing labour contracts spoke English or understood how the system worked and what their obligations would be. Their wages were less than one-third of those paid to other labourers, including those imported from Ceylon in 1882 when the supply in the Pacific Islands dwindled. Their rights as workers were inferior to those of other labourers in other respects as well.

“[W]hite workers could go on strike, bargain for better wages and conditions, form trade unions or leave their place of employment. The bonded servant was legally precluded from attempting to improve his or her situation in these ways. The indentured labourer could not leave service or refuse to perform allotted duties, and strict penalties were provided for disobedience, insubordination or absconding.” [3]

“[T]heir general treatment was as close to slavery as the laws of the time would allow. White society used them as labourers when needed and discarded them when no longer needed: they were coerced and expendable labour.” [4]

In line with the White Australia policy, most remaining South Sea Islanders were deported in the early 1900s – the only victims of mass deportation in Australian history. Those able to stay continued to suffer discrimination by law. They could not become citizens or purchase liquor, and those who associated with Aboriginal people were subjected to the same discriminatory and punitive laws as those applied to Indigenous Queenslanders.

Recognition as a distinct community

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s 1992 census of Australian South Sea Islanders revealed the community probably numbered between 10,000 and 12,000 people – with the majority (80%) still living in Queensland. About one-half indicated they also had Aboriginal ancestry. However, in the 2001 national census there were only 3,442 responses from people indicating their South Sea Islander ancestry.

The Commission’s 1992 report, The Call for Recognition: A Report on the Situation of Australian South Sea Islanders, called on the Commonwealth Government to recognise the community as a unique minority group which is severely disadvantaged by racial discrimination.

In 1994, the Commonwealth Government formally recognised Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct community and in 2000 the Queensland Government followed suit.

1. The lowest estimate of 55,000 is from the Call for Recognition, p.1; an estimate of 61,160 is given in Evans, Saunders & Cronin, p.167; the Museum of Queensland estimate for its ‘Refined White’ exhibition was 62,500.
2. Evans, Saunders & Cronin, p.167.
3. Evans, Saunders & Cronin, p.184.
4. The Call for Recognition, p.13.

Contributing Authors: Tracey Flanagan, Meredith Wilkie, Susanna Iuliano