Forgotten Melanesians: The South-Sea Islanders of Queenslands’ Plantations

Not many people know that the sweet sugar industry in Australia was founded on the sweat of men and women enticed or kidnapped from the islands of Melanesia.

These people were generally referred to as Kanakas and of the 62,000 Islanders recruited, the majority were repatriated by the Australian Government in the period between 1906-08 under the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 – a piece of legislation related to the White Australia Policy. Those exempted from repatriation, along with a number of others who escaped deportation, remained in Australia to form the basis of what is today Australia’s largest non-indigenous black ethnic group.

The question of how many Islanders were “blackbirded” is unknown and remains controversial. The extent to which Islanders were recruited legally, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced to leave their homes and travel to Queensland is difficult to evaluate and also 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 tend to relate to the first ten or so years of the trade.

Recently, the Solomon Star published an excellent article on South-Sea Islanders and it is definately worth a read:

Sitting besides the Governor General of Solomon Islands Sir Nathaniel Waena, on a guided tour around the Central Queensland City of Rockhamton, Joe Leo was resolute. Mr Leo, who called himself Joe Malayta (Malaita) to identify his roots, knew his history well.

He recalled that between 1863 and 1904 about 60,000 Melanesians were transported to the colony of Queensland , where they toiled to create the sugar plantations. Some of these islanders moved there willingly on the promise of income, whilst others were kidnapped from their island homes.

Now married to Monica, of Vanuatu ancestry, the couple said the ancestors of the South Sea Islands community in Queensland were ‘recruited’ from various islands including the Solomon Islands , Vanuatu , and the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia and to a lesser extent, Papua New Guinea. This form of human trafficking is historically known as ‘black birding’.

There are possibly up to 20,000 Melanesians, recognised as South Sea Islanders currently in Australia , who lived mostly in the North and Central Queensland region. They were brought to Queensland , mostly to work in the sugar industry, on three-year contracts of indenture.

According to Leo, this labour trade in Melanesians (or Kanakas as they are often termed) involved at least around 62,000 contracts being entered into over a 41year period. Once underway, some 8,000 indentured Melanesians on average were in Queensland at any one time, whether as first indentured, reengaged, or as time-expired workers.

For the most part they were regarded as unwelcomed guests – a necessary but ultimately dispensable evil – and the new century had barely commenced before they fell tainted of the White Australia Policy. With the enactment of the Pacific Islanders Labourers Act of 1901 by the newly created Commonwealth of Australia, recruiting was to cease in 1904 and the majority of Kanakas were compulsorily deported between 1906 and 1908.

Since then the descendants of those who legally, or illegally, remained have lived on the fringes of White Australia as a discriminated minority, a forgotten people. But the evil winds of discrimination has changed at the turn of the 21st century as Australian leaders begun to realise how terrible it was to treat another human being as a slave.

The Melanesian community was recognised by the Federal Government as a unique minority group in 1994 following a report on the community undertaken by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. On 7th September 2000, Queensland State Premier Peter Beattie pushed further and presented in the Queensland Legislative Assembly a formal Recognition Statement of the Australian South Sea Islander community.

The Recognition Statement recognises Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group acknowledging past injustices as well as significant contributions to the social, cultural and economic development of Queensland. In that document, the Queensland Government acknowledged that the South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia as a source of cheap labour for Queensland ’s primary industries.

It acknowledged that “many people were tricked into coming; others were kidnapped or “blackbirded”. Men, women and children were forced to work long hours at exhausting manual work for low or no wages while living in very poor conditions. Many were treated like “slaves”.

Poor working and living conditions contributed to the death of many islanders in those years. The policy further acknowledged that “in the early 1880s, the death rate among South Sea Islanders was five times higher than the comparable European population”. The Queensland Government then, immediately instructed its departments and other agencies to act on this commitment through their policies, programmes and services.

Leo and Matt Nagas, Melanesians of Vanuatu ancestry agreed that the Recognition by the Federal and State Governments is a huge break through for their status as Australian citizens of Melanesian origin. “The recognition has slowly but surely shifted the injustices that we’ve been through over the last 100 years and we trust that our children and grand children will equally excel from here,” the gentlemen said.

Today, individual Australian South Sea Islanders have excelled in politics, government, religion, sports, art, business, health and education. They have also served the nation as members of the defence force in times of peace and war.

The recognition continues to trickle down in the hearts of many Australians as hundreds of Melanesians gathered in Bundaberg last week to participate in a weeklong International Prayer and Cultural Festival. Calling themselves “Spiritual Slaves”, around 200 young men and women from SSEC in Solomon Islands re-enacted the Christianisation of Melanesians and the arrival of the gospel in Solomon Islands.

Among many who witnessed the drama is Federal MP Paul Neville who acknowledged the unique spirituality of Melanesians which started in the cane fields of Queensland. Australian South Sea Islanders’ unique spirituality, identity and cultural heritage enrich Queensland ’s culturally diverse society. For more than a century their culture, history and contribution to Queensland have been ignored and denied.

Sharing similar sentiments, Rockhamton City Mayor, Brad Carter said his Regional Council is committed to ensure that present and future generations of South Sea Islanders have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to the economic, social, political and cultural life of the State. “I will ensure that Queensland becomes one of the most accommodating places in the world for people of different backgrounds and cultures including South Sea Islanders”.

Showing its obligation to recognise South Sea Islanders, the Queensland Government in 2001 has made a commitment to address areas of need identified by the community. The Australian South Sea Islander Community Foundation is a partnership between the Queensland government and the corporate sector to create a permanent legacy to provide university scholarships for South Sea Islanders tertiary students. Scholarships are awarded annually to the value of $5000 per year for full-time and $2500 for part-time students.

There are no more Melanesians in cane fields as many have moved up the socio-economic strata engaging in reasonably paid jobs and equal opportunities just like any other Australian citizen. “Gone are the days when we were treated like plants and animals. I just want to thank God for that change,” said Mr Nagas.

~ by Tavurvur on October 22, 2008.

16 Responses to “Forgotten Melanesians: The South-Sea Islanders of Queenslands’ Plantations”

  1. I read a interesting article in the AWAKE MAG on forgetton slaves enjoyed it very much

  2. any information about the ethnic religion will be highly appreciated. This article makes good reading

  3. I am curating a show in Bundaberg called Pacific Storms which explores social issues of contemporary Pacific but I chose Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery to link Pacific Storms to the South Sea Islanders – contemporary community and their history. I found your article interesting and added some in my curatorial statement. Tenk yu tru!.

  4. Hi Joycelin,

    I took a look at your website and saw the pieces from the piece I collated which you added into you curatorial statement. I think any instrument that further educates regarding South-Sea Islanders, their heritage, and the work they were indentured to perform is every important.

    What is a lesser known fact is the ‘black birding’ trade that occurred within our own waters – yes it did happen! Both German and British New Guinea were responsible for the displacement of huge numbers of the people of PNG. German New Guinea was notorious for ‘black birding’ New Irelanders – thousands of them were indentured to work in Samoa and Kaiser Wilhelmsland (Mainland PNG – Madang/Morobe area).

    There were PNGeans roaming the streets of Sydney long before we became the Territory of New Guinea!


  5. Iread about the newletter and was very curious because ive been looking for my grand uncle who was taken during blackbirding. He was originated from Langalanga ,Malaita solomon islands.My mum told me that Ken Nagas , a NRL PLAYER was related to us. Their contact is very mush needed.

    • Hi Jimmy my name is Matt Nagas I have family at Langalanga Lagon Malatita. I am Ken father.

  6. Hi Matt,

    Thank you for your message. Hopefully Jimmy reads this and gets in touch with you. I will try to locate his email address and let him know in the mean time.


  7. Hi, its me jimmy,hope matt nagas will have my email address.looking forward hearing from him.

  8. Hi Jimmy my family tree comes from Mabalu, His son was Johnathan Waleilamae Kuibolia, my Grand father also other family members that i have been told are David Walegelema also Fred Luitolo and his sister Helen and another name Jackson Seni i would like to me with you some time in the future to meet all other family members. for now it would be good keep in touch through email to learn more of families until we can have reuion to meet family.

    Regards Matt

  9. I am Malaitan whose my great grandfather’s younger brother was kidnapped in a trade ship during that period of Black Birding to North Queensland.

    My family never had contact ever since…not a single clue of any of his descedents. Very sad.

    Now I am marrying a lady in Marau Sound, East Guadalcanal. It bothered me again to learn of the similar tragic history which left many there still longing to find the descedents of the relatives.

    At Marau Sound now there is a bay today is nationally known as the “Conflict Bay”. Its history goes back to the times of the blackbirding when the blackbirders confronted resistence from the Hatare people; ancestors of my wife’s tribe which resulted in bloodshed at that bay.

    Honoring the important event of that piece of history, a eco tourism lodge has been name as the Conflict Bay Lodge. It is situated in the center of that bay. Hatare people want to show another way of relationship which is mutual and hospital to their new guests. And it is a place where the old stories in oral history of that event can be heard from those left behind during that era.

  10. I can not hold back my tears. My great grandfather was taken during blackbirding from the Gulf of Papua leaving behind a young wife who was pregrant with their first child, my grandfather. My grandfather grow up to be a very lonely person and died thinking his father drown when the boat sank in which his colonial master – Administrator for Gulf of Papua at that time survived. Until recently, a photo graph of my grandfather was shown to us in 2007 by someone who was returninig home for a visit. We now know that he was sold to blackbirding by his master. My greatgrand father we believe was put incharge of the other slaves who work on the sugarcane farm. His name was Paiveraope. We are told he remarried to an aboriginal woman and his extended family resides in the community somewhere in Ispwich. It would be nice if my mum and the rest of her remaining siblings can met with their half brothers and sisters and we with our cousins. We are afterall Australians, born Australian citizens by law , Papuans by birth.

  11. It is with great frustration and hopeful leads that I am searching for my Greatgrandfathers background [HARRY MANAWAY] and history in the Solomon Islands, namely South Malaita with possible links to Manawai,Are,are. He was taken from his area/village at some time between 1870-1890 and brought to Mackay,Qld via a Blackbirding Ship with dubious Recruiters. His first step apon Australian soil, after ,no doubt , a terrifying sea trip in an unknown captive environment, in unmentionable conditions, his first step on foriegn soil was in chains, in River Street ,Mackay. He was tied to the old Leichardt Tree with others,then taken to an old underground jail for “processing”.Then went to a place called Habana, to work under “supervision” in the cane fields,the supervisor rode on a horse and carried a whip……………eventually he met someone and had a child ,my Grandmother Sarah Manaway born around 1897. She had my Mum born 1932……Grandmother had several children before my Mum, to her first Husband……………Fate,balance, destiny now sees me finding links and strong leads to find his Family, to honour my Mother and her intense pride of being of both South Sea Islander /Malay background….Reading between the lines during my research,analysing the Legislative Acts that constantly changed in accordance to the needs of greedy,exploitive governments and cane farm owners,everyone it seemed got a peice of the pie, Recruiters,ship masters,Chiefs, .One day and it will come, I will find my family,I will stand on the land Harry Manaway come from and see what his eyes once looked at ,his Grandfathers and thier Grandfathers….Someone is waiting for us and has been wondering about us for many years as we them…..

  12. Hi my name is Nia-Val, i am writing on behalf of my husband Lokeni Tali Supalu . Apparently locals say His grandfather was from South Malaita taken to Samoa around 1940 – 47 he had two children one girl then boy. He had married with two children and then was told that he was taken back on ship not allowed to stay with his children. Story has been told it was Americans blackbirders had brought hundreds or even more to the Upolu Island in Western Samoa to work on the plantations. We are here in Guadacanal for the first time and we have had the story published by the Solomon Star just this week Monday. So we are still searching for the grandfather descendants ” Supalu ” and another name ” Siakiu” so if you have any info that would really help. As the children and the wife of this man Supalu died of broken heart and the memory of him still remains.
    To contact …

    • ‘Nia-val’ – Thank you for sharing. Unfortunately, I don’t have any information that could help shed light on your families search. But hopefully, one of my readers, or those people who have commented on this post can help out. Please keep us updated with your search. Rgds, Tavurvur.

  13. Hello , I am very unhappy with the Bundaberg City Council in not building a statue to honor the South-Sea Islanders. I hold the Islanders as high as Bert Hinkler.It upsets me when I think what happened in those days especially when I see the Kanaka stone walls along side the cane fields. Shame on you Bundaberg.Do something now!

  14. Hello, this is my first attempt in search of my Great Grandfather Harry Belo, a South -Sea Islander. He lived here in Broome, Western Australia during the early ‘pearling’ boom, the only way here would’ve been through ‘indentured labour’ and other Govt policies.. My Family’s only knowledge of him is that his name appeared in my Grandfather’s death certificate. Please help.

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