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Blackbirding is the recruitment of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers. From the 1860s, blackbirding ships were engaged in seeking workers to mine the guano deposits on the Chincha Islands in Peru. In the 1870s, the blackbirding trade focused on supplying labourers to plantations, particularly the sugar cane plantations of Queensland, Australia and the nation of Fiji. The first documented practice occurred between 1842 and 1904. 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 desert areas.
Blackbirding has continued to the present day in the Third World. One example is the kidnapping and coercion at gunpoint of indigenous people in Central America to work as plantation labourers, where they are exposed to heavy pesticide loads and do backbreaking work for very little pay.
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.
Blackbirding in Polynesia in the 1860s
For less than a year between 1862–63, Peruvian ships (and a few Chilean ships under the Peruvian flag) combed the smaller islands of Polynesia from Easter Island in the eastern Pacific to the Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu) and the southern atolls of the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati), seeking recruits to fill the extreme labour shortage in Peru.
In 1862 J. C. Byrne, an Irish speculator with a dubious history[clarification needed], persuaded others to back a scheme to bring "colonists" from the New Hebrides to Peru as indentured agricultural workers. The first ship, Adelante, was fitted and on 15 June 1862 set out across the Pacific. Calling in at Tongareva (Penrhyn) in the northern Cook Islands, Byrne fortuitously found the one island in the Pacific where the population was only too willing to leave because of a severe coconut famine. He took 253 recruits who by September found themselves working in Peru as plantation workers and household servants.
Almost immediately speculators and ship owners fitted out aging ships that went to Polynesia to bring "willing colonists". From September 1862 to April 1863 no less than 30 ships set out, but because profit was the main motive, many ship captains resorted to dishonest tactics and even kidnapping to fill their ships.
In June 1863 about 350 people were living on ʻ'Ata atoll in Tonga, in a village called Kolomaile, the remains of which were still visible a century later. Captain Thomas James McGrath of the Tasmanian whaler Grecian, having decided that the slave trade was more profitable than whaling, arrived at the atoll and invited the islanders on board for trading. But once almost half of the population was on board, the doors and rooms were locked, and the ship sailed away. 144 persons would never return. The Grecian attempted to take further slaves from the Lau group, but was unsuccessful. From Niuafouʻou it was able to take only 30 people; this was the second island in Tonga to be affected. (ʻUiha was the third, but there the islanders were able to reverse roles and ambushed the ship, the "Margarita".)
The Grecian never made it to Peru. Probably near Pukapuka (Cook Islands) it met another slaver, the General Prim, which had left Callao in March, which was more than willing to take over the 174 Tongans to quickly return to port, where it arrived on 19 July. Meanwhile, however, the Peruvian government, under pressure from foreign powers and also shocked that its labour plan had turned into a slave trade, had already on 28 April cancelled all licenses. The islanders on board of the "General Prim", and other ships were even not allowed to enter Peruvian soil. They were transferred to other ships chartered by the Peruvian government to bring them home. By the time, 2 October 1863, the Adelante (on which the Tongans were put) finally left, many had already died or were dying from contagious diseases. It seems that Captain Escurra of the Adelante (which had been one of the most successful slavers before!) had no intention of taking them home after being paid only $30 per head. Instead he dumped them on uninhabited Cocos Island, (absolutely not on the route to Tahiti), claiming that the 426 kanakas were affected with smallpox and were a danger to his crew. Some 200 were still alive when the whaler Active visited on 21 October. A month later the Peruvian warship Tumbes went to rescue the remaining 38 survivors and brought them to Paita where they were apparently absorbed into the local population.
Meanwhile in Tonga, king George Tupou I, having heard of the happenings, sent three schooners to ʻAta to evacuate and to resettle the about 200 remaining people to ʻEua, where they would be safe against future attacks. Nowadays their descendants still live in Haʻatuʻa of which a part has received the name Kolomaile.
The Rev. A. W. Murray, the earliest European missionary in Tuvalu, describes the activities of blackbirders in the Ellice Islands, as persuading islanders onto the ships with the promise that they would be taught about God while engaged in coconut oil production, when the intended destination was the Chincha Islands in Peru. The impact of the blackbirders on the Ellice Islands is established by the observations of the Rev. A Murray who reported that in 1863 about 180 people were taken from Funafuti and about 200 were taken from Nukulaelae as there were fewer than 100 of the 300 recorded in 1861 as living on Nukulaelae.
Bully Hayes, an American ship captain who achieved notoriety for his activities in the Pacific in the 1850s to the 1870s, is described as arriving in Papeete, Tahiti in December 1868 on his ship Rona with 150 men from Niue, who Hayes offering for sale as contract labourers. The expansion of plantations in Fiji and Samoa also created destinations for blackbirders. The number of ships involved in the blackbirding trade resulted in the British Navy sending ships from the Australia Station into the Pacific in order to suppress the trade. The activities of the ships of the Australian Squadron, (HMS Basilisk, HMS Beagle, HMS Conflict, HMS Renard, HMS Sandfly & HMS Rosario), did not put an end to the blackbirding trade, with the islands of Melanesia and Micronesia also suffering the predations of blackbirders.
From the 1860s, the demand for labour in Queensland, Australia, became the focus of blackbirding. Queensland was a self-governing British colony in northeastern Australia until 1901, when it became a state of the Commonwealth of Australia. 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 Queensland government attempted to regulate the trade by requiring every ship engaged in recruiting labourers from the Pacific islands to carry a person approved by the government to ensure that labourers were willingly recruited and not kidnapped. However these government observers were not effective as they were often corrupted by bonuses paid for labourers 'recruited' or blinded by alcohol and did nothing to prevent sea-captains from tricking islanders on-board or otherwise engaging in kidnapping with violence.
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 55,000 to 62,500 South Sea Islanders were taken to Australia.
These people were referred to as Kanakas (the French equivalent Canaques still applies to the ethnic Melanesians in New Caledonia) and came from the Western Pacific islands: from Melanesia, mainly the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with a small number from the Polynesian and Micronesian islands such as Tonga (mainly 'Ata), Samoa, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Loyalty Islands. Many of the workers were effectively slaves, but since the Slavery Abolition Act made slavery illegal, they were officially called "indentured labourers" or the like. Some Australian Aboriginal people, especially from Cape York Peninsula, were also kidnapped and transported south to work on the farms.
The methods of blackbirding were 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 in the fields due to the hard manual labour.
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 the 10,000 remaining in Australia in 1901 were repatriated between 1906-08 under the provisions of the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901. A 1992 census of South Sea Islanders found there were around 10,000 descendants of the blackbirded labourers living in Queensland, although less than 3,500 were reported in the 2001 Australian census.
The blackbirding era began in Fiji in 1865 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. On 5 July 1865 Ben Pease received the first licence to provide 40 labourers from the New Hebrides to Fiji.
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. The living and working conditions in Fiji were even worse than those suffered by the later Indian indentured labourers. In 1875, the chief medical officer in Fiji, Sir William MacGregor, listed a mortality rate of 540 out of every 1000 labourers. 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.
A notorious incident of the blackbirding trade was the 1871 voyage of the brig Carl, that was organised by Dr James Patrick Murray, to recruit labourers to work in the plantations of Fiji. Murray had his men reverse their collars and carry black books, so to appear to be missionaries. When islanders were enticed to congregate Murray and his men would produce guns and force the islanders onto boats. During the voyage Murray shot about 60 islanders. He was never brought to trial for his actions as he was allowed to escape trial by giving evidence against crew members. The captain of the Carl, Joseph Armstrong, was later sentenced to death.
With the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in Fiji from 1879, the number of Melanesian labourers decreased but they were still being recruited and employed, off the plantations in sugar mills and ports, until the start of the First World War. Most of the Melanesians recruited were males. After the recruitment ended, those who chose to stay in Fiji took Fijian wives and settled in areas around Suva. Their descendants still remain a distinct community but their language and culture cannot be distinguished from native Fijians.
Descendants of Solomon Islanders living at Tamavua-i-Wai in Fiji received a High Court verdict in their favour on 1 February 2007. The court refused a claim by the Seventh-day Adventist Church to force the islanders to vacate the land on which they had been living for seventy years.
Blackbirding was associated with the death of Anglican missionary John Coleridge Patteson on 20 September 1870. While the exact reasons for his death are unclear, it was linked at the time to resistance to blackbirding by local people, one of whom had been killed in a struggle with blackbirders and others abducted. Patteson, who wanted to take children away to be educated in a mission school, may have been perceived as a form of blackbirder. His death led to a crack-down on the abusive aspects of the practice.
"..still bore the tomahawk marks where the Malaitans at Langa Langa several months before broke in for the trove of rifles and ammunition locked therein, after bloodily slaughtering Jansen's predecessor, Captain Mackenzie. The burning of the vessel was somehow prevented by the black crew, but this was so unprecedented that the owner feared some complicity between them and the attacking party. However, it could not be proved, and we sailed with the majority of this same crew. The present skipper smilingly warned us that the same tribe still required two more heads from the Minota, to square up for deaths on the Ysabel plantation. (p 387)
"Three fruitless days were spent at Su'u. The Minota got no recruits from the bush and the bushmen got no heads from the Minota. We towed out with a whaleboat and ran along the coast to Langa Langa, a large village of salt-water people built with labour on a sand bank - literally built up"
- South Sea Islander
- Mal Meninga
- Impressment, the formal term for pressganging
- Bully Hayes
- Ben Pease
- Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus and Marcus Buford Rediker (2007). Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World, University of California Press, pp 188–190. ISBN 0-520-25206-3.
- H.E. Maude, Slavers in Paradise, Institute of Pacific Studies (1981)
- Willoughby, Emma. "Our Federation Journey 1901–2001" (PDF). Museum Victoria. Retrieved 2006-06-14.
- Reid Mortensen, (2009), Slaving In Australian Courts: Blackbirding Cases, 1869–1871, Journal of South Pacific Law, 13:1 accessed 7 October 2010
- J Timmons Roberts and Nikki Demetria Thanos (2003). Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environmental Crises in Latin America. Routledge, London and New York. p. vii.
- Quinion, Michael (2002-10-05). "Blackbirding". World Wide Words. Retrieved 2007-06-20.
- Murray A.W., 1876. Forty Years' Mission Work. London Nisbet
- the figure of 171 taken from Funafuti is given by Laumua Kofe, Palagi and Pastors, Tuvalu: A History, Ch. 15, Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific and Government of Tuvalu, 1983
- the figure of 250 taken from Nukulaelae is given by Laumua Kofe, Palagi and Pastors, Tuvalu: A History, Ch. 15, U.S.P./Tuvalu (1983)
- W.F. Newton, The Early Population of the Ellice Islands, 76(2) (1967) The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 197–204.
- the figure of 250 taken from Nukulaelae is stated by Richard Bedford, Barrie Macdonald & Doug Monro, Population Estimates for Kiribati and Tuvalu (1980) 89(1) J. of the Polynesian Society 199
- James A. Michener & A. Grove Day, Bully Hayes, South Sea Buccaneer, in Rascals in Paradise, London: Secker & Warburg 1957
- Tracey Flanagan, Meredith Wilkie, and Susanna Iuliano. Australian South Sea Islanders: A century of race discrimination under Australian law, Australian Human Rights Commission.
- Queensland Government, Australian South Sea Islander Training Package at the Wayback Machine
- "Documenting Democracy". Foundingdocs.gov.au. Retrieved 2011-04-09.
- Jane Resture, The Story Of Blackbirding in the South Seas - Part 2 http://www.janesoceania.com/oceania_blackbirding1/index.htm
- R. G. Elmslie, 'The Colonial Career of James Patrick Murray', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, (1979) 49(1):154-62
- R. G. Elmslie, 'The Colonial Career of James Patrick Murray', Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, (1979) 49(1):154–62; Sydney Morning Herald, 20–23 Nov 1872, 1 Mar 1873
- "Solomon Islands descendants win land case". Fijitimes.com. 2007-02-02. Retrieved 2011-04-09.
- Thorigeir Kolshus and Even Hovdhaugen, "Reassessing the death of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson", Journal of Pacific History, Dec 2010.
- "The Log of the Stark". Archive.org. Retrieved 2011-04-09.
- Jack London (1956). Tales of Adventure. Hanover House, University of Michigan.
- Corris, Peter. (1973). Passage, Port and Plantation: A History of the Solomon Islands Labour Migration, 1870-1914. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 978-0-522-84050-6.
- Docker, E. W. (1981). The Blackbirders: A Brutal Story of the Kanaka Slave-Trade. London: Angus & Robertson. ISBN 0-207-14069-3
- Gravelle, Kim. (1979). A History of Fiji. Suva: Fiji Times Limited.
- Horne, Gerald. (2007). The White Pacific: U.S. Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3147-9
- Maude, H. E. (1981). Slavers in Paradise. Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies.