Blackbirding is the coercion of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers. From the 1860s, blackbirding ships in the Pacific sought 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 and Fiji. The first documented practice of a major blackbirding industry for sugar cane labourers 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 Western Australia at Nickol Bay and Broome, local Aborigines were blackbirded from the surrounding areas.
Blackbirding has continued to the present day in developing countries. One example is the kidnapping and coercion at gunpoint of indigenous people in Central America to work as plantation labourers in the region, 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.
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 workers to fill the extreme labour shortage in Peru.
In 1862 J. C. Byrne, an Irish speculator, persuaded countrymen to financially 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 found the one island in the Pacific where the population was willing to leave because of a severe coconut famine. He took 253 recruits; by September, they were working in Peru as plantation workers and domestic household servants.
Almost immediately speculators and ship owners fitted out ageing ships that went to Polynesia to bring "willing colonists". From September 1862 to April 1863, no less than 30 ships set out. Because profit was the main motive, many ship captains resorted to dishonest tactics and 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 new 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 ship's doors and rooms were locked, and the ship sailed away. 144 persons would never return. The Grecian also tried to take slaves from the Lau group, but was unsuccessful. From Niuafouʻou, McGrath captured only 30 people; this was the second island in Tonga to be affected. (ʻUiha was the third island approached, but there the islanders reversed roles and ambushed the ship 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. Its captain was willing to take over the 174 Tongans to quickly return to port, where it arrived on 19 July. Meanwhile, the Peruvian government, under pressure from foreign powers and also shocked that its labour plan had turned into a slave trade, had on 28 April 1863 cancelled all licenses. The islanders on board General Prim, and other ships were not allowed to land. They were transferred to other ships chartered by the Peruvian government to return them to their homeland.
By the time the Adelante (on which the Tongans were put) finally left on 2 October 1863, many of the Tongans had already died or were dying from contagious diseases. Captain Escurra of the Adelante (formerly a successful slaver), pocketed his fee of $30/head, but dumped them on uninhabited Cocos Island. He later claimed that the 426 kanakas were affected with smallpox and a danger to his crew. When the whaler Active visited the island on 21 October, its crew found some 200 Tongans still alive. A month later the Peruvian warship Tumbes went to rescue the remaining 38 survivors and took them to Paita, where they were apparently absorbed into the local population.
Meanwhile, in Tonga, king George Tupou I, having heard of these events, sent three schooners to ʻAta to evacuate and to resettle the 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 been named Kolomaile.
The Rev. A. W. Murray, the earliest European missionary in Tuvalu, described the practices of blackbirders in the Ellice Islands. He said they promised islanders that they would be taught about God while working in coconut oil production, but the slavers' intended destination was the Chincha Islands in Peru. Rev. A. Murray reported that in 1863, about 180 people were taken from Funafuti and about 200 were taken from Nukulaelae, leaving 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 from the 1850s–1870s, is described as arriving in Papeete, Tahiti in December 1868 on his ship Rona with 150 men from Niue. Hayes offered them for sale as contract or indentured labourers.
The expansion of plantations in Fiji and Samoa, as well as sugar plantations in Australia also created market destinations for blackbirders. Ships also called at the islands of Melanesia and Micronesia, taking off their workers for other places. In 1871 the first Anglican Bishop of Melanesia, John Patteson, was killed on Nukapu island (one of the Solomon Islands) by indigenous people five days after blackbirders killed one man and abducted five others.
So many ships entered the blackbirding trade (with adverse effects on islanders) that the British Navy sent ships from Australia Station into the Pacific to suppress the trade. (By 1808 both Great Britain and the United States had prohibited the African slave trade.) But, the ships of the Australian Squadron (HMS Basilisk, HMS Beagle, HMS Conflict, HMS Renard, HMS Sandfly & HMS Rosario) were not able to suppress the blackbirding trade.
From the 1860s, the demand for labour in Queensland, Australia, resulted in blackbirding in the region. 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, traders "recruited" Kanaka labourers for the sugar cane fields of Queensland, from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia as well as Niue. The Queensland government tried to regulate the trade: it required 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. But, such government observers were often corrupted by bonuses paid for labourers 'recruited,' or blinded by alcohol, and did little or nothing to prevent sea-captains from tricking islanders on-board or otherwise engaging in kidnapping with violence. Joe Melvin, an investigative journalist who, undercover, in 1892 joined the crew of Queensland blackbirding ship Helena, found no instances of intimidation or misrepresentation and concluded that the Islanders recruited did so "willingly and cannily".
These people were referred to as Kanakas (the French equivalent Canaques is still used to refer to the ethnic Melanesians in New Caledonia) and came from the Western Pacific islands: from Melanesia, mainly the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides, 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 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 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 kidnapped or "blackbirded" is unknown and remains controversial. Official documents and accounts from the period often conflict with the oral tradition passed down by 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 Pacific Islanders remaining in Australia in 1901 were compulsorily repatriated from 1906–08 under the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901. Those who were married to an Australian were exempt from compulsory repatriation. Today, the descendants of those who remained are officially referred to as South Sea Islanders. A 1992 census of South Sea Islanders reported around 10,000 descendants living in Queensland. Fewer 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 were transported there to work on cotton plantations. The American Civil War had cut off the supply of cotton to the international market when the Union blockaded southern ports. Cotton cultivation was potentially an extremely profitable business. Thousands of European planters flocked to Fiji to establish plantations but found the natives unwilling to adapt to their plans. They 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.
The British and Queensland governments tried to regulate this recruiting and transport of labour. Melanesian labourers were to be recruited for a term of three years, paid three pounds per year, issued with basic clothing and given access to the company store for supplies. Most Melanesians were recruited by deceit, usually being enticed aboard ships with gifts, and then locked up. The living and working conditions for them in Fiji were 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 government required captains to transport the labourers 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, 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 church missionaries. When islanders were enticed to a religious service, 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 given immunity in return for giving evidence against his crew members. The captain of the Carl, Joseph Armstrong, was later sentenced to death.
Beginning in 1879, British planters arranged for the transport of Indian indentured labourers in Fiji. The number of Melanesian labourers declined, but they were still being recruited and employed in such places as sugar mills and ports, until the start of the First World War. In addition, as recounted by writer Jack London, the British and Queensland ships often used black crews, sometimes recruited among the islanders. 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 multi-cultural descendants identify as a distinct community but, to outsiders, their language and culture cannot be distinguished from native Fijians.
Descendants of Solomon Islanders have filed land claims to assert their right to traditional settlements in Fiji: a group 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.
Islanders fought back and sometimes were able to resist those engaged in blackbirding. Historic events in Melanesia are being assessed in the context of blackbirding, and with the addition of new material from indigenous oral histories and interpreting to acknowledge indigenous agency. A notable event that attracted great attention in Great Britain was when native people killed Anglican missionary John Coleridge Patteson, Bishop of Melanesia, in September 1871 on Nukapu in what is now Temotu Province, Solomon Islands. His death from the beginning was interpreted as resistance by local people to blackbirding. Patteson is considered a martyr by the Anglican Church. A few days before his death, one of the local men had been killed by blackbirders and five others were abducted.
But, a 2010 article argues for a larger role of women in the event and a different precipitating event. When Patteson tried to persuade islanders to release their children to him to be educated in a distant Christian mission school, Niuvai, wife of the paramount chief, and other women did not want to lose their children to him. Niuvai persuaded the men to kill the bishop. An alternative theory is that Patteson had disrupted the local hierarchy, and especially threatened the patriarchal order.
At the time, Patteson's death caused outrage in England and contributed to the government's cracking down to try to control the abusive aspects of blackbirding. Great Britain annexed Fiji as a way to suppress such slavery.
Representation in popular culture
"..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)
In another passage from the same book, he wrote:
"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." (p 270)
- Bully Hayes
- Impressment, the formal term for pressganging
- Ben Pease
- South Sea Islander
- Reverse Underground Railroad, sometimes known as "blackbirding"
- 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.
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