Kanaka (Pacific Island worker)

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Loyalty Islanders employed as sailors on the New Caledonian coast

Kanakas were workers from various Pacific Islands employed in British colonies, such as British Columbia (Canada), Fiji, and Queensland (Australia) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They also worked in California and Chile (see Easter Island and Rapanui people as related subjects).

"Kanaka", originally referred only to native Hawaiians, from their own name for themselves, kānaka ʻōiwi or kānaka maoli, in the Hawaiʻian language. In the Americas in particular, native Hawaiians did make up the majority; but Kanakas in Australia were almost entirely Melanesian. In Australian English "kanaka" is now avoided outside of its historical context, as it has been used as an offensive term.[1]


Kanaka labourers on a Queensland sugar plantation, 1890s; photographer unknown

According to the Macquarie Dictionary, the word "kanaka", which was once widely used in Australia, is now regarded in Australian English as an offensive term for a Pacific Islander.[1][2] Most "Kanakas" in Australia were people from Melanesia, rather than Polynesia. The descendants of 19th century immigrants to Australia from the Pacific Islands now generally refer to themselves as "South Sea Islander", and this is also the term used in formal and official situations.

Most of the original labourers were recruited from the Solomon Islands and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and New Caledonia, though others were taken from the Loyalty Islands. Some were kidnapped ("blackbirded") or otherwise induced into long-term indentured service or unfree labour.

Out of the more than 60,000 Islanders recruited from 1863, the majority were to be repatriated by the Australian Government between 1906 and 1908 under the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901[3] legislation prompted by the White Australia policy. Some were exempted on various grounds, including marriage to Australians. Those and others who avoided deportation remained in Australia and their descendants today form Australia's largest Melano-Polynesian ethnic group. Many Australian South Sea Islanders are also of mixed ancestry, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for whom they are often mistaken. As a consequence, Australian South Sea Islanders have faced forms of discrimination similar to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

The Australian South Sea Islander community was recognised as a unique minority group in 1994 after a report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found they had become more disadvantaged than the indigenous Australians.[4]


Hawaiian family who settled in British Columbia, ca. 1890

Canadian Kanakas were all Hawaiian in origin. Kanakas had been aboard the first exploration and trading ships to reach the Pacific Northwest Coast and there were cases of Kanakas living amongst various First Nations peoples after jumping ship as well as often along on the fur brigades and Express of the fur companies, as well as in the life of the fort. A great many were contractees of the Hudson's Bay Company although some had arrived in the area as ship's hands or, in some cases, migrated north from California.

Many Kanaka men married First Nations women,[5] and their descendants can still be found in British Columbia and neighbouring parts of Canada and the United States (the states of Washington and Oregon). Kanaka Creek, British Columbia was a community of mixed Hawaiian-First families established across the Fraser River from Fort Langley in the 1830s and remains on the map today.

Kanakas were active in both the California Gold Rush and in the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and other rushes. Kanaka Bar, British Columbia gets its name from claims staked and worked by Kanakas who had been previously working for the fur company (which today is a First Nations community of the Nlaka'pamux people).

There was no negative connotation to the use of Kanaka in British Columbian and Californian English of the time, and in its most usual sense today means someone of Hawaiian ethnic inheritance, without any derisive sense.

One linguist holds that Canuck, a nickname for Canadians, is derived from the Hawaiian Kanaka.[6]

United States[edit]

As early as the 1820s, native workers from the Hawaiian Islands (called the "Sandwich Islands" at the time), were employed in the kitchen and other skilled trades by the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, mostly living south and west of the main palisade in an area known as "Kanaka Village." Kanakas employed in agriculture and ranching, were present in the mainland United States (primarily in California under Spanish colonial rule and later American company contracts) as early as 1834, (Richard Henry Dana refers often to Kanaka workers and sailors on the Californian coast in his book Two Years Before the Mast).

Their migration peaked between 1900 and 1930, and most of their families soon blended by intermarriage into the Chinese, Filipino, and more numerous Mexican populations with whom they came in contact. Native Hawaiians harvested sugar beets and picked apples at one point in the states of Washington and Oregon.

They have left a legacy in Oregon place names, such as Kanaka Flat in Jacksonville, and the Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon (Owyhee is an archaic spelling of Hawaii).[7][8] There is also documentation of the presence of several hundred Native Hawaiian paniolos or cowboys across the Great Basin of the Western US.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Macquarie Dictionary (Fourth Edition), 2005, p. 774
  2. ^ "Kanaka dictionary definition - Kanaka defined". www.yourdictionary.com.
  3. ^ National Archives of Australia, "Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 (Cth)" Archived 26 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine.. Access date: 3 December 2007.
  4. ^ "Recognition for Australian South Sea Islanders". Queensland Museum. Retrieved 5 May 2017.
  5. ^ Koppel, Tom, 1995 Kanaka: The Untold Story of Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and Pacific Northwest p 2
  6. ^ Allen, Irving Lewis, 1990. Unkind Words: Ethnic Labeling from Redskin to WASP, pp 59, 61–62. New York: Bergin & Garvey. ISBN 0-89789-217-8.
  7. ^ Rabun, Sheila J. (1 June 2011). "Aloha, Oregon! Hawaiians in Northwest History". Oregon Digital Newspaper Program. Retrieved 16 February 2016.
  8. ^ Boom, Tony (28 April 2009). "The Hawaiians of Kanaka Flat". Mail Tribune. Medford, OR. Retrieved 16 February 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Affeldt, Stefanie: Consuming Whiteness. Australian Racism and the ‘White Sugar’ Campaign. Lit-Verlag, Münster 2014, pp. 152–188
  • Barman, Jean, 2006. "Leaving Paradise: Indigenous Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest", University of Hawaii Press, 513pp. ISBN 0-8248-2549-7
  • Di Giorgio, Wladimir, 2009. "Francs et Kanaks". rés. n°5195 A.P.E/Ctésia
  • Graves, Adrian, 1983. "Truck and Gifts: Melanesian Immigrants and the Trade Box System in Colonial Queensland", in: Past & Present (no. 101, 1983)
  • Koppel, Tom, 1995. Kanaka, The Untold Story of Hawaiian Pioneers in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, Whitecap Books, Vancouver
  • Lane, M. Melia, 1985. "Migration of Hawaiians to Coastal B.C., 1810–1869." Master's Thesis, University of Hawaii, Honolulu
  • Twain, Mark, 1897. "Following the Equator, A Journey Around the World", chapters V and VI.