Acts of Resistance: Blackbirding in the South Pacific (1880-1885)

South Pacific islanders (Kanakas), with an overseer (background), on a sugar plantation, Cairns, Queens., Austl., c. 1890.
South Pacific islanders (Kanakas), with an overseer (background), on a sugar plantation, Cairns, Queens., Austl., c. 1890.


Professor Deirdre Coleman
School of Culture and Communication


Shaun Busuttil
School of Social and Political Sciences

Michael Evans
School of Historical and Philosophical Studies

Project description

This project, Acts of Resistance, strengthens the formal recognition in 1994 of Australian South Sea Islanders (or ASSI) as a ‘distinct cultural group’, one with a unique historical and contemporary identity. ASSI, whose ancestors were brought to Australia to work on sugar plantations in the 19th century, believe that their history was one of enslavement. They also believe that the racial discrimination suffered by their people today as seasonal workers stems in part from ‘blackbirding’: the kidnapping and exploitation of their ancestors as cheap, low-skilled agricultural labour.

Blackbirding for labourers to work on Australian industries began in 1847 when Ben Boyd brought 65 islanders from New Caledonia and Vanuatu to Eden, southern NSW, where he had established a whaling station. But it was in 1863, in northern NSW and Queensland, that blackbirding began in earnest on Australia’s tropical plantations of cotton and sugar. In 1868 some effort was made to stop the practice by introducing a system of indentured labour involving 3-year contracts.

This project focusses on the 6 years between 1880-1885 for the following reasons. In 1880 the first comprehensive legislation regulating all aspects of the trafficking and employment of Pacific Island labour was passed, with inspectors appointed to enforce the Act. In terms of recruitment, the Act imposed minimum living standards on board ship, and ships’ masters had to post one bond against kidnapping and another to guarantee the return passage of labourers.

From 1883-85, with the supply of Pacific Island labour dwindling, some 5,000 New Guinea labourers were brought in illegally, many of whom died soon after arriving in Queensland.   In 1885, with conservatives fearing that the number of South Sea Island labourers was creating a non-white underclass, Queensland banned future importation. The White Australia movement was underway but a full ban did not come into force until 1901.

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