Polynesian Labour in Queensland

In Search of Cheap Labour

The prices of cotton and sugar remained high for some years; but when the war was over they fell to their former rates and the planters of Queensland found it necessary to find some cheaper substitute for their white labourers. At first it was proposed to bring over Hindoos from India, but nothing came of this idea; and afterwards, when Chinese were introduced, they were not found to give the satisfaction expected. But it happened that one of the planters, named Robert Towns, was the owner of a number of ships which traded to the South Sea Islands, and having persuaded a few of the islanders to cross to Queensland, he employed them on his sugar plantation. He took some little trouble in teaching them the work he wished them to do and found that they soon became expert at it. As the remuneration they required was very small, they served admirably to supply the necessary cheap labour.


The practice of employing South Sea Islanders, or "Kanakas" as they were called, soon became a general rule and parts of Queensland had all the appearance of the American plantations, where crowds of dusky figures, decked in the brightest of colours, lied their labours with laughter and with song, among the tall cane brakes or the bursting pods of cotton. The "Kanankas" generally worked for a year or two in the colony, then having received a bundle of goods- consisting of cloth, knives, hatchets, beads and so forth, to the value of £10 - they were again sent back to their palm clad islands. A system of this kind was apt to give rise to abuses and accordingly, it was found that a few of the more unscrupulous planters, not content with the ordinary profits, stooped to the shameful meaness of cheating the poor islander out of his hard earned reward. They hurried him on board a vessel and sent after him a parcel containing a few shillings worth of property; then, when he reached his home, he found that all his toil and his years of absence from his friends had got him only so much trash.

Slave Trade

Happily , this was not of very frequent occurrence; but there was another abuse both common and glaring. As the plantations in Queensland increased, they required more labourers than were willing to leave their homes and as the captains of the vessels were paid by the planters so much for every "Kanaka" they bought over, there was a strong temptation to carry off the natives by force, when, by other means, a sufficient number could not be obtained. There were frequent conflicts between the crews of labour vessels and the inhabitants of the islands. The white men burnt the native villages and carried off crowds of men and women; while, in revenge, the islanders often surprised the vessel and massacred the crew; and in such cases the innocent suffered for the guilty. The sailors often had the baseness to disguise themselves as missionaries, in order the more easily to effect purpose; and when the true missionaries, suspecting nothing, approached the natives on their errand of good will, they were speared or clubbed to death by the unfortunate islanders. But, as a rule, the "Kanakas" were themselves the sufferers; the English vessels pursued their frail canoes, ran them down and sank them; then, whilst the men were struggling in the sea, they were seized and thrust into the hold, the hatches were fastened down; and when, in this dastardly manner, a sufficient number had been gathered and the dark interior of the ship was filled with a steaming mass of human beings densely huddled together, the captains set sail for Queensland, where they landed those of their living cargoes who had escaped the deadly pestilence which filth and confinement always endangered in such cases.

Polynesian Labour Act

These were the deeds of a few ruthless and disreputable seamen; but the people of Queensland, a a whole, had no sympathy with such barbrities and in 1868 they passed a law to regulate the labour traffic. It enacted that no South Sea Islanders were to be brought into the colony, unless the captain of the vessel could show a document, signed by a missionary or British consul, stating that they had left the islands of their own free will; Government agents were to accompany every vessel, in order to see that the "Kanakas" were well treted on the voyage; and, onleaving the colony, no labourer was to receive less than £6 pounds worth of goods for every year he had worked.

These regulations were of great use, but they were often evaded; for, by giving a present to the king of an island, the sailors could bribe him to force his people to express their willingness before the missionary. The trembling men were brought forward and under the fear of their Chief's revenge, they declared their perfect readiness to sail. Sometimes the Government agents on board the vessels were bribed not to report misdeeds of the sailors; and in the case of the Jason, on which the agent was too honest to be so bribed, he was chained below by the captain, on the pretence that he was mad. When the ship arrived in Queensland, the unfortunate man was found in a most miserable state of filth and starvation. For this offence, the captain was arrested, tried, and imprisoned. The imperial authorities recently gave their assistance to the Colonial Government to suppress this traffic and British cruisers now sail among all the islands to prevent the perpetration of such enormities.


History of Australia