Magazine article New Internationalist

Refined White

Magazine article New Internationalist

Refined White

Article excerpt

SLAVE-LIKE LABOUR helped establish many of Australia's primary industries, and the sugar industry was no exception. The promise of free transported labour that was provided by convicts to early Australian kings of commerce ceased in 1853, before the Australia sugar industry started. So, as the first white squatters moved into North Queensland in 1861 and established vast sugar plantations, they sought - and found - cheap indentured labour to replace convict workers.

Ship captains trading in the South Pacific quickly saw the easy money to be made from providing South Sea Islanders for this emerging industry: a potentially cheap labour force that, they argued, was better able than Europeans to endure the climate and the backbreaking work.

Queensland sea trader Ross Lewin advertised on 26 April 1867 'that he intends immediately visiting the South Seas and will be happy to receive orders for the importation of South Sea natives to work on the cotton and sugar plantations rapidly springing up in [Australia]'. Those willing to pay seven pounds ($10) for each man 'may rely on having the best and most serviceable natives to be had among the islands'.

That same year 1,200 South Sea Islanders were shipped to Australia: almost 10 times the number of those introduced in any previous year. Another 61,300 would follow. Most came from Melanesia - Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides.

Some Australians argue against claims that this was a trade in human slavery. Pointing to contracts that would bind the Islanders to a particular plantation for at least three years, they say that the Islanders were 'indentured' (a form of contract) - not slave - labour, and that many returned to their island once their term was completed.

Whatever the characterization, many of the conditions endured by the Islanders were indisputably slave-like. Some were captured or kidnapped by ships' crews. Most were carried like livestock. Once contracted to a plantation, the Islanders worked long continuous hours under the supervision of overseers, and received a pittance compared to the amount that white labourers were paid at the time. Kanaka (a term of belittlement meaning 'Boy') rarely escaped some form of physical or mental violence from Europeans - beatings, medical neglect, withdrawal of food rations, forced separation from a spouse. …

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