Spotlight on the collection: 150th anniversary of the arrival of South Sea Islander labourers to Queensland

Fryer Library's collections provide many opportunities to examine the Queensland sugar industry's labour issues and to catch an arresting glimpse into the lives of South Sea Islanders at home and in Australia. 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the first arrival of South Sea Islanders in Queensland to provide low paid, indentured labour for the new state's fledgling primary industries, notably sugar and cotton. Between 1863 and 1904, some of the 62 000 men, women and children brought to Queensland from over eighty islands were persuaded, through various degrees of coercion, into undertaking the journey. A number were kidnapped ('blackbirded') by unscrupulous traders.

From its early days to the present, many aspects of the trade in South Sea Islander labour have been subject to debate. Controversy surrounded the proportion of Islanders to be legally recruited or physically forced to leave their homes to travel to Queensland. The humanitarian concerns of anti-slavery supporters were balanced against the desire of some crop growers to reap the benefits of a labour force whose wages were much cheaper than those of white labourers and who could be forced to return to their homes at the end of their contracts (up to three years). Opposing arguments published in Australia and abroad make sometimes uncomfortable reading, but reflect commonly held opinions of the day.

L-R: 'Native canoe, Kandavu, Fiji' (1) ; 'Fijian chief (Rewa) (2)' ; 'Hoeing weeds in young cane' (3)
Background: Excerpt from 'Thynne, AJ 1901, 'Alien immigration

Fryer Library holds the only catalogued printed copy in pamphlet form of Alien Immigration - the Truth about Queensland and coloured races - Sugar Growing in the Tropics written by Hon Andrew J Thynne, solicitor, member of the Queensland Legislative Council, and later University of Queensland Chancellor. Thynne strenuously opposed Edmund Barton's proposal to curtail the Pacific Islander labour trade (the 'Maitland manifesto') in the same article of the same name, published over February 1 and 2, 1901 in the Brisbane Courier. His defence of Queensland's position towards South Sea Islanders included the views:

  • that 'Queensland has certainly done her best to guard the rights of the simple child of nature who comes to her shores' through its 'stringent and strictly enforced' state laws,
  • that the Pacific Islander presented a 'less obnoxious' alternative to British-Indian 'coolies' ('Which of these two classes of coloured labour do the people of Australia, and especially of Queensland, dislike most?'),
  • that 'Queensland has for many years given the closest attention to the question of preserving "Australia for the white man".'

L-R: 'Tongan girls' (4); 'Samoan princess' (5) ; 'Kanaka women working in sugar cane' (6)
Background: Excerpt from Molesworth, BH 1917, 'The history of kanaka labour in Queensland'.

Some writers of the period professed an intention to present a balanced view of the labour question, including University of Queensland student Bevil Hugh Molesworth, who later achieved success as an educationalist and radio broadcaster. In his 1917 MA (Honours) thesis, 'The History of Kanaka Labour in Queensland', held in Fryer Library's collection, Molesworth lamented:

A subject, torn as this has been by opposing parties in two hemispheres, inevitably suffers the misrepresentation of its every feature, each party naturally exaggerating those facts which tend to support its own ideas and suppressing the others.

The Pacific Island Labourers Act was passed by the first elected Commonwealth Government in December 1901 as part of the White Australia Policy. It allowed for the mass deportation of most South Sea Islander labourers from Queensland and northern New South Wales after 1906 and the restriction of entry to Pacific Islanders after 1904. The only exemptions allowed were for Pacific Islanders brought to Queensland before 1 September 1879, ships crews, or those granted Certificates of Exemption under the Immigration Restriction Act. Of the relatively few Pacific Islander labourers allowed to remain, many endured continuing prejudice and ill-treatment.

In 1994 the Commonwealth Government formally recognised Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group, followed by the Queensland Government in 2000.

Fryer Library acknowledges the great contribution of South Sea Islanders to Queensland over 150 years.


-- Robyn Clare


Images sources

1.Henry King, 'Native canoe, Kandavu, Fiji' (Photograph) Item 998, Album H6, Hayes Collection, UQFL2, Fryer Library University of Queensland Library.
2. 'Fijian chief', (Photograph) 1880s, Item 168, Album H5, Hayes collection, UQFL2, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library .
3. 'Hoeing weeds in young cane', (Photograph) Views of Cairns-Herberton Railways Queensland (189-)?, F3462, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library.
4. 'Tongan girls' (Photograph) Item 186, Album H5, Hayes collection, UQFL2, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library.
5. Henry King, 'Samoan princess' (Photograph) Item 984, Album H6, Hayes collection, UQFL2, Fryer Library, University of Queensland.
6.'Kanaka women working in sugar cane', (Photograph), Views of Cairns-Herberton Railways Queensland (189-)?, F3462, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library.


Last updated:
19 January 2017