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License for the carriage by sea of native labourers

Date: c 1880
Overall: 375 x 233 mm
Medium: Ink on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: License
Object No: 00051919

User Terms

    A license issued to Thomas Hepple Robson, Captain of DELMIRA, 'to carry not more that 80 Kanaka laborers from the island of Nui to Malden island and to reconvey from Malden island to Nui one hundred Kanaka laborers'. This license was issued under The Pacific Islanders Protection Acts 1872 and 1875 'for the prevention of kidnapping and the due observance of the requirements of the said Acts.'
    HistoryThe indentured labour trade conducted in the South Pacific in the late nineteenth century by Australian vessels and companies is an important aspect of Australian history. It is not widely known, yet was highly significant at the time for various reasons – not the least the fact that it was regarded as Australia’s version of the slave trade.

    From the 1860s the demand for labour in the burgeoning colony of Queensland became the focus of what became known as blackbirding. Over a period of 40 years from the early 1860s, non-European labourers were ‘recruited’ mainly for the back-breaking work few Europeans could be found to do on the sugar cane plantations. They were also a form of very cheap labour in what was initially a marginal industry. The recruits were bought from Vanuatu, Papua new Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and other smaller Pacific Islands.

    The Queensland government attempted to regulate the trade by requiring every ship engaged in recruiting labourers from the Pacific islands to carry a person approved by the government to ensure that labourers were willingly recruited and not kidnapped. However these government observers were not effective as they were often corrupted by bonuses paid for labourers 'recruited' and did nothing to prevent sea-captains from tricking islanders on-board or otherwise engaging in kidnapping with violence.

    The methods of blackbirding were varied. Some labourers were willing to be taken to Australia to work, while others were tricked or even forced. In some cases blackbirding ships (which could make huge profits) would entice entire villages by luring them on board for trade or a religious service, and then set sail. Many died during the voyage due to unsanitary conditions and also from poor working conditions on the plantations.

    Some 50,000 to 60,000 islanders, referred to as Kanakas, were taken to Australia. Many of the workers were effectively slaves, but since the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 had made slavery illegal, they were officially called ‘indentured labourers’. Some Aboriginal people, especially from the Cape York region, were also kidnapped and transported south to work.

    Many islanders were indentured, paid and treated reasonably well, particularly from the 1870s. The Burns Philp line flirted with the island labour trade, but (Sir) James Burns was always hesitant about involvement and after some members of the crew of his vessel Hopeful were prosecuted for malpractice.

    Precisely how many Islanders were actually kidnapped or ‘blackbirded’ is not known. Stories of blatantly violent kidnapping relate to the first 10–15 years of the trade. The majority of the 10,000 islanders remaining in Australia in 1901 were repatriated between 1906-08 under the the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901 – part of the effects of what became the White Australia Policy. A 1992 census of South Sea Islanders found there were around 10,000 descendants of blackbirded labourers still living in Queensland.

    This document is a circa 1880 license for Captain Thomas Hepple Robson of the Barquentine Delmira to ‘carry not more than 80 native labourers from the island of Nui’ and ‘to re-convey from Malden Island to Niu 100 Kanaka labourers’.

    The license reflects the period where government authorities were increasingly regulating the Pacific Island labour trade. This was sparked by the significant public outcry over the infamous 1871 case against the crew of the Barque Carl who not only abducted a group of Fijians after the crew disguised themselves as missionaries, but then killed 60 islanders in the hold of the vessel to destroy the ‘evidence’. The captain of the Carl was later sentenced to death.

    See 'The brig Carl' photographed by Samuel Hood studios circa 1880s (0002240-0002244 and 00023023-00023024)

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