Transcript

Australian-Pacific indentured labour trade

Tracey Banivanua-Mar
t.banivanuamar@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I'd be your host Matt Smith and with me today is Dr Tracey Banivanua-Mar, of the History Program at La Trobe University. Thank you for joining me Tracey.

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

You're welcome.

Matt Smith:

Now, you're here today to talk to me about your book which is called Violence and Colonial Dialogue: the Australia-Pacific Labor Trade. If you could tell me a bit about the history that Australia has with Pacific colonialism. Tell me a bit about the relationship there.

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

Australia since the mid-1800s has had quite a close connection with the islands of the Western Pacific, particularly from Fiji west into Papua New Guinea and the Solomons and Vanuatu and from the 1870s Australian settlers and plantation owners based in Queensland started to look to the Western Pacific as a source of labour to run, at that stage, the pastoral industries that were being established in Queensland. But there was also from about the 1860s Australian settlers started to look to Fiji as a good halfway point between the Australian and New Zealand colonies and the North American colonies, particularly from the 1870s and 80s, Queensland and New South Wales pushed quite heavily for Britain to annex parts of the Western Pacific to the British Empire.

Matt Smith:

So it wasn't just as a source of labourers, but it was also a strategic position that they had then.

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

Yes.

Matt Smith:

When did they start bringing over people to work in Queensland then?

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

From the late 1860s, 1868 in particular, it was legislated, people like Robert Towns after whom Townesville is named introduced the first load of Pacific Islanders in 1863 to work his plantation, but it didn't become an established systematised trade until 1868, when it was legislated under the Polynesian Labourers Act.

Matt Smith:

Under what pretext were these people coming over here?

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

Technically they came over as indentured labourers, technically to work for three years, paid an annual wage of £6 per year and within that period of indenture they were bonded to their employer, much like the old European Masters and Servants Act, but this system was racialised and one of the pretexts for bringing Pacific Islanders over was the fairly common myth that white people couldn't work in the tropics and that black labour was needed to do hard labour-intensive plantation work establishing sugar plantations and in the early days cotton plantations.

Matt Smith:

You said "technically". Is it "technically" because that wasn't the reality though?

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

Yes, it was technically because they were the legal mechanisms that allowed planters to bring them over, but particularly in the earlier days of the trade, up until about the 1870s, early 1870s, a lot of the people that were brought over were brought over under quite dubious circumstances. A lot of debate exists about the extent to which people were kidnapped, like, literally kidnapped from the beaches and brought over without their consent. The historical consensus tends to be that while in the early days of the trade, quite a lot of people would have been kidnapped and brought over by force, by the later stages of the trade, once Islanders had become used to the value of their own labour, they exercised a bit more independence and agency, but certainly in the early days of the trade, it was quite difficult to regulate, so it was quite easy for planters and labour traders to exploit the system and to force people to come over.

Matt Smith:

What did this do to Northern Queensland then, because you would have had a very different population mix there. You would essentially have a lot of people who aren't familiar with the land at all.

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

In the sugar district, the populations fluctuated, but at some point, places like Mackay or Bundaberg, the white population would be far outnumbered by the population of South Sea Islanders, but generally South Sea Islanders or Pacific Islanders were contained by the indenture contract, so they were legally not able to leave the plantations. Their employers often would let them leave the plantations on a Sunday. The presence of a large black community in a settler colony that was fixed on establishing a white settlement created a lot of tension and by the 1890s once the Australian colonies were starting to talk about a federated nation and a white Australia, the presence of Pacific Islanders became the cause of a lot of that familiar late 19th century brand of racism, where Islanders were seen to be taking white jobs and was seen to be a threat to white women and seemed to occupy space that was best kept for white workers and white settlement.

Matt Smith:

Was this activity any better than slavery?

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

OK, technically again, no it wasn't slavery. People were free after three years, technically they were paid, and technically they consented, but it's worth keeping in mind the context within the British Empire at the time in a number of places such as the Caribbean and South America, where plantation owners and sugar planters have depended on slave labour. By the 1860s they were starting to shift to indentured labour anyway because it was beginning to be seen as a more economically viable form of extracting unfree labour. So it's in that context that the indentured labour trade of Pacific Islanders emerged. It was seen as a way to get free labour. For Pacific Islanders within the indenture contract too, the restrictions on their freedom, the conditions under which they worked, all of them were quite exploitative. Others had family here, they had friends here. Some of the scenes that are described of deportation on the docks are quite heart-wrenching, people crying and groups of friends being broken up, and it was quite a traumatic and violent period of Australian history.

Matt Smith:

Your book has in the title "Violence and Colonial Dialogue". Was it a violent process? Where did the violence come into it?

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

I look at the kind of violence that mediated relations between mostly Pacific Islanders and labour recruiters and plantation owners. In particular I look at the violence of the labour in place on the plantations through court records and I argue that while violence wasn't something that happened every day, in every person's life, it was something that was structured into the legal system in Queensland. The planters for example didn't need to be violent every day to extract labour from Pacific Islanders. It was available to them as a tool, and in many cases of assault or more serious murders and things like that, frequently the state would back the employer's rights over those of Pacific Islanders. But I need to kind of be careful here because it's not as if it was a ... it wasn't like a Southern Plantation kind of whips and that sort of thing, but there was a violent kind of presence in the structures of the indentured labour contract. There were a number of quite serious massacres and things that occurred in the Pacific in recruiting labour that ended up in Australian or British courts, so even if you take the most conservative picture of the labour trade, it was a very violent and vicious period of history in the Pacific and in Queensland.

Matt Smith:

So actually killing people in the process of recruiting indentured labourers ...

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

Yes, murders and kidnapping, so the worst, well it is an exceptional massacre, but the one that really shook international attention was the Carl Massacre in 1872, during which around 80 Pacific Islanders were murdered over a twelve hour period. It was an horrific massacre and when news of that got back to Melbourne and Sydney and London, there was widespread shock and it inspired Britain to become more involved in regulating traders in the Pacific. That was the worst. Others, the more familiar ones that ended up in the Queensland courts were things where one or two people would be shot in the process of taking labour in or there'd be sort of scuffles between Islanders on the beaches and recruiters on the ships. Violence was really normalised in the process. It was something that people weren't shocked by.

Matt Smith:

When Pacific Islanders were brought to Australia as indentured labourers, did they retain their individual Island identities or was a new identity forged amongst all the Pacific Islanders?

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

Well, that's a really good question and it's something that historians have debated. I think the sort of short answer is Yes, to both. Islands of origin became a really critical way that people forged connections in Queensland, and forging connections was the way they survived, because if you think about it, when most people arrived, they didn't have English, they didn't know what orders were being given to them, they didn't have a clue what they were being expected to do, so if you could find someone with a common language base, get news from home, you could figure out what was going on, so islands of origin became really critical. It also became a way of establishing allegiances within the community. But at the same time, by 1900 the permanent core of the South Sea Islander community in Queensland had also forged a new identity as black labourers, so after 1901 when they started to protest against deportation, they formed political organisations such as the Nambour Planters Society and things like that, where they were quite aware that they were viewed as black men primarily, so they played that identity, but they also maintained their original Islander identities.

Matt Smith:

Before I talked to you and before I looked into your book, I'd no idea that this kind of thing happened in Queensland or that it was even part of Australia's history. So how is it remembered now?

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

If you don't live in the sugar districts in Queensland and you're not from the Australian South Sea Island community, I think most Australians are not aware of this history, and if they are aware of it, they might vaguely be aware of Kanakas, which is the derogatory term that Islanders used to be called. I mean, there've been some formal processes of remembering and I think in 2000 and the late 90s, the Australian Federal Government and the Queensland State Government issued formal statements of recognition and regret for what had been done to Australian South Sea Islanders. And locally, in a lot of the sugar communities, Islander-driven initiatives are starting to establish a presence in the landscape, memorials and things like that. But as a part of Australia's history, and the thing that established Queensland for example, it doesn't hold a central place.

Matt Smith:

Are there some Islander communities I imagine then, that would like it to be more prominent than what it is?

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

Yeah, yeah, there absolutely are, but I think a lot of Islander communities today are starting to reconnect with their home islands, which is a really positive thing. So the kinds of histories, the oral histories, the songs and dances and things that have been used to remember this period of history in the islands, are starting to reconnect with the oral histories of South Sea Islanders here in Australia too, and both links, which in some cases, some villages never even knew what happened to the people who were taken, and that lack of memory is still alive in many of these communities, so these connections are re-establishing time lines and genealogies and connections to land and place and things like that. So it's a positive experience.

Matt Smith:

Your book came out in 2007 and it's called Violence and Colonial Dialogue: The Australia-Pacific Labor Trade and it was published by the University of Hawaii Press. Dr Tracey Banivanua-Mar, thank you for your time today.

Tracey Banivanua-Mar:

Thank you.

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