AUSTRALIA AND THE KANAKA SYSTEM
At a time when the Western World was beginning to turn its back on all systems of slavery, Queensland was in the process of embracing it in an attempt to get industry on its feet and flowing financially. A man named Robert Towns was the first instigator of using South Sea Island labour. Towns could almost be likened to Cecil J Rhodes, of Rhodesian fame, for his empire-building attitudes, and his almost flagrant disregard for official and public opinion. The American Civil War broke out in 1861, and lasted until 1865, during this time the American cotton crop dwindled to a trickle and died. this left the industrious maw of Britain's Midlands region without the raw material for its massive weaving industry, and worldwide the demand for cotton was enormous.
Queensland's Governor Bowen was interested in meeting that demand, and he was backed by Robert Towns and other powerful pastoralists, who made it quite clear to the Governor, that for a project of this magnitude to succeed, a vast amount of labour would be required; cheap labour accustomed to working in the harsh sub-tropical climates found in Queensland, and negotiations were entered into with a view to importing labour from India. However, these broke down after a multitude of discussions, and towns decided to import men from the Pacific islands. Towns' needs at this time, were obviously desperate. His property on the Logan River urgently required an influx of cheap workers following one very bad season, and he did not wish a repetition of that unhappy event, and so he commissioned one of his many ships under the command of Captain Geurber with Ross Lewin as recruiting officer, to sail to the Polynesian Islands for the purpose of purchasing labour.
The Don Juan sailed to the islands and returned in August 1863, with Queensland's first Kanaka recruitment. Towns had promised them light work weeding and picking cotton, and that he would provide comfortable huts, with regular rations of rice, meat, pumpkins and yams, and so it is unlikely that his emissaries met with any resistance during this first voyage, especially as the Islanders had a natural love for travelling, adventure and story telling. The new sixty-seven recruits were immediately sent to Towns' property, "Townsvale", on the Logan River, and set to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and although under constant attack from the public and press, Towns proved that cheap labour could work in Queensland, and crops could be grown efficiently and economically, and interested squatters and pastoralists began to look to the production of sugar, as a viable prospect using such inexpensive labour.
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Towns' actions, however, released a whirlwind of public opinion and debated on the practicalities of white versus native labour. An unknown planter who signed himself simply "M", published a series of informative letters in the Maryborough Chronicle towards the end of 1866. M, it seems, had been involved in the growing of sugar cane on the island of Mauritius, where the use of cheap foreign labour was a well accepted fact, and on December 5th, he wrote:
The unsuitableness of the white labour to tropical cultivation arises from - first, the high price he must be paid for his labour, and second his physical constitution. If the cultivation of cane could be reduced to a few operations with horse implements as in the cultivation of cereals, this price would not be worth considering; but as the cane, like most other tropical plants, demands ad much care and hand culture as the rarest flower, the planter must either give it the requisite attention and incur the consequent expense, or be satisfied with a meagre yield due to a deficient cultivation. As white labourers have been introduced into this country as colonists, there would be a great injustice in seeking to reduce or limit their wages to such a rate as would prelude their saving money with a view to becoming farmers on their own account; and even were this done, they would still be dearer than natives of the tropics, whose food and clothing do not cost them more than half of those needed by the whites.
Much has been said about the sturdy Englishman being worth any number of Indians at any kind of work; but this is simply boasting without grounds, for the Indian does the hard work of making cane holes with his bare back exposed to the sun, whose heat alone would enervate the sturdy Englishman. Even the strongest Indians are not chosen for certain kinds of work which from its nature would be too fatiguing for them, and yet not fatiguing for smaller men or boys. Baron Desbassayns, a Reunion, in 1816 says on the subject of emotying cane holes: "I desire that thee shall be employed in this work, as I have done, only young negroes and negresses not with child, because they have smaller hands and kneel more easily; whilst this work is very painful for strong negroes, who do not kneel but bend down to it, which causes the blood to run to the head. For full blooded men it is even dangerous!
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Recently arrived Kanakas
It was publicity such as this which served to heighten public interest in foreign labour. The demands of Queensland's harsh climatic conditions were evidenced in its favour, though the dissident groups argued volubly against it, claiming that the Australian immigration policy should be capable of supplying enough labourers for all the needs of the growing colony, and that if foreign native labour continued to be allowed into the country, thee would be bitter repercussions. Queensland was already suffering financially under the yoke of a terrible depression, which left small crop farmers, squatters and townspeople alike almost destitute. In the early townships of Maryborough, Brisbane, and Gayndah, businessmen were closing and shuttering shops which they had opened with such promises of success and prosperity only a few years previously. The Queensland Government, upon assuming its responsibilities in 1859, could only hope for a miracle to alleviate its financial problems. In 1865, one hundred and eight squatters petitioned Governor Bowen with a list of their grievances, which included the high price for stock and the high rates of labour.
Rates were indeed high, and small farmers could rarely afford to pay them. The anti-slavery groups, instead of acceding such a point, cleverly used it as a tool against the introduction of the indentured labour system, implying that there were already enough unemployed roaming the streets of the towns, without further aggravating the problem, and reports in influential newspapers often supported their cause. In 1866 the Sydney Morning Herald published:
Large numbers of tramps are reported to be coming into this colony from Queensland, and the northern part of New South Wales is said to be overrun with detached parties from two to six persons, evidently recent immigrants to Queensland who have made their way overland. This is becoming a nuisance, and the influx of idlers cannot fail to have a most detrimental effect upon our own working population. It is a great pity that Queensland should be flooded with immigrants that she cannot support, and it is a greater pity still that we should have to support them.
The verbal battle raged back and forth, with the Queensland press acknowledging the problem, but voicing their own views, the farmers, particularly the squatters, were not entirely motivated by loss or profit, or so they claimed; but they were concerned about their very existence as a class, a social structure in its infancy in south East Queensland. The press reported that the farmers should insist on being supplied with a more fundamental system of cultivation, or look forward to an increasing number of embarrassments as squatters abandond their claims. The anonymous supporter of imported labour, "M" proclaimed:
|The advantage to the white population of the introduction of Indian labour would be to the employer; that he would have cheaper and more suitable labour; his venture would be more certain and profitable. This in turn would be the cause of introducing much capital for the extension of agricultural industry; white labourers, relieved of the lowest kind of field work, would find, in the increasing prosperity of the colony, an increasing demand for their labour and higher wages.|
"M" it seems, had firm views and beliefs on the rights and normal working conditions of the Indian labourers. He stipulated that in his experience the engagements for the intended labourers should be for five years, and certainly no less than three, and under no circumstances should they be allowed to remain in the country unemployed. Towns' radical and imperiously political move to import native labour bypassing the Queensland Government bureaucratic attitude of procrastination, was obviously highly applauded by the controversial correspondent who recorded in 1866:
On account of the length of the voyage from India, the costs of the introduction of Indians would probably be too high, but there is an abundant supply of cheap labour in New guinea, and the great archipelago lying a few days' sail to the eastward, hence the cost of introduction would be less than that from India to Mauritius. Captain Towns has already found this, and has done for himself what the Government should long ago have done for the farmer.
By all accounts, Robert Towns was a humane man who thought of his Kanakas with a sometimes almost paternal affection. However, when he picked Mr Ross Lewin as his labour recruiter, he could not have known too much about Lewin's past. His employee had already made a name for himself in the Pacific as a vicious sandalwood dealer and a deserter from the Royal Navy who became a slaver for the infamous Peruvian guano deposits, a job which would have totally crushed any compassion he may hitherto have possessed. Lewin completed a further voyage for Towns, and recruited another consignment of labourers. Cotton was doing well on towns' property, and he ordered three more of his ships to recruit labour from the islands, and the floodgates for the new system were thrown open. In fact so profitable was the brisk trade that Lewin eventually went into his own business of supplying workers, advertising that he was ready to supply natives at just 7 pounds per man, and the orders poured in! Lewin returned to the islands aboard the King Oscar, and brought back two hundred and twenty-five recruits. landing in Brisbane, and on his next voyage, two hundred and eighty-two disoriented natives were landed at the wharf valued at around 9 pounds per head. However, rumours spread concerning the methods of recruitment, and the public became aware finally that blackbirding was taking place. Lewin cared nothing for rumour, he was interested only in profit, and soon afterwards he returned to the islands with another ship, the Spunkie for a further successful expedition.
Kanakas loading cane
The Government was partly to blame for the landslide in the recruiting industry that followed. rumours of kidnapping were growing day by day, and these rumours were widely substantiated by the Christian missionaries stationed on the islands. However, the Government decided, this time at least, to ignore the protests, and many other ships normally employed on legitimate sea routes with normal cargoes of copra and spices, decided to take this inaction as a sign of tacit agreement, and joined the industry for its promise of huge profits. They were vessels ill-equipped for such a trade, having little accommodation and the wrong type of foods for the Islanders, and as a result the recruits often became violently seasick, would not eat, and developed dysentery, which, under these inhumane circumstances ultimately caused deaths during the voyage. These deaths, combined with the rumours of recruiting methods, eventually brought enough pressure on the Governor Bowen to impose restrictions on the trade; and on March 4th, 1868, the Polynesian Labourers Act was passed.
The Act, to regulate and control the introduction and treatment of Polynesian labourers, laid down hard and fast rules which were fair to both employee, recruiter, and employer. They included the following:
The length of the voyage to or from the South Sea Islands shall be computed at thirty days for sailing vessels, and fifteen days for steamer.
3 quarts of water daily during the voyage shall be allowed to each adult exclusive of the quantity used for cooking purposes. Provisions shall be issued to each statute adult during the voyage according to the following scale namely:
The slaver ship May in Bundaberg
In addition the Act went on to stipulate that nominal returns of labourers were to be sent to the immigration agent each quarter, that all births, deaths, marriages and desertions should be reported to the nearest bench of magistrates, that a 20 pounds fine would be imposed on any person hiding a deserter, and that under no circumstances should any person supply Polynesian labourers with spirituous liquors. In a sense, it looked as though Bowen had securely confined and regimented the labour trade, but where there is officialdom, there is usually contempt for it, and the traders found many ways to either ignore or mistranslate the order. One of which was sheer overpowering brutality to subdue those who were placed in positions to enforce the Act, as was the case of the "Jason." A select committee of the Queensland Legislative Assembly, recommended that an agent be sent with each ship to ensure that all the regulations referred to in the Act were being upheld, and a separate cabin was to be made available in every ship engaged in the trade to accommodate the Government Agent. The captain of the "Jason", John William Coath, had been trained in the art of the blackbirding under the able guidance of Ross Lewin. Coath was a hard brash man, and the regulations worried him not one bit. Mr John Meiklejohn was appointed as Government Agent aboard the "Jason" and during their first voyage, he discovered that the rations which were carried aboard for the Kanakas were both inadequate and of an inferior quality; and that some stores which were a requirement of the Act were completely missing. He protested ardently, but Coath, with the remainder of his crew, exerted the power of their brutality to cower Meiklejohn into some sort of temporary submissive role.
Meiklejohn tried his best to assert his authority, threatening Coath with the loss of his licence and heavy fines if he did not abide by the regulations. Coath, determined and ever-aggressive ignored these threats, and when the Jason overtook two native canoes and the crews were kidnapped, the potentially dangerous situation finally came to a head. Meiklejohn protested with all the determination and force he could muster, at which Coath lost his temper and drew a revolver, threatening the Agent. Harsh words followed, and Meiklejohn soon found himself chained in the hold with the natives he wished to protect, where he remained for the rest of the voyage. Three weeks later, the Jason arrived in Maryborough with its cargo of filthy, bloodied, half-naked Kanakas and an almost deranged Government Agent. Coath defended his actions to the authorities, saying that Meiklejohn had to be chained for his own safety. This statement brought a storm of protest from the representatives of the abolitionists, and the port of Maryborough suffered badly in the public's esteem as a sanctuary which not only harboured, but encouraged, such practices. Of Meiklejohn, we cannot even begin to guess at the hardships and privations he must have suffered during those three weeks chained in the filth of a slaver's hold, though we do know that he was later admitted to a Sydney asylum for the mentally insane.
Slave ships with Kanakas at Bundaberg. Left of frame the Helena, and right, the May.
After this, the main opposition to the trade seemed to degenerate into a farce, splinter action groups lobbying for more control, tighter restrictions, while decisions were really being made by the powerful planter class and their supporters. Men of a stronger calibre than Meiklejohn were required as Government Agents, people strong enough to exert their own strength of character to control the slaver captains who were thoroughly swashbuckling pirate class. Unfortunately, men of such calibre who could control the violent excesses of the slaver captains were difficult to find, and when found, reluctant to take the positions offered because of poor renumeration and usually squalid conditions. Inefficiency, procastination, blind ignorance and indecision were all to play a part in the crime against humanity that followed, a crime which covered the span of four decades. The royal Navy was asked to assist in an attempt to alleviate the situation, though they could do little as the blackbhirders were recruiting from such a large area, and the numbers of ships available for patrol were restricted by Britain's own political problems closer to home. The Christian missionaries were in a state of extreme agitation and were continually sending letters to the colonial Secretary detailing reports of recruiiing methods. The missionaries themselves were bearing some of the political and tribal repercussions of the trade, as the islanders associated them with the vile practices of the blackbirders, and they were often shunned by their congregations or sometimes even killed by the wilder hill tribes and eaten. such events were only to be expected. The natives of the South Sea Islands had for years been diligently hostile towards the invasion of the European, who brought only suffering, disease, and a new religion which the natives did not really want to understand; and killings, particularly of those who were foolish enough to trust the natives, were somewhat less than a rare occurrence.
A Kanaka labourer with the fruit of his toil at Bingera
The problem, however, was not restricted to some almost unknown Pacific Island, and the Government was becoming increasingly more aware of the fatal repercussions their immigration policy was having in their own back yard. Initially, the recruiters were bringing in only men and boys to work in the fields, and so there was a startling and aggravating lack of women in this new Queensland society. The Kanakas breached this gap by using Aboriginal women, which naturally sparked resentment between the two races. Sporadic attacks were made on small parties of Kanakas as they worked in the fields, and an atmosphere of hostility grew until it flared into open violence. The white planter class began to arm their kanakas with ancient muzzle-loading weapons, and frequently the belligerent Polynesians would take to the bush armed with these and with machetes to hunt down their aggressors. conclusive proof no longer exists, but there are reports of huge fights culminating in wild cannibal feasts, with the Kanakas returning victorious. Tension heightened when Kanakas and Chinese coolies were thrown together to work side by side in the fields, each race thinking of the other as their inferiors, and bloody scuffles were common.
Kanaka labourers aboard a ship at Bundaberg
Robert Towns, the man who had introduced the whole system in 1863, had foreseen such problems from the very beginning. After hearing reports of the Kanakas' lifestyle, their prolific head hunting and curing, cannibalism, and other heathen tribal customs, even he had second thoughts about introducing such a race into the fledgling Queensland colony. His avarice, however, must have out-weighted his own common sense in favour of the system. with the exception of those who stood to gain from the policy, public opinion was not in favour of the system, and an outcry was heard when a white woman was attacked in Maryborough by Kanakas, which resulted in the death sentence being passed on the culprits. The Kanakas were disarmed, and regarded by the white employers as only a cut above their Aboriginal brethren. Events such as these only served to heighten the disregard from which the Kanakas were suffering under their masters, and the death toll on plantations was exorbitantly high. White man's diseases, from which the Polynesians had no immunity, killed the labourers at an alarming rate. Added to this was the lack of sanitation, overcrowding in poor and inferior barracks, lack of medical attention and insufficient food, all added u to a death toll which was twice as high as the white population; and in the Pacific the violent recruiting methods continued unchecked to fill the vacancies left by these deaths, and to pacify the planters' clamourings for more labour as further stretches of wild countryside were cleared and planted.
Probably the most horrific episode ever to be recounted of the whole Kanaka slave labour system is that of Dr James Patrick Murray, owner of the Carl, a ship which later became infamous in the Pacific slaving run. Murray was a strange, reckless wanderer and adventurer whose life was a constant chameleon of change as climate and events suited him best. His education and quick mind were instrumental in saving him from many foolhardy escapades. He was regarded by his father, who had disowned him, many years prior to the events of the Carl, as quite mad. Murray was born in Ireland, and brought up in New Zealand, it was here that he probably discovered and nurtured his disregard for Islanders. It was a disregard which was carried over into his practice, and his unethical attitudes were responsible for many of his personal dilemmas. After graduating in medicine he practised for a while in New Zealand and finally Victoria. It was here that he instigated his first Australian scandal when he drugged many of his patients at Melbourne's Benevolent Asylum, so that he would enjoy a weekend undisturbed! During the storm of protest that followed, Murray weathered events with a calm nonchalance.
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He was an avid, if misguided, adventurer, but certainly not the type cast in romantic tales. In 1865 he was chosen as medical officer for an expedition which was setting out to search and locate Dr Ludwig Leichhardt. What followed was a disgrace that only a man like Murray could survive. During the expedition, the leader, Duncan MacIntyre, discovered that a waterhole, vital to their ultimate survival, had dried up. The situation was quite desperate, so MacIntyre with one native boy pushed on to seek the next waterhole leaving Murray in charge of the expedition to follow at their best possible speed. It was a fatal decision which was to cost MacIntyre his life.
Murray was in the enviable position of not being beyond the point of no return. Perhaps the responsibility of authority, which had been burdened upon him was too much, and soon after MacIntyre's departure, he revealed several bottles of brandy he had earlier concealed in bags of flour. The whole party then became very intoxicated, the horses roamed, and eventually died of thirst, and the expedition's expensive equipment was lost. Murray, however, was one of the few to succeed in getting back to Melbourne. MacIntyre died of fever near Burketown, unable to read the latin on the phials of medicine which he carried with him, as this had been Murray's responsibility. a public furore followed these events, but Murray, always at the epicentre of such scandals, merely shrugged and walked into the next chapter of disaster and lawlessness which was to court him all his life. He then bought the Carl as an instrument with which to seek further adventure, and in June 1871, he headed for the South Pacific Islands. In Fiji, he decided to use his ship to provide labourers for Queensland, as a method of paying his exorbitantly high overheads. some of his crew, however, had qualms about indulging in slavery, so Murray dismissed them, and hired replacements of experienced men who harboured no such reservations. His first attempts of recruiting proved disastrous. Using subterfuge, he and members of his crew dressed as missionaries in an effort to lure the natives aboard, but the wily Polynesians had been dealing with, and successfully eluding, the slavers for some time, and simply laughed at these childish attempts.
Kanakas, Bundaberg - 1896
Finally, Murray lost his temper, and with it, his patience, and began to use force to fill his holds. Native fleets of war canoes were rammed, pig iron was dropped from the ship to hole and sink the frail craft, and the survivors were hauled unceremoniously from the water, and bundled, dripping into the pestilent holds. Isolated villagers caught unawares were attacked by armed parties, and dozens upon dozens were crammed below decks. However, Murray, an inexperienced slaver, had little knowledge of the tribes or of their ways and customs, and did not realize that among the natives battened below, he had captured a large group of fierce mountain warriors who would die rather than accept humiliation and captivity. These men sowed the seeds of rebellion and mutiny amongst their fellow captives, and without the knowledge of their captors, they fashioned rough weapons for themselves out of the crude furnishings in the hold. Suddenly, at around 10 o'clock at night, the silence was broken as the Kanakas made their desperate bid for freedom. However, Murray and his crew were unexpectedly prepared for such a contingency, and quickly drove the natives back down into the hold under a murderous hail of gunfire.
A group of Kanaka workers
The carnage continued throughout the night with Murray and his men firing down into the hold. At times it looked as if the natives were subdued, but after short quiet periods, they would once again surge towards freedom, and the firing would recommence. By dawn, the natives were thoroughly subdued, and after breakfast, Murray, who had been whistling "Marching Through Georgia" during the massacre, ordered the survivors to the upper deck. Most of them were wounded in varying amounts of severity, and Murray ordered them to be thrown overboard along with the profusion of dead bodies that littered the filthy excreta and blood-stained boards of the hold. After this, the holds were cleaned out, whitewashed, and thoroughly inspected to ensure that nothing remained as evidence of the massacre, and the Carl proceeded on its way. At Levuka, two of Murray's accomplices left the ship after bitter disagreements with its master regarding the murders, and Murray continued on his cruise. However, he became agitated and worried about the repercussions which would mot certainly eventuate if word of the massacre reached the ears of the authorities. He decided to pre-empt such an event, and contact the consol oat Levuka, telling him the details of the dreadful night of murder and mayhem, keeping the accounts of his own actions completely unblemished, and requesting to turn Queen's evidence.
This request was granted, and in November 1872, nine members of the crew were committed for trial at Sydney.
What transpired at that trial was a litany of condemnation against Murray, and whilst both the court and the public knew that it was Murray himself who should be standing accused of these terrible deeds, nothing could be done under the system of the law!
Two of the men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment. Five others were sentenced to five years imprisonment, and two were found not guilty. Murray of course simply walked away as if it were a matter no longer for his concern. It is conservatively estimated that in this one episode alone, he caused the deaths of 70 innocent natives!
These events led to the shaping of attitudes amongst the Islanders, and legitimate recruiters found it difficult to obtain men from the villages who regarded these white men with a belligerence more than simply bordering on hostility, and on several occasions the natives' thirst for revenge formulated some elaborately planned attacks. Such was the case of the slaver, May Queen. On arriving at the islands from Brisbane, they found what seemed a welcoming party awaiting them on the beach. A boat was launched to get both fresh water and recruits without taking the precaution of arming themselves. Suddenly, the friendly natives who were knee deep in water, retrieved their weapons which had been hidden in the sand at their feet and rushed the boat. The entire crew was slaughtered to a man.
In November 1878, another recruiter, the Mystery, arrived at the famous copra island of Oba, little knowing that another slaver, the Heather Bell had also called at the island a short time before. The crew of the Heather Bell had committed some atrocities against the natives including interfering with some of the native women. The arrival of the Mystery just a few days later presented a perfect opportunity to the natives for revenge. The government Agent, John Renton went ashore with the mate and four boat's crew, where they met an islander who could speak English. He promised to lead them to a village where there were many men waiting the opportunity to be recruited; instead he led them straight into an ambush and all six men were killed and eaten. The captain of the Mystery, Captain Kilgour, waited in vain for the return of his boat's crew, and eventually, guessing their fate, he sailed away. Several months later he returned with a punitive expedition, found the wrecked boat and what remained of the bodies of the men, and destroyed a village for the crime, little knowing at the time that he was burning the wrong village. Such acts of atrocity coupled with mistakes of such magnitude, served only to heighten aggression between the opposing factions.
News of these events did not deter more and more unscrupulous opportunists from going into the blackbirding business. The price of Kanakas rose steeply as strident demands for their services became more and more apparent, and prices rose from the humble 7.00 pounds asked by Lewin at the beginning of this historical debacle to a massive 27.00 pounds per man. These prices meant enormous profits to the ragged motley band of deserters, pirates and smugglers who flocked to Queensland waters from the slaving harbours of the Persian gulf, Mombassa, and Dar es Salaam. It has even been recorded that some of the large companies running the Queensland Sugar Mills were themselves owners and part owners in the slaving ships. With such open and obvious attitudes, the slavers were given almost carte blanche to do as they thought best to secure the labour. Tales of horror were almost daily being brought to the attention of the public, so much so that some went practically unnoticed. such was the case of the 25 ton schooner, Peri, which left Suva in 1871 with its holds full of kidnapped recruits. The natives complained of the lack of food, and asked for more rice, a request which infuriated a seaman who threw their pot of food into the sea.
That night the natives rose in open rebellion, and killed all but one of the crew members who escaped by diving overboard. The islanders knew nothing about navigating a large ship, and they drifted haphazardly through a maze of coral reefs for almost 3000 km. Food soon became short, and they were forced to resort to cannibalism, starting very early one day with two women, devouring one in the morning and one at night. Eventually the arrived off the Queensland coast with only thirteen survivors, half-demented from drinking sea water, to be rescued by H.M.S Basilisk, commanded by Captain John Moresby. Sixty-seven natives had died or had been killed in what must be one of the most horrific sagas ever to be recounted of the whole Kanaka slave labour system, but still the practice continued and even grew in momentum, unchecked for decades. They were violent years during which the abolitionists and anti-slavery groups campaigned to have the system outlawed, but their battle could only ever be a slow chipping away at this now established cornerstone of Queensland's history. Racial tension erupted periodically throughout the state at various centres where there were high concentrations of Kanakas. The European population complained of large native groups of whom most members were under the influence of alcohol, roaming the streets of Maryborough and Bundaberg in gangs, causing much damage to property and generally disturbing the peace. No strange paradox this, for a people who had been pressganged into labour on a foreign shore to want to vent their frustrations at every opportunity against their oppressors.
The abolitionists used these disturbances as tools for their cause, and reports of natives' housing and the poor quality of their food were instruments in the abolitionists' campaign. Even today, some of the larger sugar producing refineries will refuse to comment on the conditions under which the Kanaka labourers lived, and particularly the conditions of their housing, some of which still stand today, abysmally poor reminders of an age when profit meant more even than human life, particularly to the prosperous planter classes. many of the Kanakas suffered from dysentery caused by drinking water infected by the faeces of sheep and cattle, and the mortality rate grew to alarming proportions. In 1876, a new Liberal Government was formed under Premier George Thorn, even so, it was another four years before a new Polynesian Labourers' Act was passed which stipulated better working conditions for the islanders, more clothes and food, and hospitalization for the sick. The pastoralists and primary sugar growers claimed that the system was doing nothing but good to the natives. According to them, the Kanakas were being given a Christian religion, clothing, food, and learning a whole new way of civilized life based upon the fundamental teachings of western society; hard work and honesty, for modest rewards. Yet still the islanders died in the fields as if to refute this statement.
Notoriety of the Queensland slave labour system was spreading world wide, and in the North Daily Mail of Glasgow on August 10th, 1880 there appeared the following letter from a person who described himself as a "Queensland Patriot:"
Sir, As is expected the hard times in the old country will give an impetus to emigration, I should like to give the intending emigrant a slight sketch of what is going on, and what they may expect in the colony at least. I will speak first of the working men. They are not perhaps aware that they will have to compete with Chinese and Kanaka labour; and in the matter of Kanakas it is not only the men who will suffer, but the women also ... the lady's husband drives to his place of business with a shining black groom seated behind him, and in every case where it is possible they will employ black labour before white. It is the same in the bush. I am employing between thirty and forty Kanakas on one of my stations in place of white men, and will always continue to do so while I can get them. In the first place they are cheap, their wages being 6.00 pounds a year each, not quite half a crown a week (I would have to pay a white man 40.00 or 50.00 pounds each) and in the next place I can abuse and knock them about just as I please. If one dies, all I have to do is to report it to the nearest police magistrate, and there is an end of it. There is no enquiry made as to how he died or was perhaps killed. Once in the bush they have no protection and are absolutely at my mercy as are my horses and dogs, indeed more so, as it would be a loss to me to kill a horse, but none whatever to beat a South Sea nigger to death. The only drawback to the thing is that I cannot get overseers quite brutal enough ..... they have not the scientific cruelty requisite to get all the work possible out a nigger. However, I intend sending to Cuba for a couple of properly trained slave drivers, and, no doubt, others will soon follow my example. so that in a few years I hope to see Queensland in the same happy condition and the paradise for slave owners that the West Indies and southern States of America were before the maddening Abolitionists got fussing about. We will have a great advantage here over those places, as the niggers will cost us next to nothing, and consequently we can afford to use them up soon (sic) ... I am only afraid that the south Sea Islands won't stand the drain on them long (sic); but then we have New guinea to walk up; and by the time that is used up we can go in for India and Chinese coolies.
The pastoralists argued volubly that the existing system, or at least a system only slightly modified, was the ideal situation for the economic pastoral survival of Queensland. They claimed that they did not want to have a pauper white population to maintain which would be an added drain on their already overstretched budgets. They did not wish to see a reintroduction of the British system of poorhouses and workhouses for the unemployed, and thus advocated a reduction in the emigration of white workers from Britain and a continued even increased immigration of Kanakas, Chinese and Indian for the most menial tasks.
Sarcastically, the anonymous correspondent concluded his letter with the statement:
I could write a good deal more on the subject, but I see a Kanaka leaning on his spade instead of working, so I will have to touch him up a bit with a stock whip.
I am etc etc
It would, however, be unfair to state that such a radical attitude as this was representative of most pastoralists and upholders of the squatter class, as this was not the case, though certainly a few very hard core land owners heartily agreed with statements such as this and even voiced their opinions in the press of the day. They did not want small or large farmers interfering with their monopoly of the land, interested only in making their estates, and with this their fortunes, even larger than they had previously occupied in Britain and elsewhere.
The face of despair, a Santo Islander during the 1890s
Eventually the Kanaka question became a hotbed for political debate and argument, and the Government's stability depended upon the people's attitude to the system. In 1883, Griffith took over as Premier, winning the election almost entirely on the damning Kanaka issue, and a commission of inquiry was immediately formed. It was an indication at last that the years of atrocity and of intense lobbying were eventually making an impression in Queensland Government and public circles, and Griffith, who had already proved himself to be an ardent anti-slavery supporter, seemed to be exactly what Queensland needed to introduce such massive reform.
Kanaka labour was becoming progressively more and more expensive, 1882 found that the cost of importing labour from the south Sea Islands was approximately $35 more expensive than importing European workers. Demonstrations took place during the same year which were called "anti-coolie demonstrations", and time-expired Melanesians and Polynesians were now competing for labour with their European counterparts, and the dreadful prostitution of humanity was eventually revealed in the Royal Commission of 1884-85, a commission which through the following years eventually led to the complete abolition of south Seas Island labour in all of Queensland. The European planter class fought the decision with the might and with all the power at their disposal as one of the ruling classes in an emergent society, though nothing they could do could eventually stem the flow of public awareness which led to the introduction of the new system of labour. It was time for the colonists themselves to suffer the hardships of working day after day under a brutally hot Queensland sun. Hitherto, the work had been completed for them by servants, subdued Aborigines, those who had survived the holocaust of the native war, Chinese, Indians, Kanakas, all one by one facing the might of toil which was brought upon the land and it's people by the new colonists. Now the wheel of progress had turned full circle, and the wealthy, not so wealthy, and poor alike, faced the future with less arrogance and more dread, for instead of wielding a whip (figuratively or metaphorically) they now ere allowed to wield only tools of their trade, the hoe, and the spade. Those eventually sent back in small groups, though many remained, having been born of "first generation" kanaka parents, and having found their homes in the cane fields of Queensland. Many years stretched ahead of these children of the first, years during which they too would realize the extent of European bigotry and class distinction, and suffer themselves under conditions almost as harsh as their parents because, money, it seems, and the class distinction it buys, always finds ways to segregate man from his fellow man, and thus the Kanaka slave labour system at last signalled the end of oppression during Queensland's harsh formative years.
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