From the South Seas — Australia’s South Sea Islanders


(A brief history)


The Australian South Sea Islanders are the descendants of the 63,000

Pacific Islanders brought to Australia during the Nineteenth and early

twentieth Century as indentured labourers to work on cotton and sugar

plantations in Queensland and Northern NSW.

Between 1863 and 1904, they were shipped – sometimes forcibly – from

Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Banks Islands, Gilbert islands,

New Guinea, the Torres Islands and New Caledonia.

Their history includes documented massacres, exploitation, and

ongoing racism.

The first 67 labourers were brought from Vanuatu in 1863 by Robert

Towns, after whom Townsville was named, to work on his cotton

plantation near Brisbane. By the early 1870’s the Queensland sugar

industry was in dire need of labour and recruitment began in earnest.

Recruitment practices, at least some of the time, were barbaric, with

islanders being lured onto boats and kidnapped. Travelling conditions

were appalling,with food and water scarce, and high rates of disease.

Once in Australia, hours worked were long, pay rates were well below

those for Europeans, and diseases such as tuberculosis, whooping

cough and flu led to an appalling death rate.

Some politicians, journalists and the clergy argued against what they

considered legalised slavery, but the sugar industry’s political muscle

ensured its need for cheap labour predominated.

The opponents’ only successes were laws passed by the

Queensland Parliament in 1868 and 1880 which provided for better conditions.

With Federation in 1901, Queenslanders realised sentiment in the rest

of Australia and the British Empire was against the scheme.

The lastworkers brought to Australia arrived with three-year contracts in March 1904.

Only in the 1990’s has there been official recognition of Australia’s South Sea Islanders

as a distinct minority group – one of the poorest minority groups in the nation. In 1994,

the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission documented “a century of racial

discrimination and harsh treatment” of the 20000 descendants of the original indentured labourers.



Gilbert Bel-Bachir