By Julie Grint
I wouldn’t argue if someone suggested that Peter Dutton is a totally heartless and cruel man devoid of feeling for his fellow human beings, especially those he feels are the “Other”. The Other in his mind – it could be alleged – do not deserve the same dignity and rights that Australians do as they are brown-skinned people – often of a different religious faith to that of ‘true blue Aussies’ like Dutton – who is Australian-born and can trace his forbears back more than 4 generations. (By the way, his forbears were English immigrants who came to the Australian colonies in the 1800s looking to make their fortune).
His great grandfather was a squatter and a Queensland politician. For those unfamiliar with the term ‘squatter’ it is a uniquely Australian word used to describe those early settlers who left the major areas of habitation and went bush looking for prime farming land. The squatter did not pay for or lease the land in the early days of the colonies of NSW, Victoria and Queensland. He simply stole it from the Indigenous owners who were considered vermin by the white man. The Governor of the colony of Queensland either encouraged squatters to shoot and poison the said ‘vermin’ or he used the police and troopers to do so, all with the aim of pushing the Indigenous peoples off good grazing and farming land.
As far as the white colonists were concerned they had to make the land produce enough food to feed themselves year in and year out. They did not want to be reliant on the arrival of a supply ship that may not come or be badly delayed by weather, may founder on the way, or be looted by pirates. If that meant a little bit of “ethnic cleansing” for the greater good of the morally superior, educated and cultured white man at the expense of the inferior, uneducated and primitive black fellas then so be it. I have come to the conclusion that this attitude towards ‘blacks’ lingers in the minds of many of the white Anglo population of Australia, but more so in Queensland, WA and the NT.
White planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands needed laborers, and this encouraged a trade in long-term indentured labor called “blackbirding”. At the height of this labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the islands worked abroad. Ships called at the islands of Melanesia and Micronesia, taking their workers to other places. The demand for agricultural labour in Queensland was such that blackbirding became common in the region. Queensland was a self-governing British colony of north eastern Australia at the time right up until 1901, when it became a state of the Commonwealth of Australia. Over a period of 40 years, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, traders “recruited” Kanaka labourers for the sugar cane fields of Queensland, from the Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia as well as Niue.
Both the British and Queensland governments tried to regulate the recruiting and transport of Pacific island labourers. Melanesian labourers were to be recruited for a term of three years, paid three pounds per year, issued with basic clothing and given access to the company store for supplies. Most Melanesians were recruited by deceit, usually by being enticed aboard ships with gifts, and then locked up. Over a period of 40 years, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, labour for the sugar-cane fields of Queensland Australia included an element of coercive recruitment and indentured servitude of the 62,000 South Sea Islanders. The workers came mainly from Melanesia from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu with a small number from Polynesian and Micronesian areas such as Samoa, the Gilbert Islands (subsequently known as Kiribati) and the Ellice Islands (subsequently known as Tuvalu).
“Those blackbirded” were recruited from the indigenous populations of nearby Pacific islands or northern Queensland. They became collectively known as “Kanakas“. Of this number it remains unknown how many Islanders were kidnapped vs how many came willingly. Whether the system legally recruited Islanders, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced them to leave their homes and travel by ship to Queensland remains difficult to determine. Many of the workers were effectively slaves, but they were officially called “indentured labourers” or the like. Some Australian Aboriginal people, especially from Cape York Peninsula, were also kidnapped and transported south to work on farms. The methods of blackbirding were varied. Some labourers were willing to be taken to Australia to work, while others were tricked or forced. In some cases blackbirding ships, which made 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 in the fields due to hard manual labour they were forced to do. The generally coercive recruitment was similar to the press-gangs once employed by the Royal Navy in England to crew its ships. Some 55,000 to 62,500 Kanakas were brought to Australia. Official documents and accounts from the period often conflict with the oral tradition passed down to the descendants of workers. Stories of blatantly violent kidnapping tend to relate to the first 10–15 years of the trade. In the early days of the pearling industry in Western Australia at Nickol Bay and Broome, local Aborigines were blackbirded from the surrounding areas.
Of the more than 60,000 Islanders recruited from 1863, the majority were “repatriated”, that is, deported by the Australian Government between 1906 and 1908 under the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 legislation prompted by the White Australia policy. Australia’s own colonies of Papua and New Guinea (joined after the Second World War to form Papua New Guinea) were the last jurisdictions in the world to use indentured servitude. Some Pacific islanders were exempted on various grounds, including marriage to Australians, these and others who escaped deportation remained in Australia and their descendants today form Australia’s largest Melano-Polynesian ethnic group. Many Australian South Sea Islanders are also of mixed ancestry, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for whom they are often mistaken. In consequence, Australian South Sea Islanders have faced similar forms of discrimination meted out to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. The Australian South Sea Islander community was recognised as a unique minority group in 1994 after a report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found they had become more disadvantaged than the indigenous Australians.
With such a history of using ‘blacks’ and Indigenous people as virtual slaves and treating them as second and third class citizens, no wonder many white Anglo Saxon Queenslanders have such a rascist and bigoted attitude to anyone with a dark or brown skin.