Justice for the kanakas: Australia’s ‘invisible’ Melanesians

South Sea Islander cane cutters on a sugar cane plantation in Queensland. Photo Queensland State Library.

Among the first laws passed by the new Australian parliament in 1901 when the Commonwealth of Australia came into being was the Pacific Island Labourers Act, ordering the deportation of black Melanesian workers known as kanakas.

Other aspects of what became known as the White Australia Policy have since been rectified, but this shameful stain on our past has yet to be properly addressed.

The process was planned in stages over several years and there were some amendments. In 1901, about 10,000 Pacific Islanders were living in Australia. By 1908, the process was officially completed with the closure of the Pacific Island Branch of the Queensland Immigration Department. Just 1654 kanakas were officially allowed to remain and about 1000 stayed on unofficially.


The practice of recruiting Melanesians was called blackbirding. “Kanaka” was a word the Hawaiians working on whaling ships used to describe themselves. It meant “human being” and it came to be used for all Pacific Islanders.

The first instance of blackbirding recorded in Australia was in 1847 when Captain William Boyd landed 65 men from the New Hebrides (the colonial name for Vanuatu) from his schooner Velocity. The trade started in earnest in 1863 when Captain Robert Towns arranged for sandalwood trader Henry Lewin to recruit islanders from Vanuatu, for his cotton plantation on the Logan River near Brisbane.

The US Civil War had disrupted cotton production there and provided an opportunity for others to enter the market while prices were high. Cotton was a labour intensive crop and the kanakas became a cheap source of this labour.

Over a period of about 40 years about 60,000 kanakas were brought to Queensland to work, mainly in the expanding sugar industry. Mackay was the unofficial capital of sugar country and one contemporary commentator wrote that: “Were it not for sugar, [Mackay] would in all probability, consist of a couple of stores and a pub or two, with a population of 15 to 20 souls, and the land in the hands of squatters. But now, though small, it is one of the richest and most thriving towns in Queensland.”

The kanaka contribution to the economic development of Australia was significant. As well as the sugar industry they contributed to the development of farming and grazing, the maritime industry of pearling, mining, the railways, domestic service and childcare.


In popular history, blackbirding is portrayed as slavery. But, while there were atrocities in the early days, this is not an accurate portrayal.

In Kanaka: A History of Melanesian Mackay, Clive Moore gives a different assessment: “Recruiting in its initial stages was primarily by deception. Equally, research findings stress that kidnapping was not a continuing theme as the recruiting trade progressed into the 1880s, 1890s and early 1900s: recruiting became a voluntary affair.

“The change came not from any substantial alteration in European attitudes to Melanesians or from better government of the Pacific Islands, rather it developed with increasing awareness amongst the Islanders of the real nature and benefits of the labour trade and life on the plantations. This awareness made kidnapping unnecessary and impossible in later years.”

He goes on to add: “It is demeaning to the intelligence of the Melanesian people to presume that they presented themselves to be kidnapped from the same beaches on the same islands, generation following generation, for forty years or more”.

Another convincing argument against the concept of slavery comes from Hector Holthouse in his book Cannibal Cargoes: “The Queensland government, in 1884, banned the trading of rifles to islanders and the sale of rifles to returning recruits. The outcry from every northern planter, storekeeper, and recruiter was immediate.

“Most kanakas recruited solely to get firearms and ammunition, and they always went back to their islands well supplied. … Irate recruiters were quick to point out that French and German traders had moved in to supply the islanders’ needs. Returning recruits began bringing £10 or so of their pay back home with them so they could buy their firearms there.”

Having slaves with guns does not seem a viable business model.

The kanakas who remained in Mackay after 1901 were treated heartlessly. In July 1919 “foreign-born” kanakas were prohibited from working on European farms. This came on top of a cyclone in 1918 that destroyed many of their houses, and the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1919, which killed many prominent Islanders.

An astounding 30% of kanakas died in Australia before they could return to their islands. They had little immunity to European diseases and measles in particular often proved to be fatal.

Stolen wages

Between 1885 and 1905 the Queensland government controlled the wages of deceased islanders and was supposed to return the money to their next of kin in the islands. But little effort was made to do this. About 85% of the money was kept by the administration. The money stolen would today be worth about $40 million.

When the trade was terminated after 1908, the islanders in Australia were isolated from their families in the islands. This was particularly cruel for a people where community and family were culturally important. In recent years there have been increasing efforts by people on both sides of this divide to reunite with their relatives, but this is hampered by restrictive laws.

Particularly tragic is the situation of Aboriginal women who married Islander men and returned to the islands with them. They have been effectively cut off from their Aboriginal heritage and relatives. About 150 such families have been identified as having this direct connection back to Queensland.

In 1972, Robert and Phyllis Corowa established the Australian South Sea Islanders United Council and lobbied for recognition of South Sea Islanders as a separate group. A 1992 inquiry by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission recommended that South Sea Islanders be formally recognised as a distinct disadvantaged group and be given access to health and welfare schemes similar to those for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

The Paul Keating federal Labor government accepted these recommendations in 1994. Queensland was slow to act, but eventually the Peter Beattie Labor government formally recognised them in 2000, and acknowledged their contribution to Queensland’s development.

Seasonal Workers Program

On December 18, 2011 a joint media release by Bill Shorten, Kevin Rudd and Martin Ferguson announced a Seasonal Workers Program beginning July 1, 2012. Workers from East Timor, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu would be able to work in the horticulture industry for a limited time each year. “Australian employers … will now be able to access a reliable, returning seasonal workforce.”

After an absence of a century, a Federal Labor government had revived the kanaka trade.

The scheme restricts workers to a particular industry where wages are low and insists they return after a short time, replicating the racism of the blackbirding days and the White Australia Policy. While there are no longer the shocking atrocities of the earlier period, similar problems have been resurfacing.

In 2017, Federal Circuit Court Justice Michael Jarratt struggled to imagine a more egregious case of worker exploitation. Twenty-two Vanuatu workers had been paid little or nothing for their work and Jarrett described their exploitation as “appalling”. In 2017 attention was drawn to the deaths of 12 Pacific Islander workers on the Seasonal Worker Program in the previous five years, six of whom had died in the previous 13 months.

Equal treatment

Since the 1973 Trans-Tasman Arrangement, New Zealanders have had the right to work and live in Australia with only a few restrictions. They have not matched the contributions to Australia’s development made by the South Sea Islanders, nor suffered the same cruel exploitation. The real criterion for this favoured treatment seems to be racial. Instead of reviving the kanaka trade, Vanuatans and Solomon Islanders should be treated as equals, and given the same access to Australia enjoyed by New Zealanders.

While natural justice would indicate this course of action, there is also a strong case for self-interest. Australia spent $2.6 billion and 14 years on the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands to build political and economic stability after the Islands descended into turmoil. How much easier and cheaper it would be to just allow Solomon Islanders access to jobs in Australia.

They would gain skills not available at home and their remittances would stabilise their economy. American Samoa has one of the most viable economies of the Pacific Islands, because of remittances from the US.

Greater cultural exchange would also be a bonus. Many people already know that bungee jumping originated in Vanuatu. But who knows that the Australian crawl, which became freestyle, originated from Roviana Lagoon in the Solomon Islands? What else is there that we could learn from one another?

An implicit White Australia Policy continues to impact negatively on the Australian South Sea Islanders, as well as those in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. They should be allowed to reunite their families and share in the wealth of Australia that they helped to create.

They should have the same rights to live and work in Australia as New Zealanders. Ask your local member of federal parliament to make this happen.