South Sea Islanders first came to Australia in the mid 1800’s as crew of whalers, sandalwood traders and to the Torres Straits as crew on ships in search for beche-de-mer and diving for the illustrious pearl.
Blackbirding in the main began in Australia with Sydney parliamentarian and merchant, Captain Robert Towns who imported South Sea Islanders coinciding with the birth of the sugar industry in the new colony of Queensland. However, Captain Ben Boyd is the first acknowledged blackbirder bringing 183 men, 7 women and 2 boys in 1947 from the Loyalty Islands and New Hebrides on three separate voyages.
From 1863 to 1904 Queensland sugar and cotton plantations, farms, pearling and fishing vessels and domestic households were worked by South Sea Islanders who were recruited – or more accurately during the Blackbird “era” kidnapped – by men who were, and are still known today as Blackbirders. Recruiting in Australia ended following an Act of Parliament in 1904 but continued on for a number of years.
62,000 Islanders were brought to Queensland from the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. A small number of labourers came from the Polynesian and Micronesian islands such as Tonga, Kiribati and Tuvalu.
During this time Fiji also conducted consistent recruiting from Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Rotuma, Gilbert and Ellice Islands. German plantation owners in Papua New Guinea and Samoa recruited from the Northern Solomons, Vanuatu and other parts of the South Pacific as did plantation owners in New Caledonia.
Peruvian blackbirders also conducted a series of devastating slave raids, which significantly depopulated Polynesian and Micronesian Islands in just two years between 1862 and 1863.
The recruiters themselves, including ships captains and their crew came from all over the world including France, Scotland, England, Australia, Spain, Germany and America. The ship owners were Australian businesses including CSR (Colonial Sugar Refinery), Burns Philp, politicians, plantation owners and even one Queensland Premier.
The fate of these Islanders is varied and many, from returning to their island after their term to having a successful life in their new country with many children and grandchildren. Others being lost at sea, murdered or shipwrecked and completely unaccounted for. Either way, there are many that have not found their family, don’t know where they ended up, nor know where they come from