Blackbirding South Sea Islanders

Amanda Young

Around the world, the Black Lives Matter movement is unravelling long-held beliefs and offering a golden opportunity for us to learn from each other.

July 15, 2020

Amanda Young, Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

Around the world, the Black Lives Matter movement is unravelling long-held beliefs and offering a golden opportunity for us to learn from each other. From its beginning in the United States, this call for justice has travelled from nation to nation with the same urgent message: the impacts of colonisation and oppression live on. This business is not done yet.

In Australia, one catalyst for the Black Lives Matter protests came this year when Scott Morrison, the prime minister, claimed there had been no slavery in Australia. Black, Indigenous and people of colour leapt to their feet to speak out and leave the nation in no doubt that slavery did indeed exist here, and that this unsavoury history could not be ignored or sanitised. Morrison quickly backtracked and apologised.

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During these days of seismic shifts on issues of race, I found my own family history in the spotlight: the story of the South Sea Islanders in Australia. I was approached by numerous people, locally and internationally, who were curious to learn about Australian slavery. Across my career, my public profile has been as an advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but my Pacific Island ancestor story has long gone unheard – but it was now begging to be told. The vast majority of Australians know little or nothing of the Kanaka* labourers and the practice of “blackbirding”, which is a replicant of the African-American slavery story. I share my personal tale to increase awareness that the multi-generational wrecking ball of slavery was swinging in the Pacific just as ruthlessly as it was elsewhere, and to showcase the resilience of Australia’s South Sea Islander community.

I am Indigenous to the country of Vanuatu, in the South Sea off Australia’s north-eastern coast. My very existence is due to slavery in Australia during the 1800s.

By the late 19th century, Australia had already spent a century dispossessing its first inhabitants, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had been here for over 65,000 years. It also controlled every aspect of their lives: where to live, whom to marry, and most importantly, where to work.


Dispossession created a workforce that could be exploited for the pitiful price of cheap rations: flour, salt, sugar. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were placed in work camps, and were sent out to labour for the “new owners” of their traditional lands. They were legally prohibited from receiving their pay in hand; instead, their employers paid it to the government to hold it on trust. But that trust was misplaced, and Indigenous workers were dismayed to learn that their wages had disappeared. It was slavery, via sleight of hand. The government “protectors” who took the money spent it on roads, hospitals, schools and other services that those who earned it were forbidden to access, because Indigenous people would not be truly accepted as humans and citizens of Australia until 1967. (Yes you read that correctly: 1967.)

By the second half of the 19th century, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were increasingly reluctant to work for colonisers under the harsh terms on offer, and began to rebel against this system. In 1863, Robert Towns, a British merchant wishing to start a cotton plantation,  needed cheap labour. There were men “willing” to work as indentured labour for a pittance, he was told, in the South Sea Islands to the east, including the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Easter Island and Gilbert Islands. Towns brought his first shipment of South Sea Island indentured labourers – the “sugar slaves” – to Queensland in 1863.

Three of my four great-grandparents were among the workers in the earliest shipments from the Vanuatu islands of Espiritu Santo, Aoba (now Ambae) and Emae. In a bitter irony, this coincided with the end to the slave trade in America, as marked by the sailing from Africa to the US of the last slave vessel, the Clothilda, in 1859. But in the Antipodes, there was still plenty of life in the slave trade, far from the eyes of civilisation which was increasingly acknowledging its barbarity.

"Blackbirding" was the name given to the practice of coercion, tricking or kidnapping our people and transporting them far away to live a life of servitude and harsh conditions. The scars from that trade in human lives – which continued for nearly a century – remain to this day. On islands such as Tanna, locals still avoid the beaches, remembering the theft of their young men generations earlier.

What awaited the South Sea Islanders who came to Australia was unrelenting hard labour, exploitation, racism and financial exploitation. An  1871 newspaper article highlights how the practice of “pay in kind” was justified, with Towns’ agent arguing that “these poor people were to all intents and purposes savages, who did not know the use of money”.

Workers died and were buried in unmarked graves, as the flow of labour shifted from cotton farming to the more viable sugarcane farming plantations along the Queensland Coast and into New South Wales. The well-worn colonial playbook previously used on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was deployed once again: no job security, no benefits, segregated public services, no freedom of movement, and no pay until the end of a three-year contract, with only rations to keep workers alive. As Imelda Miller writes in an article entitled “Sugar slaves” in the Queensland Historical Atlas: "The Queensland sugar industry was literally built on the backs of South Sea Islanders." Given that my family and our community built entire industries, did a grateful nation embrace us as “lifters, not leaners”, to quote a phrase beloved of today’s right-wing populists? Did Australia recognise those who did the most back-breaking, most poorly compensated work to build this great new country?

Quite the opposite. In 1901, Australia became a federation of states and resolved that it would be a white nation: the “White Australia” policy was enacted. The South Sea Islanders were shipped home. Only those who had been transported early, and had raised families in Australia, were allowed to stay.

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My family was one of the latter group. In Beenleigh, the traditional lands of the YugambehAboriginal people, my maternal grandparents were born in 1915 and 1920. Harold Roach, my grandfather, was a cheery, whistling and powerfully built man, handy at a boxing competition and so skilled that he could forge, build, repair and create anything. He waxed his afro back to a sleek corrugated hairstyle, proudly telling everyone, including me, that he had 27 waves in his hair from front to back. My grandmother, Ruby Long, was a “domestic” for a German cane plantation family, the only career choice open to a South Sea Islander woman.

Despite the terrible racism and privations we suffered in Australia, we were still a genial, dutiful, hardworking people, and South Sea Islanders responded to calls to serve Australia in battle. In the Second World War, my grandfather found himself fighting the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea on the famous Kokoda trail. He was shot, and his life was saved by the Black inhabitants of Papua New Guinea who were dubbed the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” by Australian forces.

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A son and a daughter – my mother Leona – were born in the 1950s and allowed to attend school. My mother revealed herself to be a prodigious reader, but  in the mid-1960s women left school at junior level. My grandparents paid for her to go to business school for more administrative skills. My mum continues to be amazed at the opportunities education offers. Within four generations, my family went from my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ life of indentured labour, to my mother’s work in retail management, to my own career as a lawyer. Nevertheless, financial prosperity, wealth and financial resilience continue to elude us, because, to paraphrase the great Martin Luther King, Jr, my people started running a 100-metre race when the rest of the field was already at the 90-metre line.

Nanna Grandpa Mandy graduation.jpg

As my contribution to this nation, I have chosen to spend a lifetime supporting the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with whom I feel deep kinship; I am aware that I am living in their country, and the gains that even my people have made have come at a cost to them.

You may have detected a theme in this story. Indigenous people share a bond. We know our responsibilities and do not shirk hard work. Despite the racism, economic exploitation, political and social exclusion and injustice that South Sea Islanders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced over centuries, we survive, we thrive and we laugh, as joy is our medicine. We support each other and walk beside each other.

To those of you who are reflecting on the Black Lives Matter movement and have been spurred to learn from us, we ask you to examine your biases, conscious and unconscious, and explore the impact of your Western values on others. People of colour have proven ourselves to be decent, caring people who would never dream of enlisting you into servitude, or covering your blankets with COVID-19 as you did to us with smallpox, or enslaving you, or working you to death. Our values are grounded in caring for the earth that feeds us, not defeating nor exploiting it as you do in your insatiable hunger for wealth and consumerism. Around the world, the Indigenous peoples who live in freedom notably do not share the endemic poor mental health of Westerners: this is a powerful signpost that something is wrong in your culture.

To these readers of my words, I say: together we could achieve so much more if you would do three things:

  • own your history and commit to make amends (truth)
  • share your bounty and be prepared to give back power back for a dignified shared future (fairness)
  • urgently change your future vision to one where you care for and respect the limits of this planet (justice).

*Kanaka is considered a disrespectful term if used by a non-Indigenous South Sea Islander person.


Amanda Young is a 2019-20 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. She has over two decades of political, social and economic practice as a lawyer. Formerly the CEO of First Nations Foundation, she is now a non-executive director of Cufa, generating economic change in the Asia Pacific region. In 2020 she accepted the partnerships lead role at the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity programme in Australia, to amplify the Indigenous-led social change work of Fellows in the Pacific region.

Further reading:

State Library of Queensland, “Australian South Sea Islanders”: resources including documents and photos

Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “‘Australia’s slave trade’: The growing drive to uncover secret history of South Sea Islanders”.


Banner: South Sea Islanders arriving in Bundaberg, Queensland, circa 1893
State Library of Queensland


“A White Australia: The Kanaka Labor Question”, cover of a bound collection of Melbourne Herald news articles, 1901
State Library of Queensland

Harold Roach and Ruby Long by the seaside, date unknown

Harold Roach and Ruby Long on their wedding day, 1949

Ruby and Harold celebrate their granddaughter Amanda Young’s Bachelor of Laws graduation, Queensland University of Technology, 1992

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.  

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