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South Sea Island Labour Traffic

By J. C. Patteson

From Appendices to the Journals of the New Zealand House of Representatives, 1871, G-35.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2006


[THE following Memorandum by Bishop Patteson, on the subject of the Melanesian Mission, and on the Labour Traffic in the South Sea Islands, was addressed to the General Synod of the Church of England held in Dunedin in February last. It was received too late to be laid before the Synod, but was published with the report of its proceedings.]

THE object of this memorandum is to inform the General Synod of the means frequently adopted in the Islands of the S. W. Pacific to procure labourers for the Queensland and Fiji plantations.

I am not now concerned with the treatment of these islanders on the plantations, which I have never visited. My duty is to state what has occurred in the Islands, and to make known the character of the trade as it is carried on there.

Assuming that the Government of Queensland and H.M. Consul at Levuka, Fiji Islands, do all that lies in their power to guard this traffic from abuse, and assuming that they succeed in affording some security to the islanders while on the plantations, it is certain that they do not and cannot restrain lawless men from employing unjust means to procure so-called labourers in the Islands; they cannot know what is done by the masters and crews of the numerous vessels engaged in the trade; they are absolutely without power to enforce any regulation as to the number of persons kept on board, the amount of food given to them, the treatment of the sick, and the general management of the whole transaction.

Whatever measures may be proposed or adopted to secure humane and just treatment of these islanders while in Queensland or in Fiji, there is absolutely no check whatever upon the proceedings of the men engaged in procuring these islanders for the labour markets of Queensland and Fiji. No regulations can prevent men who are bound by no religious or moral restraint, from practising deception and violence to entice or convey natives on board their vessels, or from detaining them forcibly when on board.

Much is said about engagements and contracts being made with these islanders. I do not believe that it is possible for any of these traders to make a bonâ fide contract with any natives of the northern New Hebrides, and Banks and Solomon Islands. I doubt if any one of these traders can speak half a dozen words in any one of the dialects of those Islands; and I am sure that the very idea of a contract cannot be made intelligible to a native of those islands without a very full power of communicating readily with him. More than ten natives of Mota Island have been absent now nearly three years. The trader made a contract with them by holding up three fingers. They thought that three suns or three moons were signified. Probably he was very willing that they should think so, but he thought of at least three years.

Something has been said about the benefit to the islanders by bringing them "into contact with civilization." What kind of civilization they may see on plantations I do not know, for I have not visited them; neither can I say that I have seen many natives who have been returned to their homes, from whose conduct I might judge of the effects of their "contact with civilization." The reason is simple. Out of 400 or 500 Banks Islanders who have been taken away, I have not heard of, much less seen, one-tenth of that number brought back.

But there is no instance that I can remember of any one of these natives exhibiting on his Island any proof of his having received any benefit from his "contact with civilization," much less of his conferring any benefit on his people. The few that have been brought back to the Banks Island bear a bad character among their own people.

But I am not now concerned with the treatment of these islanders on the plantation, nor with the effect of their intercourse with white men or upon themselves or their people.

The African slave trade was put down as a thing evil in itself, a disgrace to humanity, and a practical repudiation of Christianity. People did not stop to inquire further. It was enough that men were stolen from their homes, and taken away by force.

There is no check at present upon the traders engaged in procuring "labourers" for Queensland and Fiji. Many of these men, whether they are technically and legally slavers or not, are acting in the spirit of slavers. Sir William Manning admitted, in the "Daphne" case, that "this system of so-called emigration is likely to degenerate, and probably sometimes has degenerated, into a practice approaching a slave trade, and perhaps actually amounting to it." It is indeed a mockery to speak of it as a system of emigration.

A most impartial and dispassionate writer in "Blackwood's Magazine," who had spent some time in sailing among these Islands, and had twice visited Fiji, speaks of the "nefarious nature of many of the transactions (of the masters of vessels sent to procure labourers for the Queensland and Fiji plantations,) which have undoubtedly, in not a few instances, been nothing less than kidnapping." I leave the statements of some of our scholars to speak for themselves. But I know that throughout the northern New Hebrides and the Banks Islands, deception and violence are frequently practised. I know the lawless character and lawless conduct of persons now engaged in the trade, whose names I am not at liberty to divulge. One person writes to me mentioning by name four vessels carrying on "rough work" with the New Hebrides natives. "You know," he says, "that these men have no scruples of conscience, and, so long as they make money, are perfectly dead to any code of laws, human or divine. I tell you of this (he adds) confidentially, as I have only had the information as a friend, and inform you for your own protection when amongst the Islands."

A captain of a whale ship writes to me:-- The natives of these Islands would come off in former years, bringing such articles of trade as their Islands afford, for which we paid them with hatchets, tobacco, fish-hooks, &c. They trusted us, and we trusted them. At times our decks were crowded. This, when slaving commenced, was all to the slaver's advantage, for the natives were easily enticed below, the hatches put on, and the vessel was off. Now, no native comes on board the whale ship, and we, in our turn, dare not land. Again, we used to carry people from one Island to another, when they wished it, and they would give us hogs and other articles. This also has been taken advantage of, and the natives carried into slavery instead of home. Should we be wrecked, our lives must go for those that have been stolen, and the natives will be condemned, and called bloodthirsty, &c.; and yet what will the natives have done? Not, certainly, right, but no more than what civilized people have done in many cases. I hear that they use your name to decoy natives from their Islands; and I also hear, from good authority, that they inquire very particularly of the whereabouts of the ' Southern Cross.'"

We experience to some extent the evil effects of this traffic, which has been described in this last extract. In many islands, where we were already on most intimate terms with the people, we are now obliged to be very cautious. Unless we are so well known as to be thoroughly trusted, we have to begin again, to some extent, the task of disabusing their minds of the natural suspicion and distrust which these "nefarious practices" excite.

As for using our names and inventing any stories about us which may induce natives to go on board their vessels, that is the common trick adopted by some traders. There are some--I trust very few--men sailing in these vessels, who have taken a voyage in the "Southern Cross," and the fact that they have been on board the Mission vessel gives a plausibility to their story. In several of these Islands some of our scholars are living; they speak a little English, and communicate more or less readily with any white men. Of course they use their influence to dissuade their people from going in such vessels. They know nothing about the Queensland and Fiji plantations, but they know quite enough of the character of these vessels to warn their people against going in them.

Many natives of Tanna, Vate, and of the Loyalty Islands, are employed by these traders for the boating work. These men are amongst the most reckless and mischievous of the whole number of persons concerned in the trade. Naisilene, the Christian chief of Mare, has forbidden any native of that Island to go on board any one of these vessels. It would be well if white men were to follow his example.

In conclusion, I desire to protest by anticipation against any punishment being inflicted upon natives of these Islands who may cut off vessels or kill boats' crews, until it is clearly shown that these acts are not done in the way of retribution for outrages first committed by white men. Only a few days ago a report reached me that a boat's crew had been killed at Espirito Santo. Nothing is more likely. I expect to hear of such things. It is the white man's fault, and it is unjust to punish the coloured man for doing what, under such circumstances, he may naturally be expected to do. People say and write inconsiderately about the treachery of these Islanders. I have experienced no instance of anything of the kind during fourteen years' intercourse with them; and I may fairly claim the right to be believed when I say that, if the Melanesian native is treated kindly, he will reciprocate such treatment readily. The contact of many of these traders assures all the worst suspicions and passions of the wild untaught man. It is not difficult to find an answer to the question, Who is the savage and who is the heathen man?

Imperial legislation is required to put an end to this miserable state of things. Stringent regulations ought to be made and enforced by heavy penalties, as to the size and fittings of vessels licensed to convey natives to and from the South Sea Islands to Queensland and Fiji. All details should be specified and vigilantly carried out, as to the number of natives that may be put on board, their food, clothing, payment, term of labour, and conveyance to their homes.

Two small men-of-war ought to cruise constantly in the Islands, and especially in the neighbourhood of Queensland and Fiji, to intercept vessels bringing natives to those parts, and to examine into the observance or non-observance of the regulations.

It is manifestly to the planter's interest to discourage the lawless practices now going on in the Islands.

If he wishes to have a willing, good-humoured set of men on his plantation, it is evident that they must come to him willingly, and receive from him such treatment that they will work for him cheerfully.

At present many of these islanders are brought to the plantations in an angry, sullen, revengeful state of mind: Who can wonder at it? The planter pays a heavy sum now--amounting, it is said, in some cases, to £10 or £12 per head--for the so-called "passage" given to these "imported labourers." I do not believe that the planters themselves justify or desire the continuance of these proceedings in the Islands. It may be that only a few persons would be found willing to come if their free consent was required; and that compulsion is necessary, if labourers are to be procured at all. In this case it is not too much to say that free labourers must be sought elsewhere, among the Chinese or other people who are able to protect themselves from injustice.

But my belief is, that there will be always some, not many, islanders willing to leave their homes for a time, if once it is thoroughly known by experience that they will be treated kindly and fairly, and brought home at the proper time. Curiosity, excitement, the spirit of adventure, will always induce some men to volunteer for any employment that is not distasteful, with people who treat them honestly and fairly.

There are some two or three vessels honorably distinguished from the rest by fair and generous treatment of the natives. One such vessel was at anchor for some weeks in Vanna Levu harbour. I do not know its name.

Ganevierogi (the Leper Island lad) speaks of a whaler, a three-masted vessel, which was visited by some of their people. It came on to blow, and the Leper Islanders were kept on board all night, well fed, and sent ashore with presents the next morning. He could not tell me the name of the vessel, but she was a whaler; and such treatment of natives is customary with such vessels.

I regret that I am unable to attend the General Synod, and that I lose the opportunity of giving further explanations of the real character of this traffic.

Missionary Bishop.
Norfolk Island, 11th January, 1871.

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