HISTORY OF BLACKBIRDING
Today, in many villages throughout Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and other parts of the Pacific, there are families that have many questions as to what happed to their father, grandfather, uncle and aunty. Did they have children and granchildren? Did they make the journey? Where did they go? What happened to them?
Similarly in Queensland and Fiji, the decendants of those recruited may now have hundreds of family members from a single “recruit” who seek their own information about which Island or village their grandfather or grandmother came from and what the village is like today. Do they remember?
Australian South Sea Islanders seek to reunite with family members of those that remain in their original village and to take the journey home.
It is widely accepted that whilst the majority of Australian and Fijian South Sea Islanders have some very general knowledge of where their grandparents came from in a broader sense, however in the majority of cases they don’t know their true island, village, names and customs, their families and have had little or no contact.
Blackbird is operating the Finding Family Blong Yumi program in Australia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Calendonia as a free service and to date has still not received any government funding.
South Sea Islanders 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.
Recruiting in Australia ended following an Act of Parliament in 1904 but continued on for a number of years. 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.
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. There are many that have not found their family, don’t know where they ended up, or know where they come from.