Polynesian Laborers Act

The recruitment of Melanesian labourers for Queensland’s burgeoning sugar industry from 1863 became, and remained, a highly-divisive issue throughout the colonial period. Although there was a racial element involved, opponents of this human trade largely condemned the manner of recruitment, and there can be little doubt that kidnapping, or ‘blackbirding’ as it became known, was common during the 1860s.  It was also questioned to what extent the Melanesians, as non-English speakers, understood their terms of employment.  Opposition was also voiced by the British Government which had played an active role in the suppression of slavery and had no wish to see a variant of this nefarious practice introduced into one of its colonies. In the face of mounting pressure the Queensland Government reluctantly passed the Polynesian Labourers’ Act in 1868 as a means of controlling the trade and to quell humanitarian concerns over the treatment of Melanesians. The provisions of this legislation forced employers to notify government authorities of the number of indentured labourers in their employ, and to guarantee their return to home islands within three years of their recruitment. The legislation also provided the legal machinery for government agents to be accommodated on every recruitment vessel where they could ensure that potential Melanesian employees fully understood the terms of their engagement. This clause was nevertheless held in abeyance until the issue of further regulations in 1871.


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