Tuesday, May 19, 2015

John Douglas and Pacific Islanders

The importation of South Sea Islanders to the colony to work as indentured labourers, mainly in the sugar industry, had long been controversial.[1]

In 1863, Captain Robert Towns first brought Pacific Islanders to Queensland as indentured coloured labourers.[2]  Queensland, a nascent colony extending into the tropics, was considered ripe for development and exploitation, with plentiful land and a government keen to develop agriculture.  However, it was generally believed at the time that outdoor work in the tropics could only be performed by non-white labour.  There were numerous examples elsewhere in the British Empire - such as Mauritius, Jamaica and British Guiana - where cotton and sugar were grown on plantations using non-white labour.  Once sugar and cotton were shown to grow well in Queensland, the rush was on.[3]

The growing demand for Pacific Islander labour led to their importation on a large scale, including the kidnapping or “blackbirding” men from the Pacific islands.  While 67 Islanders arrived in 1863, in 1867 the number of arrivals was 1,237, and over 900 arrived in the first four months of 1868.[4]  In that year the government attempted to regulate this trade though the Polynesian Laborers Act.[5]  However, this failed to halt the worst excesses, and following ongoing criticism from England and other Australian colonies, Queensland belatedly appointed government agents to supervise and regulate Island recruitment,[6] while the British government passed the Pacific Islanders’ Protection Act with the avowed object of preventing kidnapping.[7]

Pastoralists also relied heavily on Pacific Islander labour and by the beginning of 1868 employed 697 of the 2,017 Islanders in the colony.[8]  In the 1860s and early 1870s, the pastoralists and planters who controlled the Queensland Parliament encouraged the importation of Pacific Islander labour, but opposition in parliament by the liberal side of politics to this traffic steadily increased.  An editorial in the Brisbane Courier articulated the reasons why:

Queenslanders are, indeed, placed in a very unpleasant position by the maintenance of the Polynesian labor system at the present time.  A considerable portion of the western world looks upon them as slaves, and persists in attaching to us the odium of being connected to a system of slavery, whilst we feel to our cost that the presence of the slaves is anything but beneficial to the majority of us, and is even a danger, as well as a pecuniary loss, to many of our people.[9]

Workers in the colony believed that Pacific Islander labourers, by accepting lower wages and inferior conditions, unfairly competed against them in the labour market.[10]  They demanded a halt to continued islander recruitment, in order to prevent a “partial displacement of the working classes of European descent by the substitution of an inferior race.”[11] As well, there was also widespread concern, particularly in Douglas’s Maryborough electorate, over sporadic ‘rampages’ and outbreaks of violence, leading to calls for all Pacific Islanders to be disarmed.[12] 

In 1876 Thorn promised to restrict Pacific Islander immigration but lost power before introducing any legislation and it was left to Douglas to act.  What were his feelings on this matter?  As a man who espoused a liberal philosophy, Douglas had grave misgivings about the way Pacific Islanders were brought into the colony, their treatment, especially on pastoral properties in the interior of the colony and the obvious and odious comparisons to slavery, a practice that had been outlawed and abolished throughout the British Empire by 1840.[13]

His concerns were shared by many others in the colony, people who were deeply ambivalent about its value, and acutely aware of the iniquities of the system and the growing foreign disapproval of the trade.[14]

On coming to power, Douglas therefore moved quickly to restrict Pacific Islander immigration while protecting those Pacific Islanders already residing in the colony.  In a government gazette notice, it was promulgated that henceforth,

no licences for the introduction of Polynesians will be granted to any persons except those engaged in tropical or semi-tropical agriculture, nor will any transfer of islanders to persons engaged in other occupations be permitted.[15]

In taking this action, Douglas acted in an unorthodox manner, for parliament had yet to reconvene.[16]  Instead of waiting for the legislature to repeal or amend the Polynesian Laborers Act, he modified the Act’s administration.[17]  There was strong support for the way Douglas had acted, the Brisbane Courier noting that by his actions he had cut “the Gordian knot.”[18]  Others were not as convinced of its efficacy, one commentator wryly observing: “this will smite the squatters hip and thigh, and will open the door for a little fancy farming.”[19]

While Douglas was determined to halt all Pacific Islander immigration, there was widespread concern that the prohibition would lead to the imminent collapse of the colony’s burgeoning sugar industry.  The sugar plantation owners demanded the continued importation of Pacific Islander labour, albeit for their industry only,[20] and the conservative opposition in parliament eagerly championed their cause.[21]

Many South Sea Islanders were employed in the Maryborough district.  Douglas was well-known for his opposition to the way they were recruited and employed and was forced to defend his actions to the district’s sugar planters, who were the major employers of indentured South Sea Islander labour, and also to the islanders themselves.  Both groups were upset over a government decision, issued via proclamation, to prohibit the exportation of arms and ammunition by Pacific Islanders.[22]

Douglas had acted following a letter from Bishop George Selwyn, of the Anglican Melanesian Mission, who was concerned that one of the main reasons for Pacific Islanders coming to work in Queensland was their desire to purchase firearms.[23]  Kay Saunders has recounted how one islander “candidly confessed his object to be a gun to shoot at his neighbour” and that new recruits departing the Spunkie in 1872 stated they had come to Queensland “to get a gun and a tomahawk.”  It was also recognised that “Guns and ammunition form [a] very large, if not the chief proportion of articles of trade to the islands … more highly prized by the natives than any other.” [24]

Many parties opposed this proclamation.  The Brisbane Courier preferred to have the problem addressed through legislation rather than by ad hoc regulation.[25]  Others believed the proclamation would not stop the trade in arms and ammunition because Pacific Islanders would simply buy them elsewhere to the detriment of Queensland traders and the Queensland economy.[26]  Despite these objections, Douglas refused to rescind the proclamation.  He consistently put humanitarian concerns first, even if, as was the case here, they clashed with powerful economic and conservative interests.[27]  Indeed, the Brisbane Courier, while disagreeing with his actions in regards to Pacific Islanders, noted that he was “animated by the highest and most honorable motives.”[28]

The planters were also upset by a recent government circular that imposed on employers a payment of 15 shillings a quarter for each Pacific Islander employed from the time of his original agreement.[29]  It was no surprise, therefore, that when Douglas met by a delegation of planters, they complained bitterly over the imposition of the new tax and its financial impact on their businesses.[30]  Douglas informed the deputation that, while he was not opposed to the sugar industry, his government was concerned for the welfare of Pacific Islanders, and he admonished them over the high mortality rate suffered by Pacific Islanders in the Maryborough district, “it was quite impossible to permit such a thing as that 25 per cent of islanders who come here should not return.”[31]

The Brisbane Courier was less than impressed by Douglas’s approach, observing that he was using “sensational arguments” against the employment of Pacific Islanders.[32]  Nevertheless, the figures were appalling, with the average mortality on plantations in the Maryborough district for the five years ending March 1880 being 92 per thousand, compared to 13 per thousand for the rest of the colony.[33]  To Douglas and other like-minded men opposed to the trade on humanitarian grounds, this was unacceptable and ample justification for restricting or eliminating this trade in human traffic.

While visiting the Magnolia plantation in Maryborough, Douglas was confronted by 200 Pacific Islanders, wishing to speak to the “big fellow master,” and wanting to know “what for no let him boy take him gun along of island?”  Again, Douglas was resolute, informing them that while those who already possessed firearms would be allowed to retain them, no new weapons could be purchased.  This announcement was met with general displeasure, a Pacific Islander spokesman declaring that, “No more boys come along of Queensland.  Boys altogether go Fiji.  Plenty of guns along of Fiji.”[34] 

Douglas’s position on these matters, while popular with white workers, liberals and concerned citizens, was received with anger and dismay by conservatives, sugar planters and Pacific Islander labourers and was vividly reflected in a contemporary shanty, sung to the tune of “The fine old English gentleman,” about a visit to the Mackay district in the north of the colony by the Maryborough immigration agent investigating alleged ill-treatment of Pacific Islander labourers there.[35]

Severe and grave of aspect, from Maryborough town

He came, with book and pencil, and with dark official   frown.

He shuddered as he dwelt upon the horrors of Mackay,

And when he met a coloured gent, in dulcet tones would say-

“Have you got your ki-ki?  Do you like him tea?

Suppose him overseer fight, just talk alonga me

Do you like him hard work, or plenty walk about;

Big massa Johnny Douglas, he plenty good, look out.”[36]

He wandered through plantations, and he fossicked through the cane,

With tales of dread atrocities still flitting through his brain.

At last he met a sable youth from Tongoa’s sunny isle,

Who greeted his inspector with a mild fraternal smile-

“Yes, me got me ki-ki.  What for you no can see?

Overseer bery good; no fight alonga me

But wine, blancmange, and oyster sauce me nebber yet enjoy:

Big Massa Johnny Douglas, plenty gammon, longa boy.”[37]

The stern official closed his book and shed a silent tear,

And thought of rosy billets with six hundred pounds a year.

Then, rolling up his humble swag, he quickly sped away,

And standing on the steamer’s deck he warbled forth this lay-

“Yes they’ve got their ki-ki, as I can plainly see;

Election times are drawing nigh – the game is up with me

From the Logan to the Pioneer the cry is still the same-

Big Massa Johnny Douglas must try some other game!”[38]

[1] South Sea Islanders were also known as Polynesians, and I will therefore use the term Pacific Islander to avoid confusion.  The term Kanaka, which was also used, is now considered derogatory.  The preferred contemporary term is Australian South Sea Islanders.

[2] Willard, pp. 138-39

[3] Ibid., p. 135

[4] Ibid., p. 141

[5] This Act attempted to secure fair recruiting in the islands, adequate accommodation on the voyage, humane treatment in Queensland, and certainty of return.  It also required that no Islanders could be introduced into the colony except under government licence.  There had to be a certificate from a consul, missionary or other known person, in the island from which they came, to the effect that they had come voluntarily after thoroughly understanding the agreement.  Nevertheless, the Act was inadequately enforced, thereby encouraging abuses.  (Willard, pp. 145-47 & p.153)

[6] Willard, p. 137.  Government agents were appointed in December 1870 to all vessels recruiting and returning Islanders to their homes.

[7] Ibid.  For details of this Act, which was passed in 1872, see Willard, pp. 157-60.  Douglas strongly supported the Act.  (Douglas to F. W. Chesson, 27 November 1872.  Aborigines Protection Society.  Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), M2427, C133/15)

[8] Willard, p. 141

[9] Brisbane Courier, 5 May 1877, p. 2

[10] Willard, p. 161

[11] Brisbane Courier, 11 April 1877, p. 2

[12] Brisbane Courier, 5 May 1877, p. 2

[13] “Summary for Europe.”  Brisbane Courier, 21 June 1877, p. 6; Douglas (1902), p. 46; John Douglas to Thomas Phillips, 26 December 1871, Aborigines Protection Society.  Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP), M2426, C39/103; F. W. Chesson.  “The South-sea Island Slave Trade.”  The Times, 2 December 1871, p. 5

[14] Douglas also had strong support within his party, for Griffith’s objection to the South Sea Islander trade was easily as strong as his own.  (Fitzgerald, p. 247)

[15] Brisbane Courier, 17 April 1877, p. 2

[16] Parliament reconvened on the 15 May 1877

[17] Brisbane Courier, 5 May 1877, p. 2

[18] Ibid.  As the paper noted, “when the interests of the colony required prompt and vigorous action, they have not hesitated to assume an unusual responsibility.”

[19] “From the Pavement.”  Brisbane Courier, 21 June 1877, p. 6

[20] Brisbane Courier, 18 June 1877, p. 2 & 20 June 1877, p. 5.  Douglas made his position very clear, demanding in parliament that: “Polynesian labor should be done away with altogether.”

[21] For a detailed account of the differing attitudes, including Douglas’s, on this matter, see Patricia Mercer.  An Analysis of Racial Attitudes towards Melanesians Expressed in the Queensland Legislative Assembly and Newspapers, 1877-92.  BA Hons thesis.  James Cook University, 1972, pp. 47-61

[22] Brisbane Courier, 25 January 1878, p. 2; “Deputation to the Colonial Secretary.”  Brisbane Courier, 22 January 1878, p. 3; Queensland Evangelical Standard, 12 January 1878, p. 332; Queensland Government Gazette, vol 32 no 5, 8 January 1878, p. 69

[23] Willard, p. 160.  For a copy of the Bishop’s letter, see “Prohibition of Firearms to the South Seas.”  Bundaberg Star, 26 January 1878, p. 2

[24] Kay Saunders.  Workers in Bondage:  The Origins and Bases of Unfree Labour in Queensland, 1824-1916.  Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1982, p. 33. See also John Kerr. Sugar at Maryborough: 120 Years of Challenge. Maryborough, The Maryborough Sugar Factory Ltd., 1987, p. 68

[25] Brisbane Courier, 25 January 1878, p. 2

[26] “Metropolitan Jottings.”  Queensland Times, 31 January 1878.  There was concern that Sydney or Fijian traders would then supply the ‘trade.’  (Saunders (1982), p.33.)  For more contemporary accounts, see Willard, p. 160

[27] Douglas informed a deputation on this matter “in reference to ‘trade,’ that so long as he was in office, he should not countenance it."  (“Deputation to the Colonial Secretary.”  Brisbane Courier, 22 January 1878, p. 3)

[28] Brisbane Courier, 2 April 1878, p. 2.  The circular was dated 28 February 1871.

[29] Ibid.  The circular was issued after the sub-immigration agent at Mackay drew to Douglas’s attention alleged irregularities in the importation of Pacific Islanders.  (William T. Wawn.  The South Sea Islanders and the Queensland Labour Trade:  A Record of Voyages and Experiences in the Western Pacific from 1875 to 1891.  London:  Sonnenschein, 1893.  Reprinted edition. Pacific History Series no. 5.  Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1973, pp. 152-53.)  In protesting this impost, planters in Mackay presented a memorial to Douglas stating that the enforcement of these regulations would cost them £10,800.  (Brisbane Courier, 2 April 1878, p. 2; R. Newman.  “The Sugar Planters and Government by Regulation.”  Brisbane Courier, 25 March 1878, p. 3)

[30] “Deputation to the Premier.”  Brisbane Courier, 27 March 1878, p. 4

[31] Ibid.

[32] Brisbane Courier, 2 April 1878, p. 2

[33] Willard, p. 167

[34] Warwick Argus, 11 April 1878, p. 2

[35] Wawn, pp. 153-54

[36] A rough translation of this stanza is; Have you food, is it good?  Tell me if your boss is mistreating you.  Are you a hard worker or a laggard?  The premier, John Douglas, is a good man who will protect your interests.

[37] A rough translation of this stanza is; Yes, I have my food, can’t you see?  My boss is very good, and treats me well.  However, fine food I do not enjoy, for John Douglas has deceived us with false promises.

[38] A rough translation of this stanza is; I can see they have their food.  Throughout Queensland, the belief is that Douglas should retire from politics.  I am indebted to Dr Anna Shnukal for her assistance in translating these verses.  Another example of this opposition was a letter to the Brisbane Courier penned by a planter, Mr. B, on behalf of a Polynesian worker, Oma-Tika, that included this memorable assessment of Douglas; “That big man Mr. Douglas no good for thinkie.  He only good for grow sugar.  Overseer on plantation make Mr. Douglas workie workie.  That very good.”  (Oma-Tika.  “New Kanaka Bill.”  Brisbane Courier, 29 June 1878, p. 6)