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Blackbird Labor Trade

Blackbird Labor Trade

Blackbirding was the colloquial term for the earliest forms of labor trade, initiated as illegal recruitment and effective slavery long after such practices had ended in Europe and Africa.

In the 1860s Polynesians and Micronesians were forcibly taken from such contemporary Pacific states as Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, and French Polynesia (Tahiti) to work in Chilean and Peruvian plantations and mines. Some never arrived and few ever returned home; hence, several islands, including Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and Nukulaelae (Tuvalu), lost more than half their population in just three years.

From 1847 to 1872 a more extended labor trade took Melanesians from many islands, mainly to Queensland sugarcane plantations, but also to plantations in Fiji and Samoa and mines in New Caledonia. Most came from the Loyalty Islands (New Caledonia), the New Hebrides (especially Tanna), and the Solomon Islands. Particularly in the New Hebrides this practice led to population declines in the southern islands. Initially laborers were kidnapped or promised great wealth, until the growth of widespread opposition in various Western countries, often resulting from the protests of missionaries, who themselves followed local pressure. Retaliation was often considerable and the murder of Bishop John Patteson (1827–1871) in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) was one measure of the strength of local opposition.

Eventually the British government passed the Pacific Islanders Protection Act in 1872 and blackbirding ended. It was replaced by legal recruitment until the end of the century; most of these migrants returned home, but one outcome was a small descendant population of South Sea Islanders (Kanakas) living in Australia.

In the twentieth century there was a diversity of forms of labor migration in the Pacific islands, including the movement of Wallisians and Tahitians to New Caledonia, Indians to the cane fields of Fiji, and Filipinos to Micronesia, but none of these migrations involved the violence, deception, and mortality rates that marked nineteenth-century blackbirding. In a sense the South Sea Islanders represent the first phase of a diasporic population of Pacific islanders that has parallels with Indians within the Pacific.

see also Chinese Diaspora.


Corris, P. Passage, Port and Plantation: A History of Solomon Islands Labour Migration. Melbourne University Press, 1973.

Graves, A. Graves. Cane and Labour: The Political Economy of the Queensland Sugar Industry. Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

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