Between 1863 and 1904, over 62,000 Pacific island people sent as slaves or indentured labour to Queensland

Between 1863 and 1904, over 62,000 people from the Melanesian archipelagos provided the colony of Queensland with indentured labour for its emerging agricultural industries. A Sydney parliamentarian and merchant, Captain Robert Towns, first arranged for a sandalwood trader operating from Tanna, Henry Ross Lewin, to recruit islanders from the Loyalty and New Hebrides Groups in 1863. They were employed at Towns cotton plantation on the Logan River; and cotton growing, with the sheep, cattle, pearl shelling, fisheries and domestic service industries became significant employers of island labour over the next 15 years. However, the sugar plantations on the river plains around Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Mackay, Bowen and Cairns led the demand for indentured labour over the next 40 years. From 1880, when Melanesians were restricted to employment in tropical and semi-tropical agriculture, island labour was effectively concentrated in the cane-fields.
y Reid Mortensen

92 Muslims arrived from India on the sailing ship “Leonidas” to Levuka: Sunni Buddha Khan leads azzan

The first azzan – call to prayer – in Fjii was credited to Buddha Khan, one of the 92 Muslims who arrived from India with the first boatload of indentured laborers destined for the sugarcane farms of the then new British colony. After disembarking from the sailing ship “Leonidas” at Levuka, Khan gathered the Muslims among the 498 passengers and they thanked Allah for a safe passage. Continue reading

1878: Gordon bans planter use of Fijian labour: imports indentured labourers from India

Governor Gordon decided in 1878 to import indentured labourers from India to work on the sugarcane fields that had taken the place of the cotton plantations. Continue reading

May 1879: Leonidas quaratined at Nasova; smallpox

Copy of the correspondence which took place between Mr Des Voeux, Administrator of Fiji, and the Secretary of State for the Colonies, relative to the detention of the coolie ship Leonidas at Nasova in May 1879. Continue reading

May 14, 1879: Leonidas docked in Levuka carrying 522 indentured Indian workers from Calcutta

Leonidas with Captain McLachlan on board, sailing from Calcutta (now called Kolkata) on March 3 (1879). The ship Leonidas arrived in Levuka, and the First group of indentured labourers had arrived from Calcutta. Continue reading

1870: Fijian or pidgin Fijian evolves as plantation language in Queensland and Fiji

Fijian began to dominate as a trade language after 1870. After the arrival of large numbers of Pacific Islanders, there were two contenders for the plantation language in Fiji: Melanesian Pidgin English (MPE) and Fijian. Fijian was already used on plantations with Fijian laborers before the importation of Pacific Islanders, and it was known by the European planters and overseers. But MPE was the language of the labor trade, used for recruiting for Fiji, and was known by many of the laborers. Continue reading

1876: Anglican Church service at Levuka, a congregation of planters and short-term Solomons indentured labour

Miss Gordon-Cumming, who was with the first Governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur Gordon (afterwards Lord Stanmore), says in her letters: “At present our parson, Mr. Floyd, is in New Zealand (1876), so all the Governor’s staff take it in turns to [officiate, two in the morning and two in the evening. They appear in surplices and take their part well. Last Sunday morning Mr. Le Hunte read prayers and Captain Havelock* [* Afterwards Sir George Le Hunte and Sir Henry Havelock.] one of Robertson’s sermons. Yesterday morning Captain Havelock read prayers and Mr. Maudslay preached a Kingsley. In the evening Mr. Eyre read and Mr. Le Hunte preached; but I forget his subject, for such a thunderstorm of rain came down on the zinc roof that even his voice was drowned. Mr. Floyd has one of Bishop Patteson’s native clergy to assist him in a mission to the foreign labour.

‘Foreign labour does seem to be a hopeless field';.But the foreign labour does seem to be a hopeless field. They are brought here from a multitude of isles, all talking different languages, and only remain three years in the group, so that the very small numbers that can be reached, even of those who find situations in Levuka, can scarcely be expected to learn much before they have to be sent back to their own isles as ‘time expired labour.’ Still the little church does fill in the afternoons with a strange motley congregation, and doubtless some seeds are carried back to the distant isles, which may bear fruit in due season.”

Solomons people fear return to home islands: The “foreign labour” referred to was from the Solomon Islands. When the system was altered many of them remained rather than be clubbed on their home beaches when they returned. The work that Mr. Floyd so courageously tackled received an impetus when Bishop John Selwyn paid a visit in 1880 and inspired the Chief justice, who, with a party of young men, conducted classes for the Solomons”.

Multicultural Levuka in the 1930s: the view from Anglican parson, C. W. Whonsbon-Aston

Anglican parson C. W. Whonsbon-Aston, wrote in 1937 – “People are led to believe by the novelists of to-day that the Pacific islands are inhabited by beachcombers, dissolute sons of noble families who are remittance men, or silent men who have been disappointed in love and seek consolation in solitude and trade gin. Some free-lance journalists appear quite ready to malign the South Seas in their endeavour to tell a tale to make a living”. The reality of a multicultural community in Levuka was more steady and sober, he said. in Levuka Days of a Parson in Polynesia By C. W. Whonsbon-Aston, published London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1937 records what he sees as a harmonious, sober, multi-cultural community of;

• Europeans, officials, planters and traders;

• Solomon Islanders, left from blackbirding; and

• The Indian population, which gets a small mention.

Fijian wife the best choice: He describes his employees, and the local planters, and also advises a Fijian woman of good character made a better wife than an imported “ordinary white woman”.

Whonsbon-Aston’s paradiseparish: “My parish was the island, about twenty-four miles round, on which Levuka stands, a portion of Viti Levu behind it, the Lomaiviti Group, portions of Vanua Levu and, beyond the 180th meridian East longitude, the Exploring Isles (Lau Archipelago). My sphere: first of all to the isolated or scattered Europeans, officials, planters and traders; then to the Solomon Islanders, a remnant from the old recruited labour days.

Solomon island worker – Maika: One page of my diary mentions “Maika started work.” Maika was a Solomon, fifty if a day, always on work-days as dirty as could be, while on Sundays he was most certainly the Beau Brummell of his people, a real gay lad with the dusky belles, whom he greeted with a twinkle in his eye worthy of a much younger cavalier. He was lame in one hip, used a stick and had been badly spoiled by fourteen years’ service under too easy conditions. The statement “started work” is not quite the correct phrase. He was usually about to do so.

“Oh,” gasped a lady visitor: Slow? Well, in a level stretch the, odds would probably be a margin in the tortoise’s favour. “Oh,” gasped a lady visitor having tea on the Vicarage veranda, “that umbrella moved.” The umbrella certainly gave the impression that it was out on the lawn to dry, but soon it heaved up again and two sets of black toes were to be seen under it. Maika was busy pulling up seed grass in the hot sun. He had graduated “backwards” from cookboy to the garden. His English was wonderful at times. My attempt to describe a particular cat that was to be summarily expelled should it be seen stalking the chickens produced “I know, I know. The little green one.” He searched for scissors to cut the magpie’s “handle,” and presented his bulletin on the safety of the duck and ducklings: “He all right; his father sit on him.” I sacked the old reprobate at least twice, but couldn’t resist him.

Indian cook famous for curries: Our cook was a Madrassi–called “George” for short–whose Indian curries have so far been unsurpassed. He was a Hindu, and I attribute his long stay with us not to our personal charms, but rather to our unique pet–an Australian magpie–which did such uncanny things that no doubts existed in George’s mind that some understanding spirit had migrated to “Mac.” The bird was his pride and joy. I just couldn’t give him the usual chit when we parted–“As a cook he takes a lot of beating.” I only discharged him twice. The first time I was ever so glad–he had become so suddenly efficient, willing and well-nigh obsequious–when I found at the end of the month that he had left his umbrella hanging behind the kitchen door. His voice with my early morning tea was very welcome.

Government policies not kind to mixed races: Some of our people were of mixed blood. The problem of these good folk is a big one. Levuka is kinder to them than any place I know and some of them are among its best citizens. It is reasonable that they should be given opportunities to rise above their handicap. They are the country’s responsibility, but governments do not seem to legislate for them.

Advisories on wife-selection: A question that, no doubt, arose in the more troublous days of old Fiji was whether it were not better for a man to be joined in wedlock with a clean, happy Fijian woman of good morals–for the Fijian standards were very high–than to make an alliance with some of the damsels of uncertain character to whom the free and easy life gave opportunity, when it was unwise for ordinary white women to be brought over.

Local folks more stable than Imports: “You’ll have a terribly hard job here,” I was told. “There are so many people of mixed blood and they are so unstable.” I was constrained to retort that some of the Europeans were not particularly stable in their attention to things of the spirit. It didn’t appear so hard after all. A sense of humour, a desire to understand, an appreciation of the beautiful and a love of the romantic are essential in Fiji; they must be cultivated.

Fiji is a British Crown Colony, and its white inhabitants conform for the most part to decently high standards. The truth that England is becoming more temperate by disposition rather than by legislation of a drastic nature is exemplified here. Although I have [15/16] been a member of most men’s organisations in Fiji, I have seldom seen any cases of excessive drinking.

The Civil Service consists on the whole of a group of really genuine good fellows. It is no easy matter for a young man to arrive in a country so far from his home, into an atmosphere so different from what he has been accustomed to, and settle down to new conditions.

Planters and traders in isolated islands are models of hospitality and cheeriness. I cannot remember in my many travels among them any unpleasant interlude. To-day they constitute a brave lot, fighting with their backs to the wall against a cruel fate that allows huge European combines to make excessive profits while they, the primary producers, are getting further and further involved–the result of this age of economic incongruities. Down, down, down the copra market has fallen, and with it many beautiful tropic homes are going into dilapidation, and their one-time owners are becoming worried spectres of their old cheery selves.

1937: Condition of Indian indentured labour in Fiji

Project Canterbury, Levuka Days of a Parson in Polynesia By C. W. Whonsbon-Aston London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1937, reported on the condition of Indian indenture labour.

Sugar milling centre at Labasas in 1937: Next day we arrived at the big sugar milling centre at Labasa (pronounced Lambasa), eight miles from the sea up the mangrove-bordered Labasa River. The cane fields take up a large area of flat land about the river banks, with picturesque hills in the near distance surrounding it. Two large knolls stand out near by; one is the Government hill, surmounted by the official residences and offices of the District Commissioner, Doctor, Constabulary, and Wireless Officer; the other is set apart as a sanctuary for the European staff (mostly Australian) of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, and duly graded so that the manager occupies the crown and the common herd the foot. The church and vicarage occupy a position half-way up–symbolic, no doubt, of their democratic character”.

Large ship deaths; epedemics, shipwrecks: Apart from the European work the main field of the Church is among the Indian labour. For some years it has been the policy to employ mainly Indians of the coolie classes for labour in the cane fields and on plantation work. The first ship-loads from India were accompanied by serious unforeseen troubles, for:

•  one ship suffered severely through an epidemic which caused many deaths; and

•  while a further party of over six hundred on the Syria was shipwrecked on the reef near Naselai with great loss of life.

Some returned to India Many had brought their wives and families.
Others remained and have either continued as free labour, settled on small allotments, share-farmed for the C.S.R., or gone into business. It is not unusual to come unexpectedly on a “Bombay Tailor” with his sign up over a small humpy under the palms in some isolated part of the islands. Children who have been reared under these new conditions, away from the narrow streets and bazaars of big crowded Eastern cities, thrive beyond measure. The children are usually very attractive, though the girls seem to lose much of their charm very early in life”.

Drive for education: “Caste of course disappears as they leave India, but a new standard is arising as the young people are educated and grow up. There is no more attractive type than the old-fashioned Indian, content to work at his agricultural labours, dressed as his fathers dressed, using the unchanging methods of ploughing and sowing that his fathers used, apparently perfectly happy in his quiet old way. On the other hand a smattering of the “three R’s” is calculated in some instances to prove too much for the growing youth, and the wooden ploughs of the fathers must be turned into the steel pens of the clerks. The difficulty lies in the fact that Fiji is essentially an agricultural colony and can hardly [73/74] absorb an overplus of clerks. A dissatisfied community straining at emancipation must find its outlet”.

Culture and language: “Again, the Indian immigrant has, of necessity, brought with him his own particular religious outlook, be it Hindu, Moslem or otherwise, which he has a perfect right to maintain until he can find a better basis for his life and conduct. He has also brought his ideas of child marriage, which have to be modified according to the humanitarian outlook of the Government authorities. Many of his superstitions, in many cases his gambling instincts, in some cases his diseases, might be added.

Fiji-Indian dialect evolves: “India is a big country of many languages, and Indians from many scattered parts of their home country have also to face a language difficulty. A composite language seems to have evolved among them”.

Small missionary engagements: “All these aspects have to be taken into consideration in building up the work of Christian missions among Indians in Fiji. The work there began many years ago with some definite organisation, after Archdeacon Floyd returned to Fiji with a grant from S.P.G. in 1903, and was followed later by two missionaries to take the work in hand. It seemed to me at first to be small in scope. This seems to have been the experience of both the Roman Catholics and the Methodists in their own particular spheres of influence among them. The future lies mainly with the young people who attend the mission schools. No matter what the conditions of an Indian parent’s life and work, he is an ideal parent, sparing nothing for his children’s advancement and tremendously keen on education.”

Management of death, and exit of soul: “On arrival I found the Mission Sisters rather perturbed, in the absence of the priest-in-charge on furlough, by an incident that had occurred. An old Indian woman had been removed from hospital much against the doctor’s wishes and taken to her home. She was a Christian, but very ill and extremely helpless, and her friends had decided to try Indian magic to effect a cure, and an Indian magician had been called over to her. As soon as possible that day we crossed the hills and discovered a series of poor looking reed houses below a ploughed field.

Secret Puja Our appearance seemed to cause great activity, suggesting that something had to be removed or hidden. They voluntarily repudiated any suggestion of puja, and I decided to give the poor old soul the last Sacraments next morning. This I did, though one could hardly miss the atmosphere of mystery about much that occurred. The old lady died and was given Christian burial on the Sunday afternoon. The body was placed in a coffin and carried on a long bamboo pole some two hilly and muddy miles to the little chapel by a straggling, rather untidy crowd of all religious beliefs, and, after a short service, another mile to the cemetery.

Çall out the evil spirit:The type of puja varies, but the popular method seemed to be to hold the two halves of a cut lemon near the neck of a rooster as the bird was decapitated. The supposed result was that the spirit of the bird [75/76] entered the lemon, which was then suspended on thongs about the neck of the patient to call out the evil spirit, the cause of the sickness. This sort of difficulty both doctors and missionaries have to face”.

1879: Leonidas arrives in Levuka: first group of indentured labourers had arrived from Calcutta

May 14, 1879: The ship Leonidas arrived in Levuka, and the first group of indentured labourers had arrived from Calcutta. All in all 87 vessels, carrying indentured labourers came to Fiji over a five year period.


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