Between 1863 and 1904, more than 60,000 people from eighty Pacific Islands, primarily Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, were brought to Australia to work. Today referred to as South Sea Islanders, these people and their descendants are a distinct cultural group, share a unique history and have made great contributions to the development of Queensland. Some of the first to come worked here at Raff’s Moray Field Plantation.
During the mid-19th century, Queensland’s growing primary industries required labourers. In the years following the end of convict transportation, labourers had become scare and expensive. Some even believed that people of European descent were ill-suited to work in the more tropic climes of Australia (Anderson 2002:85-86). South Sea Islander peoples were sought after as a cheap labour solution.
South Sea Islander’s were engaged to work in Queensland as indentured labourers. A work contract had to be signed, but many people were actually tricked or forcibly taken from their island, a process know as ‘blackbirding’.
South Sea Islander peoples played a significant role in the sugar industry and worked at Moray Fields. Raff was a prominent supporter of the use of an Islander labour force. It remain unclear how many Islanders worked here.
A visit by the Reverend John Dunmore Lang in 1868 noted 65 South Sea Islanders speaking 5 different languages, working and living on the plantation.
Living and Working Conditions
Most South Sea Islander labourers in Queensland had no legal protection and their employers exploited them. They were often forced to work long hours for low wages. Living conditions were very poor. Many were treated like slaves by their employers.
Lang described accommodations on Moray Fields as a large single timber structure with corrugated iron roof measuring ‘upwards of eighty feet by forty’ and painted on the outside. Raff is described as treating his Islander labour force ‘well’, paying them at the rate of 10 shillings a month with rations, and under engagements of 3 years. Each man received a pound of beef per day and worked until 6pm in the evening (Brisbane Courier, 1868, ‘Cotton and Sugar, The Great Staples of Queensland’, 6 October, p.2). Islander workers sleeping arrangements included
…a raised platform stretching along each side of the building, like the berths in the steerage of a ship, each of the inmates sleeping on his blanket on the boards, the fire for cooking their provisions being on the floor in the centre of the building, around which they congregate in the evening, after the labors[sic] of the day, as in their native isles.
(Brisbane Courier, 1868, ‘Cotton and Sugar, The Great Staples of Queensland’, 6 October, p.2).
Lang described the conduct of a Presbyterian service, at the plantations own schoolhouse, at which a number of the South Sea Islanders from the Island of Maré, the southern most island of the Loyalty Island Group (New Caledonia) for the attended, were ‘literate’, and read a portion of scripture in their own language (Brisbane Courier, 1868, ‘Cotton and Sugar, The Great Staples of Queensland’, 6 October, p.2).
The real picture?
In early 1869, eighteen men, originally from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and then employed at Morayfield Plantation, fled the plantation for Brisbane. Raff sought a court order in an attempt to force them back to work, which they refused (Saunders 1982:132). At their court appearance in January 1869, three Maré men by the names of Tarbucket (alias Kichelho), John Bull and Louis, claimed the reason they left was that Mr Raff was not providing them with enough food or ‘ki-ki’. They also expressed the belief that their agreements had expired after one year, even though Raff explained that they had agreed to three year work agreements, and that they wanted to return to Maré. The court ruled in Raff’s favour and forced the men to return to Morayfield (The Queenslander, ‘The Polynesian Question in Court’, 23 January 1869, p.6).
Anderson, W. (2002) The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia, Melbourne University Press: Melbourne.