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Forgotten Slaves of the South Seas

Forgotten Slaves of the South Seas

Forgotten Slaves of the South Seas


A RIPPLE of excitement seizes the crowd as two ships slip into the lagoon of the remote Pacific atoll. Years earlier, a castaway had given each family there a few pages torn from his Bible. These humble people eagerly read those pages and since then had anxiously awaited the arrival of a Christian teacher.

Now these visiting seamen are promising to take them to a place where they can learn more about God. Some 250 trusting men and women board the ships, many of them clutching their treasured Bible pages.

They were, however, victims of a clever deception. Once on board, they were bound, thrown below deck, and sent on a long journey to the port of Callao in South America. Unsanitary conditions led to many deaths in transit. Sexual exploitation was rife. Those who survived the voyage were sold as slaves to work on plantations and in mines or as domestic servants, never to return to their island home.

Development of “Blackbirding”

The abduction of South Pacific islanders during the 19th and early 20th centuries came to be called blackbirding. During the early 1860’s, the practice brought thousands of the islanders to South America. During the decade that followed, the focus moved to the west as islanders were taken to Australia. In 1867, Ross Lewin, formerly of the Royal Navy, offered sugar growers and cotton planters the “best and most serviceable natives to be had in the islands at 7 [pounds] a head.”

Efforts of the British Colonial Office to combat blackbirding were unsuccessful. For one thing, it was difficult to apply British law to subjects of foreign powers. For another, English law did not have a comprehensive definition of slavery. Thus, in court, blackbirders successfully argued that these islanders​—although deceived and taken forcibly—​were not really slaves but were indentured laborers who would be paid and, in time, sent home. Some went so far as to assert that they were doing these former heathens a favor by bringing them under British law and teaching them to work! Blackbirding thus proliferated, at least for a time.

The Tide Turns

As fair-minded citizens spoke out against blackbirding, the tide began to turn. While some islanders were recruited willingly, forcible capture could no longer be tolerated. Neither could abuses, such as whipping and branding, or the shocking conditions under which some laborers lived and worked.

The situation further intensified when the Anglican bishop J. C. Patteson​—an outspoken opponent of blackbirding—​was murdered by the very islanders he sought to protect. Employing an often-used form of deception, blackbirders had arrived at an island ahead of Patteson in a ship deliberately made to resemble his. In this case, the local people were invited on board to meet the bishop. They were never seen again. When the real Patteson arrived, he was met by an understandably hostile crowd, and he was killed in a mistaken act of retaliation. In response to this incident​—and to the growing public outcry—​British and French navy ships were stationed in the Pacific with orders to stop the abuses.

The New South Wales and Queensland governments in Australia joined forces with the Colonial Office by passing various acts to halt abuses and to regulate the indentured-labor trade. Inspectors were appointed, and government representatives were placed aboard recruiting ships. These zealous efforts paid off, as convictions were obtained on the grounds of kidnapping and murder, rather than on the ineffectual antislavery provisions. The last decade of the 19th century saw a changing situation in the South Seas. The practice of abducting slaves had largely halted, and the flow of new “recruits” ebbed to a trickle by the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1901, a new national parliament, the Commonwealth of Australia, gained control over immigration for the entire country. Its policies reflected public opinion, which by then had started to resent outside labor, as many feared it would undermine local workers. Indentured laborers or not, South Sea islanders were no longer welcome. Thousands were forcibly repatriated, leading to more tragedy, as some who were now taken from where they had settled were separated from loved ones.

Forgotten Slaves Remembered

In September 2000, the government of the state of Queensland issued a statement that is on permanent display. It acknowledges the role that the islanders of the South Seas played in the economic, cultural, and regional development of Queensland. At the same time, it expresses regret over the harsh treatment to which they were subjected.

Throughout history, many individuals have seized opportunities to enrich themselves at the expense of the life and liberty of others. The Bible promises that under the rule of God’s Kingdom, no such injustices will take place. Indeed, those living as earthly subjects under that heavenly government “will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making them tremble.”​—Micah 4:4.

[Diagram/​Map on page 24, 25]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

Slave routes led to Australia and South America




New Guinea






Sydney ← FIJI → Callao





Easter Island

[Picture Credit Line on page 24]

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an11279871