The Wayback Machine -
The Kanakas and the Cane Fields


The practice was called blackbirding, the stealing of young Melanesians to work in the cane fields of Australia and Fiji. Europeans in big ships with muskets, axes and mattocks would seduce naive islanders on board to look at other treasures. Sometimes they were offered a pleasure cruise that never came back. One account tells how recruiters in the bay of a missioned island stood on deck with hymn books, singing, until the islanders paddled out for a look. Told, falsely, that a Bishop was on board, they clambered up and were promptly thrown in the hold.

Kanakas in the Queensland cane fields.

During the late 1860s and early 1870s, "recruiters" ranged the South Seas in search of kanakas to work Queensland sugar and cotton plantations. Former South Seas trader Captain Robert Towns began this dubious practice in August 1873 when he imported 67 islanders from the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Torres Strait Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Captain Robert Towns, 1863 entrepreneur, brought first New Herbrideans (Vanuatu Islanders) to Queensland for work on his cotton plantation in the Logan district. One of his skippers was accused of kidnapping. Some recruiters dispensed with niceties and simply hauled men on board. 

Kanakas loading cane for Towns on
 his Ross Island plantation, Townsville, c. 1868.

Over almost 40 years, more than 800 ships scoured the waters of the South Seas, issuing about 62,000 contracts to people labelled kanakas - the Hawaiian name for "boy". It is a story of slavery, of how young men and women from exotic islands such as Pentecost, Tanna and Malaita in the Solomon Islands were taken, sometimes by force and sometimes by deception and shoved into the putrid hulls of ships and carried across to work in the cane fields of Australia and Fiji..

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Clearing land in preparation for planting.

When they arrived in Australia, they were put to work clearing the land of white land owners who thought that white men would probably die if forced to labour in the tropical Queensland heat. As the kanakas toiled in the fields, they were watched over by overseers often on horseback and armed with stock whips - something intended for cattle and not for human beings.

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Islanders hoeing weeds in young cane.

One vessel actively involved in the labour trade was the brig Carl which arrived at Levuka in Fiji in June 1871. The brig was partly owned by Dr. James Patrick Murray who, upon arrival at Levuka,  promptly sacked the brig's entire crew of eleven - bar one, the mate, Joseph Armstrong whom he promoted to captain.

The only thing motivating Dr. James Murray and his fellows was money, and friendly persuasion can take a lot of time. Controlling the vicious short-cuts frequently adopted by recruiters was no easy matter, and in waters where ships frequently changed owners, flags and appellations - often overnight - vessels with the deceptively fragrant names of Daphne, Water Lily and Blossom were virtually free to ply a malodorous trade. Despite the constant presence of the Royal Navy's avenging Basilisk, Barrosa, Cossack, and Rosario, it was an immense area to police and the odds more often than not were against the custodians of the law.

A week after he arrived in Fiji, Dr. Murray set sail for the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to make his fortune and the tragic events that took place on board the brig Carl during this first recruiting voyage followed shortly after. The brig followed the well established trading route through the New Hebrides until he reached the Solomon Islands some eight to nine days later. Dr. Murray devised a novel and ingenious technique to recruit labour - one that both overcame the language barrier and saved an enormous amount of time. Initially, a few overtures were made to the locals such as holding beads, paints, pipes and tobacco over the ship's side. Then bars of pig iron which were attached to ropes were thrown overboard into the circling canoes which either sank or were overturned and tipped their occupants into the water. Any natives that were stunned or not quick enough to escape were fished out by the brig's crew and thrown into the hold.

And so it continued. From Santa Ana the Carl sailed north to the Florida Islands and on to the island of Ysabel - all in the Solomons - perfecting the pig iron technique as it went. The natives came on board "almost voluntarily", said Murray later, in a quaint turn of phrase.

Murray had about sixty or seventy unsuspecting islanders securely in the hold by the time Bougainville came into sight. Here Murray met with rather more opposition, when "large, powerful men, armed with bows and arrows, and spears and clubs" came out to the brig. After a severe fight, forty were taken and shoved in the hold with the others.

Up until that time, the crew had managed to keep the various groups apart - a sensible measure, given the internecine warfare between the various island groups, but a day after another forty captives were taken at Buka Island and the alarm was given that the natives below decks were in revolt; the Bougainville newcomers were, in fact, fighting with the older residents. It was then found that they were trying to set fire to the ship. At this time, some of the natives were allowed on board and those left behind in the hold were fired on by their captors. The firing continued at intervals all night, and in the morning the hatches were taken off and the dead and wounded brought on deck. There were, it is said about fifty dead and about twenty wounded who were all thrown overboard.

By the time HMS Rosario overhauled and boarded the brig as it proceeded to Levuka, the hold had been whitewashed to remove the smell, all rebellion had been quelled and everything seemed shipshape. It was left to another Royal Navy crew, at the end of the second voyage in April 1872, to pick out the bullets from the woodwork and to lay charges.

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Dr. Archibald Watson.

The second recruiting voyage of the Carl began in December 1871 until April 1872. The brig left Levuka on 21st December 1871 with Dr. Archibald Watson on board by invitation of the Captain, Joseph Armstrong. On the 20th January 1872, the brig anchored off the coast of Espiritu Santo. It then sailed north and sighted the Torres Group on Monday 22nd January. The next day the ship reached the western side of the northernmost island in the Torres Group and sighted the schooner Daphne.

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HMS Rosario overhauling the Slaver Carl.
                                       National Library of Australia.                                        

On Friday the 2nd February, they reached Onotoa Atoll (Kiribati) and stood out to sea that night. On Saturday the 3rd February, they sailed past Tabiteuea Atoll (Kiribati) where a great many canoes came off. Many natives remained aboard during the day trading for tobacco and the following morning several canoes pulled alongside selling fish that have been caught overnight.    

The Carl eventually reached Ovalau having recruited men in the Kingsmill Group, the Marshall Group and the Carolines. It was at the end of this second recruiting voyage in April 1872, that charges of kidnapping and murder were laid against the Captain and crew of the Carl as a result of the tragic events of that first recruiting voyage.

By the late 1890s in Australia, most of the really hard yakka (work) had been done and white labourers figured they could handle it from here. Deportation of the men and women who cleared and farmed Australia's sugar fields became one of the first acts of the newly federated nation of 1901. In the end, exemptions were won but most went back. By 1908, about 7,000 kanakas from across Queensland and New South Wales had returned to their islands. Officially, 1,654 kanakas stayed but the true figure is believed to be about 2,500. 

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The last group of kanakas is returned to the Solomon Islands, 1895.

Today, about 15,000 descendants of these sugar pioneers live throughout Australia, mostly in Queensland and northern New South Wales. They call themselves "the forgotten people" as discrimination and neglect are constants in their history, but they are resilient people who are determined to ensure their legacy is elevated to its proper position.  



The five images above represent the modern face of the kanaka people of Australia.

There is little doubt that the use of kanaka labour obtained by force or deception constituted a form of slavery. The kidnapped Melanesians had no concept of indentured labour and no sanctions could hold them to a contract they simply did not understand. There is no doubt in the minds of the descendants of the original kanakas that this was most certainly the case. There is also little doubt however that this would be considered by many to be a very shameful part of Oceanic history and as such should never be allowed to be forgotten.

Oceania - The Second Recruiting Voyage of the Carl

Jane Resture's Oceania Page

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Jane Resture
 (E-mail: -- Rev. 29th April 2003)