Blackbirding, the 19th- and early 20th-century practice of enslaving (often by force and deception) South Pacific islanders on the cotton and sugar plantations of Queensland, Australia (as well as those of the Fiji and Samoan islands). The kidnapped islanders were known collectively as Kanakas (seeKanaka). Blackbirding was especially prevalent between 1847 and 1904. The Queensland government’s first attempt to control it came only in 1868 with the Polynesian Labourers Act, which provided for the regulation of the treatment of Kanaka labourers—who theoretically worked of their own free will for a specified period—and the licensing of “recruiters.” Because the Queensland government lacked constitutional power outside its own borders, the regulations could not be enforced; moreover, the fact that notorious and brutal blackbirders were able to retain their licenses seemed to indicate that the government was not seriously trying to end the practice. British government acts of the 1870s—especially the 1872 Pacific Islanders Protection Act (the Kidnapping Act)—provided for agents on British recruiting vessels, stricter licensing procedures, and patrol of British-controlled islands; these measures reduced the incidence of blackbirding by British subjects. Because of the continuing heavy demand for labour in Queensland, however, the practice continued to flourish. Blackbirding died out only in 1904 as a result of a law, enacted in 1901 by the Australian commonwealth, calling for the deportation of all Kanakas after 1906.
Kanaka, (Hawaiian: “Person,” or “Man”), in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, any of the South Pacific islanders employed in Queensland, Australia, on sugar plantations or cattle stations or as servants in towns. The islanders were first introduced into Queensland in 1847 for employment on cotton plantations; in succeeding years they formed the cheap-labour base on which the sugar industry was built. By 1900 more than 60,000 islanders had been recruited in a manner that often amounted to kidnapping.
The labourers were generally abused and reduced to near-slave status (see blackbirding). Although this treatment called forth a strong humanitarian protest, it was rather the charge that the use of Kanakas lowered the standard of living, along with demands for the promotion of European labourers and for small European landholdings, that prompted the Queensland government to prohibit further recruitment in 1890. Already, plantation owners had reacted by calling for the formation of a new colony, which they presumably would dominate, in northern Queensland; now their hostility was effectual in having the prohibition suspended (1892). The replacement of the hoe by the plow and the greater productivity of Australian farmers lessened the importance of Kanaka labour in the following years, however. The new Commonwealth of Australia called for the abolition of recruitment after 1904 and for the deportation of most South Pacific labourers after 1906. More recent commentary has paid regard to the islanders’ historical agency and their continuing legacy.