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Digitised @ SLQ - What I know of the Labour Traffic, 1884

By Simon Miller, Library Technician, State Library of Queensland | 1 August 2013

What I know of the labour traffic : a lecture delivered to The School of Arts, Mackay, the capital of the sugar industry in North Queensland, June, 1884, with a preface, by A. J. Duffield.

Reviewed By Simon Miller, Library Technician, Published Content, Queensland Memory


A correspondent for The Queenslader wrote on 26 July 1884:

We have received from the publishers a copy of a pamphlet entitled "What I Know of the Labour Traffic," being the report of a lecture delivered at Mackay by Mr. A. J. Duffield, with some introductory remarks by that gentleman. The pamphlet is written in a varied, picturesque, and very discursive style. It does not contain much about the labour traffic, but it gives some of Mr. Duffield's experiences, and many of his opinions. The former are curious, and the latter rather startling.

Alexander James Duffield (1821-1890) is credited in the pamphlet as Attorney for the Queensland Government on board the ‘Heath’, labour vessel, licensed by the Premier to convey 156 Islanders from the South Sea Islands, to the Homebush Plantation, the property of the Colonial Sugar Company in Mackay.  Duffield is the author of several other books including Recollections of travels abroad and The beauty of the world : a story of this generation.

The correspondent from The Queenslander is quite just in his assessment, the pamphlet is rather rambling and deals extensively with tangential topics such as the vital role of British steam engineering in transforming the world for the better.  When he does finally get to the heart of his topic he does not condemn the importation of South Sea Islander labour as such.  He applauds the value of the sugar industry and agrees with the idea that Queensland must import labour “and those accustomed to bear the sun’s heat must do it”. However, his assessment of the treatment of South Sea Islander labourers in Queensland is damning.

That you have been blameworthy to a large extent is too amply proved by the amount of blame which is due to you still. The death rate among South Sea Islanders on some of your estates has reached the appalling height of sixty per cent. These deaths all arose from preventable causes. You have shown no ability in acclimatising the Islanders whom you bought, and when through purely climatic effects men and women dropt down dead, and continued to die like rotten sheep, you were supine in the application of remedial measures. It is notoriously true that the Islanders on your plantations have not been properly or appropriately fed. Many have been allowed to die of ulcers, dysentry, fever, wounds, paralysis, delirium, dropsy, opthalmia, pnumonia, and from fear. The number of the “missing” and the “found dead” has not yet been reckoned up; that number you know to be very great. How many have gone mad, you do not know, or care to know. How many have died while watching on your own solitary shores for the ship to come which had been promised to carry them home, you cannot accurately declare ; nor are you yet quite sure that you have found out the right way of sustaining, lodging, and clothing these labourers. This is a very serious indictment. But more remains. When on a recent occasion 224 of these people died in a brief space out of some 580, then down with suffering and sorrow, who was present when these Islanders passed away? When anyone was present in those last moments he was generally some brutal person, who could not speak a word of the dying man’s tongue, some wretch who was probably not quite sober, or some prentice butcher placed there to do the mere mechanical part of shovelling the remains into a hole.

Let me ask you, not how many hours did you keep these people at work, but, did you ever give them any play? These Islanders are passionately fond of music and dancing; in their own homes or on their own yellow sands they are nearly always getting up a song and having a dance. How have you knocked the song out of them, and crippled them for the dance? Had you known how to keep their hearts merry, their limbs had not lost their motion, they had not died.

Some of you, to your honour, would never have taken these Islanders under your care or into your service, if you had not known how to handle them; and those very plantations where the right methods of treatment have prevailed are proofs suffıcient that the dire mortality which has occurred was needless.  Lastly, have you always been just in your dealings with these children of the Coral Sea? It is astonishing, and to some, a thing unknown, that injustice kills. To many human beings injustice is more deadly than rats’ bane or arsenic. The cause of much of the injustice which planters have meted out to their Islanders, is that in an insolent sense of their own religious as well as racial superiority, they have regarded the Islanders as heathen, and therefore, out of the pale of justice! This thrice-accursed conviction is strong in the minds of all professing Christians, especially those who place a higher value on pious beliefs than on human feelings; and it will become the bounden duty of all citizens of Queensland to ascertain whether this thrice-accursed conviction is wide-spread and abiding; because if it be, then the trade in Kanakas must cease; not only in the interests of the Islanders, but in your own interests and the interest of humanity.

This book review is part of an ongoing series by State Library staff who have volunteered to review heritage collection materials about labourers who were brought to Queensland from the South Sea islands beginning in 1863.



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