UNESCO Honour for Queensland State Archives
The South Sea Islander collection at Queensland State Archives documents the arrival and lives of Pacific Islanders who came as indentured labourers from the 1860s until the early 1900s. The collection shows the transition that took place from indentured labourers to permanent residents and reveals the nature of the mass deportation ordered by the Australian government in the 1900s after the closure of the labour trade.
In the year that marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first South Sea Islanders to Queensland, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has added 67 historically significant items from Queensland State Archives collection to its prestigious Australian Memory of the World Register.
The significant items added to the Australian Memory of the World Register focus on the public records created by the Inspectors of Pacific Islanders and Immigration agencies plus the Health Officer’s report for the first voyage that brought South Sea Islanders to Queensland in 1863.
As well as being significant for the Australian-born descendents of the original Islander generation these documents are important in the context of Australian history. These records provide evidence for ancestral and lineage research and the broader topics of economy and demography in early Queensland.
A pervasive nineteenth century belief that certain ethnic groups were more suited than others at labouring in tropical conditions served as the rationale for the introduction of an indentured labour system. Although the first South Sea Islanders were brought to Queensland to work on a cotton plantation, the majority provided a workforce for sugar planters, playing a significant role in the development of this industry. They also contributed to the pastoral, pearling and marine industries, as well as domestic services.
From 1863 to 1904 the indentured labour system brought around 50 000 South Sea Islanders to Queensland. This is represented by approximately 62 000 indentured labour contracts over 41 years.
The Queensland government introduced legislation to regulate the recruitment, employment and repatriation of South Sea Islanders. The Polynesian Labourers Act 1868 and Pacific Island Labourers Act 1880 outlined the role of the Inspectors of Pacific Islanders, responsible for the inspection of conditions of employment and welfare of South Sea Island labourers.
The Health Officer’s report about the 1863 voyage of the Don Juan provides documentary evidence of the beginning of the scheme. Subsequent records created by the Inspectors of Pacific Islanders and the Immigration Department deal with the recruitment, arrival, employment and deportation or exemption from deportation of South Sea Islanders who were brought to Queensland from 1863 to 1904.
Many of these records are digitised and are available through the Queensland State Archives website. Read more about the Australian South Sea Islanders resources held at Queensland State Archives or visit our Public Search Room at 435 Compton Road, Runcorn.
Niles Elvery - Manager Public Access, Queensland State Archives