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«Throwaway Labour. Blackbirding and a white Australia Gaia Giuliani Copyright © Gaia Giuliani 2011. This text may be archived and redistributed both ...»

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The Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol.2. No.2, 2011,

ISSN 2013-6897 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d‟Estudis

Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona

Throwaway Labour. Blackbirding and a white Australia

Gaia Giuliani

Copyright © Gaia Giuliani 2011. This text may be

archived and redistributed both in electronic form

and in hard copy, provided that the author and

journal are properly cited and no fee is charged Abstract: In a time when a white labour-force was lacking and fear for the survival of the white man in Tropical Australia was widespread, when a cultural and economic hegemony in the Tropical North was still to be achieved, and slavery in the British Empire was outlawed, the transportation of often forced native labour from the Pacific Islands to Queensland‟s plantations (1860s-1900s) became the best solution to guarantee two important effects: 1) the availability of an (almost) unwaged, racialised and segregated labour-force; and 2) the eventual return home of this labour, so its presence would not threaten Australia‟s design of racial autarchy.

My article investigates the connections between that particular system of production (sugar and cotton plantations in Queensland), its correspondent model of exploitation (indentured labour), the colour assignment in the Pacific, and the particular characteristics of Australia as a white settler colony. Its focus is on blackbirding, that particular system of labour recruitment and exploitation that involved Pacific islanders as indentured labourers between 1863 and 1904.

Keywords: Blackbirding; logic of exploitation; white autarchy; Brown Pacific.

Introduction Tanks Christ that‟s over and that‟s the last of the black bastards.

Edward Wybergh Docker, The Blackbirders 269.

In the late 19th century Australia a white labour-force was lacking and fear for the survival of the white man in the Tropics was widespread. Cultural and economic hegemony in the Tropical North was still to be achieved, and slavery in the British Empire was outlawed (Slavery Abolition Act 1833). As a result of this situation, people from the Pacific Islands were taken and pressed often into forced labour on Queensland‟s plantations (1860s- 1900s). This secured the availability of an (almost) unwaged, racialised and segregated labour force. And, most importantly, that the labour force would eventually be returned home, so its presence would not threaten Australia‟s racial autarchy.

98 The Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol.2. No.2, 2011, ISSN 2013-6897 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d‟Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona This article investigates the connections between a particular system of production, that of sugar and cotton plantations in Queensland, and its correspondent model of exploitation (indentured labour). More broadly it is concerned with colour assignment in the Pacific, and the particular characteristics of Australia as a white settler colony. The focus is on blackbirding, that particular system of labour recruitment and exploitation that involved Pacific islanders as indentured labourers between 1863 and 1904. Pacific islanders were from Melanesia – Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia and Niue – a few islands from Polynesia, like Samoa, and from Micronesia. The recruitment process almost always incorporated an element of coercive recruitment and indentured servitude,1 but blackbirding also included voluntary selfrecruitment (see Moore 73). As Mark Finnane and Clive Moore have maintained, it is impossible to distinguish between recruits lured by beguiling recruiters, but really legally enlisted, and those obtained by a level of deception and false promises, who should be placed into the illegal category. And we have

also to grapple with what Moore has termed “cultural kidnapping”:

Europeans taking advantage of Melanesian‟s small scale societies, aspects of which coincided with the requirements of the labour trade. But there can be no doubt that the majority enlisted voluntarily, many more than once.

(Finnane and Moore 144)2 The ships brought Pacific Islanders to Townsville, Maryborough (Hervey Bay) and Brisbane, in Queensland, Melbourne in Victoria and Sydney in New South Wales, mostly bought by sugar planters and cotton growers. However, if blackbirding was initially aimed at plantations in Queensland (62,500), and Fiji (annexed to Great Britain in 1874; 27,000), then Australian, French and the US recruiting were soon heading for Hawaii, Peru and Guatemala (7,300), French New Caledonia (15,000) and French and Australian New Hebrides (or Vanuatu; 2,500), German Samoa (12,500), and Australian plantations in the Solomon Islands (1870s-1880) (see Brown 185). The end of the phenomenon coincided with the creation of the Australian Federation, the introduction of the White Australia Policy (through the Immigration Restriction Act and the Pacific Islands Indentured Labours Act in 1901).

In investigating a racial, productive and geo-cultural topography that – as drafted by the practice of blackbirding – seems to neatly separate the „Brown Pacific‟ from its white extremities (the US and Australia), my analysis is also a survey of the topicality of the articulation in the Pacific of what has been called “the global colour line” (Lake and Reynolds, see also Anderson 2009). In this, the term „global‟ is meant to stress the world-wide nature of the intersection between raciologies that produces discriminating effects along a number of global dynamics. Instead of “colour line” I will use the plural „colour lines‟ to acknowledge the existence of a number of racial distinctions incardinated in the fundamental settler colonial binary distinction, that is, in Australia, the one between black-as-Aborigine and white-as-settler, and, in the US, the one between black-as-slave and white-as-human/citizen. The shift between a single colour line – as W.B.E. Du Bois phrased it (16) – to a plot of lines, establishes the Pacific as a 99 The Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol.2. No.2, 2011, ISSN 2013-6897 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d‟Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona multifaceted racialised reality that makes it possible to confront the peculiar PacificAustralian set of colour lines with the equally peculiar Pacific-American one.





The survey in this article is not an exhaustive investigation of the topicality of the Brown Pacific. Such an undertaking would involve the comparison of the plantationsystems as well as the particular raciologies which existed across the Atlantic and the Pacific. This would possibly reveal dynamics and meanings of the re-articulation of the historical trope of black-as-slave into the trope of the Pacific brown-as-(acceptable)semi-slave that was a consequence of the end of the Atlantic slave-trade. The article concludes with a discussion of the clash between two different versions of white supremacism that strongly differ from the single-faceted definition of it that, for instance, has been offered in Australia by Ghassan Hage (1998, 2003). It argues for the existence of a „broad‟ white supremacism that, founded on the logic of elimination of the prior indigenous inhabitants, includes the possibility of the presence in the country of non-white people as exploitable subjects. I argue also for the existence of a „strict‟ white supremacism (or white autarchy) that, equally founded on the same logic, precludes any non-white border-crossing.

In this scheme, white supremacism does not merely correspond to the „white power‟ described by Hage, which reproduces itself through a white privilege-based multiculturalism (Hage 1998 20). Rather, it is interconnected with the „camp‟ where the tension between the logic of exploitation and the autarchic solution is recombined. This camp is where white supremacy negotiates its ideological assumptions and its own taxonomies along with the interests at play and the cogent material contradictions (see Palombo 3-4). It results from the polarization of a racialised conception of production and reproduction. Given the white supremacist dogma of the maintenance of a „purely white‟ reproduction, the term in question is production. As I will discuss later, in the autarchic solution, production is meant to be white. Only white labour can be employed.

On the contrary, in a white supremacist model grounded on the logic of exploitation, highly exploited non-white production is seen as the best way to guarantee, in this historical phase, the white‟s higher quality of living and establish racialised social hierarchies that consolidate white supremacy.

Colours in the Pacific In a recent survey on the particular articulation of the colour lines in settler colonialism, my own research highlighted the very peculiarity of the assignment of colours to the Pacific bio-diversities. These bio-diversities were mostly defined as brown and black.

First formulated by French and British scientists (see Douglas 2003 15-17, 2006 4, and Douglas and Ballard parts 1, 2), the colour assignment was further elaborated by independent Queensland‟s scientists and doctors. It drew a sort of „melanin‟ line between enslavable (primitive, darker brown or almost black) Melanesians (or Kanakas3) and quiet and more civilised Polynesians (lighter brown). According to this taxonomy, the supposed cannibalistic habits of Melanesians were opposed to Polynesian alleged mildness, and the colour black was associated with an assumed wildness and 100 The Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol.2. No.2, 2011, ISSN 2013-6897 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d‟Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona ferocity that had been deployed elsewhere to sustain the idea of black human beings as lacking the racial capacity to govern themselves (see Biber, Banivanua-Mar 2007 3).

The trope of the colour black as signifier of the incommensurability with civilisation was given new life through the Australian experience of the Pacific labour trade (1860ss). Yet it continued to be associated predominantly with the history of the Atlantic slave trade (and associated with Africans, African slaves, and Americans of African descent).4 In fact, although the American trope of the „negro fear‟ – that is, the fear of white-black miscegenation due to the black physical presence in the US – was transduced to the Pacific, it was translated into a „lighter‟ brown fear (a sort of containable threat). This is due, as I will argue later, to the fact that Melanesians‟ alleged quasi blackness was perfectly consistent with the rejection of the trope black-asslave after the outlawing of slavery in the British Empire. Pacific quasi blackness was less overwhelming than enslaved blackness: unlike Afro-American slavery, it could be contained numerically and symbolically through a very much controlled indentured labour trade. As a result, the topos of the „brown fear‟ in Australia was mostly referring to a non-sexualized fear for epidemic contagion and not associated solely with the „almost black‟ Melanesians but with a larger externalised community. This community included „yellow‟ and „brown‟ migrants from Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Included in such a large group, Pacific indentured workforce in 1860ss did not signify that absolute diversity (blackness-as-enslaved-condition) that produced an exceptionally dehumanising racism, rather it constituted a more general brownness for legitimated exploitation. Nevertheless, as Tracey Banivanua-Mar highlights, the proximity established between Pacific Islanders‟ racial identity and AfroAmerican blackness legitimised a system of forced labour that resonated with the enslaved condition (Banivanua-Mar 2007 141 and ff.). The industry of cane-growing employed a number of different racialised indentured and waged labourers who all suffered the inhuman condition of the plantation work. But in the case of the people from Melanesia, the violent recruitment as well as the bound nature of their labour and the methods of coercion and restraint used against them (see Saunders 1975 192-207) escalated the plantation system‟s violence in a way unparalleled in Australia by any other system of exploitation involving externalised racialised groups.5 The racial distinction which operated in the period 1860s-1910s between Melanesians, Polynesians and Australian Aborigines, needs to be explored in its correspondence and functionality to the integrated bio-politics of racialised production and reproduction that was operating in Australia at the time. This racialised bio-politics permeated every aspect of Australian public and private life: founded on the „appropriation of the land‟ through the elimination of the native, it could privilege a broader white supremacism based on the logic of exploitation or an idea of white autarchy. White supremacism refers to a racialised system of production for a white supremacist Australia that privileges racialised labour exploitation over racialised reproduction. White autarchy on the other hand refers to a racialised system of reproduction that strives for the closure of Australian borders and society to all non-white and black outsiders.6 The difference between the two polarizations of that integrated racialised bio-politics 101 The Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol.2. No.2, 2011, ISSN 2013-6897 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d‟Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona tallies strikingly with the meanings attached to the Pacific anomaly mentioned above, of the colour differentiation between Polynesians (Malays and Micronesians) and Melanesians. While the Polynesians are often compared with Greek and Roman bodies, the Melanesian are depicted as the brownest (that is, quasi black) and ugliest race in the area (Douglas 2006 25-26, Manderson and Jolly 8). The „black brownness‟ associated with Pacific Islanders signified them contextually as both a reservoir of racialised labour for a white supremacist settler colony (logic of exploitation) and a threat to the racial purity of Australia (racial autarchy). Wildness/warrior-ness/bloodthirstiness/sexual licentiousness associated with (monstrously ugly quasi black) Kanakas (Douglas 2006



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