The Blackbirders

When slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century, many large scale mines and farms throughout the Americas suffered a recruitment crisis. Paying a wage for work cut profits and before long unscrupulous merchants set out to look for another source of free labour.

Ships from Peru and Chile sailed west across the Pacific to the uncharted and ungoverned islands of Polynesia and Melanesia.

In 1863 a ship, The arrived off the shore of Nukulaelae an island that forms part of Tuvalu. The naive islanders, who had only rarely received contact from the outside world, gathered on the beach. They were persuaded to go aboard the ship to "receive religious instruction". Once aboard, they were locked below deck and the ship set sail. 250 men, women and children were taken, this represented 79 per cent of the island's population. None of them were ever to return, all were condemned to spend the remainder of their lives in Chile as 'indentured labourers' although in reality they never received payment for their labour and lived and died in miserable poverty. They also had virtually no immunity to disease and succumbed in their droves to thyphoid and measles.

This story was repeated all over the Pacific. Easter Island, Kiribati, The Cook Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu and The Solomon Islands were all robbed of many of their fittest inhabitants. They were taken to the sugar cane fields in Queensland, phosphate mines on Peru, to kill seals on Juan Fernandez, to work in hotels in Chile and to dig guano from rocks off the coast of Peru and Chile. They endured awful living conditions and very few ever returned to their homelands.

The author of these words wonders at the scene on Nukulaelae when four out of five islanders had been kidnapped. Families destroyed at a stroke, probably only the elderly, infirm and the youngest children remained. Life on paradise must suddenly have become very hard.

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