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Victorian Struggles page 3


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In 1878 the labour position in Queensland was considerably changed by the influx of 20,000 Chinese, caused by discoveries of gold. The colonists, becoming afraid of being elbowed out, then imposed a tax of 10 per head on every Chinaman, besides other taxes, including 1d. a lb. on their rice. The opponents of Kanaka labour enquired why Queensland, which had led the way in the traffic in Kanaka labour, complained when so abundantly supplied with Chinese labour! In 1883 the supply of labour was further increased by the import of indentured labourers from India and Ceylon. But the import of Kanaka labourers continued and serious and well-authenticated complaints as to their treatment and the manner in which they were obtained were made to successive Colonial Secretaries.

The Rev. J. G. Paton wrote: 'the Kanaka labour traffic is a trade in men and women.... Wherever they can find a market for these Islanders thither they are carried to be engaged, or rather to be "sold" at so much per head, according to age and strength. Some few pass into domestic service, where they are not so badly treated, but the great bulk of them go to the sugar plantations, where there is little before them but thinly veiled slavery.' Paton went on to say of the labour system: The only visible advantage that has ever accrued from it has been the enrichment of the slave traders (I mean labour collectors) and sugar planters. To the islanders themselves it has been in every way an unmitigated evil. In Queensland they work for fourpence a day, in Fiji for twopence: white labour for the same would cost at least five to eight shillings a day; the white man works eight hours a day, the poor Kanaka toils on from ten to fourteen, often dying from sheer exhaustion, and ending with the burial of a dog. In the slaving ships the immoralities are unspeakable.

Paton's statements are reinforced by evidence given before the Royal Commission which sat in Queensland in 1885.

At long last the Queensland Government abolished the Kanaka labour system at the end of 1890, but, as the Aborigines Protection Society pointed out at the time, 'there is danger of its being clandestinely continued in that colony, and also of its being encouraged in other parts in consequence of the humane change that has been appointed in Queensland.' These misgivings were quickly justified, for in 1892 Sir Samuel Griffith, Premier of Queensland, introduced a Bill allowing renewal of the traffic for a period of ten years. This was passed by the Colonial Legislature and assented to in the Queen's name by Sir Henry Norman, who believed the regulations framed for the prevention of abuses to be adequate. There is no doubt that under these regulations care was taken to protect the Polynesians in Queensland from such cruel treatment as was common in former years. But it does not appear that satisfactory arrangements were made to control either their recruitment in the islands or their return to their homes on the expiry of their service.

A debate on the subject took place in the House of Commons on May 26, 1892, in which Mr. A, J. Balfour said that 'they were all absolutely convinced of the evils that had attended this traffic in the past and that might attend it in the future,' and it was well pointed out by Mr. James Bryce (later Lord Bryce) that while there are grave difficulties in the way of any interference by the Imperial Government with the action of a colony endowed with so much independence as Queensland, it is competent for the home authorities - and clearly their duty - to see that no kidnapping or unjust recruiting is allowed in the Pacific Islands, which are 'outside the boundaries of Queensland and under the protection of the British flag.'

The Aborigines Protection Society held stoutly to the opinion that 'the system of Polynesian labour in Queensland has been proved - especially in the evidence laid before the Royal Commission of 1885 - to be so injurious to native interests, and so entirely at variance with the recognised principles of English justice to inferior races, that no regulations for improving it can purge it of its essential evils,' A Blue Book published in 1895 (C.7912) showed that Sir Henry Norman undoubtedly took the utmost pains to see that the traffic was carried on as humanely as possible and to punish persons convicted of ill-treating the labourers. But as Dr. Wilson, Bishop of Melanesia, temperately pointed out: 'Two wrongs are being committed against the islanders, which, unless removed, must bring discredit upon the sugar industry of Queensland. As now carried on, the trade does not lead to the civilisation but rather to the decivilisation of the islands. It leads also directly to their depopulation.' In 1898 the Aborigines Protection Society was able to report that 'the difficulties of obtaining fresh recruits from islands, already deprived of so many of their inhabitants, and the rigour with which regulations are enforced as regards both the recruiting and the treatment of the Polynesians while they are in Queensland, appear, however, to have rendered this form of slavery so costly and inconvenient that it is ceasing to be profitable. In this way there is a prospect of the pernicious and disgraceful traffic dying out.'

Thus was brought to an end, but to a not very creditable end, a traffic deeply discreditable to the British name in the Pacific, Much was due to the steady pressure of English reformers, but Parliament was hampered by the difficulty of interfering in the internal affairs of a colony to which, as some argued, self-governing powers had been too prematurely granted in 1859.

For fifty years a struggle has been waged, unhappily without much success, against abuses, closely akin to those of Kanaka labour, which have occurred in the New Hebrides. These islands have since 1906 been under the condominium of Great Britain and France, but the full story belongs to an earlier period. The recruiting of labour in the New Hebrides had been carried on in the past with the same abuses which had characterised the system in other parts of the Pacific. But the special feature in regard to the New Hebrides is the experiment of condominium, its inefficiency and its unfortunate results with regard to the treatment of the natives. Resolutions were passed by a Conference of the Protestant Churches held in the New Hebrides on June 24, 1913, 'calling the attention of the people of the British Empire to the deplorable condition of things existing in this group of Islands,' the gross inefficiency of the French National Court was pointed out, and the fact that most of the French judges knew no English, which meant that the evidence of natives had to undergo a double translation before it became intelligible to the majority of the Bench, The resolutions drew attention to the remission or failure to execute sentences upon French subjects, instancing a case of the kidnapping and murder of a native by a Frenchman who walked out of the court a free man. The British Courts, on the other hand, punished severely offences against natives. Other resolutions complained of the long imprisonment of natives awaiting their trial, and stated that 'whilst on British plantations fair conditions of life, work, and payment are generally maintained, the majority of French plantations furnish examples of an exploitation which can only be denominated slavery.'

In an article published on June n, 1913, Truth stated that 'the scandal of the New Hebrides situation is that, while the regulations for the protection of the natives are strictly enforced against British "nationals," the French planters are permitted to break them with impunity.' A French periodical, La France d'Outre Mer (March, 1912), put the case with even greater frankness: the recruiting of native labour goes on in flagrant violation of the Convention of 1906 under abominable conditions. Slavery is, in fact, re-established. The natives are treated like beasts of burden... their work is overwhelming, their wages ridiculously small.... Alas! it has become nearly impossible to obtain voluntary labour, and so one of the most disgusting forms of slavery has been established in order to procure labourers. The settlers equip a boat and go from Island to Island; sometimes by craft and sometimes by violence, they seize the native men and women whom, they want. This is what the English call 'kidnapping,' or as we call it in good French, 'la traite' - women and young girls are forcibly taken away from their husbands or relatives, and often find themselves at the mercy of the savage crews of the ships before they are sent to the plantations. Cases of sheer violence are numerous, and are established by irrefutable documents.

The existence of such gross abuses only twenty years ago may be startling to those who do not realise that Queensland, a self-governing British colony, had permitted or condoned similar abuses twenty years earlier, and that just as Britain had been fifteen years ahead of France in abolishing slavery, so there would probably be a similar time-lag before French standards of what constituted decent treatment for native labour reached the British level.

Reform in the New Hebrides is further complicated by the unworkable system of administration necessitated by that most unsatisfactory form of government, the condominium. The price the wretched natives have paid for that condominium can be gathered from the fact that it has been estimated that the population has been reduced from 600,000 in 1882 to 65,000 in 1911. Looking back over the Victorian era, one finds much that is depressing in the colonial attempts to substitute forms of disguised slavery for old systems which had become illegal.

But against the gloom must be set the fact that in the policy of the British Colonial Office the enlightened standards of colonial administration first laid down by Buxton and his Emancipators triumphed first in one area, then in another, in spite of occasional retrograde steps and more frequent displays of regrettable weakness in dealing with reactionary Colonial Governments and with the growing power of settler communities.

In West Africa progress was steady throughout the period. In New Zealand an enlightened policy for the Maoris was being evolved. In East Africa Lugard and Harry Johnstons were laying foundations of policy which, had they been continually applied, would have saved much national heartburning to-day. Towards the close of the Victorian era Abolitionists and Emancipators were looking hopefully to the consummation of their self-imposed tasks. Alas! how little they guessed that even at that time birth was given to new forms of slavery which would spell oppression, torture and bloodshed upon a scale, and of a character, as terrible as anything which had occurred a hundred years before.

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