In the late 19th century, cheap labour was sought for various Pacific industries, such as mines and plantations. Pacific islanders were also ‘recruited’ to labour in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa and Peru. Satisfying the demand for labour was a major commercial activity from the 1860s.
In some cases islanders were keen to sign up, seeking to share the benefits of European wealth. Often, though, islanders were tricked into boarding ships, either being deceived about the length of time for which they were contracted, or sometimes enticed aboard by sailors dressed as priests. In many cases no pretense was even attempted: islanders were simply herded onto slaving ships at gunpoint.
The populations of many small, barely viable islands were devastated by blackbirders (a term used for the co-opting and sometimes kidnapping of islanders) – Tokelau lost almost half its population to Peruvian slave ships in 1863, while the Tongan island of ‘Ata lost 40% of its population, and as a result is today uninhabited. People were also taken as slaves from Tuvalu, New Caledonia, Easter Island, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
Blackbirding was outlawed by Britain’s Pacific Islanders’ Protection Act in 1872, largely due to persistent lobbying by missionaries. Their campaigns resulted in the banning of overseas-labour recruitment to Australia (in 1904), Samoa (in 1913) and Fiji (in 1916). The British government followed up the law with regular patrols of the region to prevent unscrupulous blackbirders, marking the beginning of a colonialist mentality of protection.
While some islanders returned to their homelands, others remained – such as the large Melanesian population in Queensland, Australia. In Fiji the large plantation economy looked elsewhere for cheap labour, transporting indentured labourers from India, who remain prominent in Fijian culture and society today.