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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 3:30pm August 22, 2022,

How Australian slave traders drowned slaves rather than give them freedom

South Sea Islanders working in a Townsville cane field in 1907. CityLibraries Townsville/flickr, CC BY-SA

More than 12 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to work as slaves between 1515 and the mid-19th Century. Some two million of the enslaved men, women and children died on their way to the Americas.

In Australia, Australian South Sea Islander people, the descendants of men, women and children who came to be known as “sugar slaves”, were taken from the Pacific islands and forced into hard labor in Australia.

History says that during colonization in Australia, there was already an anti-slavery movement in Britain. In 1807, the British Parliament abolished the Atlantic slave trade and passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Hence, there was to be no slave trade in Australia but researchers and historians recently discovered that the treatment meted out to Pacific Islander and First Nations peoples could basically be described as slavery. Australian government officials have in the past tried to downplay this.

According to Stephen Gray in the Australian Indigenous Law Review, it is true that Australia was not a ‘slave state’ in the manner of the American South, however, “employers exercised a high degree of control over ‘their’ Aboriginal workers who were, in some cases, bought and sold as chattels.”

He further writes, “Employers exercised a form of ‘legal coercion’ over their workers in a manner consistent with the legal interpretation of slavery.”

Indeed, in the 1800s, some 60,000 people from 80 Melanesian islands including the islands of Vanuatu and Solomons were sent to work in Australia’s agriculture, sugar and maritime industries. Most of them were sent there by boat after being kidnapped or forced to go. Their wages were less than a third of other workers but the cruel practice continued thanks to Queensland laws from the 1860s to 1904. South Sea Islanders worked as seafarers and deckhands across the many ports of Australia. Scores of lawmakers became rich through this practice.

Recently, it was shocking when Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated in a radio interview that “there was no slavery in Australia”. Meanwhile, slavery practices occurred in Australia until the 1950s. 

Officials decided to term it indenture, kidnapping, and blackbirding. But victims or Australian South Sea Islanders say those words do not fully describe what they went through at the hands of slave traders and would prefer to be known as Sugar Slaves.

Per history, Aboriginal slaves who were working on sugar plantations in Australia were expected to be freed in 1833 when the British Empire abolished slavery. However, the Australians declined to do so and decided to relabel their slaves as “indentured servants”. With that, they were still used for another 100 years.

In 1901, the British Empire finally forced Australia to set its slaves free. Still, some of the Australian slave traders hated the idea that they threw their slaves overboard. They let their slaves drown rather than free them.

Some 15,000 South Sea Islander people also died from common diseases during slavery in Australia. Shireen, the granddaughter of a Sugar Slave taken from the island of Tongoa in Vanuatu was quoted by theconversation.com:

Slavery affects people of colour globally and Australia’s version of slavery is based on the stealing of our African brothers and sisters across the Atlantic. In Australia, they attempt to hide the truth through the political manipulation of policy into the legal framework coined as “indentured labour”. Our warriors were paid a pittance for their work and bonded to completion of an unknown three-year contract with no idea what they were in for, let alone knowing if they would live or die.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 22, 2022


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