Image Pacific Island labourer recruiting ship 'Para', c1880

TLF ID R8178

This is a drawing of the two-masted brigantine 'Para', probably completed by Master Mariner William Wawn during a successful five months voyage to the Solomon Islands in 1894. One of a series of sketches of his impressions of the islands in pencil, ink and watercolour, it shows the recruiting ship offshore at anchor, as two rowing boats ply between it and a Pacific island carrying European crew and several Pacific Islanders. A group of ten or so Islanders, mostly women with young children, stand watching as one row boat pushes off.

Educational details

Educational value
  • The 'Para' was chartered by the Colonial Sugar Refinery from 1882 into the 1890s to recruit labourers for its plantations and sugar mills in Queensland and northern New South Wales. Ships such as this one made regular trips to some 80 western Pacific islands, considered by Europeans to be a vast labour pool. Between 1863 and 1904 some 62,500 Islanders were shipped to Australia, mostly from the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu) and the Solomons.
  • Recruiting in the first 10 to 15 years (known as 'blackbirding') was often illegal and brutal. Islanders were lured on board ships and kidnapped. Villagers were ambushed, canoes were smashed and Islanders left to drown if they escaped by jumping overboard. Others went willingly with the support of local chiefs or relations, who received trade goods for finding recruits. Islanders retaliated, occasionally killing whole crews or recruiters who came ashore.
  • Conditions on board ships such as the 'Para' were generally appalling. Some 10,500 Islanders were taken in the early years, treated as merchandise and usually carried like freight in ships' holds, suffering from seasickness, crowding, poor ventilation, lack of food and foul water. As a ship would make several landfalls in one voyage, recruits from warring tribes or islands could be placed in the hold together, leading to fighting and deaths.
  • Islanders 'signed' a contract (by thumbprint) with an employer for a period of three years, after which employers were legally bound to return them to their home island. Most Islanders could not understand the contracts that set out their very basic conditions - work, clothes, food and lodging provided in return for six days of hard work per week. Some Islanders returned for a second or third time and some even decided to stay permanently in Australia.
  • The Pacific Islander 'trade' of the time was fundamentally slave labour, with exploitation of one race for the profit of others - particularly in the early years. Pacific Islanders' service under their 'master' was totally controlled. Allotted duties could not be refused and workers had few rights. Later recruits understood indentures better and were protected by new legislation.
  • The practice of importing overseas labour virtually stopped with Federation. In 1901 the Pacific Island Labourers Act was passed, forbidding new recruitment after 1903. The Australian Government had the power to deport any Pacific Islander after 1906, but in fact the number of Islanders deported from 1904 to 1908 was 7,068. In 1902 Pacific Islanders produced 85.5 per cent of Qld sugar but by 1908 white labour was producing 87.9 per cent.
Year level

4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10

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  • Name: State Library of Queensland
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  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
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