Labour History

Stabilising Violence in Colonial Rule: Settlement and the Indentured Labour Trade in Queensland in the 1870s

Labour History (2017), 113, (1), 9–29.


This article examines the dynamics of colonial violence through three apparently insignificant and disconnected events. In Queensland in the 1870s, a structural framework of laws and regulations standardised violent and often fatal conditions in the labour trade. In the imagined remoteness of frontiers from civilisation, Indigenous, indentured and non-white peoples were grouped together with environmental and natural hazards to be battled. Colonial governance called for more subtle forms of violence. Inaction and acquiescence played a role in the sanction, maintenance and institutionalisation of violence in conventionalised forms. The central theme of the article is that violence was inherent to the colonial project. It shows the shared role of humanitarian concerns and the need for land and labour in the performance and regulation of colonial violence. It provides insight into the role of violence in colonial relations more generally as it illustrates how violence in and around Queensland was consciously produced and operated. Each of the chosen incidents shows that violence was highly rationalised around principles such as race, and how implicit sanctions rendered violence non-visible as understandings of violence and its justification were normalised.

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*This article was originally published as Tracey Banivanua Mar,“Stabilising Violence in Colonial Rule: Settlement and the Indentured Labour Trade in Queensland in the 1870s,”inWriting Colonial Histories: Comparative Perspectives: Papers Arising from the Workshop on Comparative Colonial History, December 2000, ed.Tracey Banivanua Mar andJulie Evans, University of Melbourne Conference and Seminar Series, no.11(:History Department, University of Melbourne, 2002), 145–63. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of Julie Evans and Nick Volk. Google Scholar

1.Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth(:Random House, 1968), 48. Google Scholar

2. Ibid., 30. Google Scholar

3.Michael Taussig, “Culture of Terror – Space of Death: Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(1984):471. See alsoAnn Stoler, “‘In Cold Blood’: Hierarchies of Credibility and the Politics of Colonial Narratives,” Representations 37(Winter1992):151–89; and for an application of Taussig’s model to the Australian context:Barry Morris, “Frontier Colonialism as a Culture of Terror,”inPower, Knowledge and Aborigines, ed.Bain Attwood andJohn Arnolds(:La Trobe University Press, 1992), 72–88. Google Scholar

4.“Inquiry into the ‘Jason’ Case,” Queensland Votes and Proceedings (QVP)(1871–72):781–91. For an account of this period of the trade and the impact on the Colonial Office of abolitionists and the Aborigines Protection Society, seeO. W. Parnaby, Britain and the Labour Trade in the Southwest Pacific(:Duke University Press, 1964). Google Scholar

5.Convictions against recruiters were sensitive to public opinion, particularly when the death penalty was invoked. For example in 1872 members of the crew of the labour vesselCarlwere found guilty of murder and hanged amidst public outrage over the massacre of an unknown number of Islanders, but in 1883 when the captain and crew of another labour vessel, theHopeful, were sentenced to death for murder, most of the crew’s capital sentences were commuted to life imprisonment in response to an equally outraged public who did not want white men hanged for the deaths of Islanders. TheCarland theHopefulcases are discussed at length in the larger study from which this article derives. SeeTracey Banivanua Mar, “Bulimen and Hardwork: Indenture, Identity and Complexity in Colonial North Queensland”(PhD thesis,University of Melbourne, 2000), ch. 2, 4. Google Scholar

6.Regina v. Coath, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Queensland, vol.2, (:Watson, Ferguson and Co, 1900), 179. Google Scholar

7. Ibid. Google Scholar

8. Ibid., 180–81. Google Scholar

9. Ibid., 181. Google Scholar

10.Cockle: “I was very much impressed, by the very learned argument which Mr. Lilley advanced, and which he, I crave leave to say, pressed properly on the Court … but I do give considerable scope to the argument from public policy which has been adverted to on behalf of the Crown.” Lutwyche: it “would be a lasting prejudice to the position of England, and the welfare of the colonies which form her empire. we would have a league of nations formed against Great Britain and her dependencies; and it would be impossible … to uphold the position which Great Britain at this time happily occupies.” Ibid., 181–85. Google Scholar

11.See“Despatches Respecting John William Coath, Late Master of the Schooner, ‘Jason,’”and “Inquiry into the ‘Jason’ Case: Further Papers and Correspondence Relating to,”Queensland Legislative Council Journals(1874):549–53and347–59. Google Scholar

12.See for exampleGeorge Carrington(published under “A University Man”), Colonial Adventures and Experiences by a University Man(:Bell and Daldy, 1871), 152–54: “for more than a mile the air was tainted with the putrefaction of corpses, which lay all along the ridges, just as they had fallen … [he saw] large pits, covered with branches … full of dead blackfellows, of all ages and of both sexes. In fact there is a steady, but irregular, guerrilla warfare going on. There be little doubt, however, about the final result, as for every white man killed, six black fellows, on an average, bite the dust.” Carrington is cited because of his particularly evocative descriptions, but he was not unique. While it would be impossible to list every open declaration and reference to the violence occurring on the frontiers in contemporary writing, good overviews are given byNoel Loos, Invasion and Resistance: Aboriginal-European Relations on the North Queensland Frontier, 1861–1897(:Australian National University Press, 1982);Henry Reynolds, Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land(:Allen and Unwin, 1987); andHenry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia(:Penguin, 1982). The siege mentality permeated many published narratives, but ongoing and more immediate examples of this are the Governor’s Speech at the opening of each session of parliament in which the most pressing concerns in Queensland for that session would be summarised. See theVotes and ProceedingsandDebatesfor each year. Google Scholar

13.See particularlyEdward Kennedy, The Black Police in Queensland: Reminiscences of Official Work and Personal Adventures in the Early Days of the Colony(:John Murray, 1902), 272: “now I bring to an end these old-time events. Some experiences which befell me … cannot be published … Old Queenslanders will recognise the allusion when I state that a terrible vengeance was inflicted on the black fiends”; andSpencer Browne, A Journalist’s Memories(:The Read Press, 1927), 57: “It is hard to say when shooting is or is not justifiable. The bravest and most experienced men did least shooting. [and] it was the wanton slayer of the native who had the scorn of decent men in the North.” Google Scholar

14.The Native Mounted Police were periodically the subject of much condemnation. See for a good overview,Henry Reynolds, This Whispering in Our Hearts(:Allen & Unwin, 1998), 91–107. See also for an example of this the defence of isolation, Carrington, Colonial Adventures. Google Scholar

15.E. J. Brady, The King’s Caravan: Across Australia in a Wagon(:Edward Arnold, 1971), 244. The reference to pub-fights came from the reminiscences of journalist Edgar Foreman who wrote of Tweed River: “a wild place in those days,” as being full of “a rough looking lot of men, [who] when drunk seemed to be very quarrelsome … Even before dark dozens of them were drunk, several fights had taken place in the yard, but the fun began after the hotel was closed for the night and the crowds turned out. Talk about fighting!”E. Foreman, The History and Adventures of a Queensland Pioneer(:Exchange Printing, 1928), 133. Google Scholar

16.Carrington, Colonial Adventures, 34.E. J. Brady also wrote of the widespread usage of poisonous grog: “if so many Queenslanders did not drink whiskey and soda before breakfast, the average length of life in the North might be higher. I ventured to say this to a man in Mackay. He said it was better to drink whiskey and soda before breakfast than rum and milk. OneDongjia muhangto drink something.”Brady, The King’s Caravan, 276. Google Scholar

17.Brady, The King’s Caravan, 246. Brady talked of a number of Queensland eccentricities, and one which he found particularly appealing was: “A good many people leaned against posts. More people would have leaned if there were more posts. This fashion of leaning up against things is general in Queensland. Climate may be the cause of it, or habit.” Google Scholar

18.A particularly relevant example of this is the public condemnation of the captain of theCarl,James Murray, under whose captaincy one of the most infamous massacres of the labour trade was committed. Trial transcripts of crew members of theCarl, and public discussion, is sampled inG. S. Searle, Mount and Morris Exonerated: A Narrative of the Voyage of the “Carl” in 1871, with Comments Upon the Trial Which Followed the Massacre on Board the Vessel(:Evans Brothers, 1875). Colonial writings on the western Pacific and in relation to the labour trade are prolific and cannot be detailed here. However the following authors published travel narratives and accounts of life on board labour vessels, with a particular focus on violence:W. G. Giles,Albert Markham,George Palmer,Thomas Dunbabbin,Julian Thomas, Asterisk [Robert Fletcher],Joseph Melvin,Gilbert Bishop,John Cromar,Douglas Rannie, andWilliam Wawn. Google Scholar

19.References to these practices are made in many of the writings of traders or observers, but for particular relevance see Minutes of Evidence in “Report with Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Royal Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Circumstances under which labourers have been introduced from New Guinea and other islands,”Journals of the Queensland Legislative Council, part 1 (1885):1341–532; andJoseph Dalgarno Melvin, The Cruise of the Helena: A Labour Recruiting Voyage to the Solomon Islands(:Hawthorn Press, 1977), 28, 96–99, 101–105. Google Scholar

23.Testimonies ofJames Muggleton,Robert McBurney, andJohn Stuart, JUS/N41 258/1874, QSA. Google Scholar

25.The majority of recruits were male between 16 and 25. Sixteen was the legislated minimum age under the 1868Polynesian Labourers Act, however Peter Corris has estimated that up to 25 per cent of Solomon Islanders were younger than 16. Women constituted less than ten per cent of the population at any one time. SeePeter Corris, Passage, Port and Plantation: A History of Solomon Islander Labour Migration, 1870–1914(:Melbourne University Press, 1973); andK. Saunders, “Melanesian Women in Queensland, 1863–1907: Some Methodological Problems Involving the Relationship Between Racism and Sexism,” Pacific Studies 4, no.1(1980):26–44. Google Scholar

27.The mortality rate between 1868 and 1889, based on the numbers of Islanders entering the colony and the number whose deaths were reported, was 18.9 per cent (not an annual average). It should be kept in mind that, as was pointed out by the Registrar General in 1889:“probably this number is not accurate, as deaths are not always reported.”See“Kanaka Statistics,” QVP 3(1889):225–28. See also the Registrar General’s annual reports in theVital Statisticsfor each year. Google Scholar

28.“Report with Details of Inspection of the Board Appointed to Ascertain, if Possible, the Cause of the Excessive Mortality Amongst the South Sea Islanders on the Sugar Plantations Owned by R. Cran and Co., Maryborough,”QVP 2(1880):415–20; and Correspondence to Colonial Secretary relating to Cran and Co., COL/A 301 in letter 5861 of 1880, containing also 3903 of 1880, QSA. Google Scholar

29.Explicit examples of these, including incidents of whippings, eye-gouging, beatings, murders, shootings, and images of chained labour-gangs on the plantations, were collected in the 1970s byKay Saunders, “‘The Black Scourge’: Racial Responses Towards Melanesians in Colonial Queensland,”inRace Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of Exclusion, Exploitation, and Extermination, ed.R. Evans,K. Saunders,K. Cronin(:University of Queensland Press, 1988), 200. See alsoClive Moore, “The Counterculture of Survival: Melanesians in the Mackay District of Queensland, 1865–1906”inPlantation and Accommodation, ed.B. Lal,D. Munro,D. Beechert(:University of Hawaii Press, 1993), 69–100. Google Scholar

30.William Canning, planter and employer at Eton Vale plantation,“Select Committee on Polynesian Labour,” QVP 3(1876):75, 74. Google Scholar

31.“Select Committee on Polynesian Labour,” QVP 3(1876):107: “1251. I think you stated that the boys [Islanders] on the station where the whipping took place were well treated? Yes; 1252. Do you consider that under‘The Polynesian Act’they have the right to whip any boy? No; 1253. Would you not prosecute them under the Act? Yes if the whipping was severe; 1254. But if it was not severe? Sometimes a small amount of correction is necessary, and as Inspector, I should not prosecute unless there was undue violence; 1255. Supposing a white man had been whipped, would you not prosecute? Certainly.” Google Scholar

32.Richard Sheridan, “Report of the Select Committee on the General Question of Polynesian Labor: Together with Minutes of Evidence and Proceedings of the Committee,” QVP 3(1876):104. He continued: “therefore I did the next best thing and that was, as I hope, to prevent the recurrence of such things.” Sheridan resigned when the resulting inquiry found his claims of widespread abuse unfounded. Google Scholar

33.In 1872, Sergeant William Doyle was visited by a white labourers,John Riley, who stated that “about 5 weeks ago a nigger driver named Smith. did cruelly ill-treat and beat one of the niggers [Vacou] by breaking three of his ribs and shoulders with a hoe in the cane field … the nigger is dead and buried and … several of the niggers who were working with him at the time could state all particulars in the matter also two white men named Charlie Edmondson and Bill —.” A body was exhumed on which Robert McBurney could find “no natural marks of violence, all the bones were entire and there were no dislocations.” In1877,William Goodall received information that “a South Sea Islander employed on the Branscombe Plantation [Mittabrissey] was yesterday or the day before so severely beaten that he died immediately.” An exhumation, inquest and investigation was ordered. See Inquest into the Death of Vacon, 20 July 1872, Mackay, COL JUS/N34 case 200 of 1872, QSA; and Memoranda as to the Subjects of Letters Forwarded from the Court of Petty Sessions, Mackay, 1873–81, CPS 10B/G1, QSA. See entry for 5 February1872. Google Scholar

35.“The Revd. Duncan McNab and the Aborigines,” QVP 3(1876):172, esp. 165: “Sir, We, James Diper, Charles Diper Ghepara and William Watiman Nilapi, being aborigines of Queensland, hereby humbly request Your Excellency to reserve for the use and benefit of each of us one thousand acres of land … and we desire to be acknowledged, the lawful owners of said land and to be supplied by the existing Government of Queensland with legitimate title deeds to that effect; as we and our ancestors from time immemorial have possessed and used these lands and appurtenances for hunting and fishing, and now we desire to use them for grazing and agriculture.” For a discussion of Duncan McNab, seeReynolds, This Whispering in Our Hearts, 105–108. Google Scholar

36.See McNab to Minister for Lands, 2 September 1876,“The Revd. Duncan McNab and the Aborigines,” QVP 3(1876):166–72. Google Scholar

37.“Report of Board of Inquiry Appointed by the Secretary for Lands to Inquire into and Report upon the State of the Aboriginal Reserve at Mackay,”QVP 3(1876):157–58. Google Scholar

38.Arthur Palmer, Queensland Parliamentary Debates (QPD) 21(1876):1423. An example of the standard of the humanitarian argument was stated byJohn Thompson (Bremer):“Taking the aboriginal in any light honorable members might, there was no disputing that they had their rights as members of the human species”;Ibid., 1420. Google Scholar

39.The reply to the original application stated that the “Minister for Lands also considers the area of land applied for to be too large, and would be beyond the capacity of any ordinary native aboriginal to improve”; see “The Revd. Duncan McNab and the Aborigines,”Dongjia muhang3 (1876):164. As was to be stated more explicitly by Thomas Givens in 1900 with regard to an increase in the number of Islanders leasing land, the “whole object of our land laws, I take it, is to secure the settling of a population of our own race of people upon the soil. Nature has piled up fertility in these districts as in a bank, and that source of fertility should be a source of wealth to our own people, instead of being exploited by these alien, objectionable races”; seeQPD 86(1900):1536–37. Google Scholar

40.Arthur Palmer, QPD 21(1876):1423. Google Scholar

41.The correspondence of the year was published asThe Way We Civilise: Black and White: The Native Police: A Series of Articles and Letters Reprinted from the Queenslander(:G. and J. Black, 1880), 3. Google Scholar

42.In an editorial compromise, they wrote: “We must explain further that we entertain no such preposterous idea as that the settlement of the colony is an evil deed which ought to be undone. Nor do we wish to be understood as objecting to the slaying of blacks in defence of the lives or property of settlers. We acknowledge that in many cases the occupation of a tract of country by the whites cannot be effected except at the cost of a struggle with the aborigines, and wherever that is the case the shooting of blacks is inevitable”; seeThe Way We Civilise, 5–6. See also the relevant debates inQPD 33(1880):1130–46. Google Scholar

43.John Douglas, QPD 33(1880):1135. See also the letter by “Outis” to theQueenslanderdated 22 May 1880 inThe Way We Civilise, 31. Google Scholar

44.“Measures Recently Adopted for the Amelioration of the Aborigines: Memorandum Respecting,” QVP 2(1897):45. Google Scholar

45.Vincent Bernard Joseph Lesina, QPD 82(1899):150. Google Scholar

46.Justin Fox Greenlaw Foxton, QPD82 (1899):116. Google Scholar

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Author details

Mar, Tracey Banivanua