Labour History

Preserving the Contract: The Experience of Indentured Labourers in the Wide Bay and Burnett Districts in the Nineteenth Century

Labour History (2017), 113, (1), 103–131.


On the cusp of the pastoral boom of the late 1840s, squatters in the Northern Districts of New South Wales dreamed of the reliable shepherd who could be bought for ten pounds per annum. In the remote Burnett and Wide Bay districts, this aim was realised by the importation of so-called Asiatic labourers, first from Bengal and then from China. In the 1860s, thousands of South Sea Islanders joined these coolie ranks, labouring mostly on the coastal sugar plantations, but also as shepherds on the pastoral runs in the hinterland. Each of these experiments with indentured coloured labourers was deemed a failure by the white employers. In strictly economic terms, this judgement was patently false. On the other hand, as this paper discusses, the assertiveness of the immigrant workers for contractual rights defied their masters’ expectations of a cheap and docile labour force.

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*The author would like to thankLabour History’stwo anonymous referees. Google Scholar

1.Cited byLord David Cecil, Melbourne(:Reprint Society, 1955), 214. Google Scholar

2.Harsh labour laws designed to bind servant to master usually occurred at times of acute labour shortage. The earliest legislation of this kind in England, theStatute of Cambridge of 1388, was a response to the labour crisis created by the demographic consequences of the Black Death. Over the following five centuries, master and servant laws were enacted in a wide range of settings throughout the world and remained in effect in many of those jurisdictions, including New South Wales, until well into the twentieth century. Google Scholar

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5.Alan Dwight published separate papers on each of the three experiments in coloured indentured labour:Alan Dwight, “The Use of Indian Labourers in New South Wales,” Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (JRAHS)62, pt 2 (1976):114–35;Alan Dwight, “South Sea Islanders in New South Wales,” JRAHS68, pt 4 (1983):273–91;Alan Dwight, “The Chinese in New South Wales Law Courts 1848–1854,” JRAHS73, pt 2 (1987):75–93. Google Scholar

6.Stanley L. Engerman, “Servants to Slaves to Servants: Contract Labour and European Expansion,”inColonialism and Migration: Indentured Labour Before and After Slavery, ed.P. C. Emmer(:Martinus Nijhoff Publisher, 1986), 267. Google Scholar

7.For a detailed explanation of how the “new” indentured Asian and Pacific Islander labourers differed from European indentured migrants to the New World in previous centuries, seeDavid Northrup, Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834–1922(:Cambridge University Press, 1995), ch. 1. Google Scholar

8.Douglas Hay andPaul Craven, eds, Masters, Servants, and Magistrates in Britain & the Empire, 1562–1955(:University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 25. Google Scholar

9.For the most part, indentured labour migration ended in response to the rise of strong expressions of nationalism in the major countries of origin, China and India, and in one receiving country, Australia. According to David Northrup, China banned it in 1873 following official investigations of the condition of Chinese migrants in the Americas; Northrup, Indentured Labor, 27, 143. The colonial government in India ended the system during World War I; seeE. Van Den Boogaart andP. C. Emmer, “Colonialism and Migration: An Overview,”inEmmer, Colonialism and Migration, 283. In the French colonies and protectorates of Indochina, however, indentured labour migration ended only with the Great Depression simply because the French rubber planters of Cambodia and copra plantations in New Caledonia could no longer afford to import fresh labourers. SeeMiriam Meyerhoff, “A Vanishing Act: Tonkinese Migrant Labour in Vanuatu in the Early 20th Century,” The Journal of Pacific History, 37, no.1(2002):45–56;Margaret Slocomb, “Tonkinese Migrant Labour in Cambodia: A Coolie History,”inLaos and Beyond, ed.Desley Goldston(:NIAS Press, 2018), in press. Google Scholar

10.Hay andCraven, Masters, Servants, and Magistrates, 4. Google Scholar

11. Ibid., 26. Google Scholar

13.Hay andCraven, Masters, Servants, and Magistrates, 4, fn.2. Google Scholar

14.“An Act for the Better Regulation of Servants Laborers and Work People” (9 Geo. IV, No. 9, 1828) was the first Masters and Servants Act (MSA) passed by the New South Wales legislature. It was repealed and replaced in 1840 (4 Vic., No. 23). The subsequent MSA of 1845 (9 Vic., No. 27) that introduced the controversial discharge certificate was amended in 1847 (11 Vic., No. 9). The amended Act, with relevance to facilitating the importation of Asiatic labourers, allowed that agreements made outside the colony were subject to the same jurisdiction as if made within New South Wales, while it deliberately excluded from its provisions “any native of any savage or uncivilized tribe inhabiting any Island or Country in the Pacific Ocean.” The 1845 Act along with its amendments was continued in 1850 (14 Vic., No. 25) and again in 1852 (16 Vic, no. 10). “An Act to Regulate the Law between Masters and Servants” (20 Vic., No. 28, 1857) was the last MSA passed by the New South Wales legislature before Queensland formed a separate colony in 1859. In August 1861, the new Queensland legislature repealed and replaced the 1857 MSA with its own Act (25 Vic., No. 11) of the same name. SeeAdrian Merritt, “The Development and Application of Masters and Servants Legislation in New South Wales, 1845 to 1930”(PhD diss., Australian National University, 1981), accessed September 2017, Google Scholar

15.Hay andCraven, Masters, Servants, and Magistrates, 32. Google Scholar

16. Ibid., 33. Google Scholar

17. Ibid., 32. Google Scholar

18.Corris, Passage, Port and Plantation, 2. Google Scholar

19. Ibid., 43. Google Scholar

21.For further details, seeTony Ohlsson, “The Origins of a White Australia: The Coolie Question 1837–43,” JRAHS, 97, pt 2 (2011):203–19. Google Scholar

22.Janet Doust, “Setting Up Boundaries in Colonial Eastern Australia Race and Empire,” Australian Historical Studies, 35, no.123(2004):152–66. Google Scholar

23.Northrup, Indentured Labor, 24. See alsoLoretta de Plevitz, “Arthur Hamilton Gordon and Adolphe de Plevitz: Ambitions for Indian Labour in Colonial Mauritius and Fiji,” Queensland History Journal 21, no.3(2010):181–95. Google Scholar

24.Northrup, Indentured Labor, 53, Map 6. Google Scholar

25. Ibid., 63–64. Google Scholar

26.“The Shipping Gazette and Sydney General Trade List: 1844: Oct 12 to Dec 28,” TheShipsList, accessed September 2017, Google Scholar

27.Dwight, “The Use of Indian Labourers in New South Wales,” 131. Google Scholar

28.C. R. Prinsep, Officiating Advocate General, “Opinion,” 28 November, 1845, counter-signed byC. A. Turnbull, Under Secretary to Government of Bengal; this documentation is attached to a Letter to the Editors byR. Towns andR. Campbell, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April1846, 3. Google Scholar

29. Ibid. Google Scholar

30.“Indian Labour,” Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September1842. Google Scholar

31. Ibid.For discussion of the employment of Indian indentured labourers in the Australian colonies, and, in particular, the efforts of both the Sydney and Moreton Bay Indian Labour Associations to facilitate it, see Angela Woollacott, Settler Society in the Australian Colonies: Self-Government and Imperial Culture(:Oxford University Press, 2015), 87–97. Google Scholar

32.Philip Friell, The Advantages of Indian Labour in the Australasian Colonies, as Shewn by Certain Details in Regard to Indian Labourers Imported by P. Friell, Esq., and Employed by Him at Tent Hill, Moreton Bay(:Richard Thompson, 1846), accessed September 2017, Google Scholar

33.“Domestic Intelligence,” Moreton Bay Courier, 22 January1848. Google Scholar

34.Friell, The Advantages of Indian Labour, 3. Google Scholar

35. Ibid., 5. Google Scholar

36. Ibid., 6. Google Scholar

37.Editorial, Moreton Bay Courier, 19 December1846. Google Scholar

38.Editorial, Moreton Bay Courier, 26 December1846. Google Scholar

39.“The Coolies,” Moreton Bay Courier, 19 December 1846. See also reports of earlier discontent inSydney Morning Herald, 10 and 29 October1845. Google Scholar

40.Dwight, “The Use of Indian Labourers in New South Wales.” Google Scholar

41. Moreton Bay Courier, 4 February1854. Google Scholar

42.Minutes of Evidence, 29 August1854, 13, from“Report from the Select Committee on Asiatic Labor,”NSW Legislative Council, Votes and Proceedings, vol.2(papers) (27 November1854):939. Google Scholar

43.Editorial, Moreton Bay Courier, 26 February1848. Google Scholar

44.For detailed discussion of the amended Act of 1847, seeMaxine Darnell, “Community Interest and Labour Power: A Tale of Squatters, Shepherds and the Law,”inLabour and Community: Proceedings of Sixth Conference of the Society for the Study of Labour History, 2–4 October 1999, University of Wollongong, ed.Robert Hood andRay Markey(:University of Wollongong, 1999):65–70, accessed September 2017, Google Scholar

45.This is the generally agreed upon number. The most thorough estimates are given byWang Singwu, The Organization of Chinese Emigration 1848–1888;alsoMaxine Darnell, “Responses and Reactions to the Importation of Indentured Labourers,” Working Paper Series in Economic History(), no.99–2(November1999), accessed September 2017, Google Scholar

46.There was no regulation on the labour export trade out of Amoy because foreign travel from the southeast coastal region of China, ie the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, was prohibited. Therefore, as far as local officials of the turbulent years of the late Qing dynasty were concerned, because emigration was prohibited, it did not occur. It was preferable, and no doubt more profitable, for them to turn a blind eye to the facts. The first ban on overseas trading in response to the arrival of Portuguese traders in Chinese waters in the sixteenth century made an outlaw of any Chinese who travelled overseas. The ban was lifted in 1684 but was reimposed in the South China Sea region in 1717 and remained in place there until 1860 following China’s defeat in the Second Opium War. It was not officially revoked until 13 September 1893 even though it was obviously a dead letter by then. SeeLynn Pan, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, 2nd ed. (:Editions Didier Millet, 2006), 48–49. Google Scholar

47.F. D. Syme toA. Bogue, Esq., Amoy, 27 December 1846, reprinted inSydney Morning Herald, 19 January1847. Google Scholar

48.“Chinese Immigration,” Moreton Bay Courier, 10 April1847. Google Scholar

49.“Domestic Intelligence – Ipswich,” Moreton Bay Courier, 8 May 1852. For further discussion of the contracts and the squatters’ use of the law to regulate the lives of the indentured Chinese labourers, seeMaxine Darnell, “Master and Servant, Squatter and Shepherd: The Regulation of Indentured Chinese Labourers, New South Wales, 1847–1853,”inThe Overseas Chinese in Australasia: History, Settlement and Interactions, eds,Henry Chan,Nora Chiang andAnn Curthoys(:National Taiwan University, IGAS, 2001), 54–65. Google Scholar

50.H. H. McArthur, Letter to the Editor, Moreton Bay Courier, 12 June1852. Google Scholar

51.Lim Poh was no sooner released from gaol than he absconded again. R. and H. Watson posted a notice in theMoreton Bay Free Press, 12 October 1852, that three men, No Tang/Taw, Hang and Lim Poh had absconded. Lim Poh was described as “short, thickset, fat, marked with smallpox, with yellow complexion and surly look.” Google Scholar

52.In Lim Poh’s case cited above, for example, on his static wage of £1.10s. per quarter for the first year, rising to £1.14s. for a further four years once the advance was repaid, his earnings over five years would have amounted to £33.4s. In 1852, the first full year of Lim Poh’s contract, the average wage of a regular shepherd in the Burnett was £26 per year, with hut and rations, and twice that amount, £52 by 1860 as a result of the labour shortage and inflation created by the southern gold rushes. Figure for 1852 from Darnell, “The Chinese Labour Trade to New South Wales 1783–1853,” 291, Table 11a; latter figure fromMoreton Bay Courier, 20 October1860. Google Scholar

54.“Chinese Labour, Its Cost to the Public,” Moreton Bay Courier, 11 October1851. Google Scholar

55.“The Gaol,” Moreton Bay Courier, 3 April1852. Google Scholar

56.Jan Walker, Jondaryan Station: The Relationship between Pastoral Capital and Pastoral Labour 1840–1890(:University of Queensland Press, 1988), 41. Google Scholar

57.“Report from the Select Committee on Asiatic Labor,” Moreton Bay Free Press, 19 December1854. Google Scholar

58.The men appeared before the Gayndah Bench on 2 April 1855 and the Brisbane Circuit Court in November. SeeMoreton Bay Courier, 24 November1855. Google Scholar

59.See also“Burnett District News,” Moreton Bay Courier, 23 October1852. Google Scholar

61.Maurice French, A Pastoral Romance: The Tribulation and Triumph of Squatterdom(:USQ Press, 1990), 51. Google Scholar

62.“Report from the Select Committee on Asiatic Labor,” Moreton Bay Free Press, 19 December1854. Google Scholar

63.Various authors give a similar estimated total. See, for instance,Tracey Banivanua Mar, Violence and Colonial Dialogue: The Australian-Pacific Indentured Labor Trade(:University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 1; alsoAdrian Graves, “Colonialism and Indentured Labour Migration in the Western Pacific, 1840–1915,”inEmmer, Colonialism and Migration, 249. Google Scholar

64.Figures from Saunders, Workers in Bondage, 96. Google Scholar

65.Marion Diamond, The Seahorse and the Wanderer: Ben Boyd in Australia(:Melbourne University Press, 1988), 128–40. Google Scholar

66.Clause 25, “An Act to Regulate and Control the Introduction and Treatment of Polynesian Laborers,” 31 Vic., No. 47, Supplement to the Queensland Government Gazette of Saturday, 29 February 1868, no.30, inQueenland Government Gazette 9(1868):220. Google Scholar

67.Editorial, Burnett Argus, 31 October1868. Google Scholar

68.Editorial, Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 4 December1867, 2. Google Scholar

69.Burnett Argus, 11 July, 25 July, and 1 August1868. Google Scholar

70.Burnett Argus, 29 August1868. Google Scholar

71.Editorial, Burnett Argus, 1 August1868. Google Scholar

72.Burnett Argus, 26 September1868. Google Scholar

73.The transcript of the second reading of this Bill on Tuesday, 22 May 1877 is available in theQueensland Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), Legislative Assembly (Tuesday, 22 May1877):50–69, accessed September 2017, A tabled return of South Sea Islanders introduced, returned and remaining in Queensland estimated that 1,241 were “probably employed in the interior, and all the rest [approximately 4,000] in the coast districts.” In the decade before 1877, a total of 10,750 Islanders had been introduced into Queensland; seeibid., 53. Google Scholar

74.Editorial, Maryborough Chronicle, 24 May 1877. The Bill was passed into law asPacific Island Labourers Act(44 Vic., No. 17) in November1880. Google Scholar

75.Editorial, Burnett Argus, 31 October1868. Google Scholar

76.The first Queensland law, “An Act to Regulate and Control the Introduction and Treatment of Polynesian Laborers” orPolynesian Laborers Act(31 Vic., No. 47), was given assent in March 1868. Masters of vessels importing these labourers had to be licensed and their ships properly found; they were not permitted to land any immigrants without receipt of the certificate of the Immigration Agent at the port of arrival and had to provide written proof that the labourers had engaged voluntarily. A scale of rations and clothing provisions was set down, and employers had to provide quarterly reports to the Immigration Agent. This law brought all Islanders already in the colony under the provisions of Queensland’sMSAof 1861. The rules and regulations for the appointment of Government Agents to accompany the recruiting vessels were only approved in February 1871. Their main responsibility was to check abuses that might occur in connection with the emigration of the labourers. Under the 1868 Act, all Police Magistrates were appointed Inspectors of Polynesian Labourers. In the case of Maryborough, the Immigration Agent received this appointment. Their function was to check compliance with the Act by masters of vessels and employers. The 1868 Act was repealed and replaced by thePacific Island Labourers Act(44 Vic., No. 17), given assent in November 1880. It was amended in 1884 and further limited their employment to fieldwork in tropical agriculture, except for those who had arrived in the colony before September1879. Google Scholar

77.Graves, “Colonialism and Indentured Labour Migration,” 251. Google Scholar

78.Richard Sheridan, the Polynesian Inspector and Assistant Immigration Agent in Maryborough, was forced to resign after presenting his damning reports on abuses of Melanesian labourers to the 1876 Select Committee. His reports dated 28 January, 12 April, and 31 July 1876 to the committee were reprinted in “Alleged Abuses Connected with Polynesian Labor,”Maryborough Chronicle, 14 September1876. Google Scholar

79.“Extracts from the Evidence taken by the Select Committee on Polynesian Labor,” Maryborough Chronicle, 2 December1876. Google Scholar

80.Editorial, Maryborough Chronicle, 17 June1875. Google Scholar

81.Saunders, Workers in Bondage, 160. Google Scholar

82.Graves, “Colonialism and Indentured Labour Migration,” 256. Google Scholar

83.Helen Irvine, “Sweet and Sour: Accounting for South Sea Islanders Labour at a North Queensland Sugar Mill in the Late 1800s”(paper presented at the 10th World Congress of Accounting Historians, St Louis, Missouri and Oxford, Mississippi, USA, 1–5 August2004), 18, fn. 42, accessed September 2017,, and quoting fromThe Sugar Journal and Tropical Cultivator, 1894. Google Scholar

84.According to Corris, between 1892 and1903, 27.5 per cent of the recruits in Queensland were old hands. SeeCorris, Passage, Port and Plantation, 49. Google Scholar

85.Corris estimates that only 691 Islanders were exempt under the terms of the 1901 Act and that, when the deportations ceased in 1908, there were 1,654 Islanders remaining in Australia who had been granted exemptions. See Ibid., 129–31. Google Scholar

86.For official statistics concerning “Mortality rates per 1,000 among Melanesians in Queensland” for years 1868 to 1904, and“Comparison of Death Rates Between Europeans and Melanesians 1882–1884”seeKay Saunders, “The Black Scourge,”in Evans, Saunders and Cronin, Race Relations in Colonial Queensland, 188–89. Google Scholar

87.Robert Towns, architect of the Melanesian labour trade into Queensland, on the other hand, is generously commemorated, not least by the city of Townsville where a bronze statue of him stands in the main street. The South Sea Islander community there are advocating for the inclusion of a plaque and statue to pay tribute to the Islanders’ history in the region. SeeNance Haxton, “South Sea Islanders Say Statue of Townsville Founder ‘Whitewashes’ Slave History,”The World Today, ABC News, accessed September 2017, Google Scholar

88.A Bill to create a mandatory labour hire licensing scheme was introduced into Queensland Parliament on 25 May 2017 and is awaiting Second Reading Debate at time of writing. The proposed law is in response to a parliamentary report released in June 2016 that documented widespread exploitation and mistreatment of labour hire workers in the state. See“Labour Hire Licensing Bill 2017,”accessed September 2017, Google Scholar

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Author details

Slocomb, Margaret