Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pacific Islands Appeal to UK for 'Slave Voyages'

The government of the Pacific country of Vanuatu is to appeal to Britain and France for compensation for 19th century "slave voyages" which saw 62,000 Melanesians uprooted to work in the sugarcane fields of Queensland and Fiji.

Thousands of Pacific islanders were kidnapped or tricked by European and South American traders and taken away for manual labour in Pacific colonies in the late 19th century.

Labourers were sold to plantation owners for £6 to £9 a head and were typically paid £6 a year to work six days a week in cane plantations, where at times the death rate was as high as one in 10.
Traders got round anti-slavery laws by forcing or coercing Pacific islanders to sign contracts guaranteeing a limited term of indentured labour.

Vanuatu's foreign minister, Moana Carcasses, told the Guardian that he was in contact with local groups demanding compensation, and planned to raise the issue with the British and French governments later this year.

"The group who are speaking to me had about 1,000 families. It's quite big numbers who are claiming, and of course there are others who are claiming whom I have not spoken with," he said.

An appeal to the Australian government has been rebuffed: "They said that's a long time ago, why should they be responsible? I respect that way of seeing things, but it won't stop me knocking on the door."

The move follows a billion-dollar claim launched in New York last month against the shipping insurer Lloyd's of London and two American companies accused of profiting from the transatlantic slave trade.

A class action is also being prepared in Australia after it was revealed in February that the New South Wales government had taken an estimated £30m in "stolen wages" held in trust funds and never distributed to the Aborigines who earned it.

More than 30,000 people were taken from Vanuatu to work in Queensland, New Caledonia and Fiji in the late 19th century, and 870 labour trade voyages between 1863 and 1904 provided the bulk of the workforce on which Queensland's cane industry was built.

The trade was stopped in 1906 when the newly independent Australian government deported thousands of Melanesians from tropical Queensland because of fears that they might swamp the country's white population.

Among the most notorious of the so-called "blackbirders" was Ross Lewin, who often adopted the guise of an Anglican bishop to entice islanders on to his ship. Others ambushed villages or took people from beaches by force.

James Murray, an infamous blackbirder of the early 1870s, encouraged villagers to paddle their canoes out to his schooner with promises of trade in beads, paint, pipes and tobacco, before holing their boats with pig-iron weights and throwing the "rescued" survivors in the hold.

Clive Moore, an associate professor at the University of Queensland and an expert on the trade, said that Vanuatu was right to pursue the claims, but could run into difficulties proving how much of the trade was forced.

"There's force and there's deception, and some very cruel things happened," he said. "Europeans were using these people as cheap labour, but it's insulting to the intelligence of Melanesians to believe that they stood on their beaches for decade after decade allowing themselves to be captured.

"In the first 10 years or so that labour was taken from any island, it was largely by kidnapping or deception. But then what occurs is [the people originally kidnapped] come back again and explain to the ones about to leave what it involves. So physical kidnapping stops, but it's still a type of cultural kidnapping."

Mr Carcasses said many of the families who had contacted him were prepared to take legal action if negotiations failed. But he admitted that Vanuatu, an aid-dependent archipelago of about 80 islands with a population of 200,000 and a gross domestic product of £300m, had slender means to pursue such an action.

"I've said to the people here that I will try my best, of course if that fails the families have the right to use legal means," he said. "What I say to them is, don't take your expectation too high. Don't expect you're going to receive billions of dollars. Maybe the English government will say sorry. Maybe they'll give you a hospital and that's it."

Serial Enslavers

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