Among Australia's Pioneers: Chinese Indentured Pastoral Workers on the Northern Frontier 1848 to C.1880

Among Australia's Pioneers: Chinese Indentured Pastoral Workers on the Northern Frontier 1848 to C.1880

by Margaret Slocomb


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The almost simultaneous abolition of the slave trade and the cessation of convict transportation to the colony of New South Wales?now eastern mainland Australia?started a quest by the squatter pastoralists for alternative sources of cheap labor for their vast sheep runs. Over a period of five years, beginning from 1848, around three thousand Chinese men and boys from Fujian Province were recruited under conditions little different from the slave trade.

In Among Australia?s Pioneers, author Margaret Slocomb focuses on the experiences of approximately two hundred of these Chinese laborers between 1848 and 1853. Her research examines their working conditions during the five-year indenture period and also traces the lives of several of the men who, at the end of their contract, chose to remain in those districts, which, by then, had become familiar to them. Perhaps they regarded themselves as pioneer immigrants.

Slocomb recounts the experiences of these men on the dangerous northern frontier of European settlement. While some succumbed to the despair and loneliness of a shepherd?s life, others survived their indenture and went on to play an important role in the emerging society of the new colony of Queensland. They may certainly be counted among the nation?s pioneers.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781452524801
Publisher: Balboa Press
Publication date: 07/23/2014
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.73(d)

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Among Australia's Pioneers

Chinese Indentured Pastoral Workers on the Northern Frontier 1848 to c. 1880

By Margaret Slocomb

Balboa Press

Copyright © 2014 Margaret Slocomb
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4525-2480-1


Indentured Labour Migration in the Nineteenth Century

On May 14, 1833, when the British colonial secretary, Edward Stanley, rose to present to parliament the ministerial proposals to end slavery, more than eight hundred thousand African slaves still laboured on the sugar plantations of the West Indies and other possessions of the British Empire. From 1788 until the abolition of the trade in 1807, British ships alone had transported thirty-eight thousand slaves across the Atlantic each year as part of a sordid trafficking in persons that had persisted for more than two centuries. When the law came into force on August 1, 1834, this workforce was nominally free; however, under the new system of apprenticeship, a supposedly interim arrangement of bonded labour given as a sop to the planters who were demanding compensation for their loss of property, the former slaves were still subject to the strict regimen of the plantations. Despite the confidence the planters had in the political power they were able to wield, they realized that they had to look for a more permanent method of supplying their labour needs. A solution was found in the indenture system with workers sourced mainly from India but also from China and other parts of the world affected by the era of new imperialism. In the terminology of the time, they were Asiatic or "coloured" labourers.

The British law abolishing slavery that was followed by similar laws enacted throughout the French, Dutch, and Spanish empires did not initiate the use of indentured labour in the colonies. In fact, in the preceding two hundred years, the worst years of the trans-Atlantic African slave trade, more than half of all European migrants to the New World colonies had been indentured servants. Even in the plantations of the Caribbean, white indentured servitude had preceded slavery. There can be no doubt, however, that the new indentured migrants of the nineteenth century were recruited, first of all, to replace the labour of the slaves who were liberated in the Americas throughout the 1830s. Others were employed in colonies such as New South Wales (eastern Australia) when the cessation of convict transportation to that British possession threatened the supply of cheap labour to the pastoral industry. Later in the century, after most of the northern districts of that colony, including the Wide Bay and Burnett districts, had separated from New South Wales and created the new colony of Queensland, indentured Melanesian workers from various islands in the South Pacific constituted the labour force on new sugar plantations where neither slaves nor convicts had ever been engaged.

Indentured Labour Migration

"Indenture" eludes fine definition. It is an ancient institution, as is labour migration in general. Stanley Engerman describes this form of contract labour migration as

One mode along a spectrum of forms of migration, permanent and temporary, whose purpose is to move populations from one area to another, and, possibly, to influence (or limit) the selection of occupations after arrival. It combines characteristics of free and involuntary migration, and the relative components of freedom and coercion have long been a subject of controversy.

This rather broad definition may apply equally to indentured migration, both before and after the abolition of slavery. For the place and period under study, that is, a colony of the British Empire in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, an indentured worker is understood to have been a labourer, usually "coloured," who was recruited and bound to an overseas employer by a contract, presumed to have been voluntarily entered into before departure to the place of work, for a specified period of time, ranging between three and seven years, in return for stipulated remuneration and conditions that may or may not have included return travel to the point of recruitment on completion of the contract. It was the existence of this legal or quasi-legal contract that set the trade apart from other forms of labour migration in the period under review.

The so-called new indentured migrants who were employed in the outposts of the British and other European empires in the nineteenth century, post-slavery, differed from those of earlier centuries in several respects. The most obvious of these was their place of origin: they came mainly from India, and then China, and various Pacific Islands but after 1834, Africans, including former slaves, also indentured themselves, as did Japanese and Javanese. Europeans and some North Americans continued to indenture themselves but their numbers were greatly reduced during this period as other forms of migration offered them greater opportunity. This new form of labour migration was also highly age and sex selective, being single, young, adult, and male, although some Indian labourers were accompanied by their wives, who were also indentured servants, and even their children. The system was also regulated, efficient, and cost-effective in terms of recruitment, transportation, and assignment. This was especially the case with regard to colonial Indian labour migration overseas, where the indentured labour trade amounted to a regular industry that was carefully supervised by the bureaucratic colonial administration there. In fact, Douglas Hay and Paul Craven refer to the indenture system as "industrial immigration."

Despite the regular efficiency with which indentured labour flowed around the world between 1834 and the end of the Second World War, it remained a highly controversial business. Although the new labour trade was supposed to represent a modern and rational market for the buying and selling of free labour, in the older literature, according to Hay and Craven, an indenture had always been considered to be "a mark of unfreedom." The implications of this, for the employer and the receiving society in general, must surely have carried over to the new system, despite the official terms of engagement and the imprimatur of the British Colonial Office or its European equivalent.

In spite of popularly held opinion, however, an indentured worker was not a slave, even though what the employers sought was not just cheap, reliable labour but a workforce that was also meek, docile, and submissive, terms that abound in the literature on the topic and that are surely more applicable to slave than to free labour. Despite the common perceptions, there were important distinct differences from slavery: at the end of the contract period, at least until restrictive immigration policies were introduced, the indentured worker was free to return home, settle or re-engage on his own terms of hire; children born during the contract period were certainly not the property of the employer; and, in case of coercion and abuse by his employer, he had, in theory at least, the same rights of appeal to British justice as other colonial residents.

Nevertheless, in practice, there were abuses at all stages in the process that were reminiscent of the slave trade. Recruitment, in some cases, was barely different from kidnapping; the sea voyages were cramped, hazardous, and not uncommonly undertaken in those same vessels latterly used to trans-ship African slaves; and in the often remote areas to which the indentured workers were assigned, recourse to justice or even some measure of protection under the law was rarely accessible. Despite the contract, the indentured worker did not choose his place of work or his occupation; those matters were nonnegotiable and usually determined by the employer's manager or overseer to whom he was consigned and with whom he did not share a common language. An agreeable workplace was purely a matter of chance, and a contract was little guarantee of freedom of action because, as Hay and Craven point out, "Freedom of contract does not mean freedom to abandon the contract." The only alternative to complete submission to a given situation, absconding, was deemed a criminal act under law, and penal sanctions applied. The law defined and prescribed the indentured worker's situation to the extent that these authors regard indenture as "an important and varied form of the socio-legal relation of master and servant," and one that had more to do with the unequal power relations between employer and employee than with the rational exchange of labour on a free market.

A Socio-Legal Relationship

Master and Servant laws drafted and implemented in the British colonies were used as a powerful means of enforcement of the terms of contract and as an equally powerful deterrent to indentured workers' claims for fairer terms and conditions. The workers' market bargaining advantage should have been high. After all, following the abolition of slavery and the almost simultaneous cessation of convict transportation, demand for cheap, reliable labour was at a premium throughout the developing colonial world, and in some instances, most notably on the dangerous and violent northern frontier of white settlement in distant New South Wales, it was practically unobtainable. Given such high demand, workers of the same linguistic and ethnic background in any one location might have been expected to organize themselves and bargain collectively for higher wages and better conditions. However, although records of magistrates' benches were full of individual acts of disobedience, negligence, and even attempted suicide by these new indentured labourers, organized strikes or other forms of collective action taken by them were rare and short-lived. Hay and Craven argue that it was the severity of consecutive Master and Servant acts, in conjunction with other laws on vagrancy, public order, access to land, and so on that were "crucial in constructing masters' coercion" and eliminating resistance. Master and Servant legislation was, they claim, "a catalogue of constraints and disincentives" that created firm boundaries around the exercise of workers' freedom of action.

The laws, in fact, were used to fashion the kind of workforce that was preferred by the employers and the joint stock companies that owned or leased the plantations, the mines, and the vast pastoral properties that represented imperial wealth and power. In the British colonies, Master and Servant legislation applied to all workers, not only to those on indenture, but indentured labour was used to maintain the employer's advantage in any contest over wages and conditions. In Hay and Craven's opinion,

Master and Servant law was carefully designed to create labour markets that were less costly, more highly disciplined, less "free" than markets in which the master's bargain was not assisted by such terms. Even where indentured labour coexisted with a more open labour market, employers were well aware that the effect of a bounded sector under more coercive sanctions was to depress wages in the wider labour market as well.

Indentured labourers were therefore in the invidious position of wedge between capital and free labour. Even more than skin colour and language differences, this fact set them apart from the existing regular workforce and earned its further contempt, because, according to Peter Corris, "[T]he migrant labourer [is] without honour where he works, for his function is to do what the people there will not do."

In some respects, from a socio-legal perspective at least, the experiences of all indentured immigrant workers were similar; in other ways, they differed significantly, not only from place to place, job to job, but also according to the degree of support they received from outside. In the colonial Australian context, the Indian workers were protected to a large extent by regulations imposed by the colonial administration in India that carried the weight of the British Colonial Office throughout the rest of the empire, while the South Sea Islanders had such strong advocates in the London Missionary Society that, as Peter Corris observes, "By the turn of the [twentieth] century the Queensland trade was governed by seven Acts of Parliament, eighteen schedules, fifty-four regulations and thirty-eight instructions." Even if many of these rules and regulations went unobserved or were even unknown to those who were meant to police them, he adds, their mere existence was cautionary. The Chinese indentured workers, on the other hand, had no recourse to Exeter Hall. The early emigrants not only risked permanent exile by leaving China illegally, but also bore the brunt of negative stereotypes fostered by hysterical media reports about Chinese resistance to British imperial ambitions on China's territory. Paradoxically, this lack of concern for their welfare and the absence of official oversight stood the more resourceful and resilient among them in good stead. Having completed their period of indenture, some of the Chinese shepherds from the 1848 to 1853 experiment became naturalized citizens, married European immigrant women, purchased property and conducted successful businesses or even stood as candidates and won places in local government. Not all had successful lives, but it can be said that the experience of the Chinese indentured workers of the 1848 to 1853 experiment was genuinely a migrant experience, not merely that of sojourning labourers.


The crisis that struck the British and European financial markets in 1837 caused widespread socio-economic distress that continued throughout the Hungry Forties and triggered a massive flow of out-migration, principally to other temperate climate areas, especially those in North America where the opening of new lands beyond the Mississippi River offered opportunities previously undreamt of by Europe's poor. Following the discovery of substantial gold deposits in California and Alaska in 1849, and two years later in the southeastern Australian colonies of New South Wales and Victoria, this flow became a veritable flood. Other factors, including great changes taking place in agriculture and the iron and steel industries, as well as the rapid extension of rail and oceanic transportation, facilitated the voluntary emigration of around 46.5 million people from Europe mainly to the Americas, but also to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, in the century from 1821 to 1920. According to the figures quoted by Stanley Engerman, the vast majority of these emigrants (slightly over forty-five million) left Europe after 1846.

These were aspirational migrants bent on creating a better life for themselves and their children than the one they left behind. For the most part, too, they were urban people, or at least most recently residents of towns and cities. They did not emigrate in order to work, as perhaps their parents had, as little more than peasants for the local nobility in some rural colonial backwater, and the long campaign to end slavery would, in any case, have warned them away from engaging with the plantations. Moreover, the development of class consciousness that accompanied the wave of revolutionary fervour of the 1830s and 1840s, along with the social ferment mobilized by groups including the Chartists, Owenites, socialists, and communists made them unlikely candidates for the sort of labour that was in most demand in the colonies, namely mass labour for the plantations and the mines, or solitary labour as shepherds and hut-keepers on the vast pastoral runs. Consequently, because they were unable to obtain the white workers that suited their needs, the plantation owners and the big pastoralists looked first to India, then China, and elsewhere for a steady supply of labour.

In raw figures, the total number of indentured workers who joined this huge intercontinental flow of migrants was comparatively small. In fact, according to Engerman, the illegal slave trade to Cuba and Brazil between 1821 and 1867 accounted for nearly as many individuals as did all the trades in contract labour. On the other hand, in the areas where they were consigned to work, they often accounted for a significant proportion of the local non-indigenous population. According to estimates given by Engerman, starting from 1838 (or 1826 in the case of Réunion) until 1918, around 1.6 million Indians were recruited for plantation labour in British colonies, principally Malaya, British Guiana (with approximately one-quarter of a million each), Natal and Trinidad (152,400 and 143,900 respectively), and on behalf of French planters in Mauritius (451,800) and Réunion (86,900). British Guiana, Trinidad and other parts of the British West Indies also received Chinese indentured labourers, although far fewer than the number of Indians. Out of a total of approximately 330,000 Chinese workers contracted between 1849 and 1907, two-thirds of them went to Cuba and Peru. Altogether, including Japanese, Pacific Islanders, Javanese, Africans, and those from Portuguese possessions, Engerman suggests that just over 2.4 million indentured labourers joined the intercontinental movement of people in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Figures quoted by David Northrup for roughly the same period add up to slightly more than two million; the main differences being the inclusion of 57,869 European and North American indentured migrants to the Caribbean and Hawaii in his total figure, and the exclusion of Chinese indentured migrants to Malaya. Therefore, according to both estimates, non-indentured European migration was more than twenty times greater than that of Asian, African and Pacific Islander contract labour migration to the colonies during that period. Approximately half of all these indentured workers were contracted during the quarter-century from 1851 to 1875. According to their destinations, they laboured on plantations, down mines, and on railway construction sites but they were also sometimes engaged to work as domestic servants, agricultural labourers, deckhands, cooks, porters, and so on.


Excerpted from Among Australia's Pioneers by Margaret Slocomb. Copyright © 2014 Margaret Slocomb. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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Table of Contents


Tables, Figures and Illustrations, ix,
List of Abbreviations, xi,
Preface, xiii,
Part I Supply and Demand,
Chapter 1. Indentured Labour Migration in the Nineteenth Century, 1,
Chapter 2. The China Trade, 19,
Chapter 3. The Australian Frontier, 39,
Chapter 4. Labour Issues, 67,
Part II Among the Pioneers,
Chapter 5. Celestial Shepherds, 89,
Chapter 6. Labour, 111,
Chapter 7. Reward for Labour, 135,
Chapter 8. Masters and Servants, 161,
Chapter 9. Vagrants, Criminals and Dangerous Lunatics, 187,
Part III Love and Fortune,
Chapter 10. Post-Indenture Challenges and Opportunities, 207,
Chapter 11. Fortune, 237,
Chapter 12. Success, 263,
Notes, 287,
Bibliography, 319,
Index, 327,

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