From blackbirding to the Seasonal Workers’ Programme: Tracking inter-generational vulnerability



This project was part of the Australian Human Rights Institute's 2021 seed funding round, receiving $10,000.


In mid-2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, discussions arose in Australia about whether the nation has a history of slavery. Many Australians suggested that it does not, because there was never legal, chattel enslavement, in particular nothing reminiscent of the slavery of the Americas.

To Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI), however, 60,000 of whose ancestors were brought to the country through 'blackbirding' to work in sugar production -- the industry most associated with slavery in the Caribbean -- this issue is not perceived within a legal framework.

Many observers (campaigners, academics and journalists) have seen the links between historical blackbirding and the current Seasonal Workers' Programme (SWP). However, concrete information on which to build a more solid analysis of these links is not yet readily available or accessible.

This project aims to create the first prototype for what will become an online, searchable Pacific Voyages database. Such a tool would harness archival, historical, genealogical and anthropological research and information and make it accessible and usable. This would allow claims of connections between blackbirding and SWP workers today to be researched and interrogated by lawyers, community activists, descendants, and other researchers.

The prototype created through an Australian Human Rights Institute seed funding grant will be used to show the potential of such a database to ASSI community groups and to partners institutions.

The creation of the database is a major undertaking and will require considerable collaboration, but the creation of a primary prototype is essential to ensure that the imperatives of ASSI communities, lawyers who support SWP workers' claims, and community activists, are incorporated from the start.

2022 project update

Seed funding was used to help create a searchable, useable, and mappable prototype database that will eventually allow academics, human rights specialists, Pacific Islanders and their descendants abroad, students, and members of the broader community to access data about Australian South Sea Islander [ASSI] labour, from 1863-1901.

Scientia Associate Professor Emma Christopher presented conference papers in Australia and Bonn, Germany demonstrating the database, and Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Emma Thomas presented a paper in Australia.

The project has already become part of a successful ARC Discovery Grant Funded Project, with Emma Christopher as the first named Chief Investigator.

In collaboration with scholars at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies -- a Centre of Excellence at the University of Bonn where Emma Christopher was a Fellow in 2022 -- the team are now extending the database to include more information regarding German New Guinea and Samoa.

Photo: State Library of Queensland.