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The People Trade

The People Trade: Pacific Island Laborers and New Caledonia, 1865-1930

Dorothy Shineberg
Copyright Date: 1999
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  • Book Info
    The People Trade
    Book Description:

    The story of the people from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and the Solomon Islands who left their homes to work in the French colony of New Caledonia has long remained a missing piece of Pacific Islands history. Now Dorothy Shineberg has brought these laboreres to life by painstakingly assembling fragments from a wide variety of scattered records and documents. She tells the story of their recruitment, then sketches the workers’ lives in New Caledonia, describing the contractual arrangements, the kinds of work they did, their living conditions, how they spent their free time, the large numbers who sickened and died, and the choice at the end of the contract to remain in the colony as free workers or to return home. Throughout the book she throws light on the controversy about the recruiting of the Islanders: were they kidnapped? Or did they choose to leave home? If so, what motivated them? Evidently the Islanders’ cheap labor contributed to the development of the French colony, but how did the episode affect them and their homeland? The People Trade offers readers a revealing new picture of a long neglected side of the Pacific Islands labor trade.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6491-0
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Conventions
    (pp. xix-xx)
  6. Note on Sources
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  7. Part One Recruiting for New Caledonia

    • Chapter 1 The Pacific Island Labor Trade and New Caledonia
      (pp. 3-10)

      In the travelers’ tales of the nineteenth century, visitors to New Caledonia mentioned the New Hebridean laborers who carried their luggage, rowed them ashore, waited at table, dressed up on Sundays to parade in the Place des Cocotiers, or worked in plantations or mines. Nowadays their place in the history of migrant labor has slipped from the collective memory of New Caledonians, overshadowed by a later large influx of Asian workers. Yet the number of Pacific Island workers introduced was considerable; more than fifteen thousand, most of them from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), came to work in the French...

    • Chapter 2 The Colony Established
      (pp. 11-24)

      At the beginning of September 1774, Captain Cook sailed southwest from Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides on a return visit to New Zealand. On his way he encountered the northern end of a large uncharted island surrounded by a reef. Nobody knows why he named it New Caledonia. It bears little resemblance to Scotland—called Caledonia by the Romans—which Cook, in any case, had probably never seen.¹

      He penetrated the reef at a northeastern pass and anchored at Balade, spending a week exploring the neighboring country and bartering with the people. Unlike the colonial dreamers who followed him,...

    • Chapter 3 Entrepreneurial Recruiting in the 1870s
      (pp. 25-35)

      A number of factors came together in the 1870s to increase the likelihood of malpractice in the New Caledonian labor trade. Not only had passage money risen substantially, attracting greedy as well as inexperienced operators, and not only had control decreased, but at the same time recruiters were seeking new reserves of labor. Like their counterparts from Queensland and Fiji, they found that they had exhausted the old beats and had to go farther north for their workers. These new areas were, inevitably, islands with less contact with Europeans than the southern New Hebrides. They went to islands north of...

    • Chapter 4 The Kidnapping Inquiries and the Suspension of the Labor Trade, 1880–1882
      (pp. 36-49)

      Abuses came to light in 1880 through a complaint of Commodore Wilson of the Royal Navy to the British consul in Noumea. Wilson enclosed extracts from journals of British labor ships, a letter from the missionary Daniel Macdonald, and an article in theSydney Evening Newsdescribing incidents in the northern New Hebrides involving two French labor vessels, theAuroraand a “green ship” thought to be theLulu. Governor Courbet ordered an inquiry into the charges and into the “general facts relative to immigration,” little knowing that he was opening a Pandora’s box. TheLuluwas rapidly exonerated from...

    • Chapter 5 Settlers Triumphant: The Labor Trade Revived
      (pp. 50-65)

      Governor Courbet and the minister for the Navy and Colonies underestimated the outrage of the settlers in being denied the labor of their choice. Persistent efforts to regain access to New Hebridean workers twice successfully overcame government policy. Notwithstanding considerable efforts to meet colonists’ labor needs in alternate ways, the administration was obliged to resume the Oceanian labor trade in 1884. When Paris imposed a new ban in 1885, employers found a device to evade it. The government was forced to restore the trade in 1890 in order to have some control over it. No further attempt was made to...

    • Chapter 6 The New Century
      (pp. 66-72)

      In 1901, the number of imported Oceanian laborers still exceeded the combined totals of Asian workers, but local Kanaks—most of them from the Loyalty Islands—had begun to outnumber them both.¹ A mix of Asian, Hebridean, and Kanak labor, especially in agriculture, became common early in the century (photo 7). With the extension of its control in New Caledonia, the colonial administration was able to enforce the head tax on increasing numbers of the indigenous population, forcing more and more Kanaks to work to find the cash. As this policy produced results, and as the importation of Indochinese and...

  8. Part Two Profile of Recruits

    • Chapter 7 Men and Motives
      (pp. 75-89)

      As in Fiji and Queensland, settlers in New Caledonia hoped that recruiting ships would bring them strong young men. But different conditions and regulations in the French colony ensured that female and child workers were also in demand there. Because both the recruitment and the experience at the workplace of women and child workers differed from that of young men, I treat them separately in the next two chapters.

      The prize recruit, attracting the highest beach payment, was a fit young man aged about eighteen to twenty-five years. But why would he want to enlist for hard work in an...

    • Chapter 8 The Women
      (pp. 90-115)

      Even ordinary shipping notices recording the arrival of a recruiting ship from Oceania rarely neglected to report the number of women among its recruits as a form of advertisement. Some variation in the demand for female workers over the period related to the kind of service required, but the main problem was one of supply.

      As in Queensland and Fiji, the percentage of women recruited from the Pacific Islands¹ was always small. However, according to my calculations it was larger than that in the British colonies, where it is generally reckoned at between 6 and 8 percent.² No systematic figures...

    • Chapter 9 The Children
      (pp. 116-122)

      The legal indenture of unaccompanied children was a phenomenon peculiar to the New Caledonian segment of the labor trade. Young children formed a substantial proportion of imported labor for the first thirty years of recruiting. Child labor was not unusual in nineteenth-century Europe, and in France itself, very young children were a normal part of the workforce as late as 1879.¹ Nevertheless, children who worked while living at home were vastly better off than children taken away from their families to work in a foreign country.

      In Queensland after 1884, the legal minimum age for imported workers was sixteen, while...

  9. Part Three At the Workplace

    • Chapter 10 Work in New Caledonia
      (pp. 125-145)

      In April 1866, Brother Aimé Mallet happened to see a parade of New Hebrideans passing the presbytery. They were an early shipload of recruits to be offered for indenture to employers in New Caledonia, under the Henry contract of 1865. Mallet recognized the Hebrideans by their dress, for he had been part of a short-lived Catholic mission at Aneityum in 1848, so he went down to see what transpired. The recruits were marched up from the wharf and ranged in front of themairie(city hall). When Mallet arrived there, Krieger, a naval officer, had drawn them up into two...

    • Chapter 11 Living and Working in New Caledonia: By Law or Custom?
      (pp. 146-165)

      When the recruits arrived at their workplace, an entirely new life began. They had to conform to a totally foreign régime, work set hours at strange tasks, adapt to a different climate, eat different food, obey orders from an employer who spoke a foreign tongue, and more often than not work and live with Islanders from other places whose languages were equally incomprehensible, and whose powers and intentions of sorcery were unknown. Above all, they had to reconcile themselves to having no recourse to kin support. In themselves these changes must have been traumatic.

      The workers were to a large...

    • Chapter 12 “Perpetual Theft”
      (pp. 166-181)

      The hardships borne by indentured laborers were, in theory, compensated by wages that could be converted into coveted goods to be taken home. In the first few years, no complaints were recorded about the rewards given for their labor. But after the state opted out of its managerial role at the end of the 1860s, there was a grave problem in the just payment of wages.

      Under the provisions of the 1874 labor code, the laborer received scant protection in this matter. There was no fixed minimum wage: wages were to be arranged by agreement between employer and employee (Article...

    • Chapter 13 Sickness and Death
      (pp. 182-202)

      No one disputed the fact that the rate of sickness and death among indentured laborers, especially mine workers, was extremely high. The habit of listing the names of dead foreign workers among those in the “Trusteeship of unclaimed estates” (Curatelle aux successions et biens vacants), regularly published in theMoniteur, publicized the extraordinary number of imported Oceanians—and later Asians—who died, often within a short time of arrival. The appearance of list after list of the strange-sounding names (figure 5) made it impossible to deny that these workers, with few exceptions recruited under the age of twenty-five, fell sick...

    • Chapter 14 “Hebrideans” in Colonial Society
      (pp. 203-220)

      The imported laborers occupied a lowly rank in New Caledonian society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they were only one of a number of underclasses. There were also the convicts, thelibérés, the Asian workers, and the indigenous Kanaks. The free whites saw the New Hebrideans as the least sinister of all their inferiors, and generally inoffensive and trustworthy.¹ They were often contrasted with the “insolent” and “thieving” Loyalty Islanders and later with the “violent” and “thieving” Indochinese. The most frequent complaint about them was their disposition to drunkenness and, consequent upon it, their rowdy brawling in...

    • Chapter 15 Life after Indenture
      (pp. 221-228)

      At the end of their term, workers had the option of reengaging or returning home. After eight years of continuous indenture, they were eligible to apply for free residence provided they had not been convicted of any crimes or had not incurred any disciplinary penalty during their last two years of employment, a rule that seems to have been fairly strictly adhered to, unlike others. Very few of those convicted in the courts appear in the death registers, apart from those who died during their term of imprisonment.

      No official figure for the number who were repatriated is extant, but...

    • Chapter 16 “Nothing More Convenient”
      (pp. 229-238)

      The myth that New Caledonia was a sleeping beauty, needing only a supply of cheap labor as the kiss of life, was retold so often that it passed almost without question among colonizers and settlers. The shortage of labor and the need for the administration to do something about it was a perpetual subject of discussion in the newspapers. Official reports to France usually agreed that the place would take off if only one could find enough cheap labor. The small size of the territory, the poverty of most of its soil, and above all its distance from its markets,...

  10. Appendix: Tables
    (pp. 239-248)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 249-274)
  12. References
    (pp. 275-298)
  13. Index
    (pp. 299-309)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 310-312)