Pasifika labourers arrive in Auckland

20 May 1870

Flax worker from the New Hebrides (Auckland War Memorial Museum, PH-ALB-86)

New Zealand received its first known shipload of labourers from the Pacific Islands when the clipper schooner Lulu docked in Waitematā Harbour with ‘a quantity of cocoanuts, &c.,’ and 27 adult male passengers from Sandwich Island (Efate) in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).

The press soon discovered that these ‘blacks’ were to be employed in flax mills near Auckland. ‘They appear to be strong, willing fellows, and will, no doubt, be able to do a good day’s work.’ Their arrival worried some commentators: ‘if the Melanesians can live at all in our winter (which we question), they can do the work of a European at a figure that the latter cannot compete with’. From a more altruistic perspective, they were likely to be unaware of their legal rights and so vulnerable to exploitation.

More doubt was thrown on the enterprise with the publication of extracts from the captain’s diary which suggested he had bribed chiefs to provide labourers for ‘a term of years’. This was the era of ‘blackbirding’, when tens of thousands of indentured labourers were shipped from Pacific islands to the plantations and mills of Queensland, Fiji and Tahiti. After working for years, they were sent home with a few metal goods, such as axes – and sometimes, rifles.

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