HL Deb 05 May 1892 vol 4 cc141-8

My Lords, your Lordships may have observed that it has been reported that the Government of Queensland is about to take steps for the renewal of the importation of Polynesian labourers, usually I think called Kanakas, into that colony. The subject is one of considerable gravity, and I have no doubt it has occupied the attention of the Colonial Office, and that the noble Lord the Secretary of State will be glad of an opportunity of giving some explanation as to the course which is to be taken. This immigration went on for a considerable number of years, and I regret to say that it was attended with very serious abuses. There are two kinds of abuse which may arise from an immigration of that kind. One is as to the circumstances under which the labourers are recruited, and the other is as to the treatment of them after they arrive in the colony. To take the second point first, I am far from supposing that the employers in Queensland are in any way inferior in humanity to employers generally; but it has been found that where coloured labour of an inferior race is employed, unless very careful measures are, taken, there is apt to be, oppression and hardship, if not even cruelty. Your Lordships are well aware that there is an extensive coolie emigration from India to our colonies, which has always been watched with the utmost possible care and rigour by the Government of India, who will not allow coolies to be imported into our colonies without the most stringent measures being taken for their good treatment. I am happy to believe that those measures have been successful, and that in our colonies the coolies are well treated, and that there is no reason to complain in that respect. But the Government of India always hold in their hands a most powerful engine, namely, that at any moment, if they are not satisfied as to the treatment of the coolies—either during the passage, or after their arrival in the colony—they at once threaten—and they would not hesitate to execute the threat—that they will stop the whole emigration; and, as regards foreign countries, when they have obtained permission to import coolies into their colonies, the same powers exist. I mention that to show how necessary such precautions are. I do not, however, doubt that the Government of Queensland will take effective measures for the protection of the labourers after they arrive in the colony. That is a matter entirely within their own power; the labourers are there within the colony itself, and a due vigilance on the part of the Government would no doubt prevent any abuse on the part of those who employ the labourers. But the case is very different with regard to the recruitment of the labourers in the Polynesian Islands. A Commission of Inquiry that took place some years ago showed that there had been most grave abuses and most shocking cruelty connected with the recruitment; and it is evident that, whatever precautions you may take, it is exceedingly difficult to prevent such abuses; dealing as recruiters do with those who are in fact savages, and, owing to the conditions under which they are to be employed, abuses are almost sure to arise. But worse than that, it was very often found in past times,—I hope it was not so in the more recent years before the immigration was stopped,—that there was a distinct kidnapping of labourers, and that, in point of fact, it did not at one time differ very much from the slave trade. My Lords, the matter is not one for which the Government of Queensland is alone responsible, because it has no jurisdiction on the high seas or in the islands from which these labourers are to be recruited. The responsibility therefore must rest to a certain extent upon the Imperial Government to see that the regulations as far as possible are such as will prevent abuses. I trust the regulations will prevent abuses; that they will reduce them very much I have no doubt; but I regret to say that, after the experience I had formerly on this subject, I am afraid no measures will prevent some abuses arising. My Lords, this is not a matter which concerns us alone, because no doubt our proceedings will be very carefully watched by foreign nations. We have always shown the greatest jealousy of any immigration that could partake in the slightest degree of slave recruiting, and it is not surprising, or perhaps unreasonable, that foreign nations should view with great jealousy, and even some surprise, the fact that we should sanction a traffic attended by the evils that this traffic unfortunately brings with it. I do not wish at all to exaggerate the matter, and I fully recognise that in the position in which Queensland is, having very large territories where the climate is tropical and cannot be properly cultivated by white labour, the prosperity of the colony seriously depends upon its obtaining labour from the islands. I remember that application was made some time ago to the Government of India to sanction coolie immigration; I do not know what the result was, but I suppose there was some obstacle in the way which prevented its being allowed. If it were possible to make arrangements by which an immigration of Indian coolies could take place, I should view these proceedings with infinitely less suspicion; I believe that an emigration of coolies from India might be so regulated from the nature of the case—the jurisdiction being in the hands of the Government of India, and they having in their hands the power to stop the emigration if any abuses arose—that there would be no hardship or oppression, but an advantage to the coolies who might go to Queensland, and also to Queensland itself. However, if we cannot see our way to some such immigration, and, if it is thought right, after full consideration, that this immigration of Kanakas should be renewed, I hope and trust and believe that Her Majesty's Government will take every precaution in their power to prevent, as far as possible, the abuses which I am afraid are almost certain to attend such recruitment in these islands. My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies with reference to the reported intention of the Government of Queensland to renew the recruitment of Polynesian labourers for service in that colony, what safeguards will be taken to prevent the abuses which attended such recruitment in former years?


My Lords, in reply to the noble Earl, I have to state that I have not yet received any copy of the Act, which I believe has been passed by the Queensland Legislature with reference to the renewal of the employment of Kanakas. I am therefore unable to inform your Lordships what precautions have been taken to guard against the abuses which, some years ago, attended that system; nor am I able to judge whether those precautions are likely to be sufficient. I may, however, say that I feel satisfied that the Colonial Government must have given very careful attention to this special branch of the subject; and in support of this view I may refer to different statements which have appeared in the papers, and which have been made by Sir Samuel Griffith, the Premier of Queensland. It will be remembered that Sir Samuel Griffith for many years opposed this labour system; but last year he saw reason to change his opinion, and to support the renewal of the system, on the ground, as I gather, referred to by the noble Earl, that it is found impossible to carry on the sugar industry in Queensland with white labour only, and that it is necessary, therefore, to introduce native labour. I may, also mention, as another ground for my belief that the Queensland Government must have paid close, attention to this, subject, that the Admiral on that station, Lord Charles Scott, was asked by the Government to report upon the subject and to favour them with any suggestions which he could make, which would tend to prevent any abuse arising from the recruiting, and he not only forwarded a Report of his own opinion and suggestions, but also sent a Report and opinion of Captain Davis who has had considerable experience in the Polynesian Islands. There can be no doubt that the Queensland Government will consider those Reports, and, looking to the interest that has been taken in the question, the Colonial Government must have been fully alive, not only to the difficulties of the case, but to the necessity of taking ample precautions to prevent the recurrence of such abuses as the noble Earl referred to. Perhaps I may be allowed, before I sit down, to remove what I think is a misapprehension upon this subject. The noble Earl has explained that the question must be considered first as regards the recruiting of natives, and secondly as regards their treatment when they are on the plantations. I am happy to say as regards the second side of the subject, that, so far as we are informed, there has been no question that these natives when employed on the plantations have been well treated. We have had no representations to the contrary, and, although I desired that a search should be made, we do not find any official complaints of the treatment of natives when once they were on the plantations. I would also like to mention, as confirming this view, that, while the number of labourers who have been imported in the last few years has distinctly increased, the mortality has largely decreased; that there was in the Savings Bank on the 31st December, 1890, a sum of £17,659 to the credit of the islanders who were then in Queensland, and that nearly £2,000 was spent in 1890 on hospitals alone for these labourers. I mention these facts as confirming the view, which I understand the noble Earl to share, that there is no fault to find with the treatment of the natives in the colony. Then, my Lords, the abuses to which the noble Earl has referred, and which have received most justly the strong condemnation, I think I may say, of the civilised world, were entirely confined to the system of recruiting labourers in the islands. Those abuses came to light in 1884 when the Government agent, and the recruiting agent, the captain, and some of the crew of the vessel Hopeful were tried in Queensland for offences committed in the recruiting by that vessel. Two of the men—the second mate and boatswain—were tried for murder and sentenced to death, though their sentence was afterwards commuted to penal servitude for life; and five others were also sentenced to penal servitude, two I think for life, and three for shorter terms. Then came the Commission to which the noble Earl referred, which reported early in 1885; but I desire to call attention to the fact that the Commissioners were not instructed to inquire into the subject generally, but were required to report upon the voyages made by six vessels including the Hopeful. The abuses which were reported upon by that Commission, some of which had also been brought forward at the trial of the crew of the Hopeful, were of a shameful character; but considering that these abuses were confined to certain voyages, and bearing in mind that the natives were taken from special groups of islands close to New Guinea, and which have now been annexed to British New Guinea, I think it is perhaps hardly fair to condemn the whole system of recruitng on account of those very serious abuses. And I think it is fair to argue thus, because since 1885 the recruiting has been going on, and, as I have said, an increased number of natives has been introduced each year into Queensland, and yet there has been no representation and no complaint of any abuse, except it may be of some partial infringement of the regulations. Certainly no complaint of any serious infringement of the regulations has, so far as I am aware, been brought to our notice. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the convictions and sentences passed in 1884 and the very careful inquiry subsequently made by the Commission will serve as a deterrent and warning to men who would be inclined to commit such abuses again. I do not think, my Lords, that any good will be gained by my now pointing out what precautions and what conditions Her Majesty's Government would look forin the Queensland Act, because I am not yet aware what precautions have been inserted. I believe it to be really necessary for Queensland that native labour should be introduced. I think there is a great deal of force in what the noble Earl has said, that if coolies could be introduced we should have the assistance of the Indian Government to help us in preventing the recurrence of any abuses. But in any case it is clearly the duty of the Queensland Government to see that every precaution is taken to avoid the recurrence of the abuses in the recruiting; to secure the continuance of good treatment of these natives in the colony; and to secure their safe return. I can assure your Lordships that Her Majesty's Government will support the Queensland Government in any precautions, however stringent, to effect those objects, and will also, as the noble Earl desires, pay special attention to this question when the Queensland Act is before them.


If I may be allowed one remark, the answer of the noble Lord is in many respects satisfactory; but I observe that he speaks only of supporting the Queensland Government. According to my view I do not think that the Queensland Government alone is concerned, but the Imperial Government. It is quite clear that this immigration can only go on with the permission of the Imperial Government. I am not saying that it ought to be refused; but I do say that the Imperial Government ought to see that the precautions which are taken are sufficient, and such as it thinks ought to warrant it in permitting this immigration to take place.


I did not make myself quite clear. What I mean by supporting the Queensland Government is that there maybe a certain party in the colony who would oppose stringent regulations, and I mean that we should therefore support any regulations that are in the Act. I do not at all desire to shirk the responsibility of the Imperial Government in considering this question.

House adjourned at five minutes before Five o'clock.