Reference Entry


Christine Dureau

in A Historical Guide to World Slavery

Published in print January 1998 | ISBN: 9780195120912

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Within the southern Pacific region of Oceania, slavery occurred in both indigenous and colonial contexts. Although it was associated with warfare, indigenous slavery was relatively rare; it was more common to kill, sacrifice, or eat prisoners. Many local terms for “slave” properly refer to captives. Captives were commonly regarded as dead by their own communities, so escape was rarely attempted. Slave or captive status was not hereditary; however, the social positions of slaves' descendants differed according to local forms of social distinction. Especially in the more hierarchical Polynesian societies, it was probably difficult for descendants of slaves to acquire high status, except by hypergamy (marrying up in the hierarchy). In Melanesia, they were absorbed into their captors' or spouses' lineages, and here it is often difficult to distinguish between enslavement and captive kinship.Probably the greatest elaboration of Polynesian slavery occurred in the Maori societies of New Zealand, where captives not cannibalized or sacrificed performed menial labor for their captors, who retained powers of life and death over them. Otherwise, they generally were well treated and had many normal social rights, such as forthright speech. The children of captives who married locally were members of their free parent's group. Slaves (tuarekareka) also acted as carriers on raids and sometimes even fought against their former kin. Maori slavery apparently escalated between the late eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth, when local demands for European firearms developed. During this period slaves worked in producing flax and provisions for ships, and female slaves were exploited as prostitutes aboard ships. Many were also killed to satisfy European demands for tattooed Maori heads.Elsewhere in Polynesia, captives, refugees, or the dispossessed were forced into dependent relationships with the victors, but local distinctions among slaves, vassals, and dependents were often ambiguous. Brief examples include Easter Island, where captive labor built the gigantic ahu statues; the Society Islands, where menial labor was performed by the lowest orders (manuhune), including war captives; and Hawaii, where an order of out-castes (kauwa) were regarded as worthless slave descendants. Common to these diverse forms of subjugation were the notions that they were debased statuses, lacking honor, worth, or spiritual power. This was reflected in Hawaiian references to kauwa as “corpses,” Mangaian descriptions of dependent captives as “fatherless people” (ivi panga), and Maori references to slaves as “pets” (mokai).In Melanesia captives were usually taken for sacrifice or adoption. It is notable that the two places best known for slavery, the western Solomon Islands and south-coast New Guinea, were both maritime head-hunting areas. The Marind-anim of New Guinea ranged long distances in search of enemy heads and young women and children for re-socialization as Marind-anim. At times captives constituted around 8 percent of the Marind population. The situation was similar in the New Georgian Islands in the Solomons, where the word pinausu referred to anyone who was adopted or fostered, including captives. In the late nineteenth century some pinausu were purchased from distant islands, usually in exchange for firearms. Those who were ultimately sacrificed to ancestral spirits were treated well until their deaths. A second category of captives, who acted as ritual specialists or lieutenants to powerful leaders, often acquired considerable wealth. Others, especially children, were adopted into local kinship groups and were entitled to inherit, like their adoptive siblings.In the nineteenth century a form of commercial slavery occurred in the Vogelkop Peninsula of western New Guinea, where Papuan slaves were sold into Southeast Asian trading systems. This appears to be the only Oceanic instance of indigenous commercial slaving. However, Europeans were involved in three forms of labor relations that have been likened to slavery: the Peruvian slave trade of 1862–1864, the Southwest Pacific labor trade, and indentured Asian labor.The Peruvian slave trade in Polynesia followed the abolition of slavery (1854), the curtailment of Chinese immigration, and the expansion of Peruvian cotton and rice production in response to the American Civil War. Peruvian law obliged recruiters to hire Pacific Islanders as voluntary laborers, but most were kidnapped. Maude (1981) estimates that about six thousand people died for reasons directly or indirectly attributable to the trade. This entailed phenomenal depopulation, ranging from 24 percent on Pukapuka to 79 percent on Nukulaelae.The “labor trade,” centered on the Solomons and Vanuatu, developed in the 1870s in response to demands for cheap labor in the Queensland and Fijian cane and cotton fields. The trade was initially known as “blackbirding” because of its early kidnapping, violence, and disregard for the humanity of its victims, but by the 1890s Islanders voluntarily contracted to work for a fixed period. By the turn of the century, Islanders were also working on plantations in British, Dutch, French, and German colonies. Although this was contracted employment, the laboring conditions, endemic violence, and death rates have often led writers to refer to this trade as a form of slavery. By 1911 the Australian “white Australia policy” and the effects of abolitionist agitation saw the end of the long-distance labor trade to Queensland and Fiji. However, various forms of indentured Islander labor continued elsewhere, with Papua and New Caledonia notable for the brutal treatment of laborers.Other forms of indentured labor involved the movement of Asian workers into the Pacific, the best-known being the Indian girmitiyas' emigrations to Fiji, where many took up residence after their indentures had ended. Here too the typical working conditions, persistent violence, and high death rates often evoke coerced slave labor as much as free contract labor.The word slavery should be used cautiously in regard to indigenous Oceanic societies. The term often reflects moralistic glosses for indigenous practices by colonial administrators, missionaries, and others with vested interests in denouncing local cultures. Likewise, there is much rhetoric in the literature on the indentured labor trades. These relationships all entailed degrees of bondage, violence, abuse, coercion, or abduction. It is perhaps most fruitful to look at indigenous and European “slavery” as continua, ranging from the unambiguous enslavement of the Vogelkop and Peruvian slave trades to the more nuanced labor and social relationships of war captives and indentured laborers.There has been little analysis of indigenous slavery, and much remains to be done on indentured labor. Future research into these subjects requires cultural and linguistic study of indigenous concepts of freedom, captivity, and relationship, and empirical and analytical studies of labor relations in European colonial settings.

Reference Entry.  1119 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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