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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 64

Labour Trade

Labour Trade.

Placing upon one side the painful incidents connected with kidnapping, I am inclined to believe that the employment of native labour by cotton planters and others has been beneficial, especially the employment of labour foreign to any particular locality. The mere fact of seeing other islands, other tribes, and a higher civilization, has led thousands of natives to reconsider and abolish their barbarous customs, and to listen more readily to missionary teaching. Anyone who has seen a large number of natives collected from perhaps ten different islands of Western Polynesia, or those near the equator, upon a well-ordered plantation, would hardly doubt that the lesson those natives received during their three or five years' residence upon that plantation tended to make them better members of the human family on returning to their respective homes. Official papers concerning the annexation of Fiji testify that Polynesian labourers upon Fijian plantations are far better off, as far as regards food, clothing, and house accommodation, than when upon their native islands.

On the other hand, the Melanesian Mission Report for 1873 totally disagrees with this opinion. The report states, with reference to the New Hebrides and Banks Islands, "that the labour trade is depopulating them, and that the returned labourer does not convey back the knowledge of any useful art, or even anything of civilization. It is therefore the business of those who carry on the mission to do all they can to prevent and oppose a traffic, the effects of which they see to be pernicious." In this I think that the mission is decidedly in the wrong. Bishop Patteson himself never demanded the entire suppression of the traffic; he only demanded its proper regulation. Neither do I think that the trade, except in one or two minor instances, is depopulating the islands. It may lessen the population of any particular spot, but only for a time. When the report above referred to was written, there were many hundreds of New Hebridean and Banks page 79 islanders in Queensland and Fiji, waiting to be returned to their different homes. His Excellency Sir Arthur Gordon has since returned them. That the labourer returns without having gained any knowledge of civilization or useful arts is a statement which can only be excused on the ground of missionary zeal. It is to be hoped that the clergy will not oppose the labour traffic, but suggest proper rules for its management, and lend their aid hi seeing them carried out. The extension of commerce and the employment of labor will assist rather than retard missionary work. The Presbyterian report for 1873, concerning the mission in the New Hebrides, contains the following significant statement:—"We expected to find a people who would at least hear the Word of God and receive instruction, but, on the contrary, the great majority of those among whom we are stationed literally close their eyes, and refuse to be taught anything either sacred or secular." When it is remembered that thirty-five years of missionary labour have been devoted to this group, such a statement is very significant.

Missionaries cannot ascribe this to the labour traffic, for that has only been in operation of late years. In my opinion, it results from the fact that commerce does not properly support missionary teaching. In Eastern and Central Polynesia commerce has followed in the footsteps of the missionary, and the natives are now orderly and well-conducted; but in the New Hebrides commerce has no footing, and the natives listen to nothing, either sacred or secular. It is true that a few natives return to their islands somewhat demoralised. If they carry back a gun and a little ammunition they are not slow in using them against their old enemies, but they would do the same with bows and arrows. It is a question whether even the vices of civilization are not more tolerable than their own previous savage customs—unfortunately they are apt to add the two together. Still, missionaries cannot expect to keep the islands closed until they have evangelized the natives; commerce must spread, and the first step is to take advantage of native labour. When the excitement connected with kidnapping has passed away, it will be found that the employment of labour has been beneficial, especially in spreading the power and superiority of the white race among the islands yet unvisited by the missionary clergymen.