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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (September 9, 1998- Agence France-Presse)--- Some were tricked, others kidnapped, and many felt a sense of adventure at heading off to work on distant plantations and today, a century later, their descendants are among the poorest people in the Pacific.

Historians estimate that between 1863 and 1906 around 100,000 Melanesians, mostly young males, became the original "kanakas" in what was known as the "blackbirding" trade.

They became indentured laborers on sugar, cocoa, and cotton plantations in Queensland (Australia), Fiji, and Samoa and in mines in New Caledonia.

Many of those who survived eventually returned to their homes, but a century later small communities of their descendants remain.

Around 22,000 laborers were sent to Fiji. Blackbirding only ended when it was found more economical to bring Indians in for the sugar plantations. The last of the blackbirding ships was the Clansman, which called on Suva in 1911.

This week Fiji Information Minister Filipe Bole said the 10,000 blackbirding descendants would receive special development assistance financing, saying the Melanesians were the "poorest of the poor."

The General Electors Party national secretary, Emelita Wilson, said the party welcomed the decision.

"They have felt marginalized for a long time," Wilson said.

The blackbirding was not the first Pacific experience of slavery. Peruvian ships had swept the atolls of the Gilberts as well as islands in what is now the Cook Islands, Tokelau, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). They kidnapped around 35,000 people and only 148 ever returned. The rest disappeared without trace today.

The impact of that is still felt in these islands and places like Tokelau and Tuvalu which lost their indigenous culture and language in these raids, and it was usually substituted with Samoan by the missionaries who came later.

Blackbirding affected what is today Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, and Vanuatu where ships would seek labor, primarily for the new Queensland plantations. In the early days of the trade there were incidents of kidnapping and trickery and often the blackbirded islanders were promised wages never paid and held as indentured laborers for years past the promised termination date.

The laborers who did return brought with them disease and pidgin English which in various forms is now the national language of the nations.

The word "kanaka," used for the laborers came from a derivation of a Hawaiian word for man. For years after, it was a derogatory term, but is now a word of honor -- New Caledonia's indigenous people call themselves Kanaks.

The Vanuatu Cultural Center produced a book, 'Storian blong olgeta we oli bin go katem sugaken long Ostrelia,' which told the story of the 40,000 ni-Vanuatu (at that time New Hebrides) men and women who went to work on the sugar plantations in Queensland, and another 10,000 ni-Vanuatu went to work down 'La Mine', in New Caledonia. In it, chief Toni Takai told of his grandparents' experience in Queensland.

"Lots died, and some of them came back," Takai said. "Some worked hard to plant coconuts when they came back." They said, "The white man says if you work hard then you will get results."

An 1869 New South Wales Royal Commission investigated blackbirding and found isolated incidents of deception and kidnapping but said the majority of islanders involved had wanted to travel aboard anyway. The trade grew to the point in the 1880s when 30 ships were involved.

The trade eventually ended over the nagging moral objections and while many of the men eventually made it home, places like Fiji never enforced repatriation. And they remain, landless and isolated from the cultures around them.

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: WWW:

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