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Q From Mark Raymond, Australia: A recent controversy here in Australia involves Aboriginal children being enrolled in a boarding school some 1500km from their home. Although the parents were involved, neither their school nor the Education Department had any idea that this was happening until after the buses had left. This led to accusations that the children have been blackbirded. I thought I knew Australian slang, but this is new to me. The only clue is a throwaway comment in a newspaper article that says the term refers to the (often underhanded) means by which Kanakas were ‘recruited’ to work in the Queensland cane fields in days of yore. Do you have any further info?

A The newspaper article is essentially correct.

To be more strictly accurate, there have been two distinct slang senses of blackbird in Australian English, both of which refer to indigenous peoples. The word would have been very familiar to immigrants from the UK because it is the name there for a common garden bird, a type of thrush. The transfer to “black” inhabitants as a derogatory slang term would have been easy to make and seems to have occurred early in Australian colonisation. The same word was also used to refer to Africans in the slave trade from Africa to America, and presumably came from the same source.

The older sense refers to Aborigines, especially in the phrase blackbird shooting. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, some white settlers used to make up hunting parties with the express aim of going out in the bush to kill native Australians as a kind of sporting activity.

But the sense you refer to is much better known. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century farmers were finding it hard to recruit local labour to work in the sugar and cotton fields in Queensland — the heat was too great and the work too hard. From the 1860s, therefore, agents took schooners to Pacific islands, such as the New Hebrides, Solomon Islands or Fiji, to collect native men for the plantations. A few came willingly as contract labour, some were recruited by fraud, but most were kidnapped and sold into a form of slavery as indentured servants (as you say, they were called Kanakas, from the Hawaiian word for a man).

The term blackbirding may have been transferred from the older activity as another “sporting” activity involving native peoples (though blackbird-catching is similarly known from the African-American slave trade). It applies to any of these methods of recruitment and early documents show there was little distinction between them by the blackbirders, who were notoriously brutal. The trade only stopped when the new Australian national government enacted a law against it in 1901.

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