Party: Labour on Protectorate Plantations



In the early 1870s, the Germans in Samoa perfected a new method of processing copra through hot-air drying, which replaced the more laborious and costly earlier process of turning coconuts into coconut oil. Commercial copra production began in the Protectorate in 1908 and in the 1910s the economy became entirely tied to it. Resident Commissioner Woodford (q.v.) wanted all external labour migration to cease, and eventually had his way when recruiting to Queensland ended in 1903 and to Fiji in 1911. Commercial companies, mainly formed by the original traders and planters, turned to coconut planting. The return of trained labourers from Queensland (1901-1906) came at the same time as large companies took up land for plantations: Lever Brothers (see Lever's Pacific Plantations Pty. Ltd.) in 1905; Burns Philp & Co. (q.v.) in 1906 and Malayta Company (q.v.) in 1909, run by Fairymead Sugar Co. (q.v.), controlled by the brothers of Florence Young (q.v.) who founded the Queensland Kanaka Mission (q.v.) which became the South Sea Evangelical Mission (q.v.). Work on plantations and farms in Queensland and Fiji had become for many young men a rite of passage and now trips to work on Protectorate copra plantations were seen in the same way. Young men, particularly from populous Malaita and Guadalcanal, began to regard it as natural to go away for a couple of years at a time, to earn money and to bring back trade goods to their families in the villages. Once Head Taxes were introduced in the 1920s, they had extra incentive to go. (Shlomowitz 1987d)

Internal Labour Trade in the Solomon Islands, 1913-1940

Rennell & Bellona*****
Other Islands26858822210781.99

* no data

Source: Shlomowitz and Bedford 1988.

Some thought was given in the 1900s and 1910s to bringing in Indian labour, which would have altered the racial composition of the Protectorate just as it had in Fiji. (Bennett 1993, 133) Once this possibility closed, the only option was to develop an internal labour supply. Between 1913 and 1940 there were 54,110 indentured labour contracts in the Protectorate, involving perhaps forty thousand men (and no women). Like earlier contracts in Queensland and Fiji, these were based on the English masters-and-servants contracts. The first BSIP Labour Regulation was issued in 1897, at a time when the Protectorate was competing with Queensland and Fiji for a labour supply. BSIP contracts were for two years; labourers were transported to and from the workplace by the plantation, and employers were required to submit reports every three months. An employer had to obtain a license and the government had the right to inspect all plantations. The regulations were revised in 1915 to provide for heavier fines for labourers who defaulted, and strikes and organised protests were forbidden.

The early plantations had an unsavoury reputation: overseers were brutal and physical violence was a normal part of the job. Conditions started to improve when regular government inspections began in the 1920s. During the early decades of the twentieth century the Protectorate seems to have attracted white overseers and plantation managers who behaved in ways unacceptable in Australia or Fiji (though they might have been decades earlier). (Bennett 1987, 156-157) The government was quite aware of the poor conditions but could do little to police the rules and in any case was most interested in satisfying the employers. It was not all one-sided though, and Solomon Islanders sometimes retaliated with violence and sabotage for wrongs done to them by overseers. (Shlomowitz and Bedford 1988; Bennett, 1987, 150-191, 1993)

Arthur W. Mahaffy wrote the first government labour report in 1908 and recommended more rigorous enforcement of regulations and appointment of an Inspector of Labour. The latter was done but the position was ineffectual until William Bell (q.v.), a former Fiji labour trade Government Agent took the job in 1911. Following the 1908 report new labour regulations were issued in 1910. They stipulated certain conditions of employment and repatriation including an exact ration scale and a weekly issuance of tobacco, and fixed the minimum employment age at fourteen (later increased to sixteen). The maximum hours of work per week were set at fifty, and there was to be no work on Sundays. However, these were not distributed to all of the planters, and the Inspector of Labour had no transport to inspect plantations.

Bell reported on a dysentery outbreak on plantations in 1914, in overcrowded conditions similar to those behind outbreaks in Queensland thirty to forty years earlier. When the death rate reached 5 percent, and 10 percent for a short period, all recruiting was suspended for several months. This catastrophe had a sobering effect on the Colonial Office, which realised that the Empire's reputation was being tarnished by the mortality on BSIP plantations. Regular inspections of the 147 plantations began in 1915 on a new labour department ship, Mala. Bell ensured that recruits signed on and off in front of the Inspector or other officials, that they understood their contracts, were in good health at the end of the contract, and received the balance of their wages. Employers' rights were strong and in 1912 legal sanctions forced labourers to work double of any time they wasted through disobedience or serving prison sentences. Employers tried to leave official disciplinary actions to overseers. After 1921, only the Resident Commissioner could extend contracts. The concept of a daily task began to replace labour based on hours. Work included clearing the site and keeping underbrush under control, planting seedlings, collecting coconuts, catching beetles, cutting firewood and maintaining copra drier fires, and bagging the finished product. (Bennett 1987, 158-159)

Labourers were often young and following in the footsteps of older relatives who had worked in Queensland and Fiji. Clearing land for thousands of acres of coconut plantations was labour intensive and very heavy work. Adolescents were easier to obtain than mature men, who were more aware of the poor conditions, having perhaps earned £20 a year in Queensland before deportation. Protectorate wages were relatively low: in Queensland the basic wage for Pacific indentured labour was £6 a year, in Fiji it was £3 a year. Time-expired labourers could demand much higher wages-in Queensland up to £23 a year in the 1900s. (Moore 1985, 172-174) In the Protectorate about 1 percent of the labour force was paid 10-15 shillings a week and the large majority received only 2/6 a week. (Bennett 1987, 160-161, 1993, 135) The insult was compounded in 1906 when the tax on tobacco was doubled. Nonetheless, men often served multiple contracts, staying away from home for six years on average. (Bennett 1987, 160-164)

A second labour inspector was appointed in 1921. (Bennett 1993, 143) Recruiting fees escalated-from £6 to £8 in 1911 to £20 in 1920-but the basic wage remained the same, just as it had in Queensland between the 1860s and 1900s. A Head Tax, introduced between 1921 and 1923, was fixed at £1 a year for all able-bodied males between sixteen and sixty. Although the government denied it, the tax was to ensure enough recruits from poor areas like Malaita where there was no other income. In 1923, 'beach pay' (a cash advance) was fixed at £6, out of a total £12 wage, and recruiting ships were allowed to carry their own trade store. However, neither of these moves expanded the labour supply: about six thousand signed up each year in the 1910s, and nothing seemed to increase the number. Planters objected to the increased wage and continued to charge 100 percent margins on all trade goods. Passage masters-indigenous bigmen who controlled enlistment at the various island passages-acted as mediators between the demands of the recruiters and the interests of their kin, and got rich in the process, just as they had since the 1870s. The 1923 regulations reduced the influence of passage masters since they lost their bargaining power over beach pay. They had always levied from each recruit a portion of the goods given as 'beach pay' and recruiters had rewarded them with from 10 shillings to £1 per enlisted man. Recruiting ships began to carry Solomon Islands assistants, usually coastal Malaitans, and with the spread of Pijin English this caused the complete eclipse of passage masters by the 1930s. Recruits also began to demand that a larger portion of their 'beach pay' be given to them directly. Judith Bennett suggests that one-tenth of wages ended up as tax in some way, and one man's wage might have to pay the taxes of many. (Bennett 1987, 164)

Planters wanted more labourers, but most Solomon Islanders could get along without much foreign money or goods, and there had to be some special reason for them to leave home to labour. Malaitans (68 percent) and to a lesser extent men from Guadalcanal (15 percent) totally dominated recruiting before the Second World War, the other two significant areas being Makira (6 percent) and Eastern Outer Islands (5 percent). The heaviest labour recruiting was during the 1920s and early 1930s, when Malaita had four thousand men (about 10 percent of the population) away on plantations in any given year. Guadalcanal had 7 percent away during each of the interwar years. This must have affected societies, since the figure far exceeded what were at the time considered safe levels that would allow Pacific cultures to remain strong and resilient.

In 1929, the High Commissioner established a board to inquire into labour conditions. At that time, a labourer could perform light duties from as young as fourteen and be fully eligible for work from age sixteen. A contract system was used, with two years the maximum time allowed. Minimum wages were fixed at 20/- per mensem (per month or by the month) and 10/- per mensem for light work. Labourers were usually recruited from their homes by professional recruiters who operated licensed vessels. There were 6,115 labourers employed in 1927 and 6,016 in 1928. In 1929, 5,171 labourers were employed throughout the BSIP and a further 2,005 recruited during 1929. The numbers then increased slightly in 1930 (5,363) before beginning to decline during the Great Depression years. Death averaged sixty men for each of these years, with pneumonia the greatest cause recorded. (AR 1931, 7) An employer was required by law to feed, clothe and house the labourer at fixed minimum standards, to provide medical attention and to repatriate him at the completion of the contract. If dependants accompanied the labourer then the employer had similar obligations to them. The hours of work were controlled by regulation and a system of 'task work' was used, five and a half tasks completing one week's work. On time-work, the labourer could be asked to work nine hours a day, and in task-work the tasks were to be able to be completed in six hours. (AR 1929, 4, 12, AR 1930, 14-15) Plantation jobs involved only muscle power and no prior training was needed. Most labourers were from inland Malaita or Guadalcanal. There was also a labour elite, men who worked as wharf labour at Tulagi, Gizo and Faisi. Malaitans from Langalanga and Lau Lagoons dominated these jobs, particularly at Tulagi. Others could be found working as crews on trading ships or as domestic servants. Tulagi became the main place at which labour was engaged, particularly after 1914 when a government officer had to be present when indentures were signed. Burns Philp and Chinese stores developed direct retail trade with thousands of Solomon Islanders passing through the capital.

The economic depression of the 1930s caused a downturn. Indenture contracts protected workers but also ensured that labour was available, and the penal clause plus a ban on any strikes or labour protests ensured a compliant workforce. Employers cut costs, and used the labourers to produce local foods so they would not have to rely on expensive imports, but indenture was still cheaper than a free labour market. Although recruiting continued, work forces were reduced to half the average of five to six thousand labourers employed each year in the 1920s. Planters experimented with 'partnership' and 'profit-sharing' schemes, paying experienced labourers by the bag and allowing them land to produce their own food, or let people cut their own copra, use company driers and sell the product to the plantation. Frederick Campbell (q.v.) introduced this system on Makira in 1933. Beach payments and the wages of labourers were halved in 1934, which led to boycotts on recruiting in some areas. Only the streamer gangs who serviced ships at Tulagi maintained a reasonable wage, around three shillings a day.

When the Second World War began, the plantations closed, many were destroyed and the labour force was scattered. The Deputy Commissioner's ship Tulagi and other vessels were used to return over two thousand labourers to their villages, dodging danger from bombing and strafing by Japanese aircraft and ships.

Related Concepts

Published resources


  • Bennett, Judith A., Wealth of the Solomons: A History of a Pacific Archipelago, 1800-1978, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1987. Details
  • Moore, Clive, Kanaka: A History of Melanesian Mackay, Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies and the University of Papua and New Guinea Press, Port Moresby, 1985. Details

Book Sections

  • Bennett, Judith A., 'We Do Not Come Here to Be Beaten: Resistance and the Plantation System in the Solomon Islands to World War II', in Brij V. Lal;Doug Munro;Edward D. Beechert (ed.), Plantation Workers: Resistance and Accommodation, University of Hawai`i Press, Honolulu, 1993, pp. 129-186. Details

Journal Articles

  • Shlomowitz, Ralph, and Bedford, Richard D., 'The Internal Labour Trade in New Hebrides and Solomon Islands, c 1900-1941', Journal de la Société des Océanistes, vol. 86, 1988, pp. 61-85. Details


  • British Solomon Islands Protectorate, British Solomon Islands Protectorate Annual Reports (AR), 1896-1973. Details
  • Shlomowitz, Ralph, The Internal Labour Trade in the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands, c1900-1941, Working Papers in Economic History No.16, Flinders University, Adelaide, July. Details


This is a typical labour-recruiting scene from Malaita early in the 20th century.
Clive Moore