What is ‘blackbirding’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: blackbirding…

Set in Australia, in the middle of the 19th century, David Malouf’s award-winning novel, Remembering Babylon, explores both the subtleties and the gross injustices of racism. The story focuses on a white youth who was raised by Aboriginals, but who eventually returns to his own people. He is not accepted by the white community, which views him with distrust, particularly whenever he is seen visiting with natives.

I have read a great deal about racism against blacks but have been largely unfamiliar with how a similar story played out in Australia. This book enlightened me. It also gave me my word of the week: blackbirding. Here is how the author used it:

It had been built, with ballroom, billiard room and separate kitchen and servants’ quarters, for a local shipping magnate, whose fortune, before Federation put an end to that sort of thing, had been based on blackbirding for the sugar interests up north.

Blackbirding, it turns out, is the coercion of people through trickery and kidnapping to work as labourers. From the 1860s, the demand for labour in Queensland, Australia, resulted in blackbirding in the region. (See photo, above.) The term may have been formed directly as a contraction of “blackbird catching”; “blackbird” was a slang term for the local indigenous people.