Concept: Slavery


The importance of unfree labour (here equated with slavery) in traditional Melanesian societies has generally been underestimated. Slavery, in the Melanesian sense of the word, covers situations that cannot be readily equated with chattel slavery. The meaning is stretched to include far more flexible states of bondage, which may be transitory, enabling individuals to move from abject bondage to incorporation into communities and even into positions of power. Having said this, slavery is still the most appropriate English term available. In the Solomons, men, women and children became slaves as captives in warfare, after having sought asylum, and sometimes as punishment for crimes. Slaves were also given to compensate for deaths and to be sacrificed in religious and other ceremonies, such as launchings of new canoes. It is unclear from the literature just how widespread slavery was. However, during the early years of outside contact with the Western Solomon Islands and the Bismarck Archipelago slaves were regarded as assets and were used in agricultural and domestic service, and as sexual partners. Slavery seems to have been most common in the Western Solomons and what are generally called headhunting (q.v.) raids were also carried out to obtain slaves, usually women and children. Slaves were also wealth items. However, slaves could also become important leaders and there is lots of evidence of slaves making a transition to be full and free members of Melanesian societies. (Bennett 1987, 13, 30, 70, 89-90, 114; Carter 1990, 6-7; Parkinson 1999 [1907]; White 1991, 22, 38, 88-90; Oliver 1955, 296, 419-420)

Some in the nineteenth-century said the indentured labour trade was slavery, and some descendants of participants still use the term to label the trade. But they were not slaves in a Western sense. That is, 'slave', as it existed in the West Indies, South Africa and Mauritius until 1833, and in fifteen southern states of the United States of America until the Civil War of 1861-1865, was a legal status that lasted for life and was inherited by slaves' children. Slaves' persons were the property of their owners, and could be sold, bequeathed, gifted, mortgaged or hired out like any other chattel. Slaves could not enter into any contract, own property or give evidence in court. By stark contrast, indenture contracts were legally enforceable and legally void if the law was satisfied that they were not voluntarily entered into. Statements that describe indentured labourers as slaves, when not merely rhetorical, metaphorical, or simply careless, are based on the tacit assumption that free and slave are a simple dichotomy, with no intermediate terms-one not free must be a slave. In fact, nineteenth-century law recognised many a legal status which was not fully free, but which had attached to it restrictions on control over property and personal mobility. If 'slavery' is used strictly, we can categorically deny that it was found in the Melanesian labour trade, irrespective of appearances. If it is used metaphorically-for example to indicate that someone was treated as badly as a slave-then this is a question of historical fact to be determined like any other, by a dispassionate weighing of the evidence. Use of the term in relation to indentured labour merely confuses the issue by introducing an inaccurate and emotionally charged expression. See also Blackbirding.

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
  • Carter, George G., Yours in Service: A Reflection on the Life and Times of Reverend Belshazzar Gina of Solomon Islands, University of the South Pacific Centre, Honiara, 1990. Details
  • Oliver, Douglas L., A Solomon Island Society: Kinship and Leadership among the Siuai of Bougainville, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1955. Details
  • White, Geoffrey M., Identity Through History: Living Stories in a Solomon Islands Society, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991. Details