Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901

This is an Act passed by the Australian federal parliament in 1901. It is headed: 'AN ACT To provide for the Regulation, Restriction, and Prohibition of the Introduction of Labourers from the Pacific Islands and for other purposes’ – and is known as the Pacific Island Labourers Act. The Act is printed on parchment, bound by blue ribbon and has a red wax seal of the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia on the left-hand side. Handwritten on the first page are the words 'No. 16 of 1901' and '(Assented to 17th December, 1901)'.

Educational value

  • This document enacted a law to deport the vast majority of the Pacific Islanders living in Australia. The Act was part of a package of legislation introduced in the first year of the federal parliament that marked out the racial boundaries of the new nation. The identification of the Act as 'No. 16 of 1901' means that this was the sixteenth piece of legislation passed by the federal parliament in 1901.

  • The Act enabled deportation of most of the Pacific Islanders working in Queensland and New South Wales as soon as possible after the end of 1906. The only Pacific Islanders allowed to stay in Australia were those brought to Queensland before 1 September 1879, those working in ships’ crews and those granted exemption certificates under the Immigration Restriction Act.

  • In 1901 some 10,000 Pacific Islanders were living in Queensland and northern New South Wales. Most were employed under indentured labour agreements. Only 700 of them were exempt from deportation under the Act. The Act was intended as an instrument of mass deportation but also imposed progressive limits on Pacific Islander immigration and encouraged their emigration before the end of 1906.

  • In 1902 Pacific Islander immigration was limited to three-quarters of the number who had departed Australia in 1901. In 1903 the number admitted dropped to half the number of 1902 departures. No labour agreements were valid after the end of 1906 and from that date any Pacific Islander found in Australia who had not been under an agreement within the previous month was to be deported immediately. The onus of proof that a suspected person was not a Pacific Islander rested with the individual.

  • Pacific Islanders mounted a political campaign to oppose the Act. They sent petitions to the King, to the Governor of Queensland, to the Governor-General and to the Prime Minister. The only relief achieved was an amendment to the Act in late 1906 which liberalised the exemption categories.

  • The final deportation of Pacific Islanders began in late 1906 and continued until mid-1908, taking longer than the Australian Government had planned. The official number of Pacific Islanders allowed to remain was 1654, but research indicates that the actual number was much higher, with around 2500 remaining in Australia. Around 7500 people were therefore forced to leave Australia through the mass deportation set in train by this Act.