Indentured labourers and Nauru in the 1940s

In Australian labour history, the words “Chinese labour” and “cheap” are run together frequently and repeated uncritically. They conjure an image of passive pliant dupes at best, or at worst people who were outright scabs. But the stereotype is a racist lie. The truth is that both before and during the White Australia period, Chinese workers organised and struck, sat down and walked off, rioted and won equal pay. They even called for revolution. In this series, Red Flag uncovers some shamefully neglected working class heroes.

 

During the Second World War, Australian forces were driven out of Nauru by the Japanese. This was quite a loss for Australian imperialism, because in addition to the tiny island’s strategic airstrip, its mines had provided vital phosphate for war munitions. Under the regime of the Australian-owned British Phosphate Commission, the mines had been worked by indentured labourers from China.

As the Australians fled, they took 557 of the Chinese labourers to the mainland to continue their indentured labour in the tungsten mines of the Northern Territory.

From the moment they left Nauru, the Chinese workers engaged in a protracted campaign of industrial action and resistance, including granting themselves a three-week unscheduled “stopover” in Port Augusta and winning a collective agreement. In the town, they went shopping and even put on concerts for the locals.

But when they reached their destination, the government immediately ditched the agreement and was determined to punish the workers for their impudence. The men were given unpolished rice and meals contaminated with sand. Their water was rationed and their shelter was open to the elements.

Australian authorities denied union officials entry to the site, in an attempt to prevent the labourers from reorganising. Their efforts were futile.

As the months went by, hardly an ounce of tungsten was produced, and it was later revealed that production on the site had fallen to just 17 percent of its prewar levels. The labourers staged an endless string of go-slows and strikes, and built themselves a strike headquarters unlike any you’ve ever seen.

Notwithstanding the hardship of the situation, it was a relative party town, complete with hammocks and huts. The authorities tried in vain to break the union through measures including locking the food stores in hopes of starving the miners back to work. But in response, the miners put their digging skills to use and built themselves a coolroom, dug into the side of a hill, and proceeded to fill it with the meat of animals they caught themselves.

After almost two years, the frustrated government stepped in and separated them like naughty school kids, sending them all over the country and even into the US army – at wages well above the standard service rate. Keen to cover up its difficulties with war production, the government had the site quietly demolished, though traces of strangely unidentified buildings still dot the area around Hatches Creek and Wauchope, south of Tennant Creek.

After the war, the victorious Australian imperial forces retook control of Nauru and continued to pillage every last skerrick of phosphate from the place.

But in 1948, 1500 indentured Chinese labourers staged a rebellion. Arming themselves with stones, axes and tools, all 1500 barricaded themselves in their quarters. On the barricades they hung handwritten signs warning that no white person would be allowed inside. They stoned company officials and cops who tried to break the barricade. 

Nobody ever seems to have bothered investigating or at least recording their aims or demands – other than acknowledging their refusal to return to China. Either way, the rebellious miners on Nauru were brutally crushed. Australian armed forces shot their way into the barracks and killed four of them. Just a few short years later there was no phosphate left anyway. What price the lives of those four anonymous Chinese rebels?

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