Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Peter Santo (1861–1966)

by Clive R. Moore

This article was published:

Peter Santo (c.1861-1966), indentured labourer, was born about 1861 on Espiritu Santo, the largest island in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), son of Herbert Santo and his wife Orrie. Peter arrived in Queensland as an indentured labourer in 1888. He was one of 2800 people, mostly males, who left Espiritu Santo for Queensland between 1863 and 1904. Although the period from 1863 to the early 1880s was marred by kidnapping and other illegal practices, the Melanesian labour trade was usually well regulated during its later years. Like many of the 22,000 Melanesians who came to Queensland between 1888 and 1904, Santo was employed in the sugar industry. He worked in many areas along the coast, showing mobility typical of the long-staying Islanders, and remained single until relatively late in life. Like most of his compatriots who remained in Australia, he was marginalized to the fringes of White society and forced into a subsistence way of life. His main language was Kanaka Pidgin English and he became a Christian.

Serving his early indenture agreements on sugar-plantations in the vicinity of Bundaberg, Santo worked as a farm labourer and millhand. He was engaged first by A. H. and E. Young at Fairymead, then, in turn, by Jack Walker at Isis, John Ruddy at Childers and Angus Gibson at Bingera. By the late 1890s he was employed at Yeppoon, near Rockhampton, and after 1900 at Seaforth plantation, Ayr. In 1906 an amendment to the Pacific Island Labourers Act (1901) allowed any Islander who had arrived before 31 December 1886 to remain in Australia. Santo continued to move north, working at Goondi mill, Innisfail, and (from 1910) at Macknade mill, Ingham, where he also cut cane in the district.

At the Methodist parsonage, East Ingham, on 17 January 1923 Santo married Amy Meredith (née Wathaken), a 29-year-old widow with three daughters. She had been born at Townsville, of mixed Aboriginal and Islander descent. The couple were to have two sons and a daughter. About 1930 the family moved to Ayr and settled at Plantation Creek, joining other New Hebrideans, among them Thomas Lammon. Santo's son Richard died in 1932 and his daughter Rosie in 1943. A generous and independent man, he became a familiar figure in the area, hawking his bananas from kerosene tins suspended from a pole across his shoulders. He died on 27 March 1966 in Ayr hospital and was buried in the local cemetery with the forms of the Assembly of God; his wife and their son Peter survived him, as did his three stepdaughters. Thought to be about 105 years old, Santo was one of the last Melanesian labourers in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Dutton, Queensland Canefields English of the Late Nineteenth Century (Canb, 1980)
  • Advocate (Ayr, Queensland), 1 Apr 1966.

Citation details

Clive R. Moore, 'Santo, Peter (1861–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 30 November 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]


Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu


27 March, 1966 (aged ~ 105)
Ayr, Queensland, Australia

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