Sugar cane farmer seeks recognition for buried slaves

Sugar cane farmer seeks recognition for buried slaves

Sugar cane farmer seeks recognition for buried slaves

Updated 7 December 2012, 12:14 AEST

A northern Australian sugar cane farmer says he has proof that South Sea islander slaves are buried on his property.

Results from an underground radar scan have given a northern Australian sugar cane farmer evidence he says proves that slaves are buried on his property.

Brian Courtice says he has been fighting to have his property heritage listed for years because of the graves.

He says Queensland's sugar industry was built on slavery - or blackbirding, as it was known.

Now he is hoping the Heritage Council will give the victims of the trade, south sea islanders stolen from their homes, the respect and final resting place they deserve.

Mr Courtice says that 29 slaves are buried on his cane property Sunnyside near the sugar town of Bundaberg.

"We're all emotional because we've known they were there but now we know conclusively not only that they're there but where they are, exactly where they are.

"There's a row of 13 in one row, 10 in another row and six in another, and one grave is of a child," he said.

"We don't know what islands they came from because the early plantation owners and blackbirders destroyed all the evidence because they knew what they were doing was wrong."

From 1879 to 1906 around 60,000 South Sea islanders were brought to the region by blackbirders and set to work establishing sugar plantations.

"It's a part of our history that's been covered up and it shouldn't be. It would be about 25 years later before the sugar industry would have started without South Sea Island labour.

"It was built on the very foundations of the sweat and of the toil of South Sea islanders." Mr Courtice said

Mr Coutice knew the graves were on his property but couldn't provide proof to the Heritage Council when he applied to have his entire property heritage listed.

Local help

Earlier this year, he struck on the idea of asking the local cemetery for help.

They used an underground radar scan to find the graves.

"I think that it's important for Bundaberg, it's important nationally and it's important especially for the South Sea Islander community."

Matt Nagas is a third generation South Sea islander whose ancestors were brought in to work in Queensland's plantations.

Of the seven recorded graves on Sunnyside, at least one of the people buried there is a family member.

"It's a very emotional thing. We wanted people to understand that our history is a history that didn't just, you know, happen, it was forced upon us.

"It brings back memories of a lot of suffering and... I always say there's been a lot of pain for our gain for the lifestyle we live today and those things are the reminder of, you know, our past, of what our people done for our prosperity today." said Mr Nagas

Emotional discovery

He said the find will give his people recognition and opens the way to finding other lost graves in the region.

"Sometimes from the doubters can make you doubt yourself, but we were always steadfast that we know those people are there.

"They actually did bury them on the properties, they buried them on fence lines. You know, there is hundreds of properties," said Mr Nagas.

He is hoping other landholders will do what Brian Coutrice has done.

"If there's any areas that are not being farmed and they're still left aside, we'd like those areas to be left like that and be able to, you know, even come and a bit of upkeep on those areas, just to show some respect for those people who passed away there."

The Queensland Heritage Council is considering the application to heritage list the entire property.