'Australia's slave trade': The growing drive to uncover secret history of Australian South Sea Islanders

'Australia's slave trade': The growing drive to uncover secret history of Australian South Sea Islanders

'Australia's slave trade': The growing drive to uncover secret history of Australian South Sea Islanders

Updated 22 December 2017, 12:00 AEDT

Calls are growing for better recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders, many of whose ancestors were forcibly removed from their Pacific Island homes in a practice known as "blackbirding" to work in appalling conditions on cane fields and cotton farms.

They cleared the land with their hands and machetes, cut cane, and were paid a pittance for their labour.

Now their descendants want to shine a spotlight on the shameful practices that some have dubbed "Australia's slave trade".

Emelda Davis' grandfather Moses Topay Enares was 12 when he was taken from a beach on Tanna Island, and brought to Australia by ship to work on the cane fields.

He never saw his family again.

"They were coerced onto the ships and then thrown into the hold and they were given a stodge like flour, some sort of meal to eat, but people were sick and tired and people died," Ms Davis said.

"It's a shared history. It's our story. It's the Australian story.

"We are a significant race of people in this country and you can't deny that. It's around you everywhere you walk in this country — people of colour."

She says it is time Australia came to terms with the practice of blackbirding.

"Blackbirding was derived from the African slave trade and it was about the coercion, kidnapping and the slavery of people taken from the 80 islands of Vanuatu and the Solomons," Ms Davis said.

"A lot of people are just learning to understand that term and a lot of people have various arguments around the terms 'slavery', 'blackbirding' and 'indentured labour', because they assume that because people were being paid a pittance that was justified.

"And it's not. Slavery is slavery."

'They were buried where they died'

More than 62,000 Melanesians were brought to work as labourers on Australian farms between 1863 and 1904.

Many of the thousands brought to Queensland and Northern NSW to work on plantations were lured onto ships by deception or simply forced against their will.

Known at the time as 'Kanakas' — a Hawaiian word meaning 'man' — they endured horrendous living conditions, and many died.

Most of the labourers were men, but women and children were also taken.

Their graves are still being discovered today.

Matt Nagas is a respected Australian South Sea Islander elder in Bundaberg.

He is regularly called on to identify sites suspected of being another lost grave of an unnamed islander who was brought to Australia, and never went home.

He said South Sea Islanders weren't allowed to be buried in the town cemetery until the 1940s.

"It just confirms our stories … that they were buried where they died," Mr Nagas said.

"Remember they didn't have morgues to keep them for days. They buried them more or less the same day. Lots of people were buried along fence lines because they presumed they would never grow anything there. But then fence lines got moved.

"I've lost my great grandparents on my Mum's side — they died at Bingara, but we don't know where their graves are."

'To me this is like the Unknown Soldier'

Former federal member for Hinkler Brian Courtice is working with Mr Nagas to improve public knowledge of what South Sea Islanders went through to help establish Queensland's prosperity.

Mr Courtice's family has lived on "Sunnyside" just outside Bundaberg for almost a century — his grandfather bought the property in the 1920s.

He grew up hearing stories about the unmarked graves of islanders that lay within its boundaries.

Five years ago, Mr Nagas helped him find the gravesite, and checks confirmed 29 people were buried there. It's now been heritage-listed.

"It's not only a monument to the 29 people that died here a long way from home, but it's a monument to the 16,000 people that died and are lying all over Queensland in unmarked graves," Mr Courtice said.

"To me this is like the Unknown Soldier, whether it be the French or the Australian Unknown Soldier, it's the same thing, these people had families back in the Solomons or Vanuatu and they never saw them again.

"They had to sleep on dirt floors and were not used to cold weather in winter. That … along with the fact that they weren't fed properly, had an effect on their health.

"And that's why so many died because they simply were malnutritioned and overworked and had shocking living conditions.

"It's a story that needs to be told. It's something that I think would encourage tourists to drive all the way up to Cairns to see the regional cities that were built on the backs of South Sea Islander labour."

Descendants' community is thousands strong

The Australian South Sea Islander community estimates there are now more than 70,000 descendants of the original Kanakas living in Australia today.

And it's a story also being told by people like veteran journalist, filmmaker and human rights advocate Jeff McMullen.

He was one of the main speakers at a recent Australian South Sea Islander Recognition Symposium in Sydney.

"I came across these issues a very long time ago as a young ABC foreign correspondent," McMullen said.

"I was posted to Papua New Guinea and I was shocked when a coffee plantation owner said to me, 'Your country had white slave masters'.

"And he explained that in the late 1800s, people from three or four New Guinea provinces — the outreach parts — were actually taken to Australia and worked in the sugar plantations.

"And then over the years and decades that followed, I learned more about the global story of the connection between the sugar trade and slavery.

"That's what I think the country needs to understand. It's not to wallow in guilt, because the truth allows you to understand how we got to where we are now.

"Here, under the regulations that were written up into law in Queensland, the blackbirders managed to conduct something akin to slavery."

'For most Australians, they don't exist'

The Australian Maritime Museum is putting together an exhibition focusing on the role of Australian South Sea Islanders in the nation's shipping industry.

Curator Dr Stephen Gapps said they had an important role in Australia, and should be acknowledged for it.

"We haven't told these sort of stories before," he said.

"The story of blackbirding is part of the overall Australian maritime history."

University of Queensland historian Emeritus Professor Clive Moore has studied the history of Australian South Sea Islanders for more than 40 years.

His research has shown South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia on at least 700 separate ship voyages.

"Most Australians are puzzled that there are Australian South Sea Islanders, descendants of Kanakas who were — and the word is still used — blackbirded and brought to Australia," Professor Moore said.

"For most Australians they don't exist. They don't appear in history books or in the school curriculum in the way that they should.

"But largely they want Australians to know that they are here and to acknowledge their histories.

"A few of them have tried to go back and live in the islands but they're Australians — they don't fit — they look as if they fit but they don't.

"It's a bit like saying to someone of European descent, 'Well, why don't you go back to Ireland'. I'm not certain I would fit back into Scotland or Ireland these days."

Young Australian South Sea Islanders, like Zac Wone, are also now coming to grips with their past and who and what they are.

"I'm a descendant from Malaita in the Solomon Islands," Zac said.

"My great-great-grandfather was kidnapped at age 15 and brought to Mackay — one of the main sugar hubs of Queensland.

"My father didn't really know much about the story himself so I've actually been helping him and my brothers and sisters as well to recover that hidden history in our family."