Forgotten Melanesians: The South-Sea Islanders of Queenslands’ Plantations
Not many people know that the sweet sugar industry in Australia was founded on the sweat of men and women enticed or kidnapped from the islands of Melanesia.
These people were generally referred to as Kanakas and of the 62,000 Islanders recruited, the majority were repatriated by the Australian Government in the period between 1906-08 under the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 – a piece of legislation related to the White Australia Policy. Those exempted from repatriation, along with a number of others who escaped deportation, remained in Australia to form the basis of what is today Australia’s largest non-indigenous black ethnic group.
The question of how many Islanders were “blackbirded” is unknown and remains controversial. The extent to which Islanders were recruited legally, persuaded, deceived, coerced or forced to leave their homes and travel to Queensland is difficult to evaluate and also controversial. Official documents and accounts from the period often conflict with the oral tradition passed down to the descendants of workers. Stories of blatantly violent kidnapping tend to relate to the first ten or so years of the trade.
Recently, the Solomon Star published an excellent article on South-Sea Islanders and it is definately worth a read:
Sitting besides the Governor General of Solomon Islands Sir Nathaniel Waena, on a guided tour around the Central Queensland City of Rockhamton, Joe Leo was resolute. Mr Leo, who called himself Joe Malayta (Malaita) to identify his roots, knew his history well.
He recalled that between 1863 and 1904 about 60,000 Melanesians were transported to the colony of Queensland , where they toiled to create the sugar plantations. Some of these islanders moved there willingly on the promise of income, whilst others were kidnapped from their island homes.
Now married to Monica, of Vanuatu ancestry, the couple said the ancestors of the South Sea Islands community in Queensland were ‘recruited’ from various islands including the Solomon Islands , Vanuatu , and the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia and to a lesser extent, Papua New Guinea. This form of human trafficking is historically known as ‘black birding’.
There are possibly up to 20,000 Melanesians, recognised as South Sea Islanders currently in Australia , who lived mostly in the North and Central Queensland region. They were brought to Queensland , mostly to work in the sugar industry, on three-year contracts of indenture.
According to Leo, this labour trade in Melanesians (or Kanakas as they are often termed) involved at least around 62,000 contracts being entered into over a 41year period. Once underway, some 8,000 indentured Melanesians on average were in Queensland at any one time, whether as first indentured, reengaged, or as time-expired workers.
For the most part they were regarded as unwelcomed guests – a necessary but ultimately dispensable evil – and the new century had barely commenced before they fell tainted of the White Australia Policy. With the enactment of the Pacific Islanders Labourers Act of 1901 by the newly created Commonwealth of Australia, recruiting was to cease in 1904 and the majority of Kanakas were compulsorily deported between 1906 and 1908.
Since then the descendants of those who legally, or illegally, remained have lived on the fringes of White Australia as a discriminated minority, a forgotten people. But the evil winds of discrimination has changed at the turn of the 21st century as Australian leaders begun to realise how terrible it was to treat another human being as a slave.
The Melanesian community was recognised by the Federal Government as a unique minority group in 1994 following a report on the community undertaken by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. On 7th September 2000, Queensland State Premier Peter Beattie pushed further and presented in the Queensland Legislative Assembly a formal Recognition Statement of the Australian South Sea Islander community.
The Recognition Statement recognises Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group acknowledging past injustices as well as significant contributions to the social, cultural and economic development of Queensland. In that document, the Queensland Government acknowledged that the South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia as a source of cheap labour for Queensland ’s primary industries.
It acknowledged that “many people were tricked into coming; others were kidnapped or “blackbirded”. Men, women and children were forced to work long hours at exhausting manual work for low or no wages while living in very poor conditions. Many were treated like “slaves”.
Poor working and living conditions contributed to the death of many islanders in those years. The policy further acknowledged that “in the early 1880s, the death rate among South Sea Islanders was five times higher than the comparable European population”. The Queensland Government then, immediately instructed its departments and other agencies to act on this commitment through their policies, programmes and services.
Leo and Matt Nagas, Melanesians of Vanuatu ancestry agreed that the Recognition by the Federal and State Governments is a huge break through for their status as Australian citizens of Melanesian origin. “The recognition has slowly but surely shifted the injustices that we’ve been through over the last 100 years and we trust that our children and grand children will equally excel from here,” the gentlemen said.
Today, individual Australian South Sea Islanders have excelled in politics, government, religion, sports, art, business, health and education. They have also served the nation as members of the defence force in times of peace and war.
The recognition continues to trickle down in the hearts of many Australians as hundreds of Melanesians gathered in Bundaberg last week to participate in a weeklong International Prayer and Cultural Festival. Calling themselves “Spiritual Slaves”, around 200 young men and women from SSEC in Solomon Islands re-enacted the Christianisation of Melanesians and the arrival of the gospel in Solomon Islands.
Among many who witnessed the drama is Federal MP Paul Neville who acknowledged the unique spirituality of Melanesians which started in the cane fields of Queensland. Australian South Sea Islanders’ unique spirituality, identity and cultural heritage enrich Queensland ’s culturally diverse society. For more than a century their culture, history and contribution to Queensland have been ignored and denied.
Sharing similar sentiments, Rockhamton City Mayor, Brad Carter said his Regional Council is committed to ensure that present and future generations of South Sea Islanders have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to the economic, social, political and cultural life of the State. “I will ensure that Queensland becomes one of the most accommodating places in the world for people of different backgrounds and cultures including South Sea Islanders”.
Showing its obligation to recognise South Sea Islanders, the Queensland Government in 2001 has made a commitment to address areas of need identified by the community. The Australian South Sea Islander Community Foundation is a partnership between the Queensland government and the corporate sector to create a permanent legacy to provide university scholarships for South Sea Islanders tertiary students. Scholarships are awarded annually to the value of $5000 per year for full-time and $2500 for part-time students.
There are no more Melanesians in cane fields as many have moved up the socio-economic strata engaging in reasonably paid jobs and equal opportunities just like any other Australian citizen. “Gone are the days when we were treated like plants and animals. I just want to thank God for that change,” said Mr Nagas.