Recently in August 2019, we started “Australian South Sea Islander History Month” (#ASSIhistorymonth) sharing posts on our ASSI Stories Facebook page including stories, archival images, articles and historical documents that uncover a dark part of Australian history – the era of blackbirding.
In August 25 years ago, the Australian government officially recognised Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group. This was more than a century after Robert Towns and his ship, the Don Juan, brought 67 Vanuatuans to work on his properties in Queensland in 1863. What followed was the displacement of approximately 60 000 Pacific Islanders who were brought to Australia, often by coercion, to work on cotton and cane fields.
We give recognition to the approximately 60000 Pacific Islanders who from 1863 over a period of almost 40 years, were blackbirded to Australia from more than 80 Pacific Islands including Vanuatu (New Hebrides), Solomon Islands, PNG, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, Kiribati.
We acknowledge their suffering; loss of culture and identity; loss of lives; disconnection to country; the families they left behind; and the subsequent marginalisation of community here in Australia.
We acknowledge the community that emerged in the face of adversity – Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI) who are today, more than 30000 strong.
We acknowledge that over 150 years ago many were kidnapped, tricked or died in the process of ‘recruitment’ where ship owners were paid per head for each Islander. In the early years, laws did not to protect Islanders from the most extreme kinds of exploitation by their employers. Many were taken, and paid nothing.
We acknowledge that the men and women who came here were as young as twelve years old.
We recognise that even under an ‘indentured labour system’ where Islanders were supposed to have signed three year contracts, language barriers and racial hierarchy meant that blackbirding was a system of imbalance, injustice and bias towards the oppressor. Even under the ‘indentured labour system’ and attempts at government regulation, Islanders continued to be exploited.
We recognise that conditions on the farms were often slave-like with insufficient access to food, water and substandard living conditions.
We acknowledge that when wages were paid to the Islanders, it was one quarter the wage of the white worker. The rights of Islanders were inferior to all other workers.
We acknowledge the back-breaking work of clearing land, cutting cane, carting shipments, hoeing and building in the scorching tropical heat under the eye of an overseer all year round. This blood, sweat and tears built the backbone of today’s Australian sugar industry.
We acknowledge the extremely high death rates of Islanders (almost one third) due to disease, lack of sufficient health care and poor living conditions. Oral history tells us that some died of ‘a broken heart’. Many who died were buried in unmarked graves on the plantations where they worked. The death rate of Islanders is the highest of any immigrant group who has come to Australia.
We recognise that those who died as a result of being blackbirded were never paid their rightful wages – this money was absorbed by the Commonwealth and today, equates to tens of millions of dollars. Some community members are calling for financial compensation while some Pacific Island nations are calling for remuneration and an apology.
We acknowledge: “Kanaka”. In the past, often used in a derogatory manner towards Islanders, the news media at the time perpetuated a negative stereotype of the “Kanaka Menace”. Today though, many have reclaimed the word to a place of empowerment and pride – it’s origin is the Hawaiian word for ‘man’.
We acknowledge that under a blatantly racist “White Australia Policy” thousands of Islanders were deported through the Pacific Islanders Labourers Act in 1901. Oral history tells us that around this time, some Islanders where dumped at sea. Others were taken to the wrong Island where they were stranded or sometimes killed. Some Islanders were dumped in the Torres Straight Islands. Others did made it home.
We recognise those Islanders who around 1901 had built a life in Australia and stayed through petitioning to the King. We also recognise those who hid from deportation in an effort to stay with their families here in Australia. Both groups amounted to approximately 2000 Islanders and they continued to suffer discrimination by law. Islanders could not become citizens or purchase liquor; they were forced out of sugar industry jobs by the Sugar Bounty Act 1903 and Qld Sugar Cultivation Act 1913 which favoured white workers; and were subjected to the same discriminatory and punitive laws as those applied to Indigenous Queenslanders.
We acknowledge the community that emerged in the face of marginalisation – Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI) who prevailed despite this history.
We acknowledge Australian South Sea Islanders who fought for Indigenous rights and ASSI rights, and those who lobbied for Commonwealth Government acknowledgement of Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural minority group in Australia in 1994 and for Queensland Government recognition in 2000.
We recognise the work of past and present ASSI individuals and organisations who continue to fight for and support ASSI, Pacific Islander and Indigenous communities.
We acknowledge the Indigenous lands where ASSI ancestors toiled, the solidarity with and the deep connection with First Australians that the Australian South Sea Islander population has through family and culture.
We acknowledge the next generation who are forging ahead, representing, and keeping their identities strong.
We recognise those searching for family roots, those who know little but want to know more, those who have made connections and those who haven’t.
We give respect to elders who carried the burden of this history, passed down the stories and taught us to persist.
We give recognition to the our ancestors.
Oral histories and personal family research – www.amiebatalibasi.com/blackbird