Australian slavery buried in Queensland mass grave

Marty Silk AAP Herald Sun December 07, 2012

Hidden under an old cane plantation outside the Queensland sugar city of Bundaberg lies an awful secret.

Beyond the weeping fig trees the bodies of 29 South Sea Islanders are buried in an unmarked grave.

Local Islander leader Matthew Nagas says they could be his ancestors.

And he believes they were probably worked to death "like pieces of machinery".

"If they weren't working anymore, you just pushed them aside and covered them with dirt," Mr Nagas told AAP.

"They were buried in that place with no name, and forgotten.

"It cuts deep."

Matthew Negas

Thousands of Pacific islanders were shipped in to toil in the state's cane fields and fruit plantations between 1863 and 1904.

Officially called indentured labourers, their descendants claim many were kidnapped by European slave traders and forced into a life of bondage.

"Indentured labour is a term people use to soften the reality of what happened," Mr Nagas said.

"Australia had an era of slavery."

Bundaberg Regional Council confirmed the existence of human remains at the site on Thursday, and it will be considered for state heritage listing next year.

Brian Courtice, who owns the farm now, has been collecting evidence of slavery for years and believes there could be many more.

"To my knowledge, this is the first confirmed mass grave on an old sugar plantation," he told the Courier-Mail newspaper.

Next year Australian South Sea Islanders will mark 150 years since their ancestors were first brought to Queensland, and Mr Nagas thinks it's important that people remember that dark chapter of history.

"So many people are still searching for their families," he said.

"They poured their blood, sweat and tears into those fields.

"We must remember them."

Slavery link in mass grave uncovered at old sugar cane plantation outside Bundaberg

Michael Madigan Courier-Mail December 07, 2012 12:00AM

A mass grave uncovered outside Bundaberg earlier this week is an historically significant find that shines further light on a dark period of alleged slavery in 19th century Queensland.

Brian Courtice and grandson Thomas sit with Kel Nagas and Selwyn and Alan Johnson under Sunnyside weeping figs.
(Picture: Paul Beutel Source: The Courier-Mail)

Bundaberg Regional Council has confirmed ground radar technology identified 29 unmarked graves of South Sea Islanders on an old sugar cane plantation just east of Bundaberg yesterday morning.

The graves are in rows of 13, 10 and six, with one child buried among 28 adults.

Farmer and former federal Labor politician Brian Courtice - who last week appeared in The Courier Mail revealing plans to heritage-list his farm where scores of graves are believed to exist - said the confirmation was the first of its kind to occur in Queensland.

Council cemetery supervisor Gail Read, who found the graves, said there was no doubt they were those of South Sea Islander sugar plantation workers.
White settlers in the 19th century were not buried in unmarked graves, except in rare cases where suicide was involved, she said.

Ms Read said she knew there were many similar graves scattered throughout the district, but some elderly members of cane farming families were still reluctant to admit the graves existed on their properties.

While debate continues about whether South Sea Islanders were enslaved to work in sugarcane plantations, Mr Courtice says the graves are a crucial piece of evidence consistent with slavery.

"These people were buried without ceremony - they were often treated worse than livestock," he said. "They can't speak for themselves but I can speak for them - there will be a monument built to honour them."

Three representatives from the South Sea Islander community were at the Courtice farm yesterday afternoon, marking off the area where the graves were found with tape.

Mr Courtice has long argued there are similar grave sites across the state in sugar growing areas including Mackay and the Burdekin.

"But, to my knowledge, this is the first confirmed mass grave on an old sugar plantation," he said.

Mr Courtice has collected a large brief of evidence on South Sea Islander slavery, including verbal testimony taken during the 1990s from an elderly Bundaberg resident whose relatives had direct experience with the slave trade.

He said there was evidence to suggest Islanders working in the cane fields were often buried "where they fell", while others were executed for minor crimes.

Farm graves central to sugar slave story

Kristin Shorten Courier-Mail November 30, 2012

Sugar slaves brought to Queensland to cut cane more than a century ago might finally rest in peace on a farm outside Bundaberg.

'Blackbirding': South Sea Islanders were shipped to Queensland as cheap labour from 1863 to 1904.

The state's sugar industry was built on the backs of 62,000 South Sea Islanders shipped in as cheap labour from 1863 to 1904.

Their contribution has largely been forgotten and many lie in unmarked graves along Queensland's east coast because they were not allowed to be buried in town cemeteries until the 1940s.

One farmer is fighting to protect the graves of 50 "Kanakas", as they became known, who were buried on his 8ha Windermere farm, between Bundaberg and Bargara.

Brian Courtice, the owner of one of the first sugar plantations in Bundaberg, has nominated his property, Sunnyside, for state heritage listing to spare it from future development.

The ex-federal Labor member for Hinkler says the story of the former sugar plantation is far from sweet, but "needs to be told".

"These people were slaves and they were called 'indentured labour' to get around the anti-slave laws of Great Britain," he said.

"Many of them died here from poor nutrition and harsh treatment. We see most of our history either forgotten or knocked down and I want to preserve this. It would be dreadful if in 100 years time houses were put on it."

Mr Courtice, who now grows potatoes, said the records of the South Sea Islanders, some of whom were kidnapped or "black birded" by Europeans, had been destroyed by land holders.

"These were young men who were great specimens of mankind and who were worked to death or died through disease or illness," he said. "There are 30 South Sea Islanders buried near our house and there's 20 buried at the back of our property on the fence line.

"I think it's important they be remembered and their resting place be protected."

Bundaberg and District South Sea Islanders Action Group president Matthew Nagas said his aunt had worked at Sunnyside and his grandmother had lived across the road before perishing in a fire at a local sugar mill.

"Places like this all have burial plots on their farms and have direct links to some of our families who live here now," he said.

The 59-year-old former footballer and coach said South Sea Islanders, who considered their ancestors "sugar slaves", were robbed of their history.

"Records from plantations have been destroyed and put into the fire furnaces," he said.

"We've lost all that. It's all buried out there. It all died with everybody."

Mr Nagas said South Sea Islanders liked to visit Sunnyside and sit under the historic weeping fig trees from which at least one of their ancestors was hung for killing a worker.

Tourists, missionaries and dignitaries also travel to Australia to visit the farm to explore its painful past.

Mr Nagas's brother, Kelvin, said the property gave his 1000-strong community in Bundaberg a sense of identity.

Mr Courtice's application to the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection is expected to be finalised within weeks.