Australia's 'Sugar Slaves' remembered

150 years ago, 807 voyages from 80 South Sea Islands carried large numbers of 'Kanakas' to work as 'Sugar Slavers' in Queensland.

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Cathy Van Extel ABC RN 14 August 2013

14th August 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the ship Don Juan in Queensland.

Shipowner Robert Towne was the first Australian to transport South Sea Islanders to Queensland for cheap farm labour. The 67 aboard the Don Juan were the first of an estimated 50,000 South Sea Islanders, or Kanakas as they were called. They arrived on 807 voyages from 80 islands to work primarily on Queensland sugar development farms between 1863 and 1904.

150 years ago, the arrival of that first boat will be re-enacted at Ormiston House, part of a former bay-side plantation that is the birthplace of sugar in Queensland.

The re-enactment will be shaped around the story of the father of 75-year-old Nasuven Enares, who was brought to Queensland in the late 1800s.

'He was snatched from the beaches of Vanuatu, an Island called Tanna, him and his two mates,' Enares told Breakfast.

'And they are the people [from whose history] we're getting some idea about what the islanders were like when they arrived here.'

In the period up to 1904, more than 62,000 labour contracts were drawn up for indentured workers, with 95 per cent of contracts given to males aged between their teens and mid thirties, primarily from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

Clive Moore, professor of Pacific and Australian History at the University of Queensland, says that while some indentured workers came willingly, others were blackbirded.

"Recognition is only a fairly recent event for us as well - just being recognised by the government that we are a very specific minority group in Australia. And there is a lot of hurt especially from those families who know their family story."

Jacinta Batalibasi
South Sea Islander Secretariat

'Historians would say that probably 10 to 15 per cent would fit into the category of being totally illegally brought to Australia,' Moore says. 'But there's undoubtedly coercion, kidnapping [and] violence involved - the percentage of it you can debate.'

'I would say that they were conditions that were rather like slavery. They didn't understand the agreements that they were entering into.'

Professor Moore says that some 30 per cent of those brought to Australia later died because they lacked immunity to many of the diseases common to the European community, while those that survived were treated as second-class citizens.

'You've got the general racism where they were treated as racially inferior,' he told RN Breakfast.

'Their pay rates were low so that they were really being ripped off. And Australia, when it introduced its White Australia Policy, wanted to deport every single one of them.'

Those that were allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds were denied the right to work, with trade unions making 'very certain that they didn't have a place in the sugar industry,' leaving them on the fringes of society in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales.

The first South Sea Islanders arrived in Brisbane's Moreton Bay 150 years ago. They were brought to Australia as cheap farm labour (slaves) and while we are told that some came willingly, most or all were 'blackbirded' (kidnapped). The first boat arrival was marked with a re-enactment.

Recently, new questions have been raised about the money owed to South Sea Islanders. It has been estimated that the Queensland and Commonwealth governments owe the families of blackbirded Pacific islanders close to $38 million, mostly from deceased estates.

Descendants believe that morally and politically the Queensland Government and the Commonwealth has to make some restitution for stolen wages of deceased islanders, and many of the 40,000 South Sea Islanders living in Australia are also pushing for a formal apology for their ancestors' treatment.

Jacinta Batalibasi, the Secretary of the Australian South Sea Islander Secretariat, and a 5th generation descendant of blackbirded South Sea Islanders, was disappointed that the history of her ancestors was one that few Australians knew about and that was ignored by the school curriculum. She says that the majority of South Sea Islander descendants consider their ancestors to have been sugar slaves and that an apology 'would be wonderful to help heal' the many disadvantages their people had faced.

'Recognition is only a fairly recent event for us as well - just being recognised by the government that we are a very specific minority group in Australia. And there is a lot of hurt especially from those families who know their family story.'

The Secretariat's Chair, Edwina Lingwoodock, said disconnection from this family story is still a real source of pain for Australian South Sea Islanders.

'Families who are looking and searching for families who have been blackbirded don't know anything about them,' she said.

'I personally...know I have family over in Vanuatu.'

'I know our family name is still there, I know that we have land there and I still haven't made a connection yet.'