‘No slavery in Australia’? These Pacific islanders tell a different story
By Isabella Kwai
Marion Healy’s great-grandfather Kwailu was just a boy when “recruiters” took him aboard a ship on a beach in the Solomon Islands. The destination was Australia, where, for meager wages, he would do backbreaking labor planting and cutting sugar cane for white farmers.
Thousands of South Pacific islanders like Kwailu were lured to Australian plantations in the 19th century, some through deception, others through force, and all through a colonialism that looted less-advantaged societies. So when Healy recently heard Prime Minister Scott Morrison say that there had been “no slavery in Australia,” she wondered whether her people’s history, already little known, could be lost entirely.
“How dare you say that?” she said of the prime minister. “I’m a bit frightened that we might slip out of their memory.”
The Black Lives Matter movement, as it has swept the globe, has led Australia to look more deeply at entrenched discrimination against its Indigenous peoples and other minorities. Morrison’s remark, for which he later apologized, focused particular attention on outwardly racist policies in Australia’s past, a legacy many tend to overlook in a country that proclaims itself proudly multicultural.
Healy and others descended from South Pacific laborers are often confused with Indigenous Australians, whose ancestors were the continent’s first inhabitants and have faced similar discrimination. Although South Pacific laborers were not the only ones engaged in such work, the prime minister’s comment has created an opportunity for their descendants to cement a distinct identity.
“It’s a chance to have our story told,” Healy said. “We need to take that opportunity.”
That story begins with the need for inexpensive labor in Britain’s colonies, which pushed Australia as close to abject bondage as was allowed after the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833.
Chattel slavery, as practiced in America and elsewhere, meant that enslaved people were treated as the property of their masters to be bought, sold and exploited. The children of the enslaved were automatically born into slavery.
But in Australia, the British found cheap workers in the indentured labor of Indigenous Australians, Chinese, Indians, white convicts and South Pacific islanders.
Some historians say that the more than 50,000 South Pacific islanders who worked largely on the sugar plantations of northeastern Australia from 1863 to 1904 were not technically enslaved because they were paid for their toil, albeit typically much less than white workers. Some laborers, including Kwailu, who returned to their home islands in the South Pacific ended up coming back to Australia.
“But there was kidnapping. Nobody would argue against that,” said Clive Moore, an emeritus professor at the University of Queensland who has extensively studied the history of the laborers, known in Australia as South Sea Islanders.
Large numbers of the cane workers were “blackbirded”: lured from their island homes, some with the promise of items like axes and knives — valuable goods in a less industrialized society. Many of the South Sea Islanders did not survive their years of labor on the plantations.
Their toil helped make the colony, and later the state, of Queensland prosperous. But instead of recognizing the South Sea Islanders for their contributions, Australia sought to erase them from the record.
One of the country’s first acts as a new nation in 1901 was to enact frameworks intended to keep the country ethnically European, the so-called White Australia policy. The country deported a majority of the cane workers and banned their reentry. A small number received exemptions, while others hid from immigration agents with the help of sympathetic farmers.
The country’s largest population of South Sea Islanders, who number an estimated 20,000, live in the Mackay region of coastal Queensland. It is a place speckled with reminders of the legacy of blackbirding, but also a painful awareness — reinforced by the prime minister’s slavery comment — that, without a fight, memories will fade.
A traditional hut near the city’s lush gardens has become a cherished meeting place. A mural showing Mackay (pronounced muh-KAI) through the years depicts the South Sea Islanders’ journey by ship and their symbolic transformation into blackbirds. A plaque on the banks of the Pioneer River marks where South Sea Islanders were taken “for bidding and haulage to various sugar plantations.”
And in Mackay’s heritage-site cemetery, a field of fresh headstones bearing the silhouette of a kneeling man with a blackbird at his side stands separated from the rest. Before a 2016 project to identify them, the graves of about 160 workers who died while cutting cane were largely unmarked.
“I used to ride across here for a shortcut and not realizing I was riding over my own ancestors,” said Starrett Vea Vea, the chairman of the Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association.
He led a team that looked through cemetery records to help identify the graves. “These were the ones that never went back to the islands,” he said.
Vea Vea said he dreamed of creating a heritage trail that would lead people through the area’s significant sites, from the graves to the cane fields.
Another resident, Raechel Ivey, who works for the regional government, is also hoping to pursue education efforts. As part of this, she is hosting a program where elders teach students how to weave traditional fishing nets.
Ivey grew up with her great-grandmother, who was brought to Australia at the age of 8 and became a maid for a white family. She was kept and fed but not paid more than that. “She used to hold up the atlas and tell me that she was from New Hebrides,” now known as Vanuatu, Ivey said.
Many in Mackay know little about this history, she said, “which is why we’re the forgotten people.” She believes that passing on the culture to all Mackay residents, not just South Sea Islanders, is crucial.
The city’s population of about 80,000 has grown increasingly diverse, with nearby mines underpinning the arrival of new workers, some of whom are unaware of the area’s history. The mayor, Greg Williamson, said that Mackay should be forthright about how its prosperity had come at the suffering of South Sea Islanders.
“There’s absolutely no sense in denying any of that happened,” said Williamson, an independent who, along with South Sea Islanders, invited Morrison to visit Mackay for a history lesson.