Call for acknowledgement of South Sea Islanders
A Solomon Islands' exhibition that puts the spotlight on colonial Australia's blackbirding past has sparked renewed calls for more acknowledgement of the country's South Sea Islanders.
A Solomon Islands' exhibition that puts the spotlight on colonial Australia's so-called blackbirding past has sparked renewed calls for more acknowledgement of the country's South Sea Islanders.
Blackbirding refers to a form of slavery or indentured labour between 1863 and 1904 when Australian colonists took tens of thousands of people, mostly from Melanesia, to work in the sugarcane fields of Queensland.
Amelia Langford reports.
The exhibition in Honiara is thought to be the first of its kind in its full acknowledgment of that era and its political and social ramifications right up until today.
The director of the Solomon Islands National Museum, Tony Heorake, says museums are storytellers and blackbirding is a story that needs to be told.
"Hopefully we can contribute to, in some way, to the development and education of society by trying to connect visitors, creating new bonds between different generations and also to try and exhibit a part of our recent history that has been poorly understood and for many not properly recognised."
Tony Heorake says the blackbirding era is not covered in any detail in the school curriculum in Solomon Islands.
Mr Heorake says the exhibition has sparked a range of emotion from people.
"Some are emotional about it because they seem to connect, some of them recognise some of their relatives, so you have a range of emotions from appreciation to sadness to somewhere in between."
Solomon Islands permanent secretary at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, John Wasi, says the exhibition marks the beginning of a new era.
"It is quite sad I must say. A lot of Solomon Islanders don't know much about the period of blackbirding and the history of the people who got taken over to Australia and other parts of the region."
John Wasi also says the exhibition can be an emotional experience for some.
"A lot of people who had relatives taken to Australia, as soon as they walked in, they were so emotional, some of them shed tears knowing they had relatives in Australia and family in Australia."
Professor of history at Queensland University, Clive Moore, was involved in putting the exhibition together with museum staff.
He says he was gobsmacked when he saw the finished product.
"Nobody else has done one like this. Vanuatu in their Cultural Centre has a display of historical photographs but you couldn't call it much more than that. This one is a fair dinkum museum exhibition which I believe is good enough to tour."
After 1901, the Labour Trade was outlawed and the Government began deporting Melanesian workers under its White Australia Policy.
Clive Moore says the Queensland Goverment used deceased workers' wages to fund the deportation.
He says it is a sordid part of Australia's history and only comparable to the way Aborigines were treated.
"Australia has a lot to answer for and I don't believe that either the Queensland Government or the Australian Government has ever been willing to face this issue. They faced up to Aboriginal issues, they have not faced up to Australian South Sea Islanders quite rightful claims to compensation."
Clive Moore says about 40,000 Australian-born South Sea Islanders live in Australia today and they are also owed an apology for the way their descendants were treated.
In Solomon Islands, a descendant of a man captured during the blackbirding era, Enoch Mani Ilisia, says he found the exhibit very touching and shed a few tears.
His relative John Kwailiu, nicknamed Fatanowna, was taken from the Rakwane tribe of the Fataleka region of Malaita to work on a sugar plantation in Queensland.
Enoch Mani Ilisia says the exhibition is of great value to his family and relatives.
"Especially for my own people, my own tribe, who have never been exposed to much of this information. Now we are so happy that we can go to the exhibition and see for ourselves - not everything but at least some of the information we didn't know about."
Enoch Mani Ilisia says the Australian Government owes Solomon Islanders an apology.
"We would really appreciate it if the Australian Government would apologise to the people of Solomon Islands especially to our people of Fataleka in Malaita."
The Commonwealth and Queensland Governments have formally recognised Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct ethnic group.
However neither Government has made a formal apology.
To embed this content on your own webpage, cut and paste the following: