14 Aug 2013

South Sea Islanders mark 150 years since first arrival in Queensland

4:57 pm on 14 August 2013

Australia's South Sea Islanders' communities are this month marking the arrival in Queensland of the first ship carrying indentured labourers from the Pacific Islands - mostly from Solomon Islands and Vanuatu - to work in the sugar cane fields.

Many had been kidnapped in a process that came to be known as 'blackbirding'.

About 60,000 were taken to Australia over the 40-odd years of the practice, and when the Australia began enforcing its White Australia policy most were shipped back to their home islands, but about 10,000 remained and eventually came to be recognised as South Sea Islanders.

The chairperson of the Brisbane-based Australian South Sea Islander Secretariat, Edwina Lingwoodock, told Don Wiseman the month of events aims to raise awareness about what happened a hundred plus years ago.

EDWINA LINGWOODOCK: Because we want to remember the people who were brought over here. And it wasn't just men, either. It was men, women and children. But it doesn't necessarily mean that they came over as families, either. There were little children. We've seen evidence of the mums and children working in the sugar-cane fields of Bundaberg. And Bundaberg had the biggest number of people brought over. There's quite a lot of evidence of massacres or deaths that have occurred in Bundaberg, or they have died of diseases. They just couldn't handle... Because they weren't fed properly, either. They were brought over to work, but weren't looked after by the ones who had brought them over.

DON WISEMAN: So it began 150 years ago, but it went on for years, didn't it? When did it stop?

EDWINA LINGWOODOCK: Yes. Well, it wasn't until about 1901 that you could actually see where it had to stop. Some of the missionaries intervened and said 'It just can't be going on. It has to stop'.

DON WISEMAN: But the commemorations will involve what?

EDWINA LINGWOODOCK: There's going to be re-enactments of when the first ship came in to the Moreton Bay area. We had church services. There's going to be a march that we're having on Saturday 17 August, and we're going to be putting our families names up there and saying 'We will remember them'. We've also had festivals, showing different DVDs to the public, really just out of cultural awareness. My cousin who's the secretary of the Secretariat, she's married to a Solomon Islander and they go into the schools to do workshops. And out of 200 high schools students who were asked, do they know anything of the history, only 1 knew a little bit about the history. And that's a real shame, because there is a connection with the indigenous. We've all been lumped in with the indigenous people of Australia, and not recognised until the Year 2000 in Queensland that we were a distinct culture and not a part of the Torres Strait Islanders. People get that mixed up. And I don't mean that in a nasty way, that's just saying people don't know the difference between a Torres Strait Islander who is from the Torres Strait Islands and the Australian South Sea Islanders who are from Vanuatu, Solomons and the other Pacific islands.

DON WISEMAN: In terms of raising awareness, we're a little way into August now, so have you...?

EDWINA LINGWOODOCK: In our church, we're an Australian Christian Ministry church. Our church has about 4,000 in it. Not even some of our pastors knew the history. So it wasn't until we held a service there that they were aware. Some of our pastors knew because of the ones who had ministered up and down the coast of Queensland, but I'd say the majority don't know the history. So that was more or less as a cultural awareness activity, as well. And then the next one we had was the screening of DVDs about Australian South Sea Islanders. And then we're also doing Islanders telling their stories, Australian South Sea Islanders telling their stories at the Brisbane City Square library on Thursday. And some other organisations are having the raising of the flag.

DON WISEMAN: What is the flag for the South Sea Islanders?

EDWINA LINGWOODOCK: Our flag, the Australian South Sea Islander flag... I just wanted to say that I rang up our politicians, the ones who are... They've got the aboriginal and Toreros Strait Islander flags, but I had to go to ring up New South Wales to get our Australian South Sea Islander flag, 'cause there's nowhere in Queenstland that you can buy it. I found that disappointing. It's black, blue, green and yellow. The green is describing the cane fields, the land, and then the black is the people and then the blue is the sea. And we've also got the Southern Cross on it so that, not forgetting that we're the Australian South Sea Islanders.

DON WISEMAN: Now there are tens of thousands of people brought over. How big is the community now?

EDWINA LINGWOODOCK: I'm not sure. Someone else asked me that, too. I think there's about 40,000.

DON WISEMAN: You would have thought it would be a lot bigger. I know a few have gone home, haven't they?


DON WISEMAN: Is it close-knit?

EDWINA LINGWOODOCK: We are, yes. We are close-knit, all our families are close-knit. But there can be conflicts, as in any culture there can be conflicts, but when there's a time when we have to come together and celebrate we do that.

DON WISEMAN: I hope you do have a good rest of the month.

EDWINA LINGWOODOCK: We are going to. We're quite excited, you know? Actually, having a march in the city of Brisbane on Saturday. So that'll be something we're really looking forward to. And I think at the moment, hopefully there'll become more awareness of the Australian South Sea Islander people. And we do still have family over in the islands we need to connect with.

DON WISEMAN: There's a greater push at the moment, is there, for people to want to reconnect with those families that they haven't had links with in nearly give or six generations?

EDWINA LINGWOODOCK: That's right. I'd say in the last five to eight years there's been a lot of reconnection with family. It's a healing time, it's an emotional time, and people are actually finding out who they are, who their families are and can rest in their identity as a South Sea Islander.