BIANCA HENNESSY discovers Australia’s dark history of ‘blackbirding’, the recruitment of South Sea Islander workers by questionable means. 

Emelda Davis’ email signature ends with a short statement in small purple font: “never underestimate the power of gratitude“. A perfectly sensible maxim, one that evokes a lucky life lived graciously.

Emelda’s belief in gratitude, however, stands in potent contrast just beneath another snippet also found the end of her emails. It outlines a shameful and tragic history: an indentured labour trade “akin to slavery”. 55 000 people taken from their homes. Diseases and death. Stolen wages. Mass deportation spurned by racist government policies.

The setting for this history? Australia.

Between 1863 and 1904, around 55 000 people were taken to Queensland to work under indentured labour contracts in sugar cane plantations. These workers were “recruited” under a method known as ‘blackbirding’: tricked, kidnapped or recruited under exploitative conditions from the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The definition of blackbirding remains controversial, but the Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) community identifies with a shared history of being the descendants of slaves. Some were coerced with violence, some were lured with cheap objects, and others enlisted with the promise of fair payment – which for many, never eventuated. Clive Moore of the University of Queensland talks of “cultural kidnapping”; even when Islanders enlisted voluntarily, they were bound by contracts they could not understand and most were not properly renumerated for their work.

The injustices suffered by Islander labourers cast a dark shadow on Australian history. Some labourers were violently abused during the recruitment process or by their employers in Australia, and many died from diseases they had no immunity to. The Queensland government misappropriated the wages of deceased South Sea Islander labourers, withholding money from workers’ families once they had died – essentially gaining around $30 million in today’s value from the deaths of indentured labourers. 7500 Islanders were forcibly deported after 1901, when the Pacific Island Labourers Act was implemented as part of the White Australia Policy.

This is an enduring history: there are currently between 40 000 and 50 000 Australian South Sea Islander descendants of the blackbirding era. The Queensland towns Mackay and Townsville – where much of this population now live – are named after blackbirders.

Whilst this is a story of a tragic and shameful past, it is also the story of a hopeful and brave future.

Emelda is the President of Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson (ASSI-PJ). It’s an organisation that represents and advocates for descendants of indentured labourers today. ASSI-PJ seeks to promote ASSI culture, raise awareness about their history and advocate for the group politically, socially and economically.

A key initiative of ASSI-PJ is Wantok, a series of conferences run in towns that have a large population of ASSI people – like Tweed Heads, Mackay and Bundaberg. Wantok aims to facilitate healing and the development of family connections among ASSI people.

The following is a video of the 2012 Wantok conference in Bundaberg:

In this video, conference attendee Michael Douglas speaks eloquently about Wantok’s capacity to connect ASSI people with their family’s history:

“I met a group of ladies and chiefs who came from the island where my grandfather comes. And when I met them, I made a connection in my heart and my spirit. And deep down in my soul I wept because I was touching my flesh, my bones, my blood, of my grandfather. And I am honoured to be here with my people. I am honoured to be with what belongs to me.”

Michael’s last few words resonate with Emelda’s vision of ASSI-PJ. She tells me about the power of self-representation, of sharing one’s own stories. The ASSI-PJ website is a platform to collate the self-told stories of ASSI people. It teems with information and multimedia to raise awareness and aid research into the past and present situation of ASSI people, and is a great place to start if you want to learn more about the movement.

Collaboration with academia, particularly Professor Clive Moore a University of Queensland historian, has offered a basis for more stories to be built upon. Wantok conferences are meticulously recorded and shared online, to broaden the scope of community access. Participation and engagement is seen as an ongoing collaborative process.

There is still much work to be done. ASSI people are campaigning to be recognised by governments as a distinct group with a distinct culture, and are overcoming the huge socioeconomic disadvantages faced by their people.

I ask Emelda why gratitude is important to her. Given the terrible sufferings experienced by her descendants and people like them, and the current disadvantages faced by ASSI people, why does she feel grateful?

She tells me about her grandmother, mother and daughter: all healers and nurturers. She tells me that people adapt to disadvantage, and that gratitude can be a tool of strength.

It is apparent that ASSI-PJ and the Wantok conferences employ many tools for strength. They mobilise communities, commemorate tragedy, lobby governments and help individuals to learn about their families and reconnect with the culture of their ancestors. But perhaps the greatest strength is ASSI-PJ’s capacity to not only fight to change the future of ASSI people, but to feel grateful to be able to do so.

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