Australia’s hidden history of slavery: the government divides to conquer

South Sea Islanders working in a Townsville cane field in 1907. CityLibraries Townsville/flickr, CC BY-SA

This article is the fourth in the Black Lives Matter Everywhere series, a collaboration between The Conversation, the Sydney Democracy Network and the Sydney Peace Foundation. To mark the awarding of the 2017 Sydney Peace Prize to the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the authors reflect on the roots of and responses to a movement that has re-ignited a global conversation about racism. The prize will be presented on November 2 (tickets here).


My grandfather was Moses Topay Enares. He was only 12 years old when he was coerced onto a ship, put in the hold and fed stodge, a flour-like substance, until he arrived in Queensland.

His wife, who recorded and retold his story, tells of him being taken from the beach off the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. Moses passed on the Northern Rivers in New South Wales in 1961. He never saw his family from Tanna again.

Black Lives Matter is an inspired world movement of consciousness that gives voice to the resilience and self-determination of people of colour in their continued fight for freedom and social justice. This fight is very relevant to Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI). We are the descendants of some 62,500 people who were blackbirded from the 80 islands of Vanuatu and Solomons to NSW in 1847, with an influx to Queensland under the “indentured labour” trade.

Several words are used to depict the history of my people: indenture, slavery, kidnapping, blackbirding and Kanaka. But ASSI communities will tell any inquirer that we object to the use of the term “indenture” to describe what happened to our people when they were first brought to Australia. It’s a weak word that does not express the real truth of the physical and cultural theft of human beings.

We identify as Sugar Slaves, and we are confident and firm about correcting the “official” versions of history.

As president of ASSI-PJ since 2009, Emelda Davis’s work has helped revive the call for recognition of her people. ASSI-PJ

Blackbirding” comes from the African slave trade and truly expresses the violence of what happened. There were 870 voyages back and forth to the islands that brought my people to Australia. Some were kidnapped, but it is also undeniable that our warriors chose to return more than once.

Nonetheless, the treatment of the Islanders was atrocious, exploitative and akin to slavery. When plantation owners went bankrupt, the workers were transferred as an asset with the sold property.

The grandfather of Gordon Johnson, a second-generation descendant of the blackbirding trade, was kidnapped from Malaita in the Solomon Islands and brought to Queensland to cut cane. Gordon says:

My grandfather was a respected chief, he had wives and a lot of land when he was stolen. His family thought he was dead for almost ten years. One day my grandfather got back to his island only to find that his right to land and his wives had all been taken. His family thought he was a ghost, so he was banished and travelled to Vanuatu in hope of starting a new life, but was blackbirded from Vanuatu back to Australia.

Gordon is now 67 and has found the courage to share his experience years after the trade was abolished. As a 13-year-old in 1963, he had no option but to work alongside his father in the cane fields on Howard Farm, Bundaberg.

The owner used to come round and check up on us while we were cutting and he used to flog me all over that field. He said I wasn’t cuttin’ proper. My father would have to sit back and watch ’cause he was warned that if he stepped in he would get a floggin’ too and our family would be kicked off the farm. Ten of us lived in a one-room hut.

The full truth needs to be told

Thousands upon thousands of men, along with a small percentage of women and children, were blackbirded to work under the harshest of conditions in the pastoral, maritime and sugar industries.

Blackbirding occurred not only in the cane fields, but also in the shipping industry. South Sea Islanders worked as seafarers and deckhands across the many ports of this nation.

In 1847, more than a decade after slavery was officially abolished throughout the British Empire, politician and entrepreneur Benjamin Boyd began the illegal blackbirding of 119 Islanders to work on his whaling and pastoral ventures in Eden and the Riverina in NSW. For Boyd it was a business proposition – one that has been documented as a human disaster.

Today, the bitter truth about our sugar trade is commemorated by Australian South Sea Islanders in NSW marking 170 years since our forefathers escaped from Boyd and walked back to Sydney. By various means about half managed to be shipped home, which resulted in many Tanna men drowning in Sydney Harbour. The others died.

Many Australian South Sea Islanders are descendants of the Pacific Islands blackbirding trade.

Earlier this year Stan Grant called for the inscription on Captain Cook’s statue to reflect the truth.

In fact, the founding fathers of other townships, including entrepreneur Robert Towns (Townsville) and blackbirder John Mackay (Mackay), were part of a lucrative slave trade stretched to its fullest capacity for 40 years (1863-1903), regardless of illegalities and high death rates.

These cities are proud of their founders, but as with the case of Cook, a greater understanding and a broader discussion are needed. The full truth needs to be told.

Shireen Malamoo identifies as an Aboriginal/Kanak Woman. “Kanak” is Hawaiian for “bushman”, a word the overseers used in a derogatory way for the Islanders. Shireen is the granddaughter of a Sugar Slave taken from the island of Tongoa in Vanuatu and a descendant of the Birrigubba traditional owners from Plantation Creek on the Burdekin River in Ayr, north Queensland. She says:

Slavery affects people of colour globally and Australia’s version of slavery is based on the stealing of our African brothers and sisters across the Atlantic. In Australia, they attempt to hide the truth through the political manipulation of policy into the legal framework coined as “indentured labour”. Our warriors were paid a pittance for their work and bonded to completion of an unknown three-year contract with no idea what they were in for, let alone knowing if they would live or die.

Some 15,000 Sugar Slaves lost their lives to common diseases. This toll equated to almost 30% of the trade. Despite authorities knowing about this, the trade flourished.

In 1901, the new Commonwealth government, as part of the White Australia Policy, ordered the deportation of the entire Islander community, who were now denigrated as “aliens”. This was part of Australia’s ethnic cleansing.

Many Islanders legally belonged as British subjects and should not have been unlawfully deported. The 1906 High Court judgment authorising their expulsion was a self-interested abuse of the rule of law that sought to “create” a White Australian population.

So, four decades later, the islands and families who had been traumatised by the kidnapping of their fathers, husbands and sons witnessed the return of these peoples, distressed and disorientated, having been deported en masse from Australia.

It was a travesty, with cases of cultural warfare and further displacement as the island societies they once knew were no more, and were now foreign to the returning labourers and their families.

Fighting for the right to live

Ken Canning is a Murri activist, writer and poet, whose people are from the Kunja Clan of the Bidjara Nation in southwest Queensland. He says:

While different groups are campaigning on many important issues, the same issues will become meaningless if we don’t fight for the right to live.

My people did not just take the abuse they received. They were activists as well, making the most of the new situation into which they were forced. Historians call this agency, or taking control of your life even in adverse circumstances.

More recently, intrinsic agency by ASSI descendants is seen through our work in solidarity with Indigenous peoples fighting for the right to live full and fruitful lives as our basic human right.

My people have a complex identity that affirms the consequence of colonialism’s truth and confronts the injustices inflicted upon two very different Black cultures – Indigenous Australian and immigrant Melanesian. We have produced several exceptional and stoic leaders, such as Faith Bandler, Bonita Mabo, Bob Bellear, Shireen Malamoo and Evelyn Scott.

Because of our history of forced migration to a foreign land and our marginalised cultural identity, ASSI descendants today must strive to restore our right to sovereignty.

Our ancestry is now mixed with Indigenous Australians and we support the call for respect and appreciation of the oldest living civilisation. But we also want to restore our connections with our islands of origin, and to ensure that future generations of our people in Australia are treated with dignity as citizens.

ASSI-PJ with Tanya Plibersek on Recognition Day in 2012. ASSI-PJ

As part of our advocacy work, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has included Australian South Sea Islanders in its statistical gathering. The 2016 Census recorded a 133% increase in participation from 2011, giving a demographic guesstimate of some 70,000 descendants nationally.

This joint government and community endeavour has led to Australian South Sea Islanders being given a place on many forms, including those used in hospitals and by Centrelink.

Despite these successes, ASSI communities continue to suffer a great decline due to a lack of defined policy for supportive state and national action. Especially needed are initiatives that inspire economic stability and broader community engagement in grassroots capacity-building programs. Our demographic remains marginalised, suffering the same disadvantage found in Indigenous Australia.

Queensland divides to conquer

On March 22 this year, the Australian government responded to the plight of ASSI by accepting the recommendations of a House of Representatives standing committee that they be reinstated as a specific target group identified under the Multicultural and Equity Policy.

The intention was to co-ordinate assistance by all three tiers of government. It was the most significant Commonwealth investigation into ASSI since Bandler persuaded Gough Whitlam to establish an inter-departmental committee in the 1970s.

Unfortunately, no-one bothered to tell the National ASSI Association Roundtable. We found out indirectly in late October.

Meanwhile, the Queensland government has already begun consultations with ASSI in the state, once more dividing to conquer. Lured by offers of local-level funding, regional ASSI organisations failed to work with the national body they inaugurated.

Does the Queensland government have good intentions? What are its real motivations? A senior government official was evasive when contacted.

Clive Moore, based on 40 years’ involvement with the ASSI community and a deep knowledge of our history, commented:

The Queensland government once more is manipulating ASSI, dividing them, offering them scraps. There is also an election looming and they want to shore up marginal seats.

The government realises the likelihood of class action being taken over its disgraceful behaviour in the 19th century, when the state seized the wages of the 15,000 dead ASSI to pay for the administration of the Sugar Slave trade and ultimately the forced deportations in the 1900s.

In today’s money the Queensland and Australian governments have misappropriated tens of millions of dollars, in the same way as Aboriginal wages were misappropriated. Of this Moore says:

Queensland’s government is protecting itself, not helping the modern ASSI generations. It is one Australia-wide community, and working within state borders is a deliberate impediment and not what the Commonwealth is seeking.

Today Australia is home to some 350,000 Pacific Islanders, recent and historical, who are achieving a cultural renaissance through reconnection and kinship. But the battle is hard, with recent seemingly positive initiatives exposing the lack of communication between the government and our people, as well as the provincialism of the states and the wider impediments put in the way of justice.

Real justice is an opportunity for our nation’s healing – and for a national action plan that sees community groups come to the table in truthful, meaningful and long-term dialogue with the federal and state governments of Australia.


You can read other articles in the series here.