28 June 2011
'We're not indigenous to Australia nor are we indigenous to Vanuatu, because we were all born here. So who are we?'
- Imelda Miller, Australian South Sea Islander & co-curator, My Island Homes
South Sea Islanders are not the first group to settle the Australian continent and struggle to find their place in this land. But their long struggle probably has more in common with the first (aboriginal) Australians who had to wait till 1965 to vote in Queensland elections, were not counted in the national census until 1967 and did not receive an official apology for destructive welfare policies until 2008.
This is why formal recognition by the national government in 1994 and the Queensland government in 2000 are such landmarks for the descendants of caneworkers who built the Queensland coastal sugar industry from the 1860s till the early years of the twentieth century. These official gestures have led South Sea Islanders to be more willing to search for lost family detail in the fragments of memory that have survived the passing of generations.
"That [recognition] really inspired people to find out more. People felt they had a place," third-generation South Sea Islander Imelda Miller told Telinga Media. "They know where they're from - whether it's Vanuatu, the Solomons or somewhere else. It's enough. Just to have that identity is enough."
Many of the fragments have been creatively reproduced in a multimedia exhibition - called My Island Homes - Miller is co-curating in the Sunshine Coast town of Cooroy, north of Brisbane.
As assistant curator of Torres Strait Islander and Pacific Indigenous Studies at the Queensland Museum, she has worked with the Sunshine Coast Regional Council to combine historical photographs, museum artefacts and video testimony from Sunshine Coast descendants into a story of resilience and pride. As one testimonial states tearfully: "I am really proud to be a South Sea islander. But I'm also proud to be an Australian."
Official records show that deportation in the early 1900s left less than 20% of islanders in Australia. Their descendants admit that much of the traditional ways of the elders has been lost, Miller says, "because they never thought we'd need it again".
But the Queensland coast is marked by places of significance, such as an area on the Maroochy River known as The Old Place. This has been a meeting place for generations.
"The descendants who grew up there, they always go back there and they continue their culture," says Krishna Nahow-Ryall, a South Sea islander and curator of her own exhibition running concurrently with My Island Homes. "They go fishing, they camp there, they tell stories. So it's a place where the culture is maintained and it's a very special place, not only to the descendants that live here but it a place where the islanders cutting the sugar cane stopped when they were moving round the state."
When asked about the customs that might make up an east coast Melanesian influence, Miller mentioned her father cultivating a "huge market garden" and "surrounding ourselves with fruit trees" but also cites "respect and hard work" as surviving traits of South Sea islander culture.
About 60,000 labourers were recruited over a forty year period; by the turn of the century, there were 10,000 working recruits. One of the first acts of the Australian Parliament was to pass the Pacific Islander Labourers Act in 1901, designed to end recruitment and send them back to their home islands.
My Island Homes suggests that despite extreme hardships of indentured farm labour, living conditions became even more difficult in the period after deportation.
"When the White Australia Policy come about, people were worried that families were going to be separated," explains Miller. "Some people had inter-married and that just wasn't accepted back in the islands so it just wasn't going to be a smooth transition for some people."
The White Australia Policy which marked the birth of nationhood was not simply aimed at restricting non-white immigration; it put into practice a series of discriminatory laws designed to deny resident non-Europeans an economic base and encourage them to leave. These laws not only had the desired effect of forcing islanders out of the sugar industry but also highly restricted their involvement in other agricultural industries, as well as mining and fisheries. The infamous 'dictation test' - so successfully used to exclude immigrants of non-European background - was written into some of these laws.
"They'd made a life here," says Miller. "They'd built themselves into the landscape and they were making their way in the sugar industry. They were starting to want to buy their own crops and plantations and make money. And this is why there was so much pressure to send them back to their islands because they were now starting to become a force to be reckoned with within the sugar industry. And they were apparently taking the jobs of other white labourers."
"All those skills they knew about the sugar industry were being legislated against. [They] therefore were forced to do very menial tasks in other places and this sent them back down to live on the river to make their gardens, to live from fish from the ocean. These people had families to support. Now they could no longer work in the industry that they once created."
One's sense of identity and therefore visions of what is possible in the future can sometimes be captive to selective memories of the past. This is to some extent at play in the anguished national debate over the so-called 'stolen generations'. The term itself announces to all Australians a damning verdict on long-standing policies made in the name of 'protection' of Aboriginal children. It might be fair to say that the term 'slavery' plays a similar role in the way South Sea Islander history is remembered - and still debated.
One view is that 'slavery' and 'blackbirding' are inadequate terms to capture the range of islander experiences during the forty-year labour trade. While under the Master and Servants Act labourers were not free to negotiate the terms of indenture, the 1861 law was not an act of slavery. Some labourers were known to return to Queensland more than once and might therefore not regard the journey as one of coercion. My Island Homes deals with this long-standing debate in this way:
'The exploitation of the young Islanders and the way in which they were “recruited” into becoming labourers, is still debated and the question remains: were they forced, coerced, deceived or persuaded to leave their island homes at a young age and travel by ship to Queensland? The answer to that is yes, all of those methods were used. '
Catch-all definitions such as 'slave trade' may be less revealing than the detail of family histories, pieced together by determined individuals who longed to know the journey that brought them to this point.
One such individual - who has traced her islander lineage back four generations to the island of Mota Lava in the northern Banks group in Vanuatu - is Krishna Nahow-Ryall, whose exhibition Long a...long sugar...ca...cane derives its title from a blackbirding song still sung on that island. Nahow-Ryall recognised that different islands had different encounters with these recruiting ships.
"I know that the Banks islands where my family came from have always had a reputation of always being very friendly people, very happy and very humble and accepting people," she explains. "Whereas other islands, they might have the reputation of being very strong on witchcraft and being more aggressive. Each island would have a different experience but my family that were brought here, they came from the Banks and Tanna and there was a girl and three boys and they were children."
The Queensland Museum's Imelda Miller also acknowledges these different interactions. But regardless of the circumstances of 'recruitment', she warns against being distracted from the fact that once transported to Queensland, they were all subjected to the same harsh living and working conditions.
In one of the exhibition's video testimonies, a third-generation South Sea Islander, Rex Eggmolesse, speaks of his parents who fought for recognition in the 1970s but did not live to see their dream realised.
"We could stand up and say that the government now recognises us as a unique cultural group and it gave us something to tell our children and for them to tell their children," says Miller, referring to how recognition lifted the veil on their hidden history.
"Now, just to be recognised and have that acknowledgement is all people want. People just want their story to be heard and acknowledged and then they can move on."
My Island Homes - curated by Imelda Miller (Queensland Museum) & Olivia Robinson (Sunshine Coast Regional Council) and Long a...long sugar...ca...cane - curated by Krishna Nahow-Ryall exhibit at the Cooroy Butter Factory (07 5454 9050) until 2nd July
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