The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Isabella Kwai, a reporter with the Australia bureau.
The first thing I saw in Mackay was the sun setting over towering fields of sugar cane. I had come to meet Starrett Vea Vea, a South Sea Islander leader with an infectious laugh, and found him with a friend. He was explaining, as he often did, how his ancestors had been lured to Australia, first to plant cotton, then sugar cane.
“I feel sad for those people who went through it,” he said. “Sad that our history is not spoken about.” His friend, a white woman, shook her head. “I just learnt that right then,” she said to me. “What else don’t I know?”
Mr. Vea Vea is one of thousands of Australians descended from Pacific Islander laborers who arrived aboard ships in the 19th century to do backbreaking work on sugar plantations for white farmers in Australia’s northeast. Many were lured or “blackbirded” into indentured labor contracts — some through force, others through deception, all through a colonialism that looted less-advantaged societies.
[Read more about South Sea Islanders and the practice of ”blackbirding.”]
The country’s largest population of descendants, who call themselves South Sea Islanders, live in Mackay, a peaceful coastal city where birds fly low over mangroves on the river at twilight and the sugar cane stretches as far as the eye can see.
But the mangroves are home to an unknown number of unmarked South Sea Island graves. Nearby are fields where many of the workers toiled for wages that were a fraction of their white counterparts. There are farms, too, where many of the South Sea Islanders later hid after Australia decided to deport them as part of an effort to keep the country ethnically white.
They are not the only group that endured atrocities. But many of them are worried that the stories of their ancestors, stories of loss, trauma and resilience, will be forgotten without efforts to preserve them. That fear crystallized after Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in June that there had been “no slavery in Australia,” a statement the community disagreed with and that he later apologized for. Now, South Sea Islanders are adamant that it must to be taught to all Australians, not just their own people.
One elder, Marion Healy, whose great-grandfather was lured from a beach in the Solomon Islands as a young boy, is using a rugby-league tournament to start conversations. Another elder, Doug Mooney, teaches how to make traditional fishing nets at a local school. I watched one afternoon as a group of young boys leaned in to watch Uncle Doug stitch one together. Afterward, they would go to the ocean and learn how to cast the nets as their ancestors had.
Many members of this community are hopeful that this moment, amid the climate of the Black Lives Matter protests, is one of understanding, where past pain can be reconciled to build a more inclusive future. And a few in the younger generations are exploring how to take over the baton.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Vea Vea and Logan Bobongie, 22, leaned over a book to find out more about Ms. Bobongie’s ancestor. “This wouldn’t be a conversation if it wasn’t for what’s happened to America, and George Floyd,” said Ms. Bobongie, who is still piecing parts of her heritage together. “But it’s given us a great opportunity to talk about what’s happened here.”
Still, it made me wonder: What other stories from Australia’s past have not yet been brought to light? Write to us at [email protected].
Now, on to our stories of the week.