Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Enslavement of South Sea islanders exposed in Oz

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BRISBANE -- Every country has a dirty secret. Australia's might be slavery.

Enforced labour, indentured servitude, call it what you will, there's little doubt decades after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was read and the guns of Gettysburg silenced, Australian overseers were still cracking the whip over South Sea islanders working in our sugar plantations.

All human hives have much to be proud of and much to regret -- Australia's dispossession of Aborigines still is a source of deep angst we struggle with, our degradation of the natural environment a crime we have for several decades tried to rectify.

But our shadowy history of using South Sea islanders as agricultural labourers is something we appear to have left locked in our mental vault, wary of dragging it into the sunlight for fear it might expose an ugliness in our past we aren't yet equipped to confront.

Canadians have their "Kanakas,'' who came from Hawaii to work for the Hudson Bay Company and whose descendants can still be found in parts of Canada and the United States.

In Australia, the word has fallen out of use, considered by South Sea islanders to be offensive.

To Australians they are simply "South Sea islanders.'' More than 50,000 of them arrived between 1893 and 1903 from paradises such as the Loyalty Islands off New Caledonia and the eastern archipelagos of Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

They came, many allegedly unwillingly, to work in our sugar cane fields. Their descendants, who still populate coastal towns along Queensland's eastern seaboard, know they have a painful past from their still-vibrant oral history.

Possessing an extraordinarily generous and cheerful nature, often incorporating a subversive humour, they've made great contributions to their local communities, with names such as Meninga, Backo and Fatnowna widely recognized for sporting and community service achievements.

Historians cavil over whether the islanders were forced into labour, with noted Australian historian, Keith Windschuttle declaring the business of black birding (forcing islanders onto ships to be transported to Australia) was based largely on anecdotal evidence.

But for those who have grown up in sugar cane country, such as retired federal parliamentarian MP Brian Courtice, whose family has owned a farm outside the Queensland city of Bundaberg for five generations, there's no room for argument nor debate.

"There were incidents of slavery and the descendants of those islanders brought here verify the truth of that,'' Courtice says.

Courtice, who served two terms in the national parliament as the local Labor member in the '90s, is attempting to build a cultural centre at Bundaberg to honour islander people. He has his own records of conversations with those who were part of that shameful history.

Local identities such as Frank Watson, who died in the early '90s aged 90, was a living link with a heartbreaking period. In the last years of his life, he helped Courtice identify unmarked graves all over the district of islanders who died in the field, buried pretty much where they fell.

The Courtice farm has a tree recognized locally as "the hanging tree'' -- known to be the spot where a young islander was executed without trial.

South Sea islanders also have evidence of a young islander who was the subject of a 19th-century court case in a town to the north of Bundaberg because he was '''stolen.''

The man who "owned'' the youth testified he could prove he was the owner because he had branded the youth as he would his cattle, not once but twice.

Courtice says there is no argument islanders were marginalized in shanties, paid poor wages and punished for minor infractions.

He's working to have his family property placed on a national heritage list (which, incidentally, will reduce its market worth) to act as a historical reminder of a past from which we have to recognize, honour and learn.

Only last week he hosted a delegation from the Solomon Islands and Fiji at his farmhouse -- the delegation thanking him for his work with a prayer and blessing which had the tough old local football legend, not much given to emotional excess, struggling to hold back the tears.

Their blessing was almost poetic in its summation of how it feels to be humiliated, denigrated and demeaned by your fellow human beings:

"You help us wipe away the tears of shame,'' they told him.

Michael Madigan is the Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2012 A12

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