‘Tears of joy’: Indigenous descendants from Vanuatu begin family search


It’s a little known detail of the so-called “blackbirding” trade: how a group of Aboriginal Australians ended up in Vanuatu, never to return home.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following article contains images of deceased persons.

Chief Richard David Fandanumata has travelled to Australia from Vanuatu to see the land his great-grandfather came from.

He hopes to find his lost relatives with just a handful of clues.

“I want to find out where Manuma from, that name,” he says. “If any Aboriginal people known 'Manuma' or 'Makuma', that is the place where my great-grandfather was taken."

Chief Richard’s great-grandfather was an Aboriginal Australian who ended up on the island of Tongariki around 1910.

His story starts with the so-called “blackbirding” trade of the mid to late 1800s.

Thousands of workers were tricked, kidnapped, or occasionally came willingly, from the Pacific Islands to work in Australia’s sugar cane fields.

Chief Richard’s forebears from Tongariki were among them. He says the men were chained and sometimes beaten. They worked for some time at a sugar factory in Caboolture, but may have moved between towns for work.

Emelda Davis, chairwoman of the Australian South Sea Islanders Port Jackson, says Pacific Islanders often lived closely alongside Aboriginal people.

“Given the nature of that trade, you had Indigenous, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islanders all working alongside each other under slavery conditions,” she says.

SBS News
SBS News
SBS News

This close interaction sometimes led to marriages - and violence.

In 2012, Chief Richard and his brother Abel David, a former Vanuatu Member of Parliament, were part of a group of South Sea Islanders who travelled to Bundaberg for a “sorry” ceremony, apologising for the past killing of Aboriginal people.

Ms Davis says the workers were acting under instruction from their bosses.

“This was something, their hands were forced, in order to do this, tribal warfare, in order to clear the land, but same time, our people took on board the young children that were abandoned,” she says.

An estimated 7000 Melanesian workers were deported after 1901 when the White Australia policy kicked in.

“We’ve always been aware of the Australian Aboriginal descendants living in Vanuatu,” says Ms Davis.

Details of exactly how they ended up there and what happened next are unclear. But tales have been kept alive by oral histories passed on through families.

Generations of Chief Richard’s family have told how his great-grandfather, a man named “Manuma” or “Makuma”, depending on the dialect, was rescued at sea and taken to Tongariki with returning workers.

He narrowly avoided a grim fate. 

“They should have ate him, because we [were] still cannibals at that time, but chief says we’ll take care of him, and chief gave him his daughter to marry," he said.

“[It was] because of his hair. Curly… Aboriginal hair. So chief says don’t kill him, we’ll keep him.

“That’s where my grandmother was the daughter of that man, Manuma.”

Yanick Willie is a pastor and also from the island of Tongariki.

His family story tells of two children who were smuggled into the hold of a ship called the Lady Norman.

“They bring with them two children, namely Willie Tutukan and Rossi. We are born out of these two little children. Willie Tutukan married to a Tongariki woman.”

Pastor Yanick Willie
Pastor Yanick Willie
SBS News

Pastor Willie says there are now about 400 known descendants of Willie Tutukan and Rossi, living in Tongariki and elsewhere.

He says Aboriginal descendants today face discrimination in Vanuatu.

“It’s very hard, we are always under discrimination,” he says.

“They look down on us and… sometimes call us ‘trouble people’. We have been hurt.”

Last week the men, along with several other descendants, travelled to Australia to make the first steps towards finding their long lost family members.

Tukini Tavui of the Pacific Islands Council of South Australia helped facilitate the trip after hearing of their plight through Dr David Bunton, whose own forebears were missionaries to Vanuatu in the 1800s.

"I think it’s important that Australians are aware, particularly Aboriginal people, that they have families over there that were taken during those times, in the early 1900s," he says.

Chief Richard David says he knows finding his family will be a difficult task, but even being in Australia has been healing.  

“It’s been hard today, but there will be tears of joy since we are coming back home.”

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