• Australian South Sea Islander women work on a sugar cane field at Hambledon around 1891. (State Library of Queensland)Source: State Library of Queensland
It's one of the darkest chapters of our nation’s history, yet few know the origins of the Australian South Sea Islander community.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
28 Jun 2019 - 10:42 AM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2019 - 10:44 AM

As a boy, Mick Fewquandie remembers playing in the sugar plantations with his cousins, while his father and uncles slaved away cutting cane in the sweltering north Queensland heat.

He and the other South Sea Islander families lived on the Pioneer River in Mackay. 

The houses were little more than shacks with dirt floors, and fishing was their main source of food. Whatever was caught was shared. 

"It was a hard life," Mr Fewquandie recalls. 

But it wasn't until years later that he would truly appreciate the grim reality of his upbringing.

Now, thinking back to how hard his family worked to put food on the table, he says the memories are "pretty hard to take".

His great-grandparents were among more than 60,000 people taken from their Pacific Island homelands from the 1860s and forced to work for a meagre wage on Queensland’s cane fields.

The practice has become known as, 'blackbirding'. Mr Fewquandie calls it Australia's version of slavery. 

"It was kidnapping, coaxed onto boats by trinkets and slammed into galleys and brought over this way for illegal slave labour in this country."

The practice continued until 1871.

In a cruel twist, when the White Australia Policy was enacted in the early 1900s many were deported. Some boarded boats thinking they were bound for home, but were instead taken to other islands off the tip of Queensland.

The descendants of Australian South Sea Islanders have fought tirelessly to have the history and contributions of their ancestors recognised. 

In 1994, their efforts were finally rewarded when the federal government recognised Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group and thanked them for their role in pioneering Queensland's sugar cane, agriculture and farming industries.

"It meant a great deal," says Mr Fewquandie, now President of the Descendants of Australian South Sea Islander Association.

New generations are carrying this sense of identity forward.

Dylan Mooney - a young South Sea Islander, Torres Strait Islander and Yuibera artist - draws inspiration from his ancestors for his artworks.

"I’ve always known that I was South Sea Islander, but I never knew the history that much until the later years," he says.

"Hearing it was very confronting but it also gave me a sense of... it made me prouder to be who I am."

One of his latest pieces is a striking sketch of an image of his great-great-grandmother, who was taken from Vanuatu and sold to a Sydney family as a house worker.

It features in a new exhibition at the State Library of Queensland celebrating the achievements of Australian South Sea Islanders.

Plantation Voices is scattered with black and white images of workers in the cane fields, showing the evolution of Australian South Sea Islander identity from the 1800s to today. 

Mr Mooney hopes it will get audiences to see his ancestors as real people, "not just photographs sitting in collections".

Curator Imelda Miller says it's also a way to pay homage to those who never received recognition for their strength and resilience.

"I really felt like their photos have never sat on peoples’ mantlepieces before as a family member, so I wanted to really make them shine," she said.

"A big part of it was wanting to actually put our history in peoples’ faces so they couldn’t walk around it any longer."

Mick Fewquandie wants this truth-telling process to go a step further, by teaching this history in the school curriculum.

"Let the children grow up with it," he says.

"Tell the truth - there’s no harm in the truth."

Plantation Voices is on display at the State Library of Queensland until September 8. 

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