• Australian South Sea Islander women work on a sugar cane field at Hambledon around 1891. (State Library of Queensland)Source: State Library of Queensland
Descendants are paying tribute to South Sea Islanders 'blackbirded' into labour on Australian farms.
Shahni Wellington

23 Aug 2019 - 2:58 PM  UPDATED 29 Aug 2019 - 1:22 PM

When Louise Pfeffer marches through the streets of Brisbane this weekend, she will remember her great grand father William 'Willie' Lop.

In the early 1900s, when he was a young man, Mr Lop was promised a better life of opportunity and employment and brought by boat from his home on Tanna Island in Vanuatu to Australia.

What awaited him was a life of labour, punishment and mistreatment. 

According to the Queensland government, over 50,000 South Sea Islanders were bought to Australia between 1863 and 1904, with the majority kidnapped or deceived into working as indentured labourers. 

Louise Pfeffer, a proud fourth generation South Sea Islander and Goreng Goreng Aboriginal woman, says her great grandfather was “blackbirded” like thousands of other men.

“It’s a nice way of saying 'brought into slavery'," she said.

"They were enticed – kidnapped - brought over to work the cotton fields and plantations in Queensland and New South Wales, primarily."

“They were pretty much the backbone of the Australian economy at the time and were thought to be able to put up with the harsh conditions of Australia back then.”

“But it has pretty much decimated the male population, we lost whole generations – including men, women and some children.”

Mr Lop was the son of a tribal chief and when he left for Australia, he was told he was never welcome to come back.

This story of displacement rings true for many South Sea Islander people.

This weekend, families and supporters will take to the streets in Brisbane and Tweed Heads to remember their ancestors.

The marches recognise 25 years since the Commonwealth government formally recognised the Australian South Sea Islanders as a unique minority group.

While their journey to acceptance has been long and arduous, the descendants of the Australian South Sea Islanders have strong cultural pride.

“This is about honouring our ancestors and saying thank you - recognising their amazing and significant contribution to Australia,” Ms Pfeffer said.

“It's very personal for us. I see it a bit in line with an Anzac Day March in a way, because when we marched in 2013 - we were just so proud,”

“It was just amazing to call out the names of our ancestors and remember those names and that they aren't forgotten,”she said.

On Saturday, Brisbane Town Hall will fly the flag of the South Sea Islanders for the first time.

Once night falls, the town hall will also be lit up in the colours of the flag – blue, green and yellow.

Ms Pfeffer is also the creator of the online Facebook group ‘Australian South Sea Islander Kanaka Community’ which now has almost 5000 members.

To her knowledge, it was the first group of it’s kind when she created it over ten years ago and Ms Pfeffer said she uses it as a platform for people to re-trace their family histories and re-connect with culture. 

As people gather online and take to the streets, Ms Pfeffer said their presence symbolises no longer being a forgotten people.  

“When you've been ignored and treated like you don't matter and you're invisible, these little acts just means so much to our community,”she said.

“It's about that recognition, acknowledgement that we matter - that we as a family are being put on the map and being recognised.” 

Blackbird - a journey of honouring my ancestors
The tragedy and heartbreak of the "blackbirding" era has had a ripple effect all throughout the Pacific, yet it’s a history that remains largely under-acknowledged and unknown.

Culturally significant walls at risk

For those in Tweed Heads, the march will not only signify the anniversary of recognition, but promote a current campaign to save and protect culturally significant dry-stone walls.

Two historic dry-stone walls, believed to be built by the South Sea Islander community over 100 years ago, are set to be relocated to make way for a hospital development in Cudgen – on the New South Wales north coast. 

The walls sit on the proposed Tweed Valley Hospital site, as part of a $582 million dollar investment by the New South Wales government.

The land was part of a large sugar plantation back in the 1900s but is not currently heritage-listed.

This weekend’s recognition march in Tweed Heads hopes to raise awareness of the cause, and stop the New South Wales government from re-locating or harming the artefacts.

Health Infrastructure NSW says it is “committed to ensuring current and future generations can enjoy the local history of the dry-stone walls”.

A workshop was held last week, which the spokesperson for Health Infrastructure NSW said was a chance for South Sea Islanders to become involved in the “preservation and potential restoration” of the remaining walls.

Consultations are still ongoing. 

To get involved with this weekend's Australian South Sea Islander marches, head to their Facebook pages for more information: