• A statue of Robert Towns, who was the founder of Townsville in 1865, was found with red paint on its hands to represent blood, for his involvement in slavery. (Sofie Wainwright, ABC Regional )Source: Sofie Wainwright, ABC Regional
The grand-daughter of a South Sea Islander “sugar slave” says there has to be a more “diverse and holistic approach” to the truth-telling of Australia’s history when it comes to statues.
By
Douglas Smith

Source:
NITV News
22 Jun 2020 - 5:09 PM  UPDATED 22 Jun 2020 - 5:50 PM

A statue of a slave trader in Far North Queensland was vandalised on Sunday, with the hands painted in red to represent blood for his involvement in the "blackbirding" of South Sea Islanders.

The statue memorialised Robert Towns, a colonial-era businessman considered the founder of Townsville, who worked with human traffickers involved in kidnapping and otherwise forcibly coercing Pacific Islander people to work as "indentured labour" on Australian plantations during the 19th Century.  

On Monday, NITV News spoke to South Sea Islander, Emelda Davis, who is the grand daughter of a “sugar slave” who was kidnapped off the beach on Tanna Island (Vanuatu) when he was 12-years-old.

“My grandfather was 12-years-old, that’s my mother’s father. He was taken off the island of Vanuatu and brought to Australia and forced to work in the cane fields of Queensland,” said Ms Davis. 

“This is not a happy narrative and this is not something we gained wealth and success through in being displaced peoples or stolen generations.”

Ms Davis said she didn’t agree with the vandalism of the statue, but said she understood why it happened. 

“I think it’s wrong that they’ve defaced it, but I understand where the anger is coming from and the frustration,” she said.  

“Despite the fact that Robert Towns might not have direct links to blackbirding, he actually hired a notorious recruiter, (Henry Ross) Lewin, who was horrific and renowned for his treatment of South Sea Islanders.”

Blackbirder, Henry Ross, who gained a reputation as the "greatest manstealer" in the Pacific, was employed by Mr Towns to bring Indigenous people from the Pacific Islands region to work in Australia, where they were exploited for for their labour. 

Professor at the University of Queensland, Clive Moore, has specialised in the history of the Pacific Islands and the colonial and race relations between Indigenous people and Europeans in the region during the 19th Century. 

Mr Moore told NITV News that Mr Towns was good at “distancing” himself from the blackbirding of South Sea Islanders in the 1860’s and early 1870’s, because he wrote letters to cover his tracks. 

“He knows damn well what’s going on in the Pacific, but he’s guarding himself by writing letters saying, ‘be nice to the natives,'” said Professor Moore. 

“He distanced himself and used other people (Lewin) to do his dirty work.

“You can’t tell me that he didn’t know that illegal things were going on, but you won’t pin it on him.”

Mr Moore, along with Ms Davis, said the council needed to correct the past by erecting a statue of a prominent South Sea Islander alongside Mr Towns.

“So, they’re in a bit of a mess. I mean, they’ve got a town named after Robert Towns and they’re trying to defend Towns when he’s not really defendable," he said. 

“The answer for the city council is to own up that he’s a bit of a rogue, and to put something up for South Sea Islanders which will put their story next door to him basically.

“You can walk along that park and you can say, ‘well here’s Robert Towns, and then here is the other side of the Robert Towns story.'”

In a statement to NITV News, a spokesperson from the Townsville City Council said Mr Towns was a significant person who was a part of the town’s history and he needed to be recognised for that history, whether it was “good or bad”.

“It is very disappointing that the statue of Robert Towns on our Pioneers Walk was vandalised over the weekend,” said the council spokesperson. 

“Robert Towns is just one of a number of Townsville’s pioneers honoured on the walk. Others include John Melton Black, Joan Innes Reid and Eddie Mabo. 

“They are all significant people that are part of Townsville’s history and, good or bad, they have been involved in the creation of this community.”

The Council says they have reported the incident to the Queensland Police. 

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