• It's estimated about $500m was stolen from Indigenous people in Queensland. (Douglas Smith.)Source: Douglas Smith.
The descendants of Far North Queensland's 'Sugar Slaves’ want the true history of their ancestor's experiences more widely recognised.
Douglas Smith

The Point
15 Aug 2020 - 12:24 AM  UPDATED 15 Aug 2020 - 12:57 PM

Hidden away on a back road 10 kilometres outside of Ayr, a small town about an hour's drive southeast of Townsville, are cane fields that hold secrets of a dark history.

The fields carry a special meaning for the two people who have made the trip on this day. They are descendants of a "sugar slave" who worked and died here.

The weather is still and it's fitting, as first cousins Leslie Henaway and Shirlin Backo reflect on the injustices inflicted upon their ancestors. 

Shirlin stands next to a large rock monument with sadness on her face, her voice pained as she speaks about the unmarked graves of South-Sea Island "Kanakas", which are now lost among the fields.

“There’s six thousand graves here…. somewhere...we don’t know where,” she says. 

The monument is the only form of acknowledgement for the thousands of South-Sea Islander people in the entire Burdekin region. But Shirlin says it wasn't initially intended for that purpose. 

“It’s supposed to be for the school, but this farmer here, Fabrellas, he put this up, and he was more or less the one that recognised South-Sea Islanders working here...they worked on his farm," she says. 

“He knew all about it. My son came out here and talked to him, and he said there were six-thousand [slaves] that lived out around here and they died.”  

One small plaque on the monument recognises South-Sea Islander men and women, for their “valuable contribution” to the foundation of the sugar industry. 

Both Shirlin and Leslie say the statement doesn't truely reflect the history of what happened here.

“They’d have to put more than this up here, like, to say that they came out as slaves...that they were brought out as slaves, whereas there is nothing there on that saying anything,” says Shirlin. 

But even if the plaque were to be amended, Shirlin says she's worried that no one would see it. 

“Nobody would drive out here, only those who live here," she says.

The cane fields surrounding the plaque are vast and unshaded. Following in his grandfather's footsteps, Leslie started working the fields as a boy. 

“Two weeks before I turned 14, I started work on cane farms with a boss named Billy Jones, and I was digging out grass with a hoe and doing a lot of walking and shovelling out dirt,” he says.

Unlike his grandfather, Leslie was paid for his work, but not fairly.

“One of the farmers I went to work for, by the way, he’s my wife’s grandfather, I worked there because he had cane fields and cattle, but what he did was he paid me every three weeks, but he’d only give me two weeks wages.” he said.

For the thousands of South-Sea Islander people who were victims of stolen wages in Queensland alone, it is estimated that $40 million was withheld from them since as of 1904, with monies never to be paid.  

Today, the issue of stolen wages for South-Sea Islanders is being rectified after the truth of it was neglected by government's for decades. 

"They bought them over here because they could see that they could work in this warmer climate, so thats what they did." 

The story Leslie and Shirlin want to bring to light today, is of the systematic mistreatment of their ancestors. A history that can be traced to the city named after a man who is still memorialised as a pioneer and hero.

Blood on his hands

In the middle of the night on June 21st, an unexpected act of vandalism reignited a debate about the history of the Townsville's founder, Captain Robert Towns.

Towns had his hands daubed in red paint, to represent blood, for his involvement in the "blackbirding" of South Sea Islanders.

Townsville City Council scrubbed the statue clean the next day.

Almost two months later, this week a man was arrested as the alleged culprit. 

For the thousands of South-Sea Islander people who live in the city, the Robert Towns statue is a daily reminder that their side of history continues to be silenced.

Juru, Bindal and Umpila man, Randall Ross, is both a Traditional Owner from the region, a Torres Strait man from Darnely Island, and a South-Sea Islander man with links to Tanna, Ambrym and Santo Islands in Vanuatu.

Randall says he has always felt uncomfortable with the statue.

“As I’ve been told by many of my Elders that have passed through and passed down, is that Robert Towns was associated with the slave trade and he was responsible for bringing many of the South-Sea Kanakas into Australia," he says.

The statue stands proudly in the city's Pioneer Walk and is accompanied by three other historical and prominent figures.

One of those figures, and the only Indigenous figure to be recognised, is Eddie 'Koiki' Mabo, a man who successfully challenged the very foundations of law and Sovereignty in  Australia. 

The other two are white 'pioneers' who are said to have made a significant contribution to the city.

Notably, there's no statue or any other memorial that represents the history of South-Sea Islanders.

"There’s a saying that my Aunty would always say, ‘if you tell the truth, we all grow up,’" says Randall.

"That's important because you’re only telling one side of the story, so there is another side to the story, and usually we know as a part of our history, both Aboriginal, Torres Strait and South-Sea, is that they like to cover that story up."

For Randall, the act of vandalism on the Robert Towns statue is not something he agrees with, and he is confident of whoever did it, the culprit would not be a "blackfulla."

"Vandalising these statues is not going to serve a purpose, and it won't be a blackfulla that does it," says Randall.  

This is something Randall stands firm on, and just this week, more acts of vandalism have caused a stir in Townsville, with Black Lives Matter being spray painted across public property, which Randall strongly disagrees with.  

"It's a bit too late to be vandalising, you know, our mob in Townsville have always been strong political people, and if we want to make a statement, we will march and make sure people hear and see us."

"It may be for future councils"

Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill, who has been in the position since 2012, said she's had many discussions with the Indigenous and South-Sea-Islander communities about either moving the statue to a museum, taking it down all together, or erecting a South-Sea Islander statue.

Despite the talks, she said any action is unlikely to be taken while she is in charge.

“To be honest, it may not be for this council, it may be for future councils to recognise some of the key people we have in the South-Sea Islander community, in years to come," she said. 

“The fact remains that Robert Towns has always been associated with Blackbirding…the common term used for getting South-Sea Islanders, getting them into Australia to work in various industries.”

The words "associated" and "getting them into Australia to work", are not how Shirlin and Leslie would describe what happened.  

"My grandfather comes from Tanna Island, he came over here as a slave," says Leslie. 

"A lot of people, when I tell them that there was slavery here in the Burdekin in Australia, they say, 'oh, you gotta be joking, there's no slavery here'.

"So, we have to explain to them....there was."

Statue of slave trader painted with bloodied hands in Townsville
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.