• South Sea Islander women in Queensland (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The story of the Australian sugar industry is a brutal one.
Sharon Verghis

8 Apr 2020 - 12:55 PM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2020 - 1:58 PM

It is one of Australia’s most hidden histories – the story of how the country’s sugar industry was built on imported black labour, and at the cost of thousands of lives. It's something that is touched briefly in The Chocolate Factory: Inside Cadbury Australia which takes us into the sugarcane fields of Mackay.

In the telling of our national story, many smaller, darker stories fall through the cracks, says Emeritus Professor Clive Moore of the University of Queensland’s school of historical and philosophical inquiry.

Too few know that our sugar industry, for example, was built on the blood and sweat of thousands of South Sea Islanders.

Too few know that our sugar industry, for example, was built on the blood and sweat of thousands of South Sea Islanders.

Even less know that they're the only immigrant group to have been deported in the sole racially targeted mass deportation in Australian history,  enacted by “one of the cruellest pieces of legislation we have ever had,” says Professor Moore, a leading researcher in the history of Australian South Sea Islanders.

The story of the Australian sugar industry is a brutal one.

Sugarcane was brought on board the First Fleet in 1788 but it was only in 1862 that the first commercial cane plantation was set up near Brisbane by Captain Louise Hope and John Buhot.

Deprived of a cheap and plentiful local labour force with the end of convict transportation, the fledgling northern colony turned to South Islanders – traditionally seen as more innately suited for backbreaking tropical labour than white men - for their workforce.

Between 1863 and 1904, over 62,000 predominantly male South Sea Islanders from over 80 islands across Melanesia from Vanuatu to the Solomon Islands were brought to Australia as part of the massive indentured labour movement across the colonies in the 19th century.

Some came willingly, drawn by the promise of work on the cane plantations; others were lured by trinkets, false promises, and in some cases, even physically forced, or ‘blackbirded’, on board although the extent of  this notorious practice is debatable, says Moore.

To many descendants of these so-called ‘Kanakas’, such as political activist Faith Bandler, kidnapping and slavery were the reality for most.

The historical records point to a more complex and nuanced story, Moore counters, citing colonial legislation governing trafficking and the indentured labour trade and the system of three-year contracts that drew around 55,000 (many signed up for a second or third contracts, thus swelling the official figures, he believes).
Nevertheless, while it may not have been slavery as we define it, it remains one of the darkest chapters in Australia history, Moore says.

As the 1992 report The Call for Recognition: A Report on the Situation of Australian South Sea Islanders described it, “their general treatment was as close to slavery as the laws of the time would allow. White society used them as labourers when needed and discarded them when no longer needed: they were coerced and expendable labour.”
The fact that colonial governments knew that their lack of immunity would fatally expose them to diseases such as the flu and measles - over a quarter died prematurely in Australia  – is reprehensible enough, Moore says.

Add to this brutally harsh working conditions, exploitation and wage appropriation (they were paid one third of a European worker’s wage), and “yes, in some ways, it was like a new form of slavery.”

“Nobody doubts there was a degree of kidnapping, and absolute illegality, and even trickery comes into that category…but the term I would use is cultural kidnapping.

“The whole process was scurrilous and should have been illegal because they were taking people out of one culture and luring them with cheap products of European 19th century technology into another culture.

“Historians and South Sea Islanders can argue as much as they like over percentages of kidnappings, but to me, it is 100 per cent disreputable however they came.”

For Moore, the nadir came when the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901, enacted on the back of the White Australia policy, saw the deportation of around 10,000 Pacific Islanders.

Over 7500 were press-ganged onto ships despite pleas and petitions to the King.

Even by the standards of the brutal racial politics of the time, it was “one of the cruellest pieces of legislation we had."

Even by the standards of the brutal racial politics of the time, it was “one of the cruellest pieces of legislation we had. There is no other ethnic or racial group in Australia where there was specific legislation to deport them. It just compounded the wrongs that were done to them,” Moore says.

The remainder escaped capture, founding a thriving Australian South Sea Islander demographic - Australia’s only sizeable black migrant group - that was formally recognised by the Commonwealth Government as a distinct community in 1994.

Moore echoes Islander descendants like the late Bonita Mabo in calling for greater recognition and acknowledgement of their contributions to our agriculture, industry and development.

The cultural amnesia around their history is partly attributable to a sense of national shame, he says.

“There is a stigma. People are embarrassed by this part of our history.  If you understand how they came here, how they were underpaid, how badly they were treated…the whole history of the South Sea islanders makes Australians very uncomfortable.”

The Chocolate Factory: Inside Cadbury Australia premieres Saturday April 11 on SBS at 7:30pm. The program will be encored Sunday April 12 on SBS VICELAND at 3:35pm. Join the conversation on social #SlowTV

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