Following a century-long fight for recognition, the South Sea Islander community have had the “abhorrent” true origins of the Queensland workforce formally acknowledged.
On Friday, Bundaberg mayor Jack Dempsey said the practice of “forcing indentured labour into Queensland cane fields was equivalent to slavery and abhorrent”.
It marks the first formal apology by a government official to those who were taken from their Pacific Island homes and their descendants.
The practice known as ‘Blackbirding’ saw an estimated 60,000 South Sea Islanders brought to Australia between 1863 and 1904 to work on sugarcane and cotton farms in Queensland and Northern NSW.
Chairwoman of the interim national body for Australian South Sea Islanders, Waskam (Emelda) Davis, said the apology was many years in the making.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she told NITV News.
“We’ve grown up watching this struggle for recognition, and also working alongside our Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander families for greater recognition, greater inclusion, better outcomes for our collective communities.
“So, for us to hear the words of an apology, first and foremost, even though we’ve had a lot of lip service in the past – it’s a great thing,” Ms. Davis said.
Waskam is a second-generation descendant of Australia’s blackbird trade, her grandfather taken at the age of 12 from an island formerly known as Tanna island in Vanuatu.
Her great-grandmother was taken too, and her great-grandfather is from a mission in Queensland’s Hervey Bay.
Following the apology, which took place at a flag-raising ceremony in Bundaberg to mark Vanuatu Independence Day, Waskam paid tribute to those who were not there to hear it.
“It’s a good day today and we remember our forebears and our ancestors who gave their blood, sweat, and tears to build this nation and to fight for the right to live,” Ms. Davis told NITV News.
In a moment long denied to campaigners, Cr Dempsey, once a minister in Campbell Newman’s LNP state government, will use a speech on Vanuatu’s independence day to “extend a sincere apology on behalf of the Bundaberg region community for the abuse” in the time of blackbirding.
“Our sugar cane industry was built on the backs of Pacific Island labour, along with much of our infrastructure such as rock walls, which are still visible today,” Cr Dempsey says in his draft speech.
“Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire at the time, the practice of forcing indentured labour into Queensland cane fields was equivalent to slavery and abhorrent.”
Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey. More than 50,000 South Sea Islanders worked in appalling conditions, mostly in Queensland, under the pretence of labour contracts that gave plantation owners cover from laws that prevented slavery like that in the US.
People who absconded the sham deals could be whipped and returned in chains.
It is estimated 15,000 people died of disease and their unpaid wages were later used by the Queensland and Commonwealth governments during the White Australia Policy to help deport many people settled on the mainland.
Some workers were tricked into coming to Australia with contracts they had neither the cultural nor educational background to comprehend.
Others, like Moses Topay Enares, were stolen.
His granddaughter (Waskam) Emelda Davis said Moses was kidnapped in the late 1800s alongside two playmates from a beach in the Tafea Province of Vanuatu and shipped to Bundaberg, never to return.
There are no formal records and his story has survived through oral tradition.
A time to heal The ceremony also commemorated a new partnership between the Bundaberg Regional Council and Luganville Municipal Council, located on Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu’s largest island.
A memorandum of understanding was signed to represent a ‘Sister City’ agreement, and cement a stronger partnership with the pacific.
For many, it also marks a time to heal.
Bundaberg Mayor, Jack Dempsey said the colonial era “wasn’t kind” to Vanuatu, stating its islands were exploited for their natural and human resources since the Spanish arrived on the Island of Santo in the 1600s.
“The community has been crying out for this; families have been crying out for it for years,” he said.
“Bundaberg can be the first in Australia to say sorry and the first to be able to recognise and to be able to have a relationship with Vanuatu.”
Dempsey stated that the apology was long overdue.
“Today I wish to extend a sincere apology on behalf of the Bundaberg region community for the abuse which occurred in ‘blackbirding’ people from Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands to work in the Queensland sugarcane industry,” he said in a speech.
“Our sugarcane industry was built on the backs of Pacific Island labour, along with much of our infrastructure such as rock walls, which are still visible today.”