CHANGES NEEDED: Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association's Starrett Vea Vea hopes for more commitments from government to his community.
CHANGES NEEDED: Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association's Starrett Vea Vea hopes for more commitments from government to his community. Emily Smith

EXPOSED: Lost history of South Sea Islanders slave labour

MORE than 150 years after South Sea Islanders were kidnapped and forced to work on Queensland's sugar plantations, calls to formally apologise have finally emerged.

State Member for Pumicestone Rick Williams has sponsored a petition calling for a formal apology to the South Sea Islander community for forcing up to 62,000 people into the indentured labour trade known as 'blackbirding', which was akin to slavery.

"All of Queensland was built on the back of the blood, sweat and tears of these islanders," Mr William states in the petition.

"I say that no-one deserves the atrocity endured by these people. Nothing we can ever do will replace the loss suffered by them. As the state of Queensland we need to say that we are sorry."

Blackbirding occurred in Queensland from 1863 to 1914, Mr Williams believes, although other commentators say it was ruled out in 1904.

Islanders from near Vanautu and the Solomon Islands were lured onto ships with trinkets, before they were locked in the hulls and brought to Australia.

Once here, they were distributed to farmers to work in canefields.

After growing up in North Mackay and going to school with many descendants of those who were blackbirded, Mr Williams said he had long wanted to achieve recognition of the terrible acts that had been committed, but never believed he would be in a position to push for the apology.

He hopes once an apology has been made -to local descendants and to those who remain in the South Sea Islands - the community will be awarded further recognition.

It's these tangible changes Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association's Starrett Vea Vea most wants to see.

While he thanked Mr Williams for pushing for the apology, as he believes it will help some descendants heal, he most wants to see on-going commitments from government.

He said it wasn't until 1994 that the Federal Government recognised South Sea Islanders as a unique minority group, and the State Government didn't follow suit until 2000.

Despite this distinction, South Sea Islanders are not granted their own avenue of support services, with most directed to share those set aside for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders.

"We've got our own separate identity so there should be separate services there," Mr Vea Vea said.

While the 'Queensland Government Action Plan- Australian South Sea Islander Community', was announced in 2001, Mr Vea Vea said many of the initiatives it put forward were never carried out and it was no longer active.


South Sea Islander labourers feeding cane through rollers at Alexandra Mill. c 1868.
Photo Daily Mercury Archives
South Sea Islander labourers at Alexandra Mill. c 1868. Daily Mercury Archives

A Department of Communities spokeswoman said the policy had since progressed away from a "community specific" action plan to a more holistic approach, through the 'Community Action for a Multicultural Society program'. She said it had given $71,101 to Mackay Regional Council to deliver activities to support South Sea Islanders this year.

Ensuring every school student was taught the history of blackbirding would also help bring recognition to the cause, Mr Vea Vea said. Currently, learning about blackbirding is not mandatory, although there was scope for schools to develop their own programs.

Another member of the association, Elton Backo, believed South Sea Islanders deserve representation on the State Government's Multicultural Advisory Council, designed to advise on "opportunities and barriers facing people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds".

Multicultural Affairs Minister Grace Grace confirmed there was no South Sea Islander representative, but is confident those on the council would ensure all communities would have their voices heard.

"We don't have a presence even though we've been here the longest," Mr Backo said. His own family history traces back to 1887, when his grandfather was blackbirded.

"He was only a 13-year-old boy when he came over. He was playing on a beach and he saw the boats and they went to run away and they were caught and put straight on a boat and brought over," Mr Backo said.

"He was actually stolen from his homeland. Never ever returned."

The petition currently has only 56 signatures. Mr Williams needs to secure 10,000 by February to ensure it is read in Parliament.

Go to the Queensland Parliament website, click on 'petitions' and go to 'current e-petitions' to sign.