Deep Island Time

Torres Strait culture not lost, just buried in the past

Brisbane's Southbank cultural precinct has just been host to almost four months of exhibitions celebrating Torres Strait Islander history, arts and culture. The largest venture of its kind ever staged, the showcase ranged from 'naive' to contemporary art, music, dance, religion and traditional storytelling - all designed to make visitors more aware of the 270 islands (17 inhabited) and five language groups that make up non-mainland Melanesian Australia.
 
For its part, the State Library of Queensland brought to life more than 100 years of islander history through its exhibition Strait Home. The multimedia show draws on material collected by three different non-islanders who each recorded and preserved aspects of Torres Strait Islander culture in different time periods. One was Margaret Lawrie, a self-taught anthropologist and historian who returned regularly to the islands in the 1960s and 70s.
 
Tom Mosby is the library's manager of indigenous research and the curator of the Strait Home exhibition.

Brisbane's Southbank cultural precinct has just been host to almost four months of exhibitions celebrating Torres Strait Islander history, arts and culture. The largest venture of its kind ever staged, the showcase ranged from 'naive' to contemporary art, music, dance, religion and traditional storytelling - all designed to make visitors more aware of the 270 islands (17 inhabited) and five language groups that make up non-mainland Melanesian Australia.

For its part, the State Library of Queensland brought to life more than 100 years of islander history through its exhibition Strait Home. The multimedia show draws on material collected by three different non-islanders who each recorded and preserved aspects of Torres Strait Islander culture in different time periods. One was Margaret Lawrie, a self-taught anthropologist and historian who returned regularly to the islands in the 1960s and 70s. 

Tom Mosby is the library's manager of indigenous research and the curator of the Strait Home exhibition.

Recognition comes late for Scouts 'rounded up and thrown into the fight'

'The news of Bogese's defection was flashed to all Coast Watchers and others, for it made their positions even more precarious. Bogese knew them all....and if the Japanese used his knowledge it could only be a matter of time before Government officials and Coast Watchers were rounded up and tortured for such information as they could give before being beheaded, as had happened in other territories to the north of the Solomons.'
- D.C. Horton, Fire over the Islands, 1970
 
 
The US Navy's defence of Port Moresby in May 1942 - known as the Battle of the Coral Sea - was fought entirely in the air by fighters launched from opposing aircraft carriers. But at the same time, the capital of British Solomon Islands Protectorate Tulagi - in the Florida Islands - was occupied by a Japanese force including ships arriving from the north, the southernmost tip of Santa Isabel Island.
 
It was District Officer Donald Kennedy, a New Zealander, who gave warning of these ships; this allowed aircraft from two US carriers south of Guadalcanal to meet them at Tulagi, sinking nine of them. But later that month, Kennedy's mountain coastwatching position at Mahaga became precarious. The occupiers on Tulagi had captured a South Isabel man and physician on Savo Island named George Bogese. He was press ganged in various duties including translating Japanese propaganda for local consumption but went close to breaking the coastwatching network when - together with a number of his wantoks -  he led a Japanese patrol to Kennedy's hideout.
 
Fearing the worst, some of Kennedy's carriers deserted. He was left with his deputy and medic Geoffrey Kuper, five police from North Isabel and six Rennell Islanders. But as luck would have it, the patrol was called off and ordered back to Tulagi.
 
As a parting shot, one of Bogese's relatives led the Japanese to mangroves where Kennedy's vessel, the Wai-ai, was hidden. The 14-ton sloop was Kennedy's ticket as district officer to roam a very wide patch from Isabel to the Florida and Russell Islands, New Georgia and the Shortlands. The boat was captained by his second-in-command, Bill Bennett, a New Georgian, described by one author as 'a man of many parts: sailor, radio operator, mechanic, medical dresser, cook, and schoolteacher'.
 
Under orders to prevent the vessel falling into enemy hands, Bennett doused it with petrol and was still on the boat when it ignited from a bullet fired from a Japanese barge. He escaped but was badly burned.
 
 
But how much is really known about the position of Solomon Islanders enveloped by a calamity not of their own making? And how much is known about those islanders who worked closely with the coastwatchers gathering and sharing intelligence for the Allied cause?
 
A young Solomon historian researching this part of her country's past is Annie Kwai from the Australian National University in Canberra. From the writen memoirs of European coastwatchers, she says, a picture emerged of locals - seen by the Allies and the Japanese - as 'civilians' whose loyalty was there to be won. Once trusted, their local knowledge could be used in pursuit of military victory.
 
"This perspective does not generate a comphrensive picture," says Kwai. "Rather it promotes the story of coastwatchers, while suppressing that of Scouts."
 
She believes that this suppression may be because of the oral tradition in the Solomons where the real stories of the scouts are embedded in memory and transferred to the next generation.
 
Clearly, the scouts' loyalty towards European coastwatchers varied depending on how each of them conducted their affairs. Eric Feldt in The Coast Watchers praises Donald Kennedy as 'one of those to whom command came naturally, a full-blooded, dominant man, who at last found himself in a position where he could really use his talents'.
 
There seems to be no doubt Kennedy trained and commanded an effective military fighting force backed by a disciplined network of local intelligence operatives. His 'commando-style' attacks on Japanese barges were daring, to say the least. In addition, after July 1942, his base at Seghe, New Georgia was the centre for rescuing downed airmen - a haven for Allied pilots, a prison for Japanese ones.
 
As much as his military-style discipline exerted control over local villages and prevented Japanese infiltration,  some of Kennedy's most perilous moments were partly the result of his personal habits. His betrayal by Bogese on Isabel (described above) is said to have been partly related to his womanising. At Seghe, Kennedy was known for brutal punishment of anyone suspected of disloyalty. Researcher James Boutilier records Kennedy's crew ramming a whaleboat in Marovo Lagoon. Kennedy himself was wounded in the leg. Much later, his captain Bill Bennett, admitted that it was he who caused the injury and not the enemy. Despite his senior rank as one of Kennedy's 'lieutenants', Bennett too was brutalised by the coastwatcher.
 
 
Other coastwatchers, it seems, commanded respect more than fear. Martin Clemens on Guadalcanal was supported by many acts of courage, guile and heroism, built around a group of savvy police constables who protected the intelligence operation as it was forced to move inland from Aola. All three qualities were often required to win the crucial psychological battle waged at the grassroots, a battle on which the quality of intelligence turned. In his coastwatcher's memoir, Fire over the Islands, Dick Horton wrote -
 
'The scouts and police were continuously active in seeking news of enemy dispositions and preserving and encouraging morale amongst the islanders. They combined business with pleasure by attaching themselves to the Japanese as simple villagers anxious to work for them....When they had gleaned all they could, they would slip away and report to Martin [Clemens], making certain en route that the local people knew what they had done so that they would take heart and look down on the invaders who could be fooled so easily.'
 
A police sergeant-major who came out of retirement, Jacob Vouza, was also a key member of Clemens' scouting team. There are many recorded accounts of Solomon Islanders not giving up coastwatchers under Japanese interrogation but Vouza took his duties one step further. While scouting for Marines in August 1942 just prior to the Battle of Alligator Creek, Vouza was captured . A Marine journal from 1992 describes his ordeal in this way -
 
'Vouza refused to answer questions. The Japanese tied him to a tree and beat him in the face with rifle butts. He not only refused to answer more questions but shook his horribly bloody head. They bayonetted him twice in the chest. He still said nothing. Finally in frustration, a Japanese soldier thrust his bayonet forward, stabbed the sergeant-major in the throat and left him for dead, tied to the tree. Vouza, though choking on his own blood, was too tough to die....Vouza gnawed and chewed his way through the ropes. Eventually freeing himself, Vouza crawled to the Marine lines.'
 
Miraculously, he recovered and in November the same year, he was back guiding Marines through the jungles behind Aola. Highly decorated, he died in 1984, aged 89.
 
As it is with all soldiers, the extremes of war create bonds between those whose lives depend on each other. So, Dick Horton, a long-time resident and district officer, speaks highly of the individual islanders who defended the protectorate. He also suggests that their collective loyalty, however praiseworthy, still relied on people like him and Clemens standing firm and staying committed to the Allied cause.
 
On the other hand, Eric Feldt,  who ran the coastwatching operation from Townsville, did not have the personal ties to Solomon Islanders, though he did serve as district officer in New Guinea. In his book, The Coast Watchers, he recognises the auxiliary (and sometimes heroic) role of loyal islanders and cites their military honours by name; but collectively he regarded them as prone to disintegration.
 
'[I]n spite of the encouraging signs in the native attitude, it was obvious to anyone of experience that time would bring deterioration. The only question was how much time would elapse before native loyalty cracked completely, and what would have happened in that time elsewhere.'
 
As a naval officer outside the theatre of war, Feldt may have underestimated the ingenuity of key local leaders (in particular, the scouts with their ties to colonial authority) in forestalling this process. Scouts not only used guile and trickery to keep community members away from the enemy and vice versa but also worked to bring local populations into the game of intelligence-gathering and so gave them a stake in its outcome.
 
Horton recalls an episode at Aola when the Japanese were still holding ground on Guadalcanal's north coast. One of their patrols had enlisted the help of a local Japanese man from Tulagi (Ishimoto) to interrogate villagers. It encountered
Corporal Andrew Langaebaea, one of Clemens' police scouts.
 
'Andrew was interrogated but was far too wily to give anything away, and spun a yarn so convincing that in the end the Japanese were made to believe that all the Europeans had fled from the islands and that all Andrew was interested in was the cultivation of his garden. Andrew's example of courage and quick thinking did a great deal to stabilise the local people after their first wild panic when they saw Ishimoto with the Japanese patrol.'
 
Courage and quick thinking aside, the war brought unmitigated hardship. Another decorated hero is Sir Gideon Zoleveke, a former government minister from eastern Choiseul, who had to defer his medical education in Fiji till after the war.
 
Speaking at a seminar in 1988, Zoleveke is at times resentful of foreign powers turning his land into a killing field. And despite being untrained, they still offered themselves up to the Allied cause.
 
"If it hadn't been for us, they would have been stopped by the reefs, the jungle, and starvation," he said in a translation from Pidgin. "They wouldn't even have met up. They would have died, every one of them, both Japanese and American. But we were there and we led them."
 
But he complains most bitterly about the lack of financial support for Solomon veterans, something that foreigners fighting on their shores were covered for. It reminds him that what the Allies achieved in the Solomons was possible due to Solomon Islanders being a dependent people.
 
"The British rounded us up and threw us into the fight," he said. "If they were to do that today, they would have to go through the Parliament. And Parliament would have to ask the British government to pay a certain amount of money before they could take even one Solomon Islander to join that war."
 
Another Solomon veteran who has spoken about his wartime activities is Alfred Bisili, a New Georgian who scouted for Donald Kennedy at Seghe. Bisili was on-duty during the occupation of Gizo and Munda in the Western Solomons in late 1942. He recalls the evacuation of Munda and how the villagers fled to the hills and suffered from food shortages. He scouted for them telling them when it was safe to come down to their food gardens.
 
Bisili told the 1988 seminar that he was "saddened by the fact that for many of us who have contributed and done a lot during the war, no recognition has been given to us for what we have done". His memories may have been sweetened by an opportunity to attend a commemoration earlier this month in Honiara (see photo) which dedicated a permanent monument to the scouts and the coastwatchers whom they so selflessly served.
 
 
Main sources
Feldt E. (1946), The Coast Watchers
Horton, D.C. (1970), Fire Over the Islands: The Coastwatchers of the Solomons
Laracy, H. & White, G. (eds)(1988), 'Taem Blong Faet: World War II in Melanesia',
’0’0: A Journal of Solomon Islands Studies, No 4
Boutilier, J. (1989), 'Kennedy’s Army' in  White, G. & Lindstrom, L. (eds),
The Pacific Theater: Island Representations of World War II
 

In this second article on Solomon Islanders in World War II - commemorated earlier this month in Honiara - Telinga Media reports the deeds of the Solomon Scouts who fed, spied for and protected the coastwatching operation so vital to the eventual Allied victory over Japanese occupying forces.

But as scouts themselves remind us, Solomon Islanders - in supporting the Allies - made sacrifices in aid of someone else's war.  

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Solomon Scouts' eyes and ears gave Allies tactical edge

Quote: "The occupation of Tulagi put the Coast Watchers in the position that they could escape only by our reconquest of the Solomons, if they could survive until that took place....[They] continued to signal intelligence; this, in itself, meant their death if they were captured. Deliberately accepting the risk, they remained, with only the faith that the Allies would one day strike back; if soon, to save them; if not soon, well, that would be bad luck."
- Eric Feldt, The Coast Watchers, 1946
To say the British Solomon Islands Protectorate was unprepared to assume centre-stage in the Pacific War in early 1942 is an understatement. Its defence force based in the colonial capital Tulagi amounted to a handful of locals and about 150 Europeans. In response to the Japanese advance, a plan for Australian airmen to train up a local militia never got off the ground.
The island-hopping that saw the occupation of the Philippines, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia and by January the New Guinea islands (Rabaul) was about to encircle the Solomon chain from its northwest. How Japanese naval, air and land forces were  dislodged from their foothold in the protectorate is a story being re-considered by a new generation of Solomon Islanders curious about how largely untrained, non-military personnel helped turn the tide. In particular, how and why did the sudden affront of someone else's war spur Solomon Islanders to defend the colony?
The answer lies in how a naval intelligence operation sprung up across the islands. Its key operatives were largely Europeans, recruited as coastwatchers and stationed at strategic points to observe enemy activity. But their intelligence-gathering was enabled by the cooperation of many local recruits who spied for, fought for and generally protected the coastwatchers, allowing them to continue to supply critical information to the Allied military effort.
"The Japanese know that there are coastwatchers on the islands," says Annie Kwai, a young Solomon Islands historian studying her country's wartime history at the Australian National University in Canberra. "[They] have to move from one place to another just to make their location unknown to the Japanese and their mobility is assisted by the local people."
When war came to the Solomons, the civil administration became militarised. Those who took up coastwatching duties were often serving or former district officers in the colony. Or they were long-term residents who ran plantations and were later given naval rank. As Europeans, this rank was less important than the trust they inspired in those whom they recruited as scouts to be their 'eyes and ears' on the ground.
One such coastwatcher looked at by Kwai is Martin Clemens, a Scottish-born former district officer on Makira who responded to the strike on Pearl Harbour by returning to duty at Aola on Guadalcanal's north coast. He was at first posted to Gizo which was already under threat.
"Clemens claimed that going to Gizo would be suicide and he insisted to be posted on Guadalcanal," Kwai told Telinga Media. "In the end, he manage to convince [District Commissioner] Marchant to assign him to the district office on Aola."
"The interesting thing about him is while trying to hide behind enemy lines and escape from the Japanese, he also tried to maintain law and order in the country and tried to maintain his role as the district officer," she said.
These two difficult tasks depended on each other. In New Guinea, there were cases where coastwatchers had been 'given up' to the enemy. The Japanese did not underestimate their value to Allied war readiness and in various part of the archipelago, sent patrols to track them down, using locals to gather their own intelligence.
For example, in March a Japanese landing crew near Kessa on Buka Island suspected that coastwatcher Percy Good had betrayed their position and killed him. More fortunate was Paul Mason, a planter who set up a lookout near Buin, southeast Bougainville to report on bombers flying in from Rabaul and warships amassing in the Shortland Islands. Protected by seven scouts led by a police constable named Moia, Mason avoided a search party in May; in October, just prior to a major offensive to re-take Guadalcanal, the Japanese sent tracker dogs (destroyed by an aerial bomb) plus a party of 100 trackers to capture Mason. They failed because his own scouts secreted him inland and when it was safe shepherded him back to his lookout where he continued to signal news of the naval build-up back to the east.
Clemens likewise was dependent on the loyalty of his scouts and their ability to guarantee him safe passage as he moved inland to avoid Japanese patrols. This was particularly acute in May after Japanese forces overran Tulagi and nearby islands and begun to establish a base and airfield at Lungga Point, just east of the present-day capital Honiara and only 60km west of his base at Aola.
Clemens had his core of loyal scouts who were mostly police constables. But as the occupiers raced to complete their airfield with local labour, Japanese contact with locals inevitably increased. According to Kwai, this caused some villages to turn against the coastwatchers, though most recognised their authority, many having been part of the  civil administration.
"According to some of the interviews I've done with the local surviving scouts, they see the coastwatchers as 'well, they are our government and we're supposed to look after them.'"
In a battle for the hearts and minds of the people, the Japanese did their cause no good by killing cattle, looting gardens and by their rough treatment of labourers recruited to build the airfield. Some Japanese propaganda had gone down well with some villagers but their work regimes did not inspire confidence. Kwai says notices were put about offering citizenship within the empire after two-years' unpaid labour.
"The local people - some of whom know how to read - say, 'well, if we don't get paid for what we're doing, what's the point of us working?' So, the relationship started to break down," she said. "If the Japanese built a better relationship, it could have been a different story."
The destruction visited on US naval infrastructure at Pearl Harbour in December 1941 was part of a strategy to prevent the Americans coming to the aid of pre-communist China, under Japanese occupation since 1937. Its military adventure through the islands of Southeast Asia aimed to secure control of Indonesian oilfields, controlling the sea lanes and thus isolating China from its potential allies.
With bases in the New Guinea Islands at Kavieng and Rabaul, Tulagi and the airfield on Guadalcanal was the next staging post extending the buffer southeast. The American entry into the Pacific War after Pearl Harbour saw them overcome the Japanese Imperial Navy at the Battle of the Coral Sea (4 - 8 May) as it approached Port Moresby. In June, they were successful again at the Battle of Midway. And just as the Lungga airfield was almost operational, the US Marines launched a surprise ground attack on Guadalcanal to seize the airstrip and re-take British headquarters at Tulagi.
It is the date of the dawn landing by US Marines - 7th August - that has been chosen to honour Solomon coastwatchers and police scouts and recognise their role in turning the tide on Japan's imperial ambition. It was a day when the coastwatching network  demonstrated its prowess - not as a substitute for fighting - but in Eric Feldt's words, by putting 'the fighting man in a position of advantage'.
The re-taking of Tulagi and the near-complete airfield at Lungga was bound to provoke a swift counter punch by Japanese bombers. Air strikes ensued, sent from bases at Kavieng and Rabaul but reported by coastwatchers on Bougainville, giving the Allies more than two hours' warning to prepare their defences and brace for the bombardment.
The warnings also were critical to blunting the Japanese strategic advantage in the air. As Feldt explains in his book The Coast Watchers, their Zero bombers had proved a superior fighting plane owing to their manoeuvrability. The extra time gave the slow-climbing Wildcats the edge by allowing them to be above the Zeros when they reached Guadalcanal airspace.
This Sunday at Point Cruz on Honiara's wharves, a monument will be dedicated to this network of people - planters, labourers, police, soldiers, medics, missionaries and civil servants - who chose not to evacuate and worked together at great risk in defence of their islands. In addition to the monument designed by local artist Frank Haikiu, a roll of honour will be displayed at the National Museum.
Visitors will read names like D.C. Horton, H.E. Josselyn and A.N.A. Waddell who acted as guides to pilot Marines to Tulagi and each serving at various times as coastwatchers on Guadalcanal, Rendova, Vella Lavella and Choiseul. They will also be able to view the names of thousands of Solomon Islanders - names like Sir Jacob Vouza and Sir Gideon Zoleveke - whose contributions are well known throughout the Solomons. There will appear the names of enlisted scouts, some members of the Solomon Islands Labour Corps formed in December 1942. There are also those local boys who simply turned up to help who will not all find their way onto the distinguished list.
Annie Kwai's desire to recognise her compatriots' role in shaping their own history comes partly from her own education.
"I finished my studies at USP [the University of the South Pacific] and come back. I don't have any idea about the topic. It is a wealth of knowledge - what your people do during the war and feeling a sense of pride for it."
Her research efforts have been supported by the Ministry of Education. Some of her results have already started to find their way into the national high school curriculum.
"Most of the things on the social science syllabus don't talk about the involvement of Solomon Islanders in World War II," she says. "It talks briefly about 'World War II comes to the Solomon Islands' but nothing about the Solomon Islanders."
The roll of honour is intentionally presented as a national roll of those who at a time of  bewildering destruction that they did not fully understand, showed the highest levels of resourcefulness and cooperation in spite of the divisions within colonial society.
"We try not to separate these names to build a sense of national unity," Kwai explains. "So you can look at the list and say, 'oh, these are people from Solomon Islands, not this is Guadalcanal or Malaita."
"And given the complexity and the sensitivity of ethicity in the Solomon Islands, it is very important for a project like this to pull together these differences and put Solomon Islanders into one nation and say, 'these are the people of the Solomon Islands, these are the heroes of Solomon Islands' and I think that the project will achieve that."

This Sunday - 7th August - marks the 69th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, a turning point in the Pacific War where Japanese sea and air power was exposed in the waters between Guadalcanal and the Florida Islands. Military planners have long acknowledged the decisive tactical role played by the Coastwatching Organisation, a naval intelligence operation extending from New Guinea through the southwest Pacific islands and northeastern Australia.

But in the Solomons, it was loyal Solomon Islands police scouts who made the operation work on the ground. Their contribution is now receiving due attention through new research and a celebration on Sunday in Honiara honouring the 'non-military' effort in support of Allied defence of the islands in 1942-43. 

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Caneworker descendants dream of island homes

We're not indigenous to Australia nor are we indigenous to Vanuatu, because we were all born here. So who are we?
- Imelda Miller, Australian South Sea Islander & co-curator, My Island Homes
South Sea Islanders are not the first group to settle the Australian continent and struggle to find their place in this land. But their long struggle probably has more in common with the first (aboriginal) Australians who had to wait till 1965 to vote in Queensland elections, were not counted in the national census until 1967 and did not receive an official apology for destructive welfare policies until 2008.
This is why formal recognition by the national government in 1994 and the Queensland government in 2000 are such landmarks for the descendants of caneworkers who built the Queensland coastal sugar industry from the 1860s till the early years of the twentieth century. These official gestures have led South Sea Islanders to be more willing to search for lost family detail in the fragments of memory that have survived the passing of generations.
"That [recognition] really inspired people to find out more. People felt they had a place," third-generation South Sea Islander Imelda Miller told Telinga Media.  "They know where they're from - whether it's Vanuatu, the Solomons or somewhere else. It's enough. Just to have that identity is enough."
Many of the fragments have been creatively reproduced in a multimedia exhibition Miller is co-curating in the Sunshine Coast town of Cooroy, north of Brisbane.
As assistant curator of the Queensland Museum's Pacific collection, she has worked with the Sunshine Coast Regional Council to combine historical photographs, museum artefacts and video testimony from Sunshine Coast descendants into a story of resilience and pride. As one testimonial states tearfully: "I am really proud to be a South Sea islander. But I'm also proud to be an Australian."
Official records show that deportation in the early 1900s left less than 20% of islanders in Australia. Their descendants admit that much of the traditional ways of the elders has been lost, Miller says, "because they never thought we'd need it again".
But the Queensland coast is marked by places of significance, such as an area on the Maroochy River known as The Old Place. This has been a meeting place for generations.
"The descendants who grew up there, they always go back there and they continue their culture," says Krishna Nahow-Ryall, a South Sea islander and curator of her own exhibition running concurrently with My Island Homes.  "They go fishing, they camp there, they tell stories. So it's a place where the culture is maintained and it's a very special place, not only to the descendants that live here but it a place where the islanders cutting the sugar cane stopped when they were moving round the state."
When asked about the customs that might make up an east coast Melanesian influence, Miller mentioned her father cultivating a "huge market garden" and "surrounding ourselves with fruit trees" but also cites "respect and hard work" as surviving traits of South Sea islander culture.
About 60,000 labourers were recruited over a forty year period; by the turn of the century, there were 10,000 working recruits. One of the first acts of the Australian Parliament was to pass the Pacific Islanders Labourers Act in 1901, designed to end recruitment and send them back to their home islands.
My Island Homes suggests that despite extreme hardships of indentured farm labour, living conditions became even more difficult in the period after deportation.
"When the White Australia Policy come about, people were worried that families were going to be separated," explains Miller. "Some people had inter-married and that just wasn't accepted back in the islands so it just wasn't going to be a smooth transition for some people."
The White Australia Policy which marked the birth of nationhood was not simply aimed at restricting non-white immigration; it was put into practice through a series of discriminatory laws designed to deny resident non-Europeans an economic base. These laws not only had the desired effect of forcing islanders out of the sugar industry but also highly restricted their involvement in other agricultural industries, as well as mining and fisheries. The infamous 'dictation test' - so successfully used to exclude immigrants of non-European background - was written into some of these laws.
"They'd made a life here," says Miller. "They'd built themselves into the landscape and they were making their way in the sugar industry. They were starting to want to buy their own crops and plantations and make money. And this is why there was so much pressure to send them back to their islands because they were now starting to become a force to be reckoned with within the sugar industry. And they were apparently taking the jobs of other white labourers."
"All those skills they knew about the sugar industry were being legislated against. [They] therefore were forced to do very menial tasks in other places and this sent them back down to live on the river to make their gardens, to live from fish from the ocean. These people had families to support. Now they could no longer work in the industry that they once created."
One's sense of identity and therefore visions of what is possible in the future can sometimes be captive to selective memories of the past. This is to some extent at play in the anguished national debate over the so-called 'stolen generations'. The term itself announces to all Australian a damning verdict on long-standing policies made in the name of 'protection' of Aboriginal children. It might be fair to say that the term 'slavery' plays a similar role in the way South Sea Islander history is remembered - and still debated.
One view is that 'slavery' and 'blackbirding' are inadequate terms to capture the range of islander experiences during the forty-year labour trade. While under the Master and Servants Act labourer were not free to negotiate the terms of indenture, the 1861 law was anot an act of slavery. Some labourers were known to return to Queensland more than once and might therefore not regard the journey as one of coercion. My Island Homes deal with this long-standing debate in this way:
'The exploitation of the young Islanders and the way in which they were “recruited” into becoming labourers, is still debated and the question remains: were they forced, coerced, deceived or persuaded to leave their island homes at a young age and travel by ship to Queensland?  The answer to that is yes, all of those methods were used. '
Catch-all definitions such as 'slave trade' may be less revealing than the detail of family histories, pieced together by determined individuals who longed to know the journey that brought them to this point.
One such individual - who has traced her islander lineage back four generations to the island of Mota Lava in the northern Banks group in Vanuatu - is Krishna Nahow-Ryall, whose exhibition Long a...long sugar...ca...cane derives its title from a blackbirding song still sung on that island. Nahow-Ryall recognised that different islands had different encounters with these recruiting ships.
"I know that the Banks islands where my family came from have always had a reputation of always being very friendly people, very happy and very humble and accepting people," she explains. "Whereas other islands, they might have the reputation of being very strong on witchcraft and being more aggressive. Each island would have a different experience but my family that were brought here, they came from the Banks and Tanna and there was a girl and three boys and they were children."
Queensland Museum's Imelda Miller also acknowledges these different interactions. But regardless of the circumstances of 'recruitment', she warns against being distracted from the fact that once transported to Queensland, they were all subjected to the same harsh living and working conditions.
In one of the exhibition's video testimonies, a third-generation South Sea Islander, Rex Eggmolesse, speaks of his parents who fought for recognition in the 1970s but did not live to see their dream realised.
"We could stand up and say that the government now recognises us as a unique cultural group and it gave us something to tell our children and for them to tell their children,"  says Miller, referring to how recognition lifted the veil on their hidden history.
"Now, just to be recognised and have that acknowledgement is all people want. People just want their story to be heard and acknowledged and then they can move on."

'We're not indigenous to Australia nor are we indigenous to Vanuatu, because we were all born here. So who are we?'

- Imelda Miller, Australian South Sea Islander & co-curator, My Island Homes


South Sea Islanders are not the first group to settle the Australian continent and struggle to find their place in this land. But their long struggle probably has more in common with the first (aboriginal) Australians who had to wait till 1965 to vote in Queensland elections, were not counted in the national census until 1967 and did not receive an official apology for destructive welfare policies until 2008.

This is why formal recognition by the national government in 1994 and the Queensland government in 2000 are such landmarks for the descendants of caneworkers who built the Queensland coastal sugar industry from the 1860s till the early years of the twentieth century. These official gestures have led South Sea Islanders to be more willing to search for lost family detail in the fragments of memory that have survived the passing of generations.

"That [recognition] really inspired people to find out more. People felt they had a place," third-generation South Sea Islander Imelda Miller told Telinga Media.  "They know where they're from - whether it's Vanuatu, the Solomons or somewhere else. It's enough. Just to have that identity is enough."

Many of the fragments have been creatively reproduced in a multimedia exhibition - called My Island Homes - Miller is co-curating in the Sunshine Coast town of Cooroy, north of Brisbane.

As assistant curator of Torres Strait Islander and Pacific Indigenous Studies at the Queensland Museum, she has worked with the Sunshine Coast Regional Council to combine historical photographs, museum artefacts and video testimony from Sunshine Coast descendants into a story of resilience and pride. As one testimonial states tearfully: "I am really proud to be a South Sea islander. But I'm also proud to be an Australian."

Official records show that deportation in the early 1900s left less than 20% of islanders in Australia. Their descendants admit that much of the traditional ways of the elders has been lost, Miller says, "because they never thought we'd need it again".

But the Queensland coast is marked by places of significance, such as an area on the Maroochy River known as The Old Place. This has been a meeting place for generations.

"The descendants who grew up there, they always go back there and they continue their culture," says Krishna Nahow-Ryall, a South Sea islander and curator of her own exhibition running concurrently with My Island Homes.  "They go fishing, they camp there, they tell stories. So it's a place where the culture is maintained and it's a very special place, not only to the descendants that live here but it a place where the islanders cutting the sugar cane stopped when they were moving round the state."

When asked about the customs that might make up an east coast Melanesian influence, Miller mentioned her father cultivating a "huge market garden" and "surrounding ourselves with fruit trees" but also cites "respect and hard work" as surviving traits of South Sea islander culture.

About 60,000 labourers were recruited over a forty year period; by the turn of the century, there were 10,000 working recruits. One of the first acts of the Australian Parliament was to pass the Pacific Islander Labourers Act in 1901, designed to end recruitment and send them back to their home islands.

My Island Homes suggests that despite extreme hardships of indentured farm labour, living conditions became even more difficult in the period after deportation. 

"When the White Australia Policy come about, people were worried that families were going to be separated," explains Miller. "Some people had inter-married and that just wasn't accepted back in the islands so it just wasn't going to be a smooth transition for some people."

The White Australia Policy which marked the birth of nationhood was not simply aimed at restricting non-white immigration; it put into practice a series of discriminatory laws designed to deny resident non-Europeans an economic base and encourage them to leave. These laws not only had the desired effect of forcing islanders out of the sugar industry but also highly restricted their involvement in other agricultural industries, as well as mining and fisheries. The infamous 'dictation test' - so successfully used to exclude immigrants of non-European background - was written into some of these laws.

"They'd made a life here," says Miller. "They'd built themselves into the landscape and they were making their way in the sugar industry. They were starting to want to buy their own crops and plantations and make money. And this is why there was so much pressure to send them back to their islands because they were now starting to become a force to be reckoned with within the sugar industry. And they were apparently taking the jobs of other white labourers."

"All those skills they knew about the sugar industry were being legislated against. [They] therefore were forced to do very menial tasks in other places and this sent them back down to live on the river to make their gardens, to live from fish from the ocean. These people had families to support. Now they could no longer work in the industry that they once created."

One's sense of identity and therefore visions of what is possible in the future can sometimes be captive to selective memories of the past. This is to some extent at play in the anguished national debate over the so-called 'stolen generations'. The term itself announces to all Australians a damning verdict on long-standing policies made in the name of 'protection' of Aboriginal children. It might be fair to say that the term 'slavery' plays a similar role in the way South Sea Islander history is remembered - and still debated. 

One view is that 'slavery' and 'blackbirding' are inadequate terms to capture the range of islander experiences during the forty-year labour trade. While under the Master and Servants Act labourers were not free to negotiate the terms of indenture, the 1861 law was not an act of slavery. Some labourers were known to return to Queensland more than once and might therefore not regard the journey as one of coercion. My Island Homes deals with this long-standing debate in this way:

'The exploitation of the young Islanders and the way in which they were “recruited” into becoming labourers, is still debated and the question remains: were they forced, coerced, deceived or persuaded to leave their island homes at a young age and travel by ship to Queensland? The answer to that is yes, all of those methods were used. '

Catch-all definitions such as 'slave trade' may be less revealing than the detail of family histories, pieced together by determined individuals who longed to know the journey that brought them to this point.

One such individual - who has traced her islander lineage back four generations to the island of Mota Lava in the northern Banks group in Vanuatu - is Krishna Nahow-Ryall, whose exhibition Long a...long sugar...ca...cane derives its title from a blackbirding song still sung on that island. Nahow-Ryall recognised that different islands had different encounters with these recruiting ships.

"I know that the Banks islands where my family came from have always had a reputation of always being very friendly people, very happy and very humble and accepting people," she explains. "Whereas other islands, they might have the reputation of being very strong on witchcraft and being more aggressive. Each island would have a different experience but my family that were brought here, they came from the Banks and Tanna and there was a girl and three boys and they were children." 

The Queensland Museum's Imelda Miller also acknowledges these different interactions. But regardless of the circumstances of 'recruitment', she warns against being distracted from the fact that once transported to Queensland, they were all subjected to the same harsh living and working conditions.

In one of the exhibition's video testimonies, a third-generation South Sea Islander, Rex Eggmolesse, speaks of his parents who fought for recognition in the 1970s but did not live to see their dream realised.

"We could stand up and say that the government now recognises us as a unique cultural group and it gave us something to tell our children and for them to tell their children,"  says Miller, referring to how recognition lifted the veil on their hidden history.

"Now, just to be recognised and have that acknowledgement is all people want. People just want their story to be heard and acknowledged and then they can move on."

 

My Island Homes - curated by Imelda Miller (Queensland Museum) & Olivia Robinson (Sunshine Coast Regional Council) and Long a...long sugar...ca...cane - curated by Krishna Nahow-Ryall exhibit at the Cooroy Butter Factory (07 5454 9050) until 2nd July

 

© Telinga Media. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited

 

Caneworker descendants dream of island homes

Sonny MAster from sarahscragg on Vimeo.

Most people are familiar with the pitch of Australian politicians when speaking about immigration. It was post-war mass migration from Europe that provided the labour for the great monuments to nation-building such as the Snowy Mountain Scheme.

But far fewer remember that before Australia ever called itself by that name, agricultural workers from Melanesia were forging a nation in the canefields of Queensland - a nation that would later reject them once they had outlived their usefulness.

The descendants of those caneworkers are now remembering their contribution through two exhibitions in the Queensland town of Cooroy.

Most people are familiar with the pitch of Australian politicians when speaking about immigration. It was post-war mass migration from Europe that provided the labour for the great monuments to nation-building such as the Snowy Mountain Scheme.
 
But far fewer remember that before Australia ever called itself by that name, agricultural workers from Melanesia were forging a nation in the canefields of Queensland - a nation that would later reject them once they had outlived their usefulness.
 
The descendants of those caneworkers are now remembering their contribution through two exhibitions in the Queensland town of Cooroy.

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