Why It's Time We Recognised Islander History


This month marks 150 years since about 50,000 people on 62,000 indenture contracts from 80 Pacific Islands were recruited or kidnapped to work under highly exploitative conditions in sugar cane fields.

These Australian South Sea Islanders suffered inhumane treatment, the highest mortality rates of any immigrant group to Australia and mass deportations when the White Australia Policy was introduced in 1901.  Ninety five per cent of them were adolescent and young adult males, the rest were women.

Today the NSW Parliament will have the opportunity to provide Australian South Sea Islanders with the recognition and respect that they deserve and help their community work towards a more positive future.

I’ve heard shocking stories of Islanders being coerced on to boats, having their canoes sunk, and being detained through force.

Recruitment contracts took advantage of Islanders, who came from small scale societies. They were paid in cheap goods and legally bound to stay and work in ways they did not understand.

In the 1870s, the Reverend JC Kirby described seeing a group of Islanders walking through Dalby without shoes accompanied by armed men on horseback, as a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Australian South Sea Islanders see themselves as descendants of slaves.

Coming from isolated islands, Islanders lacked immunity to common diseases causing massive mortality rates, including from tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, dysentery, measles and chicken pox.

Eighty one out of 1000 Islanders died in their first year in Australia, and overall 74 out of 1000 died. At the time, mortality rates for Australian Europeans of the same age were nine to 10 in 1000.

While official records show 14,564 Islanders died, the true figure is likely over 15,000 given data collection gaps. Even though the impact of the program was know, it was continued for over 40 years.

In 1901 the Australian Government passed the Pacific Island Labourers Act as part of its White Australia policy to remove Islanders from the country through gradual attrition and forced deportation. Sugar farmers were compensated with an embargo on foreign sugar and subsidies for sugar produced by white labour.

There were mass forced deportations between 1906 and 1908. Protests from Islanders led to exemptions for those who had lived in Australia for over 20 years, were aged or infirm, had children in school, owned land, were married to someone not from their island, or could prove safety risks if they returned home.

About 2000 to 2500 remained and most Australian South Sea Islanders are descendants of this group.

Incentives in the sugar industry to hire white-only labour relegated Islanders to menial farm work or subsistence. They lived on the fringes and suffered discrimination.

This is a shameful chapter in Australia’s history and Australian South Sea Islander Recognition Day on 25 August is a time to reflect and move forward for the 40,000 descendants, whose social and economic disadvantage is equivalent to Aboriginal Australians.

Many descendants live in New South Wales but there are no official figures. If people identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander they cannot also identify as Australian South Sea Islander, despite widespread amalgamation of Islanders in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

Australian South Sea Islanders can access education, housing, health and legal programs aimed at indigenous Australians but there are no specific programs for them, despite being defined as a distinct disadvantaged ethnic group.

In 1995 then-premier Bob Carr’s Memorandum of Understanding called for adequate services to target Australian South Sea Islanders.

Australian South Sea Islanders want self-determination and vital to this is acknowledgement of past atrocities and data on the current state of affairs.

The NSW State Government should involve the national representative body for Australian South Sea Islanders to prepare a demographic, social and economic community profile and develop a plan of action to remove disadvantage in line with the 1992 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report recommendations.

The 150th anniversary provides the opportunity to make a formal recognition statement to help build community esteem and a positive future.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.