Queensland Australian South Sea Islanders embrace 20th Anniversary

Collections: Australian South Sea Islander Kastom Collection

Imelda Miller, Curator – Torres Strait Islander and Pacific Indigenous Studies, Queensland Museum Network

Australian South Sea Islander history and heritage is an important part of Queensland history.  This year, 2020 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Queensland Government’s official recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders’ continuing contributions to Queensland.

Queensland Government Recognition Statement Australian South Sea Islander Community.
QE12676. Queensland Museum Collection

20 years ago today

Early in my museum career, I remember sitting in the public gallery of the Queensland Parliament on the morning of 7 September 2000.   People were hurrying to their chairs overlooking the  Queensland Parliament.  The atmosphere was exciting with a touch of apprehension as the room filled with people who had travelled from across Queensland to witness to a significant moment in Queensland’s history.  A hush fell across the room as Parliamentary proceedings began, then the Honorable Peter Beattie, the then Premier of Queensland stood up in the Queensland Parliament at 9:37am and said:

I seek the support of all members of the House in acknowledging a very significant advance.  Today my government will right the wrong that has existed for more than a century in Queensland.  Today we formally recognise Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group in Queensland. 

Instantly people in the public gallery stood up out of their chairs and in chorus they cheered and applauded, as they were acknowledged by Queensland Government.  He continued:

From this day, Australian South Sea Islanders will be recognised as a distinct cultural group in Queensland. Over several generations, the community has called for such recognition to acknowledge their special place in the history of this State.

Hansard Records 7 September 2000

The Hone P.D Beattie

Who are Australian South Sea Islanders

The Commonwealth Government formally acknowledged Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group in 1994.  However, their story remains not well known in the wider community. 

Australian South Sea Islanders are descendants of South Sea Islanders who were the sourced cheap labour to establish the Australian sugar industry.  Over a 40 year period between 1863 and 1904 some 62000 contracts were issued to South Sea Islanders predominantly from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands and as well as New Caledonia, Fiji, Kiribati and New Ireland and Milne Bay Provinces of Papua New Guinea. Some people were ‘blackbirded’ – coerced, tricked, kidnapped, while others came by choice. South Sea Islanders were required to clear the land of scrub, as well as plant, maintain and harvest the cane.  Men, women and children worked and lived in harsh conditions working long days and for low wages.  By the 1900’s some 10000 islanders were residing in Queensland working in the sugar, maritime and pastoral industries.  Islanders were moving throughout the landscape creating new communities, new families in a new land.   However, some people did not like this and in 1901, the newly established Commonwealth Government ordered the mass deportation of South Sea Islanders back to home islands.  Some 1600 people remained and their descendants are called, Australian South Sea Islanders.

Australian South Sea Islanders travelled from across the state to be apart of the Queensland Government Recognition Ceremony, Queensland Parliament, 7 September 2000. EH7871

Recognition for Australian South Sea Islanders

Twenty years ago today the Queensland Governments recognition statement acknowledged over a century of injustices, exploitation and discrimination experienced by the Australian South Sea Islander community.  Today the community still stand proud and strong.  Old people who were present 20 years ago have now passed but a new generation of young people have grown up with a stronger sense of their cultural identity and responsibility to embrace, maintain and reclaim the Australian South Sea Islander narrative for the next generation.   

Keep watching this blog for new research projects with the Australian South Sea Islander Community.

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