Walking across the landscape

Dr Geraldine Mate, Principal Curator – History, Industry and Technology, Queensland Museum Network

When you visit somewhere with a person who has lived there all their life, it gives you a very different understanding of that place and why it’s important to those who live there. At the moment, Queensland Museum staff are part of an amazing project that does just that.

Since 2016, Queensland Museum curators have been working with Australian South Sea Islander communities in Central Queensland to document stories and places for future generations. One element of this project involves exploring the landscapes where Australian South Sea Islanders have lived and worked for more than 150 years. We have been regularly visiting and talking to communities in Mackay, Ayr, Rockhampton, Yeppoon and Joskeleigh. Travelling around with community members, you hear some fascinating stories of people and events that happened in these places.  As a curator and researcher, I feel so privileged to have the chance to learn of peoples’ histories – to hear stories you would never otherwise know, and come to a sense of place that might otherwise stay unknown outside the community.

Mango Trees and Meeting Houses

Australian South Sea Islanders have been in Queensland since 1863, brought here in labour vessels as a result of an unequal labour trade targeted at Pacific Islanders. Traveling from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and other island nations in the Pacific, South Sea Islanders went to work, predominantly in sugar growing, across Queensland. Since these early days, people have worked the land, settled in place and lived culturally-rich lives heavily influenced by their past and by their Pacific connections.

In 2019, Queensland Museum commenced a project working with communities across Central Queensland to document the stories, places and landscapes that the community value, working together to record important places, and to identify potential archaeological sites to investigate and reveal the earliest places Australian South Sea Islanders lived and worked as indentured (slave) labour as part of the colonial sugar industry.  What became apparent though were the many contemporary places and features – houses, mango trees, riverbank locations – that continue to be important places.

In Mackay we visited the Homebush Meeting Hall and the Palms on the banks of the Pioneer River, in Joskeleigh the saltpans, the school and the cemetery, and at Ayr, we visited Plantation Creek. In all of these places the networks across central Queensland – connecting people and places, shared memories intertwining – and the importance of specific locations and features became clearer and clearer with each personal recollection building on another in one spot, or even connecting to another place.

Homebush Meeting Hall

Walking with people across the landscape, I have been struck by the sense of continuity of places – places of prayer, places of family, places of labour, places of community and laughter. And the mediums for remembering that come through the geography of place – rivers, shade trees, fruit and fish, and reminders of people who once lived in the now-deserted houses and barracks.

Each visit we hear different stories and start to understand the many layers of histories and personal stories, connecting and reconnecting people, in place. The connection to the generations that came before is strong, and the connections to the islands of the Pacific are there, just below the surface, linking those that live and work in the area today directly back to predecessors who came here at a different time, with restrictions and prejudices imposed, but also with family and faith that reinforced strong identity.

It is this depth of connection that we strive to understand and convey in this project, and the challenge in how we do this in a way that the community desires and feels is best placed to tell this important part of Queensland’s history.

Cemetery at Joskeleigh, with Doris Leo

Uncles and Aunties, Grandfathers and Mothers

People are the central point of much of this work. The network and connections of people are represented in place – mango trees and corrugated huts hold memories – and through stories of journeys of uncles to Rockhampton or Mackay, stories of walking to the Mission Hall on a Sunday, or the accounts of grandfathers’ grandfathers who spoke of the Pacific Islands, or the conditions encountered by those who first arrived; And the complex and rich family connections and interconnections that make the community so warm and welcoming.

Stepping Out in 2021

The first part of this project has been all about spending time together, getting to know people, and the places that are important to the community. Although the project has been on hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, in 2021 we will be stepping out again. This year we will again be up in Central Queensland, working with the community to start recording stories and marking places. Then the work really begins, mapping the landscapes of over 150 years of Australian South Sea Islanders living and working and building memories.