What can archaeology tell us about Australian South Sea Islanders?

by Dr James Flexner, Senior Lecturer in Historical Archaeology and Heritage, University of Sydney and research Leader on the Australian Research Council-funded project Archaeology, Collections and Australian South Sea Islander Lived Identities.

Archaeology is an important tool for understanding Australia’s ‘hidden histories’. Australian South Sea Islanders wrote little about themselves, but traces of their history abound in Queensland’s landscapes and collections.

When most people think of archaeology, they imagine far-off times and places like the Egyptian Pyramids or Pompeii. While Queensland Museum’s own archaeology collections include ancient artefacts from what is sometimes called ‘antiquity’, which includes the civilizations of the Mediterranean region,  archaeology can also be used to understand more recent time periods and even our own present. Archaeology uses a set of techniques to help us understand human behaviour in all its diverse forms. One of Queensland Museum’s current research projects into Queenslander lives is using archaeology to better explore the histories and lived identities of Australian South Sea Islanders.

Old sugar mill wheel near Ayr, Queensland. Image courtesy of James Flexner.

Who are Australian South Sea Islanders?

Australian South Sea Islanders are the living descendants of more than 60,000 labourers imported to Australia beginning in 1863. They came primarily from what is today the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, as well as other areas of the Pacific. Between 1863 and 1901, these ‘Kanaka’ or Islander labourers worked in a variety of industries, but with a concentration on Queensland’s sugar industry – sugarcane harvesting and processing. This work was extremely hard and labourers often lived in very poor conditions. In some cases people were tricked or coerced into coming to Australia, while others came voluntarily. In 1901, when the exclusionary immigration policy now known as the ‘White Australia Policy’ came into effect Islanders and their families were forced onto the margins of society. They nonetheless continued to survive and contribute to Queensland’s development. Despite their contributions, Australian South Sea Islander stories remain largely overlooked in mainstream Australian history.

Why Archaeology?

Archaeology is valuable for understanding the ways that people lived in the past, including the very recent past. Written documents, maps, illustrations, and photographs all carry the biases of the people who produced them. But archaeology can provide a different way of understanding the past because it reveals the things that were rarely documented. It can show us the traces of everyday life: work, worship, gardening, preparing and eating meals, what kinds of medicine people used, where they lived, and how they socialised. Archaeologists piece together the evidence from ruins on the landscape, and all kinds of artefacts from pottery to microscopic pollen grains. These kinds of evidence are especially important for groups who produced few documents of their own, such as Australian South Sea Islanders.

Cache of bottles, marine shells, and iron cookpot from a site in Aniwa Island, Vanuatu, which are similar to the kinds of artefacts we expect to find in association with Australian South Sea Islander occupation sites in Queensland. Image courtesy of James Flexner.

A Community-Led Approach to Research

We aim to put the Australian South Sea Islander communities front and centre in everything we do in our research. The project began as a conversation between myself as an archaeologist interested in Pacific cultures, Imelda Miller, curator at Queensland Museum and herself an Australian South Sea Islander, and Geraldine Mate, also an archaeologist and curator at Queensland Museum. From the beginning and as we developed the research project, we have worked closely with community groups. Important partners so far have included the Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islanders Association, the Rockhampton Australian South Sea Islander Community and the Ayr Australian South Sea Islander community. Community members help us to develop protocols for everything from determining what sites to work on, to how we share information with people. . Ethically it is vitally important to have communities lead the approach to archaeology for this project, and personally it is also a very fulfilling approach to research.

Where to next?

Unfortunately, our project has been delayed quite a bit due to the events of 2020. However, we are hoping to return to and build on community partnerships and our initial research projects in the coming years. We already have some promising pieces of the puzzle in place. We have identified sites for further research, including archaeological excavations. We are beginning research into Australian South Sea Islander artefacts in collections in Queensland Museum and elsewhere. Alongside this, we have begun documenting our community-led process. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we are looking forward to returning to the field in 2021 as soon as we can.

Local residents at one of the mill sites we plan to survey near Mackay in July 2021. Image courtesy of James Flexner.