Beginning our journey into Australian South Sea Islander collections and archives

by Eve Haddow and Zia Youse, Research Assistants on the Australian Research Council-funded project Archaeology, Collections and Australian South Sea Islander Lived Identities. 

In January 2021, Zia Youse and Eve Haddow joined a Queensland Museum Network project as research assistants focussing on stories in Australian South Sea Islander archive and museum collections. 

Archive and museum collections, both in Queensland and beyond, hold rich stories of Australian South Sea Islander histories and identities. Earlier this year, we joined the team as Research Assistants tasked with exploring some of this unique and fascinating material. As research progresses, we will share more detailed stories, but this first post is an update on our current work.  

Update from Eve – The Australian South Sea Islander Kastom Collection  

I have been working with Imelda Miller (Curator -Torres Strait Islander and Pacific Indigenous Studies) on the ‘Australian South Sea Islander Kastom Collection’, cared for at Queensland Museum, Southbank, Brisbane. This collection brings together over 730 objects associated with different Pacific Islands and locations in Queensland. Some things journeyed to the museum as early as the 1870s, making their way to Queensland through South Sea Islanders who owned material, ships captains, government agents, medical doctors, and others. Other items are connected with contemporary stories. For example, a hessian bag with a stencil of a South Sea Island cane cutter, used to cover headstones at the unveiling of 114 South Sea Islander unmarked graves in Mackay is as recent as 2017. 

Imelda established the Australian South Sea Islander Kastom Collection in the 1990s. Joining Queensland Museum as a volunteer, she learned it housed objects from the Pacific Island nations of Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, the home of her ancestors. By weaving together different objects that came into the museum at different times, the aim was to make Australian South Sea Islander histories and identities in the collections more visible.  

Now, almost three decades later, these objects continue to have great significance – they are visible markers of community identity and tangible connections to the past. However, much more research is still needed. My work since January has focused on expanding the Australian South Sea Islander Kastom Collection geographically. We know that between 1863-1904, people came to work on Queensland plantations from islands in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Tuvalu, and Fiji, so we want to ensure we include all of those places in any collections research. I’m also digging deeper to trace stories of South Sea Islander people who owned or made objects. Some of the stories for further investigation include a series of spears and arrows from Bougainville, connected with an infamous labour vessel named ‘Hopeful’, and an intriguing record of a man named Wommilly, from Ambrym, Vanuatu, who gave Queensland Museum a wooden club and a ‘stuffed black snake’ in 1878. 

Club donated by Wommilly, a South Sea Islander working for a Mr Tippler, c.1879. Australian South Sea Islander Kastom Collection, Queensland Museum, E6970

Update from Zia – Archives in the Mackay region 

Since December, I have been working with the project to research archives and local oral histories in the Mackay area where I live. Doing so has brought the hidden histories of Australian South Sea Islanders to the forefront of my mind.  Looking through the Denman Fordyce Collection in the Dudley Denny Library, I came across old scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings relating to the South Sea Islanders of Mackay.  Particularly interesting was a cashbook of Richmond Estate containing handwritten entries of expenses such as ‘deposits for Kanakas’,1 and ‘boat hire kanakas from Bay’.  It is knowledge like this, relating to Australian South Sea Islanders in the late 1800s, that will help in connecting artefact collections and oral histories with lived identities. 

Cash Book of Richmond Estate 1870-1876. Denman Collection, Heritage Collection, Mackay Regional Council Libraries.

My passion for joining the project stemmed from my son’s primary school project, a paper on Pacific Islander Workers. I was pleased to see that aspects of Australian South Sea Islander histories were being acknowledged, possibly for the first time, at the school which my family has attended for three generations. There is still more work to do though, and education is another of the major facets of the Project.

 Primary school project, Pacific Islander Workers.

Watch this space 

As we continue our research over the coming months, we are excited about what we might find. Keep an eye on the blog and stay tuned for more archive and collections stories as they unfold.