Australians ‘just starting to wake up’ to historical South Sea Islander slavery: Jeff McMullen
Veteran journalist and human rights advocate Jeff McMullen says many Australians do not know the parts of our history in which we had “conditions akin to slavery”.
- More than 60,000 Pacific Islanders were taken to Australia in the 19th century
- Early on, many were tricked or outright kidnapped to work as labourers
- Their descendants are calling for their history to be properly commemorated
More than 60,000 Pacific Islanders were brought to Australia in the 19th century, many through trickery, coercion and kidnapping.
The people from more than 80 islands in the Pacific — including parts of modern-day Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Fiji — were part of the human trade known at the time as blackbirding.
The majority of these indentured labourers were brought to Australia to work on Queensland’s sugarcane plantations.
“It’s very similar to the amnesia we have about the early period of Aboriginal history that happened after European settlement,” the former 60 Minutes reporter said.
“Now that we are 170 years on, we owe it to ourselves to learn about this stuff — thankfully, we are just starting to wake up to it.”
The conditions were harsh, the labourers were poorly paid, and death rates on the plantations were high due to exposure to European disease and mistreatment.
“As a young reporter, I was shocked to hear people in PNG telling me that we had slavery in Australia … then later from firsthand stories from South Sea Islanders,” McMullen said.
This year, the historical treatment of South Sea Islanders has received increased media and public attention.
The focus has come amidst debate around how Australia marks its non-European history — a conversation started after the ABC’s Stan Grant suggested the wording on a statue of Captain James Cook be amended to reflect the fact that he did not “discover” Australia.
Last month, Townsville’s South Sea Islander community called for changes at the site of a prominent statue of the city’s founder, Robert Towns.
Towns was a businessman who made his name blackbirding Pacific Islanders, and the community suggested another plaque and statue be erected paying tribute to those kidnapped.
Mr McMullen said that public commentary has meant there is a growing interest in non-European narratives of the past.
“Around the world many people are only just discovering ancestral truths and people are interested,” he said.
“I think for everyday Australians, there has been a very real interest in this stuff, but it’s only now that there’s been a spotlight on it, especially as we get more leaders — survivors or descendants of survivors of these really brutal periods — speaking out.”
Masters of Arts (Research) candidate UTS-FASS: ARC Scholarship recipient
‘Children of the Sugar Slaves’