Sugar slaves, a review

by

Jenny Haines

Sugar Slaves, made by Film Australia and the ABC, executive producer Sharon Connolly, director/co-producer Trevor Graham, producer, Penny Robins. Available on DVD

As the Rudd Government prepares to say sorry to indigenous Australians on February 12, it is to be hoped that the apology will include the Pacific Islanders, or Kanakas as they were once widely called, who are descendants of what the traders called “blackbirding”, but the islanders call the Pacific slave trade.

Sugar Slaves is a DVD that tells the story of the slave trade in the Pacific, which ran from 1863 to 1904.

The trade began in the Pacific while North America was engaging in a civil war, in which abolition of the African slave trade was one of the major issues. Pacific Islanders were snatched from their islands to work to establish the sugar industry in Queensland.

It was thought at the time that white workers were not suitable for the tropical environment, that they would die of “rack and decay”. The Pacific Islanders worked in terrible conditions, and lived in appalling circumstances, for a pittance in pay.

Initially the islanders were lured or just plain kidnapped from their islands in places that are now Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations. Those who were left on the islands had no idea where their family members and friends had been taken. Some thought they had been taken to other islands and eaten, as some of the islanders were still cannibals.

Kidnapping continued untiil 1878, when the Queensland Parliament passed legislation that required that the islanders be employed by the sugar farmers for a period of three years and then be given passage paid for by the employer home to their islands. They were to be paid a small wage.

With the coming of federation, the federal parliament, after lobbying by the trade union movement, introduced legislation in 1904 that banned the employment of the islanders on the Queensland sugar fields.

All the islanders were to be deported back to their homes, but many had by this time put down roots in Queensland, marrying islanders from other islands, a crime punishable by death if they went home. Others had married indigenous Australians or white people and established families.
A small number were exempted from deportation and by 1995 their community had grown to 20,000 people.

The islanders who stayed lived in hardship, as they could not work on the sugar fields, except where a friendly farmer would give them night employment cutting the cane. Their hardship continued until there was again a shortage of white men to work the cane fields during the Second World War, and the islanders and their descendants were able to go back to their old employment. It wasn’t until 1994 that the islanders were finally recognised by the Australian government as a distinct ethnic group who had suffered “a century of racial discrimination and harsh treatment”.

The islanders who settled in Australia felt the hollowness of not knowing where they came from, or their history, so in 1995, some began to trace their history back to their islands. They visited the homes of their ancestors and initially could not find their families, but with time, patience and research, they finally established links and family members met for the first time in their lives, swapped stories, learned traditions, and watched dances that told the story of their kidnapping. The makers of the DVD follow these islanders as they find their families.

For the descendants of the slave trade, the circumstances in which their family members were brought to Australia and their harsh lives, are still raw and painful. The work of the kidnapped and enslaved islanders was vital in establishing Queensland’s sugar trade. Saying sorry to their descendants, who have also suffered for the sugar industry, is the least Australia can do.

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One Response to “Sugar slaves, a review”

  1. Norm Dixon Says:

    See also http://www.greenleft.org.au/1995/198/11397

    The labor movement’s response was thoroughly selfish and racist.
    Unions argued that islanders undercut “white” wages, yet refused to
    organise them or permit them to join. Labour movement newspapers like
    the Worker and the Boomerang published racist caricatures of
    islanders, depicting them as threatening the “purity” of white women.
    After federation, despite the vehement opposition of the plantation
    owners, the white Australia policy outlawed further use of islander
    labour. All islanders were to be deported in 1906.

    After considerable agitation by South Sea Islanders opposed to
    deportation, the government allowed elderly islanders, those married
    to Aborigines or to Australian citizens and those who had been
    resident for over 20 years to remain. Despite this, fewer than 2000
    were permitted to remain legally. The deportations caused terrible
    pain and disruption, with families being split up, never to be
    reunited. To escape deportation, some jumped ship, and some even
    walked to Sydney!

    Following the deportations, the Australian Workers Union launched a
    despicable crusade to eliminate South Sea Islanders from the sugar
    industry. The federal government paid a bounty to farms that employed
    only whites. In 1919, Melanesians were excluded by law from working on
    farms, although many farmers secretly allowed islanders to cut cane at
    night for a pittance. To survive, islanders returned to a traditional
    lifestyle of growing gardens and catching fish. Only during World War
    II were islanders again allowed to work in the sugar industry.

    Today, the 20,000 descendants of South Sea Islanders are a distinct
    community which is rediscovering its heritage and demanding
    recognition of the role their ancestors played in building the
    Queensland and Australian economy. In the words of Noah Sabbo: “I’m
    proud to be a `Kanaka'”. To most Australians, people like Ken Negus
    and Mal Meninga are known as sports superstars not as South Sea
    Islanders, something the islander community wants to see changed.

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