Australia still slow to remember its South Sea Islander heritage and industry it helped create – Curious North Coast NSW
South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia as a source of labour. (Supplied: State Library of Qld)
It’s a dark night in a sugarcane field somewhere in northern New South Wales or Queensland. The year is 1902.
Whispers and a slight breeze rustle through the long sweet grass as a small group of South Sea Islander people moves quietly and without light into the centre of the crop.
There, they light lanterns and begin a silent night’s work cutting, stripping and stacking each stalk. They work as fast as they can before the sun rises on their illegal toil and puts them at risk of discovery.
It’s been a long, hard road for the rights and recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders since trade unions locked them out of the workforce more than a century ago.
Many South Sea Islanders were eventually deported as part of the White Australia policy. (ABC Archives)
Sweat and tears
From the 1860s until 1904, around 50,000 people were brought to Australia — some of them kidnapped, others willingly — through employment contracts they did not fully understand.
South Sea Islanders worked in the pastoral, agricultural and marine industries and formed the backbone of the sugarcane industry.
One of their descendants, Geoff Togo, believes history has a tricky way with words.
“It’s brought up in history books how they brought the Kanakas out here to work in the cane fields, well there was no cane fields for them to work in until they got here,” he said.
The grandmother of Geoff, David and Alan Togo was “blackbirded” in the 1890s — kidnapped from Vanuatu to Noumea and then Bundaberg on a ship called Tannas.
These second-generation Australians know hard, physical work. Following in their ancestor’s soil-trodden footsteps, they’ve tilled the land in the fertile Tweed Valley in the same way.
Geoff, Alan and David Togo followed in their family’s footsteps and worked the land. (ABC North Coast: Elloise Farrow-Smith)
The men, now all in their 60s, worked the fields with cane, bananas and small crops.
“The farmers depended on islander labour a lot; even my generation, that’s what we did — beans, zucchinis, tomatoes — nobody else wanted to do it out in the heat,” David Togo said.
Geoff and Alan agreed and firmly believe their ancestors made the sugar industry what it is today.
“A huge role. Without our people in its infancy in the sugarcane industry, there wouldn’t be a sugarcane industry in Australia,” Geoff said.
“It would never have gotten off the ground because they never had the labour.”
A humanitarian disaster
The sacrifices were great. Of those who went to work in Queensland, around 15,000 died there during their so-called work contracts.
Chicken pox, measles, even the common cold, can kill you if you have no immunity; the Islanders were exposed to these diseases for the first time and died in large numbers.
Thousands of people died after being exposed to diseases for which they had no immunity. (ABC Archives)
Emeritus Professor Clive Moore from the University of Queensland believes officials over the years have a lot to answer for.
“One of the things the Queensland government has a large responsibility for is that even if it took them 10 years to understand that the death rates were unacceptably high, they should have stopped the entire process right then,” he said.
“But they let it go on for 40 years and exposed people to a diseased environment to which they had no immunity and they died. Now I think that’s just reprehensible behaviour.”
Early unions defended rights of white workers
Until 1901, the Islander community was the cheap labour on which Australia built its labour-intensive industries, Professor Moore said.
“What modern Australians might not realise is that one of the basic acts of parliament in 1901 under the White Australia policy was an act about Pacific Islanders, to deport all of them,” he said.
“The Australian government wanted them out, totally; in the end that didn’t occur, but large numbers were deported in that period.
“When you put everything together — high death rates, the deportation, the general racism, the poor financial rewards, they were probably paid a quarter of what a European labourer was paid — you have a fairly despicable misuse of human beings.”
Arthur Toar (left) and other workers break for tea on a farm on the NSW far north coast. (Supplied: Family of Arthur Toar)
A forgotten people
Pushed out by force or forced to hide and work at night, for a time, the first-generation Australian South Sea Islanders became used to keeping their heads down.
But Tweed Heads resident Wilma Carlson always pushed for her community to become visible.
“When I went to school they never recognised that there were South Sea Islander people here, you were just forgotten,” she said.
“For years on the census form when I’d fill it out, they never had a square to say that you are South Sea Islander; they’d have Aboriginal or another nationality, so I would draw a square on the census form and tick that and put South Sea Islander beside it, just so they would know that there were South Sea Island people here.”
South Sea Island descendant Wilma Carlson completed the census in her own way. (ABC North Coast: Elloise Farrow-Smith)
Arthur Toar at the Freeman plantation in the Currumbin Valley, circa 1950. (Supplied: Gold Coast Libraries Local Studies Collection)
Ms Carlson’s father, Arthur Toar, was a banana worker, but in the 1960s he played a pivotal role in the ABC television series Pastures Of The Blue Crane.
His stardom was a one-off novelty for the family. Playing the role of the South Sea Islander grandfather who spent his life working in the plantations, ironically, was the reality of his life.
“We’d go to the farm and I know he used to work hard, the perspiration would be running off him,” Ms Carlson said.
“He’d get bitten by wasps because they’d build nests in the bunches of the bananas, and he was allergic because his face would swell up, but he’d still be working because nothing ever fazed them, they’d just keep working.
“Not only Dad; all the island men were like that, they just kept working, which was lucky that they did [because] things wouldn’t have gotten done if they’d stopped just because they got bitten by a wasp.”
Treatment for history’s amnesia
Professor Moore believes as little as three years ago Australians struggled to place Australian South Sea Islanders in the historical canon, but he said this year he’d seen evidence of change.
He said when South Sea Islander leaders Faith Bandler and Dr Evelyn Scott died, politicians, the media and the wider community labelled both as Indigenous activists and gave no recognition to their South Sea Islander heritage.
“But recently when Dr Bonita Mabo died, the Indigenous leaders got it very right and the Prime Minister got it right in acknowledging that she was a leading Australian South Sea Islander activist who was also involved in Indigenous activism.
“The Islanders themselves, one of the things they’ve done over the last generation or two is constantly educate their fellow Australians about their existence and I suspect it might be working.”
That’s small justice for some, but others like Geoff Togo have called for a more formal apology.
“I think it’s just too hard for the Government to, or they don’t want to, say that there was a problem, and there still is a problem,” he said.
“The wheels are turning very slowly to where we want to be. It’s hard, but I feel the Government owes us, if it be through compensation but more should be done for the Kanaka people, we are a forgotten people here in Australia.”
In August 2019, Australian South Sea Islanders will celebrate 25 years since the national recognition of their people.
Who asked the question?
Sandy Ellis remembers stories about the South Sea Islander community and has driven past the Islander Memorial at Chinderah.
She was intrigued to know how the Pacific Islanders came to Australia.
The Tweed Valley has a strong agricultural background and Sandy also wanted to know what role the South Sea Island community played in its development.