By Leigh Pirie
Exhibition: Blackbirding: The Queensland-Pacific Indentured Labour Trade and Australian South Sea Islanders 150th Anniversary
Details: 16 May – 30 September 2014, National Art Gallery building, Honiara
This exhibition is held in the Art Gallery building (go in the side door near the stage and then go in the first door on your left) and while the room itself is large and quite sparse, the information it contains was really detailed and very interesting. While I had heard of Pacific Islanders working in Queensland (QLD) sugarcane plantations, and heard of the derogatory term ‘kanaka’, I knew little about the facts behind the labour trade. I also knew little about how this trade impacted both the Australian QLD population and also the South Sea Islanders who either remained in Australia or returned home after many years working abroad.
The large, detailed information boards contained accounts of Islanders agreeing to work in QLD and also of kidnapping which occurred throughout the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and other islands of the Pacific. The exhibition outlined such topics as working conditions, religion, legal recognition, education and sport.
Well known Australian footballers Sam Backo, Wendell Sailor, Gordon Tallis and Mal Meninga are descendants of Pacific Islanders who worked during this period. I was surprised to read that a number of labourers who remained in Australian were later removed from their families and deported back to the Pacific during the White Australia Policy of the early 1900s.
Personally, I found the information regarding the continuing development and recognition of the South Sea Islander community within Australia, particularly QLD, most interesting. Many Pacific Islanders raised families and contributed to their communities and Australia, however, they did not want to turn their back on their native culture. These families are still working towards personal recognition of their culture and on further developing links among Pacific communities so as to strengthen these bonds into the future.