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Bundaberg issues historic blackbirding apology

Pacific Islanders on a Queensland sugar plantation (State Library of Queensland)
Pacific Islander slave labour on a Queensland sugar plantation (State Library of Queensland)

| ABC Wide Bay

BUNDABERG - The stone walls that stretch along Bundaberg's farms are a stark and lasting reminder of the history of slavery in the region, but the community has taken a step forward to begin the healing process.

In an Australian first, Bundaberg's mayor Jack Dempsey is issuing a formal apology to the region's South Sea Islander community for the practice of blackbirding.

Blackbirding refers to the indentured labour system between the 1860s and early 1900s, when 62,000 people from the South Sea Islands were trafficked to Queensland to work on the state's cane fields.

"To say sorry is a start in the healing and the hope for a better relationship going forward," Dempsey said.

"It is something that needs to be done to be able to show that we have an understanding of the pain and suffering ... and the harshness of people's lives that were devastated."

Aunty Coral Walker (ABC Wide Bay  Stephanie Doole)
Aunty Coral Walker (ABC Wide Bay, Stephanie Doole)

Aunty Coral Walker, president of the Bundaberg South Sea Islanders Heritage Association, said her relatives were stolen from the Epi and Tanna Islands in Vanuatu and brought to Queensland in the 1800s.

"They had to suffer when they were blackbirded over here.

"They were stolen," she said.

"They were shoved into the ship and they had to live in squalor.

"They had to abide by the treatment, otherwise they would have been thrown overboard and eaten by sharks or washed up or drowned."

Aunty Coral said they were subjected to harsh and inhumane treatment and many died while working on cane farms.

"They dropped in the field … even mothers and children."

"Women had their babies while working on the paddock and kept on working.

"Or if they died, they were buried in the paddock where they were working or next to the fence."

There are significant sites sprawled across the Bundaberg region that serve as a reminder of the slavery days, including the popular Basin swimming hole at Bargara.

"There's a basin where the stone walls [were built by] the Kanakas for all the non-Indigenous women and their children to swim, so that they were free from sharks and whatever else was in the water," Aunty Coral said.

She said the apology was a step forward.

"I'm thinking about my mother and my brother and my aunties who have all passed on," she said.

"It would have meant a lot to them because they were a part of that era where they knew about blackbirding."

Mayor Dempsey said the apology was long overdue. 

"The community has been crying out for this; families have been crying out for it for years," he said.

"Bundaberg can be the first in Australia to say sorry and the first to be able to recognise and to be able to have a relationship with Vanuatu."

Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey
Bundaberg Mayor, Jack Dempsey

Bundaberg has signed a Sister City agreement with Luganville in Vanuatu, with the country's flag to be raised for the first time during a ceremony outside the Bundaberg Regional Council.

Dempsey said the partnership was forged with the purpose of promoting cultural and commercial ties.

"We'll look at all areas from agriculture to tourism to safety … from a council perspective looking at their water and sewerage and so forth," he said.

"If we can help, that's what it's all about."


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