July 2019

Essays

Alex McKinnon

Blackbirds: Australia’s hidden slave trade history

South Sea Islander women working in the sugarcane fields at Hambledon, Queensland, circa 1891. Image courtesy of CityLibraries Townsville, Local History Collection

The racism that brought Australian South Sea Islanders here, and the racism that tried to send them back

“We had a slave trade.”

Emelda Davis speaks these words quietly, as if in deference to their gravity. She has come to the crux of an argument she has laid out hundreds of times before to politicians, journalists and executives. Though she is repeating herself, in the way of professional advocates who spend their lives drawing attention to a cause, Davis will never speak of hers as a matter of rote. She can’t.

Davis is an Australian South Sea Islander – one of the descendants of between 55,000 and 62,500 Pacific Islanders transported to Australia in the 19th century to work the cane fields of Queensland and northern New South Wales. The practice was termed “blackbirding” – a fraught, complex word encompassing a spectrum of exploitation ranging from technically consensual but unethical labour contracts to outright kidnapping and slavery. Many of the men who oversaw and financed the blackbirding trade – Robert Towns, John Mackay – have cities named after them.

Inspired by pseudoscientific race theories in vogue at the time, the colonial rationale for importing Islanders was that they were acclimatised to tropical conditions too demanding of white labourers. None too disposed to care about the health and safety of their charges in the first place, white overseers routinely worked Islanders to death. Backbreaking labour, heat exhaustion, disease, mistreatment and malnutrition killed Islanders in their thousands.

In 1884, the annual mortality rate for Islanders in Queensland reached 147 deaths per 1000 people. The rate for European men was nine or 10. Unmarked mass graves dot cemeteries and former plantations across central Queensland and the Tweed, on the NSW border. In the 40 or so years that the blackbirding trade operated, some 15,000 Islanders died in the cane fields – around 30 per cent of those transported. Most of the rest were forcibly deported when Federation and the advent of the White Australia Policy ended the practice. It was the largest mass deportation in Australian history, enacted despite a savvy and hard-fought political campaign to permit them to stay in the country as free citizens. Their journeys back to the islands were funded by the stolen wages of labourers who had died. For those who escaped deportation, and their descendants, decades of segregation, ostracisation and official erasure created a cycle of inherited disadvantage and trauma.

Davis’s maternal grandfather was among those who remained in Australia. While the absence of records makes confirmation impossible, he was likely taken from the Middle Bush region of the island of Tanna in Vanuatu sometime in the late 19th century. According to the stories told by Davis’s mother and grandmother, he was kidnapped at the age of 12. He died before Davis was born. She has never been able to return to Vanuatu to look for relatives or traces of her grandfather’s life. Decades after he lived and died, the shockwaves of his kidnapping and its aftermath reverberate through the lives of his descendants.

“I sit here not knowing any of my extended family in the islands where he was taken from. That’s how young this is – my mother’s father,” Davis says. “Just recently I found family in Bundaberg – my grandmother’s sister’s children. It’s devastating, having people out there who you could have had the whole time.”

Davis’s determination that Australia recognise the truth of its past drives her work. In 2007, she co-­founded Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson. ASSI-PJ’s central work is recognition: of Australian South Sea Islanders’ status as a distinct group in Australian society; of their history; of the difficulties they face as a result of decades of exploitation and exclusion; and of the need for government policy to address them.

Davis is ASSI-PJ’s chief executive and only full-time employee. Since 2007, she has run the organisation from the front room of her housing unit in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Pyrmont. The walls are blanketed with art by Aunty Shireen Malamoo, a pioneering South Sea Islander rights campaigner, depicting scenes from her childhood on a mission in north Queensland. The last time Davis’s son visited from England, where he is studying at Cambridge, she made him move dozens of plastic tubs filled with historical documents, interview transcripts, fact sheets, maps and testimonials from the overflowing front room to the covered balcony.

For her, the house is testament to the fact that the distinction between the historical and the personal does not exist.

“My kids call it clutter, but I call it family,” Davis says.

Even her home’s location is heavy with symbolic weight. Her back window overlooks Pyrmont’s old sugar wharves, where Pacific Islander labourers unloaded bags of raw sugar harvested up the coast.

“The mob worked here, on the ships. They helped to build the economic base of this country. Where are the monuments to them, our Pacific heroes?”

It has been 172 years since Benjamin Boyd, a Scottish-­born stockbroker and grazier, transported 65 Melanesian men to work his sheep holdings outside the southern NSW town of Eden. A self-styled entrepreneur, Boyd quickly enriched himself after arriving in the colony aboard his schooner, the Wanderer, in 1842. By 1844 he held nearly half a million acres in the southern NSW region of Monaro and what is now Victoria, on which he ran some 20,000 sheep and 10,000 cattle.

Faced with difficulty in attracting cheap labour, Boyd hit on a plan. In April 1847, the Wanderer’s sister ship, the Velocity, landed in Eden’s Twofold Bay bearing 65 men from the Pacific Islands to work as hands on Boyd’s sheep stations.

His labour experiment didn’t go well. The arrival of the Islanders prompted a public outcry and accusations that he had started an Antipodean slave trade. To avoid running afoul of the law, which punished slavery under penalty of “death without benefit of Clergy, and loss of lands, goods, and chattels, as pirates, felons, and robbers upon the Seas ought to suffer”, Boyd made out that the Islanders had knowingly entered into labour contracts of their own free will. The “contract” the illiterate men marked with their thumbprints promised payment of one pound six shillings a year, as well as clothing and rations of meat and flour, in return for five years’ labour.

His attempts to impart a veneer of legality to proceedings fooled nobody. Robert Lowe, a member of the NSW Legislative Council, wryly noted the “natives” of the Pacific Islands were not likely to have given informed consent to work as shepherds, given they had never seen sheep before. Boyd, Lowe claimed, “brought his cargo of labour as he would have brought a cargo of tea or sugar … he had brought these people out as slaves, to traffic in and profit by their labour”.

For their part, the Islanders had no idea they had agreed to sign on for five years’ work and, upon disembarking in Eden, many walked the 480 kilometres to Sydney to find passage home rather than be transported inland.

Boyd’s attempt to salvage his enterprise by transporting another 57 Islanders was quickly stymied. A hasty amendment to the Masters and Servants Act in August 1847 forbade the transportation of “Natives of any Savage or uncivilized tribe inhabiting any Island or Country in the Pacific Ocean”. A Legislative Council motion followed six weeks later deploring the prospect of the introduction of Pacific Island workers into the colony, which “may, if not checked, degenerate into a traffic in slaves”.

While legislators expressed distaste for Boyd’s dabbling in slavery, their main reason for opposing his venture stemmed from the prospect that importing non-white labour “would expose the Colony to all the evils of a mixed, and coloured population, and lead to the pre-occupation of the Territory by a semi-barbarous or savage race, to the prejudice of Immigrants from the United Kingdom, and to the injury of the purely British character which it is so desirable the Colony should continue to maintain”.

Despite the harsh penalties against slavery, Boyd was never arrested or tried. He died on Guadalcanal, in the Solomons, four years later, apparently at the hands of “natives”. The village of Boydtown, just south of Eden, is named after him, as is nearby Ben Boyd National Park, although elders of the local Thaua people have called for the name to be changed. Ben Boyd Road in Sydney’s Neutral Bay, where he lived for a time, bears two plaques in his memory. His prized schooner, the Wanderer, is being restored by an Eden community group.

It is not known how many of the Islanders Boyd transported made it home.


Boyd’s Eden experiment failed, but his idea to import cheap labour from the Pacific Islands would catch on further north some 16 years later. On Monday, August 17, 1863, the schooner Don Juan landed at the port of Brisbane. Aboard were 67 Islanders from the New Hebrides – modern-day Vanuatu – “to be employed as laborers by Captain Towns on his cotton plantation on the Logan River”.

The North Australian newspaper described Captain Robert Towns – a prominent merchant and member of the NSW Legislative Council – as having “a passion for very cheap labor”, and noted darkly that his scheme bore similarities to Boyd’s infamous experiment.

“Every Briton is proud in the knowledge that slavery cannot exist in any part of Her Majesty’s vast dominions, but even that assurance does not bind men to the existence of contracts of service, entered into with barbarian or inferior races, which in their design and fulfilment amount to virtual slavery,” the paper warned. “Parliament will be remiss in its duty if it fails to gain fuller information in Towns’s immigration scheme.”

Undeterred by the bad press, or the eventual failure of his “Townsvale” cotton plantation, Towns would continue “importing” Islanders to work his sugarcane holdings until his death in 1873. One of his most prolific employees was Henry Ross Lewin, a sandalwood merchant based on the Vanuatu island of Tanna. Lewin served as superintendent at the plantation, captain of the Don Juan and other vessels, and as Towns’s foremost procurer of Pacific labour.

Even by the standards of 19th-century Queensland, Lewin’s crimes were infamous. While hunting for labourers, he shot men, women and children, burned villages and destroyed crops. Journalist and anti-­blackbirding campaigner Robert Short claimed that Lewin had beaten one of the Islander labourers at Townsvale with a stick, causing him fatal injuries. Another time, suspecting an Islander chief of having stolen a tomahawk from a plantation, Lewin had the man hog-tied and confined “for nearly a fortnight in a 500-gallon tank”.

In January 1869, Lewin was arrested on a charge of assault with intent to commit rape. The alleged victim, a 13-year-old girl from Tanna named Naguinambo, claimed Lewin had raped her on board the Spunkie, another of Towns’s ships. Naguinambo’s father, a Tanna chief named Ki Ki, had surrendered his daughter to Lewin in exchange for his own freedom. Brisbane’s Central Police Court dismissed the charge after ruling that Naguinambo could not give evidence, as “she was not a Christian, and there were no courts of law in her country”. The bench also ignored the testimony of two Islander men, Harbesi Didi and Neumani Thomas, that Naguinambo had screamed and cried out as Lewin raped her in the hold.

“No one reading that trial could have a doubt as to its criminality,” wrote Reverend Donald Morrison of the New Hebrides Mission. “But the man was let loose again on society because the poor woman’s word could not be received in Court.”

Later that year, the Daphne, a ship registered in Lewin’s name, was seized by Captain George Palmer of the HMS Rosario in Fiji. Palmer was Lewin’s great enemy. Commissioned by Commodore Rowley Lambert to investigate French complaints of English-flagged vessels stealing native labourers from French plantations on New Caledonia, Palmer interviewed locals, missionaries and Englishmen scattered across the islands. He became convinced that a slave trade was thriving in the Pacific, and made it his mission to bring Lewin to justice.

Speaking before the 1869 royal commission into the alleged kidnapping of people from the Loyalty Islands (now part of New Caledonia), Palmer described the Daphne as “fitted up precisely as an African slaver, irons excepted”. More than 100 Islanders were crammed below decks in a space built for 50, most of them naked. “If I had found her empty I should say she was fitted up to carry pigs or sheep,” he said.

Palmer claimed that Lewin’s reputation as a kidnapper inspired dread and hatred throughout the Pacific. “At all the islands I had been at I had heard of Lewin as being a pirate and a man-stealer,” Palmer said. “His name in the South Sea Islands is as notorious as those of Captain Kidd or Blackbeard in olden times.”

He quoted a Tanna man, Yonjangan, who said he had seen Lewin “forcibly take two men by the hair of their heads, and drag them on board his vessel, the Spunkie, and then point a musket at them to keep them quiet”. He also alleged that Lewin “stole away a girl, and afterward sold her for £2, to a Maré man, in Australia”.

Lewin expressed horror at “the fearful lies printed in the North Australian” and other newspapers. In a letter to Towns, put before the commission, Lewin painted an idyllic scene of him reading an article detailing the charges against him to an audience of shocked Islanders. “I read the paper for them, and they want to know why white men tell such lies,” he wrote.

The case of the Daphne, and the royal commission itself, resulted in some impressive legal and logical contortions. Sydney’s Vice Admiralty Court held that those involved could not be tried under the British Slave Trade Act of 1839, because no slave trade existed in the South Pacific.

The royal commission found that “the charge of kidnapping natives of the Loyalty Islands … is not supported by the testimony of the witnesses examined”. Relying on the evidence of visitors to plantations in Queensland and Fiji, the commission described the condition of Islanders as “well fed, healthy, contented and happy”. Regurgitating Towns’s advice almost word for word, its final recommendation was that “under proper regulations, Polynesian labour may be introduced into Queensland with manifest advantage to the sugar and cotton-growing industries”.

Those “regulations” proved horribly ineffective, perhaps in part because many Queensland parliamentarians had substantial financial interests in the trade, either as importers of labour or beneficiaries of it on sugarcane and cotton plantations.

While Towns and his subordinates avoided official sanction, public sentiment both in Australia and the South Pacific had well and truly turned against Lewin, who retired to Tanna in 1869. He died there five years
later, murdered during a dispute over a local man’s pig.

History was kinder to his employer. In 1866, Towns briefly visited one of his new woolstores at Cleveland Bay, some 1300 kilometres north of Brisbane. The site had been deemed suitable for wool production two years earlier, after a party of troopers and native police was despatched to clear the area of the local Aboriginal people. In his memoir, The Black Police of Queensland, native police commander Edward Kennedy fondly remembered the troopers “pumping lead” at a group of “wild blacks” they had chased into the sea.

Despite only staying for three days and never going back again, Towns agreed to underwrite the Cleveland Bay wool venture. Shortly after, he noted in a letter that “the government have paid me the compliment to call the town ‘Townsville’ ”. A statue of Towns now stands on The Strand, Townsville’s foreshore.


Clive Moore, a professor of Pacific and Australian history at the University of Queensland, is fond of showing people photocopies of the Order of Deportation, a Federation-era document drawn up by then prime minister and minister for external affairs Alfred Deakin.

The order informs its recipient that they are “a Pacific Island labourer found in Australia after the thirty-first day of December, One thousand nine hundred and six”, and thus ordered “to be deported from Australia”.

By Federation in 1901, there were around 10,000 Pacific Islanders in Australia. Unable or unwilling to make the journey back to the islands, they had tried to put down what roots they could in the society they’d landed in. Hundreds married white or Aboriginal Australians and had children.

For a federal parliament committed to cleansing the new Commonwealth of non-whites, Pacific Islander labourers and their descendants presented a particularly knotty problem. The solution the government hit on was the Pacific Islander Labourers Act, which severely restricted the number of new arrivals from the Pacific Islands and culminated in an act of mass deportation from 1906 to 1908.

Despite barriers of language, culture and geography, Australia’s settled Islander communities fought back against the threat of deportation. Aided by Christian missionary groups and other sympathisers, Islander associations launched what amounted to a political campaign to persuade, embarrass or otherwise deter the Commonwealth’s leading figures from enforcing the Act. In June 1902, a petition bearing the signatures of more than 3000 Islanders was presented to Queensland’s governor, Sir Herbert Chermside. It urged King Edward VII to disallow the Act as “contrary to the spirit of English common law and of freedom, justice and mercy”, and said its ratification would “induce for hundreds, if not thousands of us, misery, starvation, or death”.

“Queensland is our domicile of choice, and none of us, Your Majesty’s humble petitioners, are willing to be sent away,” the petition read. “We are as law-abiding, honest, sober and industrious as the white colonials” and the powers of the Act affect Islanders “many of whom have been domiciled in Queensland for up to 21 years, and who have learned to read, write, speak and think only in English”.

The petition made waves in London, where it caught the attention of sympathetic members of the House of Lords. Embarrassed by the bad press, prime minister Deakin issued a hasty and unconvincing rebuttal arguing that the Commonwealth was not exceeding its powers. In 1906, Islanders Henry Tongoa and Alick Mallicoola sailed from Mackay to Melbourne, presenting Deakin with another petition in person and sitting for an interview with The Age.

“It’s absolutely remarkable that an immigrant community with low literacy like that had the nous to achieve what they managed to achieve,” Moore says. “If you were running a campaign today, you would do much the same thing. You’d use the media, you’d contact politicians, you’d corner the prime minister in much the same way they did.”

The Islanders’ campaign managed to accomplish much with little. Their inconvenient agitation forced a royal commission in 1906, which recommended a broad range of exemptions for long-term residents, freehold landowners, those with children in state schools and likely victims of persecution.

But on the central question of deportation, the forces arrayed against them were simply too powerful. Samuel Griffith, chief justice of the High Court and a former premier of Queensland, presided over a case in 1906 authorising the Islanders’ expulsion. Griffith classed the Islanders as “aliens”, despite the fact that hundreds of them had married British subjects and had Australian-­born children. Griffith was also the national forefather who first proposed inserting Section 51(xxvi), the infamous “race power” clause, into the federal Constitution. Throughout his extensive career, legal niceties such as birthright citizenship and British subjecthood consistently came second to ensuring the racial purity of the colonies and the Commonwealth.

“Barton, Deakin, Griffith – many of Australia’s founders were in it up to their necks. They must have known it was wrong,” Moore says.

When deportations finally began in 1906, the cash-strapped federal government asked Queensland to help fund the effort. In turn, the state government turned to the Queensland Government Savings Bank’s Pacific Islanders Fund, where for decades employers of Islander labour had been encouraged to deposit their workers’ wages. After 1885, the wages of Islanders who had died were appropriated by the government to finance the administration of the labour trade, as well as Islander hospitals and Christian missions.

It was this money – £39,363 in 1905, according to state government records – that Queensland used to pay for forced return passages to the islands. Moore calculates that in today’s terms, the federal and state governments used more than $38 million of deceased Islanders’ wages to finance the deportation of their families and loved ones. He believes there is a compelling moral case for Queensland and the Commonwealth to pay reparations to the descendants of those whose wages were seized.

“To use the wages of the dead to deport the living is reprehensible. It’s a disgrace,” Moore says.

On October 12, 1906, the steamer Moresby left Cairns with 104 Islanders, bound to pick up some 50 more people at Port Douglas before sailing for the Solomon Islands. Among its passengers was a boy, “ill and nearly blind”, whom his friend warned authorities “would be killed if he tried to go alone to his hill village”. Another Islander resisted “because he is attending school, and would like to learn a lot more before being sent away”.

Over the next two years, around 4500 people would be deported from Cairns, Brisbane, Mackay and Rockhampton. Wealthier Islanders took trappings of luxury aboard with them, like accordions and sewing machines. As their ships left harbour, Islanders on deck would frequently call out to the whites on shore, sometimes indulging in sentiments they were now free to express with the threat of arrest behind them. “Good-bye you white ––––; and your –––– white Australia ––– –––,” Queensland’s Evening Telegraph quoted one group as calling to scandalised whites. The paper added sniffily: “Christianity and civilisation do not appear to have refined their language.”

When the deportations ended, some 2500 Islanders remained. Around 1600 had obtained exemptions, while others simply hid in the bush until things quietened down. When they re-emerged, they found a nation that wanted to forget they had ever existed.

Islanders had been drummed out of the sugar industry by a series of racial exclusion laws in the 1880s and 1890s. Denied work in the trade they had been transported to serve, shut out by the all-white trade unions, abandoned by the missionaries and regarded as an unwelcome reminder of past errors by the government, they were pushed to the physical and psychological fringes of society.

“In some ways, the 1910s through to the 1950s were the worst period for them, because they were unwanted,” Moore says. “Even the missions that encouraged them to come over in the 19th century dropped them. They were made into Christians and given nowhere to practise Christianity.”


The extent to which blackbirding constituted slavery is a point of contention between, and among, Islanders and historians. While there are well-documented incidents of kidnapping, especially in the trade’s early years, to characterise the entire 40 years of blackbirding as a slave trade would erase the histories of those who did come willingly, albeit under vastly inequitable circumstances.

Clive Moore has a historian’s caution when it comes to drawing conclusions that aren’t present in historical records and academic research.

“I have no doubt kidnapping happened. But historians say coercion was unlikely onwards from the mid 1880s, and very, very difficult from the 1890s, when the majority of Islanders came out,” he says.

“Even from the 1860s, there were people going backwards and forwards between Queensland and the islands – sometimes two or three times. It’s demeaning to the intelligence of the Islanders to think that they just waited on the beaches for white men in rowing boats to scoop them up for 40 years, without figuring out how to make the system work for them.”

Emelda Davis, on the other hand, believes white Western historical methods will only ever tell part of the story. Oral histories, like those passed down to her from her grandmother, often do not make it into the academic record. She has a point. Colonial academia has a history of erasing and belittling non-Western methods of historical inquiry.

“We’re not sitting around, colluding and making things up,” Davis says. “People have their stories, and that needs to be respected.”

Moore believes reducing the question of the Islanders’ freedom and consent to an either-or proposition is reductive. He coined the term “cultural kidnapping” to describe the exploitation many Islanders unwittingly signed on for when they embarked on a blackbirding trip.

“They were taken advantage of and coerced in various ways,” he says. “Even if they came voluntarily, it wasn’t the same as immigration today.”

Regardless of their differences on blackbirding’s history, Davis and Moore are a unity ticket on the devastating impact the trade, deportation and subsequent decades of marginalisation have had on generations of Australian South Sea Islanders.

“Politicians are frightened of it,” Moore says. “They don’t know how to solve the problem. In 1992, the Commonwealth put on a museum display and did a few cultural things, and went, ‘Right, that’s sorted.’ It’s to do with health issues, education, housing – similar issues to any disadvantaged immigrant group in Australia.”

Davis concurs.

“You can’t possibly think you’ve got a cohesive multicultural society when you’re ignoring the foundations of a nation and its peoples,” she says. “You can’t just sing and dance and have nice festivals without addressing the underlying facts. We need true representation. Not a quick fix, not a top-down approach, not an appointment – true representation.”

That remains slow in coming. Despite the progress ASSI-PJ and other organisations have made, Davis is frustrated at the constant slog in getting politicians, the media and other civil society groups up to speed on the topic.

“We’ve built a strong profile, travelled across the country and around the world, but we work on the smell of an oily rag,” she says. “I’m tired of speaking to ministers and telling the same story every time a government changes. My children are going to have to tell it.”

Complicating matters are the extensive historical, cultural and familial ties between Islander and Indigenous communities. Roughly half of Australian South Sea Islanders today also have Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage.

The uniqueness of their circumstances, and the unwillingness of authorities to grapple with its complexity, has often resulted in a double erasure of the Islander identity – cast out of white societies and lumped in with Indigenous ones. Islanders were herded into Aboriginal missions or non-white parts of town. Many governments, confronted with non-white
people who defied simplistic identification, simply
classed them as Aboriginal. The legacies of leading Indigenous rights campaigners such as Dr Bonita Mabo, Faith Bandler and Dr Evelyn Scott frequently neglect to mention their Islander heritage and advocacy.

Davis is at pains to emphasise that the movement is complementary to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advancement, not in competition with it.

“We were placed on the same mission stations, plantations, railways. We were governed under the same laws,” she says.

In 2017, a debate in the United States on the place of monuments to Civil War–era Confederate figures prompted Davis and others to call for a re-examination of the place men like Robert Towns and John Mackay hold in the Australian pantheon. Davis is anxious that the fight for recognition does not become another plaything of the culture warriors, in the manner of the January 26 debate. “This is not about pulling monuments down, it’s about doing the right thing for Australian South Sea Islander communities,” she says. “I’d love to hear from people who are descended from people like Robert
Towns and John Mackay. I’d love to come together and have a meaningful conversation about how they’re feeling and how we heal that rift. It’s always hard to own up to something you’ve done wrong, but you apologise, you make amends and things begin to heal. It’s okay. It did happen. We can fix this.”

While she nominates a laundry list of left-leaning politicians who have helped the cause, such as Labor’s Tanya Plibersek and NSW independent state MP Alex Greenwich, the movement has supporters across the political divide. Stephen Andrew, Australia's first parliamentarian of Australian South Sea Islander descent, is One Nation’s lone representative in Queensland parliament. Federal member for Dawson George Christensen, whose electorate encompasses the historic blackbirding port of Mackay, has been especially vocal on the injustices suffered by Australian South Sea Islanders and the need for restitution. Christensen has repeatedly called on parliament to adopt the recommendations of “The Call for Recognition”, a 1992 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report that recommended Australian South Sea Islanders be recognised as a distinct ethnic group in the Census, and be given access to similar health and community services extended to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In 2014, Davis and a carload of activists drove from Sydney to Canberra to hear George Christensen demand a national apology for Australian South Sea Islanders. Speaking to a near-empty Federation Chamber, Christensen said blackbirding was “the closest thing Australia has had to a slave trade”. Supporting his motion, Liberal National Party member for Hinkler Keith Pitt described the “unmarked ‘Kanaka’ graves on farms right across my electorate”. He praised the efforts of Brian Courtice, Hinkler’s former Labor member, to acquire heritage listing for a mass grave of 29 Islanders on Sunnyside, his family farm and a former sugarcane plantation.

Like much else about the Islander story, the mass graves across Queensland and northern NSW do not just tell of brutalisation and neglect. Some of them are unheralded markers of quiet defiance. One of Davis’s most forceful memories from childhood is of Islander men choosing to die, and to be buried, on their own terms.

“My grandmother’s house in the Tweed, where I grew up, was a place where many Kanaka men used to come to die. It was like a hospice,” she says. “Some of them were buried in the backyard, at the foot of the steps.”

That desire – to attain a sense of ownership in a hostile foreign country, to seek identity and empowerment in the face of hostility and indifference – is still alive.

“All people want, as human beings, is a cohesive sense of belonging and peace, to feel they belong in their own country,” Davis says. “It’s like baking a cake – 172 years in the making, but hey, we’re still here.”

Alex McKinnon

Alex McKinnon is Schwartz Media’s former morning editor, and a former editor of Junkee and the Star Observer.

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