Island Life ~ Australian South Sea Islanders, the unknown history of Australia
Dec 14, 2020
In one of our latest Boom Community Blogs we interviewed Australian artist Janet Ambrose (READ HERE) about her recent exhibition in Mackay, ‘Conversations with Australian South Sea Islanders’. I wanted to take this opportunity to talk further about Australia’s history of blackbirding, and what it was like growing up as a descendant of an Australian South Sea Islander, with one of her subjects, Marion Healy.
Marion Healy was born and raised in Mackay, North Queensland.
“My blackbirded ancestors and past South Sea Islander descendant leaders have fought hard for their own and for our recognition. The look of today's Australian South Sea Islander people is changing and we have many people joining our family who are not of South Sea Islander descent.
“We welcome you all and hope that you understand the strength and pride of our family and to be respectful of our history, with the kidnapping which occurred and the loss of our culture. The poverty we lived with has been our struggle and survival. Our elders experience of discrimination, racism and segregation is maybe why a lot of the younger generation have not experienced first hand any of these negatives today. It is because you ride on the coat tails of our resilience, our strength and our pride.
“I am passionate about furthering my knowledge of the removal of the Pacific Islanders through the Indentured Labor Trade known as blackbirding.
“I wish to address our survival; past, present and future in the support of Australian South Sea Islanders and Pacific Island families with their own family connections.
"All Australian South Sea Islander people should be aware of their South Sea Islander history. It is my wish to support not only the younger and older Australian South Sea Islanders with their own blackbirding history, but also the wider community, in the form of education and awareness of our Australian South Sea Islander people.”
Firstly, could you please tell the Boom Community about your great grandfather who was blackbirded from the Solomon Islands?
John Kwailiu Abelfai Fatnowna, Queensland sugar-plantation labourer and community leader, was born in about 1866, son of Luifera and Sauroro of the Rakwane descent group from Malaita, Solomon Islands. He was educated in the customs of his island, which in his youth had barely been visited by Europeans. Kwailiu lived on mountain slopes overlooking Fakanakafo Bay in the dialect area of Fataleka.
Kwailiu was recruited twice to Queensland: on the first occasion he was blackbirded, but the second time he went willingly. Little is known of the first period except that he served out a three-year indentured term. He would have received the statutory payment of £6 a year plus food, accommodation and a limited supply of clothes. On his return to Malaita he married Orrani (Orawani) from West Fataleka. Soon afterwards, the couple was recruited for Queensland.
As an experienced labourer, Kwailiu would have received a higher cash payment of perhaps as much as £10, but in other respects the conditions of his service would not have changed. It is probable that the couple worked for three years in the Innisfail district since their first two children were born on the Johnstone River (Innisfail) in 1891 and 1893. Having served their indenture, Kwailiu and his wife elected to remain in Queensland. As time-expired labourers they had much greater freedom of movement and their earnings, though much less than those of Europeans or Chinese wage-labourers, would have been greater than those serving their first indenture. As a woman, Orrani would always have earned less than Kwailiu.
By 1895, Kwailiu and Orrani had moved to Mackay where their next three children were born in 1895, 1897 and 1901. There they lived for the remainder of their lives, working on plantations and farms. Oral testimony from the present-day Islander community leaves no doubt that Kwailiu was one of the most important Malaitan leaders in the Mackay district, a conclusion confirmed by the unprecedented scale of his funeral in 1906. This pre-eminence depended entirely on descent and on force of character: despite his Christian funeral, he never became a Christian and unlike other leading Islanders who gained status from positions in a Christian Church or the Pacific Islanders Association, he held no position recognized by Europeans. Kwailiu's grandfather Dedeana had been a powerful leader of the Rakwane; if Kwailiu had returned to Malaita as he was often urged to, he would have assumed the position of fata'abu (priest) among the Rakwane. His cousin Fikui was sent to Queensland to search for Kwailiu but failed to persuade him to return home.
After Kwailiu's death from malaria on 25 March 1906 at Pioneer, Maggie Orrani married Luke Logomier (q.v.), another Fataleka man and lay preacher at St. Mary's Anglican Church at Farleigh outside Mackay. They both died in the influenza epidemic in 1919. Kwailiu's daughters married other Solomon Islanders at Mackay, as did their son, who adopted the surname Fatnowna. Their families are prominent in the present day Islander community. (N. Fatnowna 1989; T. Fatnowna 2002; Moore 1981, 1985, 96-97, 2000b
Do you know how old he was when he was first blackbirded and brought over here?
We assumed he was only a young boy when first brought to Queensland and he died in Mackay at the age of 40.
Were island traditions and cultures present when you were growing up, or had your family adopted more of an "Australian way” of life?
My dad was born in 1933, one of 10 children, and I understand from my uncle's stories that the family spoke English, but it was mostly Pidgin English and some of the cultural ways of the island ways still existed. By the 1960s our families had adopted Christianity ways and we then had to leave those early cultures behind with the times. My parents were encouraging us to live and speak the Australian way (Assimilation Act).
You need to understand, that when growing up, we didn’t know or mix with white people. We were living a very survival, community way, of living. We couldn’t practice our cultural ways because our people had been removed from their islands. We had limited resources or access to food groups, doing traditional performances, dances and speaking.
By the time I was growing up my grandfather had brought christianity into our community in the Mackay area, so a lot weren’t allowed to practice their traditional island cultures. So we have new traditions and cultures that we practice now, and we’ve had to make do with what food groups are available that we can eat from. We are very blessed with our singing, but we sing songs from our faith. We're sports orientated as a family group and community, and we excel at our arts and crafts.
Today we live and dress the “Australian way” but we do stick out (haha!) We look like the indigenous community, but we don’t have any culture or traditional ways as such. Today we’re trying to learn our history of how we came to be here in Queensland, and make connections back to the homeland, and when we do that we’re trying to learn some of those cultural practices and traditions from where our great grandfather came from.
What was it like growing up with island heritage in regional Queensland?
When growing up on the cane fields in Queensland, especially Mackay, I remember being very scared of white people. We would walk past the cane farmers house and hide in the guiney grass, and then we’d hide in the drains from the kids walking to school. We were very fearful of people even though we were a proud race of Pacific Islanders. I don’t think we came into our own, of who we are and how proud we are, until 1975 when my uncles had returned to the islands to say we were here in Queensland, and we know the story of who we were when amissed from the islands.
It was very hard. It was our families and especially my dad that lived under the acts. Australian South Sea Islanders weren’t allowed to work in areas like maritime, agriculture or desk jobs, and all they were allowed to do was work on the cane field. I came from a family of 10 children and my mum and dad, and I think it was extremely hard for them to survive, supporting 12 people and raising all of us. I think their only hope was in their faith.
My dad had expressed to me as a young woman that education was the key to getting ourselves forward in life, and it’s something I’ve always said to my five children. It is very important for them to want anything in life and therefore they have to have a good education so they can compete with the rest of the world.
As an islander of heritage in regional Queensland, we still suffer. We’ve been here for 157 years but we only got recognitions 25 years ago by the federal government, and we only got recognition from the Queensland government 20 years ago, even though this is the state our people built this country on.
So how does it feel? I think we’ve been a little short changed personally, but my children have made a place for themselves in this state and country, and I’m very proud of who I am and where I’ve come from.
What do you love most about island culture?
This is an easy one! I love who I am. I love that we celebrate family and that family is really important to us. That our family and our island way is starting to blend a lot in this community. The colour of my skin, I’m proud of it! I’m also proud of where we came from so as an Australian South Sea Islander now here in Queensland, I make sure and encourage to tell my story to my children, and to the next generation. I’m also here to share the island culture with all of those around me and in education I’ve made sure everybody knows our story.
That’s what’s most important about my island culture, sharing it.
How does your connection to island culture show up in your daily life?
My connection shows up daily in my life as it’s my job. It’s my job to teach others about the Australian South Sea Islander people in my community. It’s in my garden, knowing what I need to put in my garden needs to reflect the food groups that my people eat. What I like to see in my garden is from how we grew up in my family so there’s coconut trees, taro patches, bamboos, lots of fruit and veggies everywhere, and that shows up in my life daily, it’s highly important. That’s how island culture shows up for me.
Do you have a favourite cultural saying?
I have a combination of a favourite saying. Because our community here in Mackay is made up of both the indigenous community alongside our Australian South Sea Islander community, the saying we use most often with our young people is “which way”, and your reply should be “same way”. That’s my favourite cultural saying.
Do you have a favourite traditional island dish?
YES, mine is fried fish, cooked the way my mum cooked it. I make it every time we come together as a family. First you have to have the best fish, either a river mullet or a Barra, scale it back, toss it in flour, salt and pepper, and squeeze a little curry over it, and toss it back and forth to coat, then fry it up until it’s really cooked. That is one of my favourite traditional island dishes and I’ll always serve up to my family, especially my siblings, but not always my children.
I have another favourite and that’s Taro Balls. Teaching the next generation that Taro is a really good plant is important, and it’s a traditional food group that we eat and we’ve turned it into a savoury or sweet food… but I can’t tell you that recipe now. It’s a secret so I’ll tell you another time in private.
If the world could adopt one aspect of Solomon culture, what would it be and why?
Well unbeknown to the world nearly 20 something years ago a musical man from Deep Forest had the opportunity to copy and use one of our family members songs from the deep forest. It was the “Sweet Lullaby” song. That was originally from my family village in Malaita.
What does it mean to you to live a big, beautiful life?
A big beautiful life means having peace of mind and living healthy. It is to know your past so you can move forward with your future, and so that you can leave behind understanding for the next generation. It also means to learn from our mistakes. That we celebrate who we are.