In August 2017, the Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association (MADASSIA) unveiled new markers on 114 previously unmarked graves in the ‘heathen’ section of a historical cemetery. A few months earlier, roadworks uncovered a previously unknown stone wall built during the plantation period. In the stores of the Queensland Museum, a traditional Vanuatu club tells a story of objects changing hands between indentured labourers and the doctors responsible for their health. On the still-running sugar mill in Ayr, a plantation labourer’s barracks stands in silent testimony to the workers who built the plantation economy of Central Queensland. What do these items hold in common? They are all material testimony to the lives of Australian South Sea Islanders, imported labourers from the Pacific Islands who played an integral role to the development of Queensland’s economy and society from 1863 through the early 20th century, before being marginalised by Australia’s discriminatory immigration policies.
Australian South Sea Islander communities have been vigilant and passionate about recording history and documenting sites of significance. For the community it is important to be an equal partner in this project and continue to build on these important building blocks by acknowledging and recording the knowledge and histories held by the community. As well as working towards ensuring these stories are shared across Australia, they are building up sense of Australian South Sea Islander identity, heritage, and capacity for research that will have a lasting impact for future generations.
Today Australian South Sea Islanders in Queensland feel an urgency in relation to recording local heritage: both the tangible, landscape features threatened by decay or continuing development; and the intangible, knowledge held by the rapidly aging generation of elders who are the last generation who had direct contact with former plantation labourers.