This year marks 150 years since the first South Sea Islanders were brought to Queensland. The State Library of Queensland talk us through this important anniversary, and some personal stories shared by Australian South Sea Islanders on their ancestors’ tragic pasts.

Australian South Sea Islanders have come together to tell their stories about what the 150-year heritage anniversary means to them. Commemorations are taking place throughout Queensland until November, marking 2013 as a time for telling and sharing memories, stories, and ideas.

Beginning in 1863, some 62,000 people were kidnapped or taken from South Sea Islands to work in the sugar and cotton industries in Queensland. By 1908, these same people faced compulsory ‘repatriation’ to the islands under the White Australia Policy and the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901. Those who remained often suffered harsh treatment and discrimination.

Australian South Sea Islanders hoeing weeds in a sugar cane crop at Hambledon, Queensland, c. 1890. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

Compelling conversations have been captured through emotive and powerful storytelling from the descendants of the first Australian South Sea Islanders. Leading the way have been people like Sonia Minniecon whose great grandmother was kidnapped from a beach as a child, thrown into a hold on a ship and taken to work in the sugar industry in Queensland.

Another is Matthew Nagas, whose family did not want to say where they were from. Matthew tells of his mother saying that their family was “displaced, blackbirded, taking from our lands back in the islands, atrocities not to be talked about”. They were to assimilate, not telling their children who they were or about their heritage.

These stories have gripped and informed Australians on an important yet often sadly overlooked aspect of Australian history. Memories from a Forgotten People: 150 years of Australian South Sea Islander contribution to Queensland  is a cultural program that endeavours to share more stories of Australian South Sea Islander heritage.

To commemorate this important anniversary, the State Library of Queensland, Queensland Museum and Queensland Art Gallery l Gallery of Modern Art are offering a program of exhibitions and events.

Last weekend, a symposium  ‘A Time for Telling’ (17 August),was a great opportunity for Australian South Sea Islanders to share their family and community stories to promote a greater understanding of their history and heritage in Queensland. Programs run through November 2013. Activities including storytelling will continue through the year.

Read more about the programs and commemorations at the Australian South Sea Islander blog. Listen to the digital stories of Sonia, Matthew and many others at State Library’s CitizenJ.

Useful links – Australian South Sea Islanders: 

  • Documenting Democracy – Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901: Click here
  • State Library of Queensland exhibition: Click here
  • State Library of Queensland blog: Click here
  • State Library of Queensland’s CitizenJ: Click here
  • Queensland Art Gallery exhibition: Click here
  • Queensland Museum exhibition: Click here
  • Queensland Migration Heritage Hub: Click here
South Sea Islanders from New Hebrides on board the 'Malakula'. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

South Sea Islanders from New Hebrides on board the ‘Malakula’. Courtesy of State Library of Queensland.