Promises and passage, that what’s they were sold. A truth not realized, the loss of all that was family and home. The South Sea Islanders who came to Australia in the 1800s and early 1900s were referred to as Kanakas. Many were kidnapped by ‘blackbirders’. As the descendents of Anglo-Celtic migrants, those sugar-cane farmers in Queensland may well have listened and danced to tunes such as Sharon Shannon’s jig Blackbird; it’s almost certain the Islanders coerced to work for paltry wages in a colony, and later a nation, that refused to accept the black man as equal, did not dance to a similar tune.
South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia to work in the sugar cane fields because the Australian Aborigine was considered too intractable and unteachable. Sourced from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia, indigenous people were coerced to travel to Australia, sometimes being sold into slavery. Many were simply blackbirded. Many never saw their homes again and lived the life of a black person, only marginally higher in status than the Australian Aborigine, but still corralled and enslaved by a ruling Anglo-Celtic majority.
It is with no surprise that I read of a mass gravesite containing the remains of 50 ‘indentured labourers’ that has been discovered on a Queensland property. The owner, to his credit, has applied to have the site registered as of historical significance. The South Sea Islanders who died in Australia were refused burial in graveyards and were subsequently dumped in unmarked graves on many sugar plantations. Brian Courtice’s Sunnyside, one of the early sugar plantations, will be protected from commercial development if his application for heritage listing is accepted. In doing so, he will help ensure that the history of Australia’s growth and development is in no small part due to the enslavement and racism that was so prevalent at the time; he will ensure that this country does not forget its dues to the indigenous people of the South Sea Islands.
It would be good to think that the end of the blackbirding practices in the early 1900s heralded the beginning of the end to racism in Australia. Unfortunately, that was not so. South Sea Islanders were unable to be buried in graveyards until after 1940 and the Australian Aborigines continue to be the subject of racial intolerance and specific laws to this day. Australians believe this country to be tolerant of others and yet a French woman is threatened for singing in her mother tongue on a Melbourne bus and Gurrumul Yunupingu, the renowned musician, was refused service by a cab driver just last week.
Then last night, one of those close to our own group was assaulted in the mid afternoon on Sydney’s Upper North Shore. Mahmud was set upon by five youths whom he estimates as in their late teens or perhaps very early twenties who hurled racist abuse at him, calling him among other things, a terrorist. Mahmud was walking by himself when attacked and others who saw the attack ignored the plight and walked by without calling police or offering assistance. The one exception to the ignorance shown by others was an elderly Asian gentleman who went to Mahmud’s aid after his attackers had left.
A wog bashing. That’s what it was, pure and simple. Five tough and supposedly superior white males who believed themselves to be of the ruling class in this country picked a random male in the streets based upon nothing more than his appearance and meted out a racist attack.
These are the sort of scum I want to see in jail. Such attitudes in youth can only come form the home and I despair for the attitudes in our society when this is what is demonstrated on our streets. It is the very attitude that led to the Cronulla Riots seven years ago and it will do so again, It is the very reason that enforcing consequences for breach of the Racial Discrimination Act is so very important.
Last week I was approached by a man of about thirty as I left work; we’ll call him Alex. His face was tear stained, his clothes disheveled and he had the odour of alcohol about him. This obviously Aboriginal man was despondent, despairing even, with a stumbling gait and slurred speech. All he wanted was a lift in the oppressive heat of the late afternoon. If he had to walk, it would have taken him at least two hours, assuming he didn’t fall over in his alcohol ridden state; in the car, the trip was about fifteen minutes. He was no threat to me although he was considerably larger; in fact I suspect that if he threw a punch that I could have been in Adelaide before it reached the point when my head had been. He was too down on himself to call his wife who lives in another town, he had no credit for his phone and he felt a total failure in life. His private education had not protected him from the racial denigration that came with his heritage. As the only Aborigine at his private school, he felt he had been subjected to racial taunts throughout his school life and when he finally lashed back and punched another student after years of abuse, the system had supported the bullies rather than him.
In agreeing to take this man to a house where he believed he would find support during that short trip, I heard a lot about him. He was abundantly aware of his failings and was feeling so low that I wonder if he is in fact still alive; I have asked the local Aboriginal community to look out for him and sent word to the wider Aboriginal community via Bakchos. But the most sorry thing that he said to me as we got in the car was, “You’re not going to call the cops are you?” My reply was simple, “Not unless you do anything to me. You’ve done nothing to me so why should I call the cops?”
It’s a sad indictment of white society that this Aboriginal man thought that I, a white woman from whom he had sought help, would stab him in the back simply because of the colour of his skin. Whatever he may or may not have done to anyone else, he had done nothing to me and I was in no danger in his company.
I’ve asked several times what’s happened to Alex since giving him a lift; he seems to have gone to ground. But we can nonetheless speak to others with similar experiences or racism, including Mahmud, who is cradling deep knife wounds to his hands and recovering from a blow to the head. These are the evidence of the true racial divide in this country. Difference is not well tolerated and the narrow-mindedness that comes with believing in our own superiority because we are white or European or British is the same simplicity of thought that consigns the Indonesians to a guerilla war in West Papua or the Israeli’s and Palestinians to a never ending battle in which every attack is justified.
This country has all the elements needed for the same sort of racial and religious discontent that plague those nations upon whom we tut. Security at home for people such as Mahmud, our Aborigines and anyone of foreign tongue or appearance must come before we can preach to the rest of the world about their ills. Just remember that Julia and Bob when Australia takes its seat at the United Nations Security Council in the near future.