Free forum to call for recognition of South Sea Islanders

19 August 2013

Kanaka Girl, Queensland, courtesy of the Macleay Museum Historic Photo Archive.
Kanaka Girl, Queensland, courtesy of the Macleay Museum Historic Photo Archive.

The University of Sydney will this week co-host a Sydney Ideas forum calling for formal recognition of Australia's South Sea Island people.

Australian South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia from Vanuatu, Solomon and surrounding islands under the infamous 'Blackbirding' scheme which lasted from 1863 until 1906. Under the scheme an estimated 60,000 islanders worked as indentured labourers for the sugar cane, pastoral and maritime industries. Many have called 'Blackbirding' a new form of slavery.

In 1901 the Commonwealth - as part of its White Australia Policy - passed the Pacific Island Labourers Act, intended to deport South Sea Islanders to their country of origin. After an outcry, 1,500 were allowed to stay in Australia while another 1,000 people hid in the bush for a few years, resulting in what today is a culturally distinct population of about 40,000 people.

This week's The Call for Recognition of the Australian South Sea Islander Peoples: A Human Rights issue for a 'Forgotten People' will bring together historians, community members, politicians and other interested parties to discuss the need to acknowledge these people as a distinct group. It will be opened by Eddie Koiki Mabo's widow Bonita, patron of the event's co-host the national Australian Association of South Sea Islanders Port Jackson (ASSI.PJ).

"Often Australian South Sea Islanders are confused with modern migrants from Melanesian countries," says one of the forum's coordinators Matt Poll, an ASSI.PJ member and curator of the University's Indigenous collection at its Macleay Museum.

"Some have been here for six generations, often existing on the fringes of society. Restitution issues, such as unpaid wages from the Queensland government, dual citizenship and reunification with families remain unresolved."

"Consequently, many ASSI's suffer the same disadvantages as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and remain marginalised."

Lobbying by the ASSI community has resulted in some recognition: after a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report the ASSI community in 1994 were recognised by the Commonwealth as a disadvantaged ethnic group. However, subsequent political momentum has floundered as supportive politicians such as Prime Minister Paul Keating and NSW Premier Bob Carr left office.

Panel member Alex Greenwich MP will urge the NSW Parliament for a debate and motion to recognise the NSW ASSI community this Thursday 15 August.

"We are calling on the Commonwealth to remind it of its commitment to our community, made in 1994, for the rightful recognition of our forefathers and our future generations," says ASSI.PJ President Emelda Davis.

This week's forum is one of a host of events marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of Blackbirding. Renowned ASSI historian Professor Clive Moore, human rights activist and former journalist Jeff McMullen, community member Shireen Malamoo, and Queensland representatives Paula Viti and Professor Gracelyn Smallwood will be among those who will discuss the need to give the ASSI people recognition.

This free forum will highlight a largely forgotten yet culturally important era of Australia's history and address the human rights of this small, but important, group of Australians. It is co-presented by the Macleay Museum, the ASSI national representative body and the Australian Association for Pacific Studies.

Event details

What: The Call for Recognition of the Australian South Sea Islander Peoples: A Human Rights issue 

When: 6 to 7.30pm, Tuesday 20 August

Where: Foyer, New Law Building, Camperdown Campus 

Cost: Free

Contact: 02 9351 2943 or

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