Australian slavery buried in Queensland mass grave
Hidden under an old sugar cane plantation outside the Queensland city of Bundaberg lies an awful secret - the bodies of 29 South Sea Islanders buried in an unmarked grave. Bundaberg and District South Sea Islanders Action Group president, Matthew Nagas, says they could be his ancestors. And he believes they were probably worked to death "like pieces of machinery".
"If they weren't working anymore, you just pushed them aside and covered them with dirt," Mr Nagas told the AAP news agency. "They were buried in that place with no name, and forgotten. It cuts deep.”
Between 1863 and 1904 62,000 South Sea Islanders were stolen to Queensland to toil in sugar and fruit plantations. The state's sugar industry was built on their backs.
"Indentured labour is a term people use to soften the reality of what happened," Mr Nagas said. "Australia had an era of slavery."
"These people were slaves and they were called 'indentured labour' to get around the anti-slave laws of Great Britain,” Mr Brian Courtice, owner of the farm where the remains are buried, said.
“Many of them died here from poor nutrition and harsh treatment. We see most of our history either forgotten or knocked down and I want to preserve this. It would be dreadful if in 100 years time houses were put on it."
Bundaberg Regional Council has confirmed that ground radar technology identified 29 unmarked graves of South Sea Islanders at the site, which will be considered for state heritage listing next year. The graves are in rows of 13, 10 and six, with one child buried among 28 adults.
Council cemetery supervisor, Gail Read, who found the graves, said there is no doubt they are those of South Sea Islander sugar plantation workers.
White settlers in the 19th century were not buried in unmarked graves, except in rare cases where suicide was involved, she said. Ms Read said she knows of many similar graves scattered throughout the district, but some elderly members of cane farming families are still reluctant to admit they are on their properties.
Mr Courtice, a former federal Labor politician, said the confirmation is the first of its kind to occur in Queensland. He also believes there could be many more such mass graves in sugar growing areas across the state, including in Mackay and the Burdekin district.
"To my knowledge, this is the first confirmed mass grave on an old sugar plantation," he told the Courier-Mail newspaper.
Next year Australian South Sea Islanders will mark 150 years since their ancestors were first brought to Queensland, and Mr Nagas thinks it's important that people remember that dark chapter of history.
"So many people are still searching for their families. They poured their blood, sweat and tears into those fields. We must remember them," he said.
While debate continues about whether South Sea Islanders were enslaved, Mr Courtice says the graves are a crucial piece of evidence consistent with slavery."These people were buried without ceremony - they were often treated worse than livestock. They can't speak for themselves but I can speak for them - there will be a monument built to honour them."
Representatives from the South Sea Islander community have been at the Courtice farm, marking off the area where the graves were found with tape.
Mr Courtice has collected a large brief of evidence on South Sea Islander slavery, including verbal testimony taken during the 1990s from an elderly Bundaberg resident whose relatives had direct experience with the slave trade.
He said there is evidence to suggest Islanders working in the cane fields were often buried "where they fell", while others were executed for minor crimes.
The town of “Townsville” is named after Robert Towns, its founder, who was heavily involved in the slave trade, euphemistically called “blackbirding”.
The installation of a new statue to commemorate him outraged South Sea Islanders, who say it was he who started the Queensland slave trade.
Pastor Alan Johnson, a South Sea islander, said, “This whole city is representative of what has oppressed and has destroyed a lot of the fabric of South Sea Island society through the black birding days and if it’s not brought to the attention of people in this town I don't think people are going to be able to walk around here with a clear conscience. It does bother me every morning when I wake up that I know that I live in a town that’s been represented and has been named after a man that’s been associated with blackbirding.”
The Member for Townsville of the Queensland government until 2009, Mike Reynolds, says he wouldn't have built the memorial if he still steered the Council ship.
“The very bitter times that South Sea Islanders went through in terms of being forcefully removed from the South Sea Islands and brought to sugar fields for free labour - that really does go back a long, long time and I think in many ways putting the Robert Towns statue there is really opening a festering sore.”
Mr Courtice, who now grows potatoes, said land holders have destroyed the records of the kidnapped South Sea Islanders.
"These were young men who were great specimens of mankind and who were worked to death or died through disease or illness. There are 30 South Sea Islanders buried near our house and there's 20 buried at the back of our property on the fence line. I think it's important they be remembered and their resting place be protected."
Mr Nagas said his aunt had worked at the Courtice site, called Sunnyside, and his grandmother had lived across the road before perishing in a fire at a local sugar mill.
"Places like this all have burial plots on their farms and have direct links to some of our families who live here now," he said.
The 59-year-old former footballer and coach said South Sea Islanders, who considered their ancestors "sugar slaves", were robbed of their history.
"Records from plantations have been destroyed and put into the fire furnaces," he said. "We've lost all that. It's all buried out there. It all died with everybody."
Mr Nagas said South Sea Islanders liked to visit Sunnyside and sit under the historic weeping fig trees from which at least one of their ancestors was hanged for killing a worker.
Tourists, missionaries and dignitaries also travel to Australia to visit the farm to explore its painful past.
Mr Nagas's brother, Kelvin, said the property gave his 1,000-strong community in Bundaberg a sense of identity.
Mr Courtice's application to the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection is expected to be finalised within weeks.
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