The city of Mackay, located on the east coast of Australia, is situated 930km north of Brisbane and marks the beginning of North Queensland. Known as the sugar capital of Australia, the area has a population of 125,000, with the cane industry being an important part of the local economy. With a big South Sea Islander community residing in the region, their history still remains unknown to most people.
In the 19th century, many Pacific islanders were part of ‘blackbirding’, where they were brought to Australia as indentured labour from Pacific island countries to work on the sugar cane farms. The first arrivals in Mackay came from Vanuatu and the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia in 1867, totalling around 70 people. They were contracted to work on various sugar plantations such as Spiller and Alexandria, with some also growing arrowroot and cotton. By 1880, there were over 2000 Pacific islanders working in the agricultural industry across the district.
Following the changes in 1884 Labourers Amendment Act to stop the arrival of indentured labour boats, repatriation or deportation was arranged under the White Australia policy. By 1906, nearly all Pacific islanders had been sent back with Queensland being the only state that held out because they didn’t want to lose their labour. At the time, the Pacific Islander Association was formed, chaired by Tui Tonga (Antoine), with a petition being written to the then Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, to ensure a timeline for certain people to stay.
Today, Mackay has the largest South Sea Islander population in Australia. Although it is difficult to know the exact number of South Sea Islanders living in Mackay, it is estimated to be 5000 people. In 1994, the Mackay and District South Sea Islander Association was formed, following recognition from the Federal Government as their own unique ethnic group.
The people that make up the Mackay and District South Sea Islander community are diverse, with incredible stories. Many of them work in industries such as manufacturing and health, although there is not one predominant sector. Several events are held at the local Mackay and District South Sea Islander Association meeting hut at the Mackay Botanical Gardens, which was constructed in 1993 by the council. From historical artefacts, cultural workshops, fundraising and youth outreach programs, the hut provides a central location to come together and share their heritage. Recognition Day on August 25th and the Hurricanes by the Night on May 13th are important events in their calendar.
There are opportunities for Queensland to develop more and better relationships with countries in the Pacific. It all comes down to education. People don’t know the story of Australian South Sea Islanders. A key part of developing a better understanding is by telling their stories and bringing more awareness. Mackay has always been recognised as a predominant cultural area for the Australian South Sea Islander community and it is important to continue to preserve this now and into the future.
Dominic McCarthy is a New Colombo Plan Scholar and Fellow for New Caledonia and the co-founder of the Pacific-Australia Youth Association.
Starrett Vea Vea is a fifth generation South Sea Islander who was born in Mackay. He is the President of the Mackay and District South Sea Islander Association