2 Sep 2013

'Blackbirding' commemorations help reunite families

5:21 pm on 2 September 2013

A month of commemorations and celebrations through August to mark 150 years since the Queensland government formally allowed plantation owners to bring in Pacific Islanders as indentured labourers has helped spark interest in attempts to reunite families.

The events were aimed at raising awareness within the wider Australian community about the way the tens of thousands of people were treated until early in the 20th century, when large numbers were deported, while a small percentage were able to stay.

Many had been taken forcibly - a process that came to be called 'blackbirding'.

Blackbird International works to reunite families and director Mike Smith told Don Wiseman the event sparked a lot more interest in people wanting to reconnect.

MIKE SMITH: It's not just from August. A fair bit of that awareness was raised. As you come into August, which is the commemoration, people are starting to realise, 'Hang on. I still haven't found my family yet'. But Blackbird, our organisation, we started almost 10 years ago with our Finding Family programme. That's based on the chair wanting to find her own family. In her case, she's only a second-generation descendant, which means her grandfathers were some of the last to come over, and it happens that all four of them come from Vanuatu, just different islands. One's Ambrym, one's Ambae, one's Gaua and one's Pentecost. And somehow they all got together, got married, and two generations down we've got the chair of the organisation, Sonia, went back to reconnect with her own family on one of the islands, and realised there's another 200 families on that island looking for people back in Australia. That's how we started. But coming into the commemorations, we're getting a lot more requests. People are starting to realise 'I want to commemorate this, but I still don't know where I'm from'. So that reconnection took a bit more of a lift, as well.

DON WISEMAN: I know you've been organising events like soccer tournaments in Vanuatu to bring the groups together. You're doing other things, as well. So where do you go from this point?

MS: Certainly from our organisation point of view it's business as usual - we keep trying to do more of the same. What works, the Finding Family programme, obviously it's a volunteer thing. We don't receive money at all for this process. Our soccer tournament, the next one is in December, we've used that as a way to not only get families together and get the information and talking about reconnecting, but to also benefit the communities. Last year the tournament went over eight days. We had quite a few hundred people turn up. We had teams from all over the island, raised

AUD$20,000 in the process, for the community, and had upwards of about 60 requests for Finding Family from that island back to either Fiji or Australia.

DW: That was Ambrym in Vanuatu.

MS: Yeah, that's just one island. And that's the thing about recruiting and blackbirding, as well. It did start earlier than 1853, but it wasn't just Queensland. French recruiters, British recruiters, even Australian recruiters, blackbirders, they were going to Vanuatu and taking a lot of people to Fiji for the same thing, for sugar cane during the same era. Even Samoa, German plantation owners in samoa wanted crew and labour, so they did exactly the same thing. So we've got families on Ambrym. I think they went to Fiji or I think they went to Queensland, we're not sure. Ambrym is just one case I'm giving you, but it happens right across the Pacific.