The mayor of the Queensland town of Bundaberg has become the first in the state to apologise for the region’s history of slavery.
Bundaberg mayor Jack Dempsey issued a formal apology to the South Sea Islander community for the practice of blackbirding: the indentured labour system which operated between the 1860s and the early 1900s.
More than 60,000 South Sea Islander people were trafficked to Queensland where they were forced to work on the state’s cane fields.
“Today I wish to extend a sincere apology on behalf of the Bundaberg region community for the abuse which occurred in ‘blackbirding’ people from Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands to work in the Queensland sugarcane industry,” he said at a ceremony on Friday morning.
“Our sugarcane industry was built on the backs of Pacific Island labour, along with much of our infrastructure such as rock walls, which are still visible today.”
The apology has been welcomed by the president of the Bundaberg South Sea Islanders Heritage Association, Aunty Coral Walker, who said it was a step forward and one that would have meant a lot to the generations before her.
Mayor Dempsey said the apology was long overdue.
Bundaberg has also signed a ‘sister city’ agreement with Luganville in Vanuatu, which will see the country’s flag raised during a ceremony at the Bundaberg Council.
“I sincerely regret the pain caused to families and communities in Vanuatu and other Island nations,” he said
“Saying sorry is necessary for healing and to move forward in friendship. Our industries today rely on voluntary seasonal labour. This must always be a relationship based on respect, courtesy, fairness and trust.”
Waskam (Emelda) Davis is a second-generation Australian South Sea Islander and has been fighting to raise awareness of the ‘blackbirding’ of South Sea Islanders. Her own grandfather was taken from Vanuatu at the age of 12 and forced to work in appalling conditions in Queensland’s sugar cane fields.
Following the apology, Ms Davis told the ABC there is still a lot of work to be done.
“This is the work of decades of South Sea Islander families and organisations that have been advocating for the right to be heard and hopefully this apology will give us that opportunity, and work alongside our First Nations families,” Ms Davis said.
“We’ve got to reconnect with those families and working with Vanuatu especially at the forefront.”
She said, Vanuatu provides more than 40 per cent of our seasonal worker trade today.
“There’s a lot to be reconnected through families, identity, and just building capacity in terms of micro business and opportunities for education and training.”