BY ROSS PEDDLESDEN
Next time you go to Mon Repos, or travel from Bundaberg to Bargara, have a look at the old stone walls you see there.
They weren’t put there by large machinery. They were hand built on blood, sweat and tears.
They’re the ‘Kanaka walls’; built by South Sea Islander people who cleared the fields of volcanic rock well over a century ago.
From about 1880 people were brought here in the ‘blackbirding’ trade, mostly from present day Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, to provide labour in the cane fields.
Lured aboard ships with promises of wealth, tricked or simply kidnapped, they came to Queensland as so-called indentured labourers, working essentially for their food and keep.
It was hard work. Many died. It was more dangerous to be an indentured labourer than a slave, because a slave had a monetary value.
If an indentured labourer died from hard work, disease or lack of care their host or employer simply got another one. These intrepid people left many marks on the local landscape. If you see an old farmhouse with a huge ancient mango tree flanking it, there’s a good chance South Sea Islanders lived there.
They tended to plant a tree everywhere they went; perhaps as a reminder of home.
A lesser-known rock landmark is Anthony’s Rest on The Hummock. It was built at short notice by South Sea Islander labour so Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave could survey the coast on a visit in 1888.
In a supreme irony, South Sea Islanders were later deemed to be unfair competition for white labour and forcibly repatriated, including many who had built lives here or were even born here.
Their descendants live on in Bundaberg, proud of their heritage. The simple fact is the Bundaberg Region wouldn’t be what it is today without their hard work and sacrifice.
DID YOU KNOW?
The bell that assembles the children of Gooburrum State School today once signalled the start and finish times for South Sea Island indentured labourers at Rutherglen cane plantation on Moore Park Road.
The Bundaberg & District Historical Museum is at the Bundaberg Botanic Gardens on Mt Perry Road. Open 7 days.
Ross is a member of the Bundaberg & District Historical Museum, as well as an author, Rotarian and passionate community volunteer. Special thanks to Chris Spence, Coordinator of the Bundaberg & District Historical Museum.