In an Australian-first, Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey has issued a formal apology to the region’s South Sea Islander community for the historic practice of blackbirding.

The first apology by a government official, it recognises the Pacific Islander people who were forced into indentured labour in Queensland’s cane fields.

To Emelda Davis, Chair of Australian South Sea Islanders Port Jackson, it symbolises an “olive branch” for reconnection and atonement.

“The apology is huge — it’s the first time in 170-odd years since our people were first brought here … It feels like ‘we see you.'” Davis said.

Blackbirding refers to the forced labour system that Melanesians endured between the 1860s and early 1900s. Around 62,000 men were kidnapped and sent to Queensland to establish the sugarcane industry. 

Bundaberg was a key location for blackbirding, hosting many forced labourers.

“There are untold stories about blackbirding,” said Davis.

“They were all South Sea Islander people who were brought here through British colonisation. There’s a lot to understand about that history and what it means to us as grassroots people.”

The apology was delivered at a community ceremony in Bundaberg’s CBD to mark the 41st Vanuatuan Independence Day. Mayor Dempsey likened blackbirding to slavery.

“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,” he said.

“I sincerely regret the pain caused to families and communities in Vanuatu and other Island nations.”

The ceremony also celebrated a new ‘Sister City’ partnership between the Bundaberg Regional Council and Luganville Municipal Council — located on Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu’s largest island.

Formed to promote cultural and commercial ties with the Pacific, Mayor Dempsey said it was the region’s mission and responsibility to ensure Ni-Vanuatuans are cared for like “our own sons and daughters”. 

The partnership aims to promote tourism, cultural understanding, farming, seasonal labour and education.

Vanuatu’s flag was raised for the first time during the ceremony, something Davis hopes “is a regular occurrence”. 

She said the partnership and apology have been “10 years in the making”.

“Australian South Sea Islanders worked closely with the Vanuatu Government. It was a collaborative effort — of course it takes tenacity to get these things over the line. This just means that our Mayor is open to greater reconnection and development.”

The Vanuatuan flag being raised for the first time. Photo supplied by Bundaberg Regional Council.

Mayor Dempsey said he was overwhelmed with positive feedback from all over Australia and the Pacific.

“The apology was something I personally believed was important — and it came from the heart,” he said. 

Davis also hopes this opens up a greater understanding around the kinship between South Sea Islander people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

“We suffer the same injustices as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities — dispossession, oppression and systemic racism,” she said.

“We need to sit alongside and be identified alongside our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters. The evident kinship is in our blood. It’s not rocket science.”

She said the South Sea Islander community is especially marginalised because of a lack of strategic services delivered across the country.

“Until now, we’ve had nothing but lip-service — let’s just hope this isn’t lip-service too. [Blackbirding] has lasting impacts. The jails are full, mental illness is rife and suicides are high,” she said.

For many South Sea Islander people, this apology offers a sense of belonging. 

“It’s like, okay, we can kind of breathe now that someone’s hearing us in office. It’s not our Prime Minister — but someone is hearing us,” Davis said. 

By Imogen Kars