Australian South Sea Islanders are the direct descendants of South Sea Islanders brought to Australia between 1863 and 1904 to work as indentured labourers. Many were deceived into coming, while others were kidnapped or ‘blackbirded’. Most were brought to Queensland and New South Wales to work in the burgeoning sugar industry.
Australian South Sea Islanders are a distinct cultural group with a unique history, greatly contributing to the development of Queensland. However, it was not until the 1990s that the Australian South Sea Islander community was acknowledged.
The Australian South Sea Islander community was recognised by the Commonwealth Government as a unique minority group in 1994. This recognition followed a 1992 report, ‘The Call for Recognition: A Report on the Situation of Australian South Sea Islanders’, which was undertaken by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
In 2000, a formal Recognition Statement of the Australian South Sea Islander community received bipartisan support in the Queensland Legislative Assembly. The Recognition Statement recognised Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group acknowledging past injustices as well as their significant contributions to the social, cultural and economic development of Queensland.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 76 per cent of respondents who identified as Australian South Sea Islander in the 2011 Census live in Queensland. The Census also reported more than 38 per cent of Queensland’s Australian South Sea Islander population lived in the regions of Mackay, Rockhampton and Cairns with 17 per cent living in the cities of Brisbane and Townsville*.
The year 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first South Sea Islanders brought to Queensland. It is important that we acknowledge this significant milestone and promote broader recognition of the history and unique cultural identity of Australian South Sea Islanders.
* It is likely the 2011 Census data significantly underrepresents the actual Australian South Sea Islander population. The 1992 Call for Recognition report published by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission estimated there were 15,000 to 20,000 descendants of the original labourers in Australia, many with mixed ancestry and including some who do not self-identify as Australian South Sea Islanders.