|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: March 25, 1993
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Faith, how was your father and people from his island at the time actually taken? How were they taken from the island? What was the story of that? [INTERRUPTION]
The taking of the people from the islands was called 'blackbirding' and blackbirding really means a very vicious form of capture or of kidnapping and so it was. At times the captors would entice the islanders out to the boats with various trinkets and so on but if the islanders who swam out became suspicious in any way they were hauled aboard. The captors would just throw the boat hooks out if necessary and bring them in that way or else they would lasso them and bring them in by the neck if necessary onto the boat. And once they got them onto the boat they would then put them down into the hull and pull the lid down, shut the lid down. It was anything than gentle, it was rough. I want to say though that there were some who came voluntarily, mainly because they wanted to know what was happening in this place, Queensland, not Australia. And it was - apart from a ruthlessness - there was also a tremendous determination because each man, not woman, cost so much or could bring so much, so the more they got the greater profit there would be in the trade for them.
How did they use the boat hooks, could you describe that?
Well, if a man swam very close and perhaps they thought they'd lose him or he couldn't make it aboard, they would just throw the heavy hooks that they used on the boat, down onto his neck, onto his arm or some part of his body and haul him up onto the boat. It was a method used that was quite foreign in many ways to even a slave trade. [INTERRUPTION]
So what was the effect in the village when all their men had disappeared?
The taking of the men had a very serious effect on the village. In the first place, they were the keepers of the traditions in the cultures and this was being drained very heavily, and also they didn't come back. They didn't go back to the village so there was - the whole exercise was surrounded with a mystique for the villagers. How come they went on the boats and they never came back? It is true that in later years, some did go back. Some even went back twice and they went back to Queensland and decided Queensland would be the shot. But the majority didn't and so there were children growing up without fathers, grandfathers; and the very important people in the total structure of the whole culture were no longer there. But the immediate effect was the mourning, the sorrow, because many had witnessed the cruelty that was exercised by the crew of the vessels and so there was great sorrow in the villagers. There was much mourning and loss.
Who profited from this trade?
Well the profiteers of this trade have over the years been very carefully camouflaged, held in the background, but of course mighty businesses, organisations, like CSI.
Who were the people who really profited from this trade?
Well there were some of the biggest companies in Australia and their whole foundation was based on the trade - CSR of course and Burns Philp - and Burns Philp remained in the trade for many years, many, many years. So the Islanders not only gave their labour but they also gave up their traditions, they gave up their land. They couldn't claim land once they got here and so in the building of these businesses for the Australian economy and development, tremendous sacrifice was made by the men who were brought to Queensland.
And back in the village, you actually went back later yourself didn't you, to visit Ambrym, the island that your father had come from? What did that visit mean to you? Could you tell us about it?
Well it was quite an experience for me to go and find my father's village. First of all, I had spent all those years of my life, working for the rights of Australian indigenous people and then in the early '70s, I thought, well enough is enough, I want to do something now that I've always wanted to do and that was in some way [to] record the story of the life of my father. And so I began first by talking to my brothers, who were so much older than me. And it was really going and seeing my eldest brother, who was living on the north coast of New South Wales, that I found for the first time the name of the village that my father came from and so I thought, well, this is not good enough, if I'm going to research it, I really have to do a decent job. Well, I remember Hans coming home one day from work and I said to him - we had just been to Kenya and you know, we hadn't quite recovered with jet lag when I got this idea that I should really find the village of Biap, which is the village of my father's. And Hans had been back at work for about a fortnight or something like that and when he came home, I said, 'Hans, how would you like to go to Vanuatu?' and he said, 'Yeah, sure, when?', so I said, 'Well, soon'. And so we set off. And that in itself was quite an emotional experience. I didn't think it would be. I thought it would be quite romantic; you know, I'd find the islanders and I'd go there and I'd tell them that I belonged to them and they belonged to me and I'd eat coconuts and bananas and all this sort of thing. But it wasn't like that at all. It just wasn't like that and I recall taking two other friends with Hans and we arrived in Vanuatu and just putting my feet on that soil was quite overwhelming - I can't describe it - just there in this touristy city. Anyhow we decided that the very next day we should look for the island of Ambrym and I had a rather inadequate map and very little more but we decided that we would go downtown and ask around, where is Ambrym and how does one get to Ambrym, because Ambrym hadn't then an airstrip.
Did you find the people who had been your father's immediate relatives?
It was interesting. After a couple of nights we were housed in the local clinic but we were told that if a woman was in labour then we'd have to go and sleep under the trees or somewhere. So we were in the clinic and each morning someone would be sitting outside with maybe a pair of roosters or some bag of yams or something like that and they would be claiming me, that I was their cousin's cousin or some link, some close link with one or another. But then finally they decided they had really found the right person who really was my brother. Well I said no it can't be. And the morning they brought him up - he was sort of ushered up as it were, with quite a lot of the women and children and he had, they had put beautiful flowers in his hair, frangipanis and hibiscus and so forth - and they had two pairs of roosters and they said to me, 'This really is your brother'. Well it wasn't of course, but it was, because he was in direct line with my father in the tree, as they said. And I found that, I can't tell you, it made me feel that - I had never felt that I belonged, quite as much as I belonged to this group of people.
So your father had only been 13 when he left. Was this man actually your cousin?
Well that's what they told [me]. They said he was my brother but when they took me to his village which was actually adjoining my father's village, they said there were conflicting reports, might be your cousin eh? Maybe not. They weren't quite sure, but they were awfully keen to make that link. But there were people in the village who had my father's name. And my daughter's name is Lilon, and one day I went out to record some singing from the young children and they gathered around and they were absolutely fascinated as I'd play the tape back to them, so they sang. Regrettably I must say, they were hymns in pidgin-English, some were, because they had been quite Christ-ridden for a long time. Anyhow, there was a little girl and she was looking down at me and I said, 'What is your name?'. And she said, 'Lilon'. And it's an island name.
Where had you got the name from when you named your daughter?
From a cousin, Lilon. But I knew that it was an Ambrymese name, so.
For the men that were taken away on the boat, like your father, the destination ultimately was the canefields. What were the circumstances on the canefields? Could you describe those for us, how did they work, how were they treated, were they whipped like slaves elsewhere, were they paid, what were the hours that they worked and did they have any opportunity to get away? [INTERRUPTION]
The life on the canefields was certainly very different to that on the islands. In the first place of course there was no need for regular hours and their life was controlled mainly, or they lived by the tides, the moon, the sun and the seasons. And [then] going into Queensland where they were forced to live in barracks, roughly constructed barracks with iron roofs or else they could, if they wanted to, and many did, build their own thatched huts, thatched-roofed huts. And it wasn't a free life anymore. They had to get up in the morning and they had to work all day from sunup to sundown and it was very, extremely hard. They were controlled by an overseer and if the overseer didn't have a whip, he'd have a gun which was very threatening. And the people of course, knew what guns were about, by the time they'd left the ships, because many had been fired on in the hull, if they, in any way created a stir of any kind. You know they would stamp the top - the crew would stamp the top and just shoot down into the hull, throw the bodies over ... So they knew what guns were about. The gun in an overseer's hand was very powerful indeed. And so they worked and worked very hard. Women worked also. Women worked in the canefields and very little is said about this but I can remember my father's friends and relations, who were women, who were brought over here, who were put out to work in the cane and women had their babies in the canefield. Pregnant women worked there and worked as hard, they were kept out in the sun all day. It wasn't anything but an easy life. But at first, of course they were never paid. It is true that later others came and could have been called indentured labourers, because they were paid, but when my father came in the 1880s they weren't being paid anything. Some were being paid a pittance a little later, but very little. So it was an exceptionally hard life, it was a controlled life, they hadn't the freedom to move around as they would like to and they were really compelled to attend Sunday schools that the missionaries conducted and it wasn't what they wanted to do awfully much at all. They'd much rather go down town and have a good time and get together or whatever it might be, but they were forced to attend the Sunday Schools and the missionaries often sent their teachers on to the plantations where the people were.
Did that result in them being educated though?
True, I believe that the missionaries in some ways benefited the people's lives by helping them to read and helping them to write. It was limited certainly, but that was useful, otherwise they would not have had that benefit. But there was very little else and they were looked upon, to begin with, they were looked upon like the horses and the wagons, the equipment of the farm. They were part of the equipment and they were owned, and they were virtually owned and often they were sold with the farm and passed from one hand to another. It didn't happen very often but it did, in fact.
And a price was put on them?
Oh yes, a price was put on them. My father never talked about the price that was put on them, but later in years, I encouraged Ed Docker, the journalist and author to research and write a book on the enslavement of the people and in his research he found that many were sold, were bought, sold and bought for £7-10/- a head depending on the size of the man and there was always a great demand for the men who came from the islands of Ambrym or Tanna because they were the very big people and the strongest and could endure the hard work that much better. So you know, Australia has a lot to be ashamed of. CSR today and Burns Philp should now think of repaying all that they took. It's not too late.
So you were - how did your father get away? I mean, if he was owned, how did he get out of that situation? How did he escape from it?
It wasn't easy for anyone to escape because of their isolation. And because they were in an unknown country and a vast and huge country. So it was very difficult for my father and his brother who was with him to escape from the planter that they were with, but they did eventually. And they could only do it by walking away. And so they just walked away into the night, so they couldn't be seen and ...
Did they make preparations for going? Did they save, they had no wages to save, how did they, it must have been a really desperate move?
It was an absolutely, an absolute desperate move for those who left and I do remember my father telling us that his belongings were wrapped in a piece of cloth, a little piece of cloth, not awfully much bigger than a man's handkerchief and that's all they had to carry. But then, of course, that made the escape easier. But he always said that they didn't own anything, nothing. And I'd just like to tell you that they were given rations of tea and sugar and flour and I think some meat but very little else, and it was a similar ration that was given officially to Aboriginal people. But they died in great numbers and I am sure that many of their illnesses was caused by malnutrition and also probably as a result of a harsh treatment on the journey from Vanuatu to the shores of Queensland, because they were beaten, they were practically starved on the vessels and I'm sure as a result of that, many died and they died of pneumonia - pleurisy and pneumonia and measles - and they were buried in a common grave which they had to dig. And I recall clearly the old men telling us these stories on a Sunday when they would come to our place - I was a child - and they'd talk about how bad it was to dig the grave of your own people. They were buried in common graves. They died like flies.
When they set out to walk to Brisbane were they pursued?
No, but there wasn't, they were not pursued as they set off to walk to Brisbane but I think they were still afraid there was that danger of being captured, you know, it was walking into the unknown. And they had heard about Brisbane and they knew that there was this big city south of where they were and they headed for it.
But they had never seen a big city before?
No, no, but they had heard about the city because, you know, people were moving backwards and forwards before the turn of the century. Island people, who had already gone to Brisbane, in fact. And you see, my grand ... my mother's mother lived in Brisbane and she was very elderly when I was very tiny, but I can recall how people came there to her and they would sit around talking how they walked into Brisbane from the north.
You described how your father got a little bit of education out of Sunday school. Could he in fact read and write?
My father could read and my father could write, quite well as a matter of fact and he kept a diary after he arrived, he left Brisbane and went to the Tweed to settle there and acquired a banana farm and he kept his books very well, didn't make much out of the banana farms but it was enough for us to live on. And he kept his books, did everything himself. And there was a local paper, which was called the Tweed Daily, and after school my brothers were expected to pick up the Tweed Daily, when they picked up the bread or whatever else they had to pick up to bring home, and my father would never go to bed till he had read that Tweed Daily from page to page. And the more he read of course the better he became at it. [INTERRUPTION]
[end of tape]