Indenture, deportation, survival: recent books on Australian South Sea Islanders.
The labor trade in indentured Melanesians to Queensland has generated a large literature but very little, until recently, has been concerned with the fate of the post-deportation South Sea Islander community. The general histories of Queensland deal with the indenture period, but the 2,500 or so South Sea Islanders who were allowed to remain or who evaded the deportation order suddenly drop out of the picture. The same comment applies to the labor histories of Queensland and Australia.(1) The specialized monograph literature has the same quality of discontinuity, with substantial studies of the indenture period and precious little on life after indenture, such as it was; and concerns have been expressed to this effect.(2) The historiographic imbalance has increasingly been addressed since 1989, not initially by academic monographs but in the shape of autobiographies and family histories by descendants of indentured Melanesian workers (Fatnowna and Edmond). Academic writers were not far behind with Gistitin's useful brief account of South Sea Islanders in Central Queensland and, more emphatically, Mercer's long-delayed study of this community in North Queensland. A version of the latter first appeared in 1981 as a dissertation, but on restricted access until its publication in 1995.
Patricia Mercer's important monograph has been written within two distinct yet complementary paradigms. One influence was the Pacific Islands history being taught and written at the Australian National University in Canberra. Briefly the Canberra-school historians focused on "multi-cultural situations" rather than European activity per se, and strove to write "islands-oriented" history. The resulting revisionism stressed the proactive role of Islanders who were no longer depicted as hapless victims of a fatal impact with the forces of the Western world but more as initiators and active participants in these encounters.(3) While Mercer's monograph reflects the new Pacific historiography, not to mention the imprint of excellent supervision from Dorothy Shineberg at the Australian National University, a more telling influence was her earlier training and research at the James Cook University of North Queensland in Townsville.
The History Department of this small regional college, then under the leadership of Brian Dalton, established an outstanding research tradition. The Department's strengths included the history of ideas and Southeast Asian history. But the main thrust was - and had to be - regional and local history, and the principal torchbearers were the honors and graduate students, whom Dalton encouraged to be full members of the Department. "We all have the greatest admiration for the old bastard," one of them once told me (and this same person related his devastation when Dalton died of a massive heart attack in 1996). Dalton was one of Australia's last "God Professors." He ran a tight ship and was fiercely protective and supportive of his Department's graduate students, pouring Departmental funding into their research. In return, they were loyal and productive and the output averaged one dissertation per year with no failures. Nineteen dissertations had been successfully defended by 1989, the year of Dalton's retirement,(4) and the impetus has not been lost with at least other ten PhDs coming out of the Department since then. Dalton's other way of encouraging his students was to provide publication outlets. There was the five volume lecture series that Dalton edited(5) and more particularly the Department's "Studies in North Queensland History" monograph series, the most recent being Mercer's study of the South Sea Islanders.(6)
Mercer's work reflects her James Cook experience in other ways. Henry Reynolds, a member of faculty, and Noel Loos, then a graduate student, were at work on Aboriginal-European relations, and they adopted a resistance rather than a victim model that has since been termed the "Reynolds-Loos school of Aboriginal history."(7) Their emphasis on the creative, if ultimately futile, nature of Aboriginal adaptation to European pressures and the Aboriginals' frequent exploitation of the invaders for their own ends is clearly congruent with the Canberra-school of Pacific historians, even if they did not realize it at the time.(8) Reynolds also encouraged graduate students in the Department, but in a different way to Dalton, by showing them in his own writing that difficult retrieval exercises were possible and that North Queensland was different and had something to add to Australian historiography, particularly with regard to race relations.
The final strand in a complex convergence of influences and opportunities at James Cook University took shape when Reynolds and Dalton secured a research grant to establish the Black Oral History Collection (which became the basis, in the late 1970s, for the North Queensland Oral History Project, which is concerned with the wider community). Part A of the BOHP concerns Aboriginal history, but Part B comprises eighty-nine tapes and thirteen typescripts of South Seas Islanders that were conducted between 1974 and 1991 by Mercer and another James Cook student, Clive Moore.(9) One outcome of their interviews was to make possible a three-hour radio series "The Forgotten People," produced by Matt Peacock: not that he used any of their material but they directed him to the right people and in many cases persuaded them to be interviewed.(10) Mercer and Moore were not long in publishing a series of journal articles from this material, and made extensive use of it in their dissertation research. Moore's dissertation, submitted to James Cook University in 1981 and published in 1985, remains the outstanding book on the labor trade in Melanesians to Queensland, superior to its predecessors and quite eclipsing its successors.(12) There was, however, no publication of comparable depth and detail on the fortunes, or more correctly the misfortunes, of South Sea Islanders since deportation until the long-delayed appearance of White Australia Defied.
Massively and meticulously researched, reflecting a rigorous training in research techniques (including a heavy supporting apparatus of footnotes), and not overburdened with theory, this is unmistakably a James Cook product even if the original dissertation was written in Canberra. Part I however, comprising three chapters on the period up to deportation, contains a major surprise in that Mercer adopts a victims model that is at variance with the agency of both Canberra-school Pacific historiography,(13) the Reynolds-Loos school of Aboriginal history, and also with Clive Moore and his former graduate student Carol Gistitin in her recent book Quite a Colony.
Mercer offers the direst account of the indenture experience by any historian working broadly within the Canberra-school (or revisionist) tradition. Her analysis bears more resemblance to the counter-revisionism of Kay Saunders than to that of her fellow revisionists;(14) and, furthermore, Mercer's discussion commences in the 1880s when conditions began to improve to the extent that Queensland was generally regarded as the best place of plantation employment anywhere in the Pacific.(15) In fact, her grim depiction of hard labor, harsh treatment, high mortality rates, inadequate avenues of redress, a generally unprotective legal system, and the frequency of violent interaction with each other and especially with Asian workers, leads one to categorize this part of her book as unambiguously counter-revisionist.
One regret is that the original dissertation has been sparingly revised for publication. This is of no great consequence for the two-thirds of the book concerned with life after indenture because so little has been written about it in the meanwhile. But the chapters on the plantation experience, where much subsequent work has been done, do not reflect the latest scholarship on matters such as issues as resistance and accommodation, and how Melanesians interacted with the judicial system,(16) and while her discussion of the market in time-expired Melanesian laborers is informed by previous work, (pp. 41-44) she has not assimilated the findings of Ralph Shlomowitz and Clive Moore on the question of worker mortality. (pp. 13-14) Taking their cue from Philip Curtin, Shlomowitz and Moore argue that the major cause of death was lack of immunity to a new disease environment, and notably the Islanders' susceptibility to respiratory and gasto-intestinal diseases.(17) In her discussion on mortality during the post-deportation period, Mercer does mention that the death rate was now considerably lower than during the plantation period and goes on to say that the South Sea Islands "continued to be susceptible to many of the same diseases which had affected [them] on the plantations, chiefly dysentery and diarrhoea, tuberculosis and influenza." (p. 148) While there are difficulties in making comparisons between the two periods (e.g. the incomparability of the quantitative data; different population structures), the task is infinitely more difficult when a crucial variable (the epidemiological factor) is left out. Moreover, a guarded comparison with indentured plantation workers in Fiji, where similar mortality patterns prevailed, might have yielded suggestive results.(18)
This points to something else: the lack of lateral perspectives. In common with almost every other study on the labor trade in Melanesians to Queensland, the focus is parochial with few sideways glances at what was going on elsewhere.(19) Yet there are enough studies of indentured plantation workers in other parts of the Pacific to draw comparisons which, in turn, are increasingly necessary given the growing awareness that the Queensland experience was an exception rather than a variation. Mercer paints a grim picture of plantation life and labor, but far worse conditions prevailed, say, on plantations in Fiji and Samoa.(20) (The danger here is that we could be comparing different historiographies rather than different histories.) She speaks of a high suicide rates, with little supporting evidence (p. 13), but there was a far higher rate among Indians in Fiji.(21) And to have compared her own findings on fertility and infant mortality (pp. 61-65) with those on Indians in Fiji might have been useful.(22) Another obvious area for further study and comparison concerns the relative freedom of movement of Melanesians in Queensland, in contrast to other parts of the Pacific where indentured workers were typically confined to the plantation. Being the latest, this book was the best placed to explain the differences between Queensland and other areas of plantation employment in the Pacific.
But the gains outweigh the losses. The two chapters on the plantation period are richly documented and full of insights. Mercer intriguingly broadens the concept of the "protector" of plantation workers. In the past, protectors have been exiguously identified (where appropriate) as inspectors of labor, consular representatives, overseas governments, missionaries, lawyers and the like.(23) To these, Mercer has added the partners of Melanesian women whose vulnerability was heightened by their small numbers (always less than 10 per cent of the Melanesian work force) and by typical male aggression. (p. 57) Her discussion of women (pp. 53-65) rivals the best, despite the quibbles expressed in the previous paragraph.(24) And whereas most previous historians of the indenture period downplay the importance of Christian missions, Mercer deals with them quite extensively (pp. 7-12), not simply because Christianity loomed so large in Islanders' lives during the twentieth century but simply because its under-stated importance in most previous studies masks the strong continuity between the plantation and post-deportation periods. Despite the lack of comparative perspectives and being dated in places, Mercer's discussion of the plantation period - although prefatory in nature - is a solid contribution in its own right.
The same can be said, but more emphatically, of the lengthy third chapter on the deportation of South Sea Islanders which supersedes previous work on the subject in depth and detail. The Islanders campaigned vigorously against deportation, petitioned, formed the Pacific Islanders' Association, and enlisted the help of sympathetic Europeans who were unwilling to lose their labor. Under a capable, articulate, mission-educated leadership, and by the adroit use of "European pressure group tactics," (p. 84) the Islanders were able to moderate the blanket application of the deportation order. Their achievement was considerable in that some 2,500 Islanders remained, whether by exemption or evasion. But historians often win on paper the battles lost long ago in reality, and Mercer follows her predecessors by endowing the episode with something of the fairy-tale ending in that some Islanders were able to remain, despite the more compelling point that the greater majority (some 4,269 individuals) were forced to leave.(25) As she says, "the actual process of deportation went relatively smoothly" (p. 97) especially when one considers the mayhem that might have accompanied it. But deportation was often unfairly applied and exemptions unreasonably withheld and it is clear, at least implicitly, that the success of the deportation process was due to the efforts of men-on-the-spot, notably the Inspectors of Pacific Islands Labourers, who moderated the excesses of the politicians.
Fairy tale ending or not, the remaining 2,500 or so Kanakas, and their descendants, were not fated to live happily ever after. The North Queensland component forms the core of the book, taking the story to 1940 in three substantial chapters on demographic patterns, economic marginality, social interaction and cultural resilience. This is followed by a somewhat breathless twenty-three page epilogue dealing with the period from 1940, with the last ten years being covered in a single paragraph. (p. 325)(26) To summarize, the population lived overwhelmingly in rural locations or on the outskirts of towns. It survived - and the victims model so evident in her discussion of the plantation period is heavily diluted. Most Islanders married at an early stage, especially the women, and brought up large families in circumstances of declining infant mortality with the result that the population doubled between 1908 and 1940. The overwhelmingly young male profile of the plantation period gradually gave way to the more conventional population pyramid as native-born Islanders came to outnumber the immigrants the exception being that men aged sixty-five and over, the survivors of the plantation period, formed the largest single age group cohort. (p. 156)(27)
The growing community still had to support itself and did so under conditions of discrimination, poor education and general lack of opportunity. Mercer's discussion makes it clear that the attempts by governments and trade unions to ban Islander labor from the sugar industry, although severe, were not as complete as historians still insist.(28) The vast majority were forced to look elsewhere for a livelihood, and in any case the sugar industry seldom offered year-round work. Self employment was an obvious alternative, and many attempted small-scale cultivation, mostly on leasehold land, often under inequitable terms and often also in partnership with other Islanders where at least they could depend on family labor. The women, before marriage, were often domestic servants in white households.(29) But these were usually precarious means of support and fishing and hunting were often a vital supplement to the family's sustenance. Men often went in search of work, leaving their wives to bring up large numbers of young children. To complete this picture of economic marginality, Islanders were ineligible for invalid and old age pensions until 1942.
These economic fringe dwellers also lived on the social edge in their relationship with White Australia. The Islander population was overwhelmingly rural or semi-rural and to that extent detached from White Australia. Educational segregation was practiced against the children and contributed to their generally poor school performance. One reason why the Islanders survived despite economic and social marginalization can perhaps be put down to their religious participation. Most were originally Anglicans (or Episcopalians) and Presbyterians, but from the early 1920s, for various reasons, there was a general switch to Pentecostalism and Adventism, both of which stress self sufficiency and so-called decent living. In contrast to their counterparts in Fiji, whose extreme economic marginality is largely attributable to dependence on the largesse of the Anglican Church, the South Sea Islanders in North Queensland have been forced to stand on their own feet and are members of churches that encourage this ethic.(30) Church influence also accounts, at least in part, for the generally law-abiding nature of the Islanders after 1908, which was anything but the case during the plantation period.
The switch from the established to the proselytizing churches anticipated developments elsewhere in the Pacific Islands.(31) It also freed them from interference in church affairs by Europeans and helped to solidify the small and interdependent Islander communities. (Mercer is not always careful to avoid referring to a homogeneous Islander community; there were deep divisions, usually based on island of origin and more generally a Solomon Islands/Vanuatu dichotomy.) Islander leadership and church leadership were often synonymous. But this leadership was constrained, and the Islanders' Christianity was tempered, by the continuation of traditional magical practices and religious beliefs, and by extension the power wielded by sorcerers through the period. This was but one manifestation of a high degree of cultural resilience, but these retentions in themselves were inadequate to promote a sufficient degree of unity among the Islanders - a point that Mercer often seems reluctant to admit.
Retrieving the history of this marginalized, dispersed and ill-educated group is facilitated by their small numbers (which creates, however, problems of statistical significance) and the fact of little mobility outside North Queensland. Nevertheless it remained a daunting task and was only possible to the extent that Mercer has achieved by close documentary research and assiduous gathering of oral testimony. Mercer was also one of the first in Australia to consciously apply the methodology of historical demography, and a visit by Peter Laslett to James Cook University in the mid 1970s was the catalyst. In Mercer's words, historical demography essentially involves the
reconstruction of the demographic features of a community through aggregation of individual and family life histories built up from nominal sources: i.e. those in which an individual is named. These sources extend well beyond the usual library and archival material to encompass the wealth of local records - church, school, [sugar] mill, hospital and cemetery - held in the region itself and the oral testimony of present day Islanders. . . . This methodology offers a window on social history through the linkages which can be made between the individual and wider economic, social and cultural patterns: mobility economic and physical, occupation, educational performance, religious membership, family and community relationships, support structures, social unity and divisions. (p. xv)
There is room for reservation, especially her claim that the methodology enabled a "sharper and more clearly focussed" image of the Islanders. At the general level, the limitations of historical demography, ironically, lie in its innovative aspects, namely the deployment of source material not commonly used by historians (for example, parish registers). Such records lend themselves to quantification and to generalized concepts, and however useful and "precise" historical demography may be in delineating long term processes of family change, it cannot claim to be social history of the sort that "recaptures an ethos, an outlook, a rhythm of everyday life."(32) While individuals are not "nameless," they are, in a manner of speaking, "faceless." Anonymous in all but name is another way of putting it. In short, a major weakness of historical demography resides in the very features that make it distinctive, and to transcend this shortcoming one must turn to the more "conventional" records and techniques - which Mercer does. More specifically, it is not unfair to suggest that some of the defining features of historical demographers are in fact commonplace techniques. Aggregation and linkages are everywhere evident in historical research whilst the use of unusual sources is a common sense approach when researching marginal groups.
Mercer left herself open to criticism, in my judgement, by making large claims on behalf of historical demography when the first impression is that it played a minor part in her analysis. She has extensively consulted the more "typical" nominal sources - such as parish, cemetery, hospital and school registers (pp. 342-46) - but the uses to which these have been put is not made evident. Her voluminous footnotes enable the reader to see how the oral testimony and the more conventional archival sources have been used; but neither the text nor the footnotes indicates where and how the methods of historical demographic have assisted her analysis. This observation applies even to the third chapter, on demography patterns. What Mercer did was to compile and present a number of tables, based on the nominal records, that give data on numbers, location, island of origin, marriage patterns and family size. (pp. 111-12, 152-55) Enormous work must have gone into assembling these tables and they form the basis from which her discussion proceeds. In that way, historical demography is integral but still secondary to the oral and conventional documentary evidence. Had Mercer pointed this out she would have saved herself from not unjust criticism that her use of historical demography is little more than a garnish.(33) Nor did the publisher help Mercer's cause by omitting an appendix in the original dissertation which provided an assessment of historical demography, indicating how the methodology was useful and, conversely, demonstrating her appreciation of its limitations and problems. Given that the methods of historical demography have rarely been used in Australia and that White Australia Defied will have a largely Australian readership, this was, to say the least, an unfortunate omission.(34)
To continue in a critical vein, Mercer's more conventional documentary sources create a further problem, and that is the undue concentration on the leaders and a corresponding neglect of the followers. No matter how hard one tries to avoid it, the more prominent members of any marginalized group get over-represented, and what starts off as history from below soon assumes the familiar hue of elite history. This happens in White Australian Defied: the more "visible" historical characters, such as Harry Fatnowna and Luke Logomier, receive extensive coverage while lesser knowns remain in the shadows.
It might seem that Carol Gistitin's Quite a Colony, with its focus on Central Queensland and its extensive use of oral testimony, would usefully complement Mercer's work. In some respects it does, but the contrasts are more evident: It is an avowedly more modest book (the revision of an M. A. thesis); it deals with a part of Queensland where Islanders were more commonly employed in the pastoral than the sugar industry; and there is less overt quantification. The big difference, however, is the authors' divergent views on Islander agency. Indeed, to compare Mercer with Gistitin is to realize the force of Stanley Elkins' "two arguments" view, expressed in the mid-1970s, with respect to ante-bellum slavery. At that time the two competing paradigms, broadly speaking, were "damage" and "resistance." The dilemma was that neither could account sufficiently for the other. To stress damage was to downplay resistance; but "as resistance looms larger . . . the damage steadily shrinks . . . [and] it begins to look as though things generally were not so bad, after all."(35) Even when the paradigms alter (e.g. resistance/accommodation), an oppositional duality persists: this is very evident when Mercer and Gistitin are read together, especially their chapters on the indenture period. Gistitin adopts the more cheerful representation by far, seeing the South Sea Islanders during indenture not as "victims" but as "active participants" (her phrases) and opportunity maximizers. Nor was life after indenture so bad given the measure of "autonomy and independence" achieved in the face of "hegemonic challenges thrown out by white society." (p. 4) Mercer, as previously indicated, offers the gloomiest account of the indenture experience by any historian working broadly within the revisionist tradition. Taken together, Gistitin and Mercer indicate the wide differences in emphasis and interpretation within the so-called revisionist camp and demonstrate how erroneous it is to suppose that revisionists are think-alikes.(36)
Although Gistitin's Quite a Colony falls squarely into a genre that explicitly rejects a victims model,(37) she is generally in line with Mercer on the level of detail. In an excellent section on women, Gistitin brings out even more clearly their crucial role in the survival of the community by their courage and resourcefulness in bringing up large families; it was women who often held the communities together when their husbands moved around in search of employment. Gistitin also stresses that the Islanders were cut off from wider support systems and had to survive on their own resources. More recently, they have generally been denied the special social security benefits enjoyed by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as indigenous Australians, thus reinforcing the need for resourcefulness - and the book's seemingly obscure title derives from the Islanders' enterprising outlook and Gistitin's celebration of this. In the words of the 1889 report of the Royal Commission on the sugar industry, "there is quite a colony of South Seas Islanders in North Rockhampton, some of whom have married white women, have drays and carts of their own and are competing with Europeans in the cutting and sale of firewood, and many of them are also employed in other ways." (quoted, p. 26) Their descendants have continued in that proactive spirit.
But the argument is overstated. In place of a victims model, Gistitin argues that the Islanders consciously, consistently and successfully "exercised autonomy in decisions about migration, employment and settlement." (p. 3) But even if not kidnapped for indentured service in Queensland, the migrant Islanders had no choice of employer, had occupational restrictions imposed on them during the 1880s, were mostly unsuccessful in combating the deportation, and found themselves largely excluded from mainstream Australia thereafter, not least through the activities of the Australian Workers' Union. In a moderating passage she concedes that the Islanders functioned "within the constraints of that majority culture imposed" (p. 4) but this early qualification is soon forgotten, and the reader is left with the impression of a community that is far more successful than has been the case. Actually, the constraints have been more pervasive than the triumphs - otherwise South Sea Islanders would not still be so badly off. If it comes down to one or the other, the Islanders were and are victims rather than victors - but in reality there has been a bit of both, hence the need for an interpretative model that incorporates each rather than a selective stress that over-privileges the notion of Islander as active agent and, ultimately, the victor.
Most contemporary South Sea Islanders would probably have difficulty in accepting Gistitin's broader conclusions. The memories of past discrimination and neglect and their own standards of living compared with other Australians would incline them towards a self image as victims; and they certainly argued this way in their early-1990's campaign for recognition. The sense of deprivation and injustice is compounded by their status as a forgotten people who lie outside the Australian consciousness. Rather than being seen as a distinct minority with their own identity, grievances and claims, South Sea Islanders are further marginalized by being equated with the indigenous Aboriginal community. Because they have generally been excluded, as a distinct group, from Federal government funding for educational and economic advancement, to which other ethnic minorities are entitled, South Sea Islanders had the stark alternative of submerging their identity and locking into programs intended for the benefit of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders or else continuing as a marginalized underclass. In this quest for recognition the South Sea Islanders have asserted their agency by relying on a strategy of proclaiming themselves victims, and on these instrumental grounds would recognize themselves far better in the pages of Mercer than in those of Gistitin.(38)
The past is dangerous terrain into which academics encroach at their peril, especially when political and economic resources are at stake. The agency model might endow dignity on the struggles and successes of disadvantaged minorities and underdogs, but it can also erode the grounds for claims for retrospective compensation and the like. In Pacific Islands studies, moreover, the questions of whether "outsiders" are capable of or entitled to write about the cultural other is often hotly contested.(39) The issues surrounding the "insider/outsider" question were laid bare when, in 1994, the Queensland Department of Education mobilized to produce school history texts on the South Sea Islander experience. A committee to manage this curriculum project was formed consisting of representatives from the Department, professional teachers' associations, and the Islander communities. The primary school text was uncontentious, but tensions soon emerged between the historians and the Islanders over the content and interpretation of the high school texts that probably have parallels elsewhere.
However instructive their squabbles might be from a position of detachment, they were wearing and aggravating to those directly concerned. At one level it was a matter of contested interpretations. The Islander representatives were provoked by the academic historians' seeming denial of victim status, so necessary to their claims for present day redress. They also wanted a sanitized view of their past that expunged such matters as antagonisms with other ethnic groups (a point that emerges in White Australia Defied, pp. 29, 55). There was also extreme sensitivity about the implications of the overwhelmingly male profile of the nineteenth century Islander population structure. One of the social relationships that resulted was described by the historians as "bachelor families," a term intended to connote security and friendship but which received a very offended response as "a negative slur on the sexuality of the first . . . generation of Islanders." At bottom, the Islander representatives sought control of the interpretation of "their" past, uncluttered by academic perceptions, for reasons of political empowerment. But it was anything but clear which sections of wider Islander opinion the Islander participants on the committee were actually representing. What this game of curriculum politics demonstrated was the lack of any real sense of "community" among the South Sea Islanders. The curriculum project was flawed from the start by the assumption that there was indeed a homogeneous Islander community. Rather, there is a deeply divided community which, as Clive Moore says, "is its own worst enemy" This adds another dimension to the question of their self-identity as victims, and one that Islanders would not like. Victims they certainly are, but of their own internal divisions which, in turn, serve only to prejudice their claims for social justice as an indentifiable minority group seeking redress for past and continuing discrimination.(40) Both Mercer's and Gistitin's books suffer from a tendency to see the South Sea Islanders as "communities," suggesting a level of unity that simply does not exist.(41)
It is not as though the Islanders' history has been written exclusively by academic "outsiders." A small number of South Sea Islanders have published family histories and autobiographies, some of which merit close attention and appreciation. Leading the charge was Faith Bandler of Islander/Anglo-Indian ancestry, but her accounts are of questionable historical accuracy.(42) While Bandler was getting published, another prominent Islander was wondering how to get himself into print. Noel Fatnowna was the best-known Islander in the North Queensland township of Mackay, an ambulance officer and adviser on indigenous health and Islander affairs to the State government. Although a gifted raconteur, writing was another matter, and he despaired of achieving this particular ambition. Fatnowna's ancestors are from the Fataleka district of Malaita, the Solomon Island which produced more indentured laborers than any other island in the Pacific. One day in 1976 he received an unexpected visit from the anthropologist of Kwaio, Roger Keesing of the Australian National University, who responded positively to Fatnowna's appeal to help him write his family's history.(43) After their initial meeting, Fatnowna related his life story and family history onto twenty-seven cassette tapes and Keesing had them transcribed. Their divergent schedules and distant locations delayed publication until 1989; so did the sheer enormity of the task. In the end Keesing molded "some fifteen hundred pages of computer printout" into a coherent book, and he comments; "The end notes are mine; but the text is his. I have altered his syntax, with its strong Pidgin cast, in the direction of a colloquial standard English; but I have sought to preserve its flavour as an oral and colloquial narrative." (p. xi) All who were present when the book was launched at the 1989 Pacific History Association Conference were conscious of a highly successful literary partnership. Nor was publication too soon: Fatnowna died the following year and Keesing three years after that.(44)
The book fully justifies their faith in each other. It is the story of three generations of a South Sea Islander family in Queensland from the grandfather's involvement in the Queensland labor trade. The book ranges through indentured servitude, deportation and survival as "Outcasts in a White World" (the title of the final chapter), doing so in ways that reinforce the authority of Mercer's White Australia Defied. Mercer expressed the hope that hers was "a book in which North Queensland's Pacific Islanders will recognise themselves, even if they do not agree with every conclusion." (p. xv) Fatnowna suggests that this is the case, and, conversely, his own book, when read along side Mercer's, loses nothing. But for Fatnowna, the most important section of his book would have been a matter that concerned Mercer only marginally, namely his two suspenseful chapters that relate his family's pilgrimage in 1973 to Malaita to link up with unknown relatives. Since then many Islanders have made similar pilgrimages to establish connections with relatives across the sea. Some of these re-linkings have been the subject of television documentaries, one of which includes footage of the Fatnownas' visit to their ancestral homeland.(45)
Just as Fatnowna's Fragments of a Lost Heritage book provides an indigenous complement to Mercer's North Queensland study, so does Mabel Edmund's No Regrets complement Gistitin's book on Central Queensland. Fatnowna and Edmund, in fact, provided Mercer and Gistitin respectively with taped interviews. No Regrets is the modestly told success story of a woman who did not, unlike Fatnowna, come from a prominent Islander family. Born in 1930, Mabel Edmund was typical in marrying young, and raising a large family in straightened circumstances, albeit with the help of a supportive extended family. At the early age of twenty-one, she proved her mettle in successfully taking on the Shire Council for a flood-free crossing for her children to the local school. In 1970 she became the first black woman in Australia to be elected to local government and four years later, because of her part-Aboriginal ancestry, she was appointed to the Aboriginal Loans Commission, a position she held until 1980. In widowhood, she took art classes, and her paintings are widely exhibited and illustrate her books. She writes with incredible compassion the struggles as she and her husband, Digger, took life's chances and came to enjoy a lifestyle that they could never have imagined in the early years of their marriage. It is a marvellous document of the human spirit and another nominal source par excellent; but, like Fragment of a Lost Heritage, it constitutes elite history rather than history from below.
Her second book is not nearly as good. Hello Johnny! is a series of real life stories loosely based around the various Johnnys in her life - her father, her father-in-law and her brother - as well as her husband Digger. What may have been hilarious stories in a nighttime telling around a fire come across as jejune when conveyed by the cold light of print. Much of the disappointment stems from the contrast with its predecessor, and it adds fuel to the argument that the sequel to a good book seldom repeats the initial success. On grounds of quality of content, it does not merit publication.(46)
But the other, often unspoken, reasons for the publication of Hello Johnny! are readily comprehended. Australian publishers operate in unprecedentedly straightened circumstances, and their ranks have been thinning with smaller publishing houses either ceasing operations or being absorbed.(47) University Presses have the hardest time of all, the most recent crisis involving the University of Western Australia Press which survives only by the grace of increased subsidies from the University, which reserves the right to pull the plug on twelve months' notice. It is alarming, to say the least, that the University's Deputy Vice Chancellor, in explaining the decision, could say that: "The difficulty the university faced was whether to continue support for something that was not a core activity."(48)
In response to wider imperatives, the smaller regional university presses, and not least the Central Queensland University Press, have gone their own way by appealing to niche audiences and adopting a "push from the bush" policy that focuses on regional interests and concerns. Part of the rationale is that "local communities are starting to assert their identity by rediscovering the history of the community here and their own art."(49) Moreover, South Sea Islander writing - and in the case of Hello, Johnny! the author's local standing is a drawcard together with subsidies from such bodies as the Australia Council and Arts Queensland, and grants from the Aboriginal Arts Board for this sort of work - makes their publication all the more likely. (The grant by the Aboriginal Arts Board on behalf of Fragments of a Lost Heritage is a touch ironic given Fatnowna's pronounced dislike for Aboriginals as a group.) That is not to say the regional university presses totally eschew the solid academic monograph,(50) but it does mean a preponderance of glossy books of the coffee table variety and also even more difficulty for scholarly monographs to attract a publisher.
The historiography of Queensland's South Sea Islanders is in a healthier state than ever, especially with the publication of White Australia Defied. The day is coming when the material will have to be pulled together and a book written on the South Sea community that bridges the indenture and post-deportation eras and which treats the colony as a whole, not just regions of it. But just as such a venture is becoming possible in that there are detailed studies on which to draw, it is becoming more difficult in other respects. There is the so-called "outsider" problem and the increasing obstacles that this places in the path of non-indigenous historians. These difficulties, together with the increasing currency of the idea that historical scholarship should be vetted by representatives of the cultural other, have resulted to some degree in postmodernism and representation becoming a substitute for fieldwork and archival-based research. The other difficulty lies in the realm of publishing realities. There are no complaints that Fragments of a Lost Heritage and No Regrets received subsidies on the basis of their Islander authorship. Both books deserved to be published and if subsidies made the difference, then for the better. But all the academic books on South Sea Islanders in Queensland over the past two decades have had rocky publishing histories. It is especially worrying that White Australia Defied, which has scholarship written all over it, only got beyond the dissertation stage by the chance event of Mercer's undergraduate professor having a local history publishing program. Without that there would have been no book because Australian publishers are more leery than ever of the dissertation-cum-book.(51) On that note, it seems appropriate to return to the late Brian Dalton's leadership at James Cook University, whose History Department established such a fine research tradition when decent obscurity seemed the more probable option. From that stable came two students - Patricia Mercer and Clive Moore - who went on to publish books on the South Sea Islanders that were outstanding in themselves and which bridged the historiographic disjunction between indenture and post-deportation periods. One can only concur with the knowledgeable reviewer who stated that they have created, within Pacific Islands historiography, the Australian South Sea Islander subdiscipline.(52)
28 Constellation Crescent Mudgeeraba, Gold Coast Queensland, Australia 4213
I am grateful to Max Quanchi (Queensland University of Technology) for helpfully commenting on an earlier draft.
1. W. Ross Johnston, The Call of the Land: A History of Queensland to the Present Day (Brisbane, 1982), 57-61, 131-32; Greg Patmore, Australian Labor History (Melbourne, 1991), 196-99.
2. Clive Moore, "Revising the Revisionists: The Historiography of Immigrant Melanesians in Australia," Pacific Studies 15, 2 (1992): 61-86; Doug Munro, "The Labor Trade in Melanesians to Queensland: An Historiographic Essay," Journal of Social History 28 (1995): 619.
3. J.W. Davidson, "Problems of Pacific History," Journal of Pacific History (hereinafter JPH) 1 (1966): 5-21. The most recent discussion of Canberra-school historiography is Dorothy Shineberg, "The Early Years of Pacific History," Journal of Pacific Studies (hereinafter JPacS) 20 (1996): 1-16. A thoughtful critique of the "island-oriented" approach is David A. Chappell, "Active Agent versus Passive Victims: Decolonized Historiography or Problematic Paradigm," The Contemporary Pacific 7 (1995): 303-26.
4. This was the figure given at the Australian Historical Association's "Peripheral Visions" conference in honor of B. J. Dalton, July 1989. My account of the Department's activities comes partly from observations at the conference, and from reports to the Australian Historical Association Bulletin, but more particularly from conversations with former faculty and graduate students - notably Malcolm Saunders (Central Queensland University), Kevin Livingstone (University of Ballarat) and Clive Moore (University of Queensland). See also Kett Kennedy, "'Foreward: Brian James Dalton, 1924-1996," in Anne Smith and B. J. Dalton (eds.), Doctor on the Landsborough: The Memoirs of Joseph Arratta (Townsville, 1997): v-viii.
5. B. J. Dalton (ed.), Lectures in North Queensland History: First Series (Townsville, 1974); Second Series (1975); Third Series (1979); Fourth Series (1984); Fifth Series (1996).
6. Brian Dalton, "The Academic Department as Publisher: History & Politics at James Cook University," Australian Historian Association Bulletin 74 (1994): 40-44.
7. Ann Curthoys and Clive Moore, "Working for the White People: An Historiographic Essay," in Ann McGrath and Kay Saunders (eds.), Aboriginal Workers, special issue of Labour History 69 (1995): 12.
8. E.g. Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, "Aboriginal Resistance in Queensland," Australian Journal of Politics and History (hereinafter AJPH) 22 (1976): 214-26; Loos, Invasion and Resistance: Aboriginal-European Relations in the North Queensland Frontier, 1861-1897 (Canberra, 1982). One of Reynolds' earlier articles is "The Other Side of the Frontier: Early Aboriginal Reactions to Pastoral Settlement in Queensland and Northern New South Wales," Historical Studies 15 (1976): 50-63. I was struck at the time by its similarities in outlook and interpretation with the book that was, more than any other, the paradigmatic statement of the Canberra-school, namely Dorothy Shineberg, They Came for Sandalwood: A Study of the Sandalwood Trade in the South-West Pacific, 1830-1865 (Melbourne, 1967). What Reynolds took to be new insights were passe to any Pacific historian. A similar point has been made by K. R. Howe, "On Aborigines and Maoris in Australian and New Zealand Historiography," International History Review 10 (1988): 602.
9. Carol Edmondson, "The North Queensland Oral History Project," Oral History Association of Australia Journal (hereinafter OHAAJ) 3 (1980-81): 18-23; Barbara Erskine, "The North Queensland Oral History Project," "To Live is to Remember" conference, National Oral History Association of New Zealand and the University of Waikato, May 31-June 1, 1997.
10. Published as Clive Moore (ed.), The Forgotten People: A History of the Australia South Sea Islander Community (Sydney, 1979).
11. P. M. Mercer and C. R. Moore, "Melanesians in North Queensland: The Retention of Indigenous Religious and Magical Practices," JPH 11 (1976): 66-88; Mercer and Moore, "Australia's Pacific Islanders, 1906-1977," JPH 13 (1978): 89-101; Moore and Mercer, "The Forgotten People: Australia's Immigrant Melanesians," Meanjin (Melbourne) 37 (1978): 98-108.
12. Clive Moore, Kanaka: A History of Melanesian Mackay (Boroko/Port Moresby, 1985).
13. As exemplified by Peter Corris, Passage, Port and Plantation: A History of Solomon Islands Labour Migration, 1870-1914 (Melbourne, 1973).
14. Kay Saunders, Workers in Bondage: The Origins and Bases of Unfree Labour in Queensland, 1824-1916 (Brisbane, 1982), ch. 4.
15. A point made in a recent counter-revisionist study, although such a view is at odds with the rest of the author's analysis where the selective stress is on "appalling" working conditions. Adrian Graves, Cane and Labour: The Political Economy of the Queensland Sugar Industry, 1862-1906 (Edinburgh, 1993), 101.
16. Mark Finanne and Clive Moore, "Kanaka Slaves or Willing Workers?: Melanesian Workers and the Queensland Criminal Justice System in the 1890s," Criminal Justice History 13 (1992): 141-60; Moore, "The Counterculture of Survival: Melanesians in the Mackay District of Queensland, 1865-1906," in Brij V. Lal, Doug Munro and Edward D. Beechert (eds), Plantation Workers: Resistance and Accommodation (Honolulu, 1993): 69-99.
17. Ralph Shlomowitz, "Mortality and the Pacific Labour Trade," JPH 22 (1987): 34-55; Shlomowitz, "Epidemiology and the Pacific Labor Trade," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19 (1989): 585-610 (both republished in Shlomowitz, Mortality and Migration in the Modern World [Aldershot UK, 1996]); Moore, Kanaka, 244-63.
18. Ralph Shlomowitz, "Differential Mortality between Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Pacific Labour Trade," Journal of the Australian Population Association 7 (1990): 119-21.
19. Corris, Port, Passage and Plantation, while ostensibly delaing with Solomon Islands labour migration Pacific-wide, is essentially a Queensland study; Corris's discussions of New Caledonia, Samoa and even Fiji are exceedingly thin.
20. Brij V. Lal, "Labouring Men and Nothing More: Some Problems of Indian Indenture in Fiji," in Kay Saunders (ed.), Indentured Labour in the British Empire, 1834-1920 (Canberra/London, 1984), 12-57; Stewart Firth and Doug Munro, "Compagnie et Consulat: Lois Germanique et Emploi des Travailleurs sur les Plantations de Samoa, 1864-1914," Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes Tome 91 (1990): 115-34.
21. Brij V. Lal, "Veil of Dishonour: Sexual Jealousy and Suicide on Fiji Plantations," JPH 20 (1985): 135-55.
22. Ralph Shlomowitz, "Infant Mortality and Fiji's Indian Migrants, 1878-1919," Indian Economic and Social History Review (IESHR) 23 (1986): 289-302; Shlomowitz, "Fertility and Fiji's Indian Migrants, 1879-1919" IESHR 24 (1987): 205-12 (both republished in Shlomowitz, Mortality and Migration in the Modern World.)
23. Doug Munro, "Planters versus Protector: Frank Cornwall's Employment of Gilbertese Plantation Workers in Samoa, 1877-1881," New Zealand Journal of History 23 (1989): 173-82.
24. See also Clive Moore, "A Precious Few: Melanesian and Asian Women in Northern Australia," in Kay Saunders and Raymond Evans (eds.), Gender Relations in Australia: Domination and Negotiation (Sydney, 1992): 59-81.
25. E.g. Peter Corris, "'White Australia' in Action: The Repatriation of Pacific Islanders from Queensland," Historical Studies 15 (1972): 237-50. Joe Natuman, formerly an administrator at the University of the South Pacific and now a politician in Vanuatu told me that his grandfather never forgave the suffering and indignity of deportation, and nursed a life-long grudge towards Australians.
26. Supplementary material is provided in Clive Moore, and Trish Mercer, "The Forgotten People: Australia's South Sea Islanders, 1906-1993, in Henry Reynolds (ed.), Race Relations in North Queensland, 2nd ed. (Townsville, 1993), 208-42.
27. Useful comparisons can be made with Hawaii. The demographic profiles of various ethnic groupings of former plantation workers are presented in Eleanor Nordyke,The Peopling of Hawai'i, 2nd ed. (Honolulu, 1989), 42-94.
28. David Day, Claiming a Continent: A History of Australia (Sydney, 1996), 217-18. Peter D. Griggs, "The Origins and Development of the Small Cane Farming System in Queensland, 1870-1915," Journal of Historical Geography 23 (1997): 56.
29. See also Carol Gistitin, "Kanaka Women Servants," OHAAJ 15 (1993): 22-28.
30. Winston Halapua, "John Auvuru Shaw and the Solomoni of Fiji," in Doug Munro and Andrew Thornley (eds), The Covenant Makers: Islander Missionaries in the Pacific (Suva, 1996), 298.
31. Manfred Ernst, Winds of Change: Rapidly Growing Religious Groups in the Pacific Islands (Suva, 1994).
32. Charles Tilly, "Retrieving European Lives," in Olivier Zunz (ed.), Reliving the Past: The Worlds of Social History (Chapel Hill/London, 1985), 13. Discussions of the methodology of historical demography include E. A. Wrigley (ed.), Identifying the Past (London, 1973), esp. 1-13; Richard E. Beringer, Historical Analysis: Contemporary Approaches to Clio's Craft (New York, 1978), 235-53. The latest substantial contribution to historical demography is E. A. Wrigley, R. S. Davis, J. E. Oeppen and R. S. Scholfield, English Population History from Family Reconstruction (Cambridge UK, 1997).
33. Max Quanchi, review in the AJPH 42 (1996): 460.
34. The example of Lloyd Robson, who provided an appendix explaining his unusual (for historians) methodology when writing about convicts from a one-in-twenty sample, should have been followed. L. L. Robson, The Convict Settlers of Australia (Melbourne, 1965).
35. Stanley M. Elkins, "Two Arguments on Slavery" (1975), in Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, 3rd ed. (Chicago, 1976), 267-68. See also George P. Rawick, From Sunup to Sundown: The Making of the Black Community (Westport CT, 1972): 53-55.
36. Divergent views on the merits or otherwise of revisionism, and the extent to which revisionists are "mindlessly monolithic," are debated by Doug Munro, "Revisionism and its Enemies: Debating the Queensland Labour Trade," JPH 30 (1995): 240-49; Tom Brass, "The Return of 'Merrie Melanesia': A Comment on a Review of a Review," JPH 31 (1996): 215-23.
37. A fine example, in the Australian context, is Ann McGrath, "Born in the Cattle": Aborigines in the Cattle Country (Sydney, 1987).
38. Max Quanchi, "National Imaginings, Victims and Agents: The Call for Recognition by Australian South Sea Islanders," Third Conference of The European Society of Oceanists, Copenhagen, December 13-15, 1996.
39. The contentious and convoluted nature of the "ownership" question may be gauged from Michael Monsell-Davis, "Entangled Stories: Personal, Local and Global Histories," JPacS 20 (1996): 188-97, who provides other relevant references; Judith Binney, Redemption Songs: A Life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (Auckland, 1995), 5-6.
40. Clive Moore, "Decolonising the History of Australia's South Sea Islanders: Politics and Curriculum Materials," in Donald Denoon (ed.), Emerging from Empire?: Decolonisation in the Pacific (Canberra, 1997), 194-203; Quanchi, "National Imaginings,"; Quanchi, "Australian South Sea Islanders: A Community Project," Pacific History Association Newsletter 34 (1996): 6-7. The two school textbooks are Australian South Sea Islanders: Stories and Activities for Primary Schools (Brisbane, 1997); Australian South Sea Islanders: A Curriculum Resource for Secondary Schools (Brisbane, 1997).
41. A comparison with the historiography of United States slavery is instructive. See Peter Kolchin, "Reevaluating the Antebellum Slave Community: A Comparative Perspective," Journal of Southern History 70 (1983): 579-601; Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Chicago, 1988), 486-87.
42. Beginning with Wacvie (Adelaide, 1977).
43. The late Roger Keesing wrote prolifically on the Kwaio. His last book was Custom and Confrontation: The Kwaio Struggle for Cultural Autonomy (Chicago/London, 1992).
44. A behind-the-scenes account and evaluation is provided by Clive Moore, "Noel Fatnowna and His Book: The Making of Fragments of a Lost Heritage," JPacS 18 (1994-95): 137-50.
45. Return to Vanuatu, SBS TV, Dateline (1993); Sugar Slaves, ABC TV, The Big Picture (1995).
46. A contrasting view is presented by Lisa Catherine Ehrich in Alternatives (Brisbane) 16, 2 (1997): 62.
47. Gerard Windsor, "Publish and Be Damned," The Australian's Review of Books 2, 4 (May 1997): 8-9, 26.
48. Ross Storey, "Cash Boost Saves UWA Press," The Australian, April 2, 1997:38 (my emphasis). Latest reports are guardedly optimistic. Ross Storey, "New Publisher Out to Redress a Little History," The Australian, November 5, 1997: 40.
49. Jane Richardson, "New Press Fossicks for Gems," Campus Review (Sydney) September 2-8, 1993: 13. Megan Saunders, "Push from the Bush by a Regional Publisher," The Australian, January 22, 1997: 29. "The Bush," in Australian parlance, refers to rural areas.
50. E.g. Steve Mullens, Torres Strait: History of Colonial Occupation and Culture Contact 1864-1897 (Rockhampton, 1995).
51. Phillipa McGuinness and Jill Lane, "History Publishing in Australia," Public History Review (Sydney) 5 (1995): 152-57.
52. Donald Denoon in JPH 32 (1997): 122.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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