Joe Eggmolesse at work in his home office.
Joe Eggmolesse at work in his home office. Robyne Cuerel

Local man tracing sad past of ancestors on 150th anniversary

DRESSED in a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt, Joe Eggmolesse sips coffee from a mug and gazes across a stained river to eucalypts and mangroves.

"You would have been able to stand here and watch them being brought in off the ships," he says, from the rear deck of the Customs House residence in Maryborough's heritage precinct.

His huge hand tightens around his mug - then he tells me why the stories of one of Australia's forgotten groups of people must be told.

"I think the pain is more when we get together as a group and we share our stories, it becomes very sad," Joe said.

"Some people have more sad stories than others; some people can identify with chains and things like that. There was a bloke who told the story of seeing scars on his grandfather's back from whips.

"When I'm doing my family's story, when I'm researching it, I do cry. A lot of the stuff, especially the stories I've read on the Cran plantations, makes me think about my old grandmother who was born on a Cran property; I wonder how she got on as a girl."

One of Joe's Eggmolesse relatives on a plantation in Bundaberg.
One of Joe's Eggmolesse relatives on a plantation in Bundaberg. Contributed

The 75 year old, is talking about Kanakas, a group which this week marked its 150-year anniversary since arriving in Australia, and he's talking about his family.

Joe's a third-generation Australian South Sea Islander.

His great-grandparents and grandparents came by ship in the latter part of the 1800s from islands of Vanuatu.

Some chose to come. Others, he says, were forced.

State Government documents show some 62,000 people - mostly from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu - were brought to Australia in a 40-year period, from 1863 to 1904.

The documents suggest they were brought "to provide cheap labour for the burgeoning sugar industry in Queensland".

It's acknowledged "some were brought illegally" in a practice known as blackbirding.

The documents show some were deported between 1906 and 1908, while "those who remained, along with their descendants, were subjected to ongoing racial discrimination and harsh treatment, including restrictions."

Joe orders another coffee - a half-strength flat-white - it arrives in a mug and he adds two sugars; then continues.

"I see the 150-year (anniversary) as honouring the memory of the Pacific Islanders that were brought here as cheap slave labour under the guise of indentured labour.

"The 150-year (anniversary) gives us a significant date to relate to for a significant event that is very relevant to the history of our people in Australia.

"I would like people to recognise we were thrown in the bundle with all the other black people - and we accepted that, that's okay. But when the crunch came, in 1967, when Aboriginal people were recognised as human beings if you like (because until then they weren't on the census, they were classed as a form of animals) when they were recognised we were given no such acknowledgement."

The stories of Joe's ancestors remain mysterious. But through his research, and from tales passed down the family line, he has formed a narrative he believes accurate enough to share.

His great grandparents - on his mother's side - came willingly by ship. On his dad's side, his grandfather came willingly; but his grandmother was blackbirded.

Tracing his family's roots some time ago, Joe travelled to the islands to locate his blood.

He says his grandmother lived in the mountains in Vanuatu, and her tribe travelled to the ocean - journeys that would take many weeks at a time. They would go to trade, and to collect seawater for salt.

He believes white recruiters captured his grandmother on one of these journeys and forced her to Queensland.

He says regardless of whether they chose to come or not, on arrival, all of his ancestors experienced brutal working and living conditions, cruelty and discrimination because of their skin colour.

Indeed, newspaper reports of the time reinforce Joe's claims.

The Queenslander, Saturday, July 31, 1880 read: the report made by Drs. Thomson and Wray, who were sent last April to inquire into the causes of the excessive mortality among the islanders on certain plantations in the Maryborough district…contains some startling facts, and the explanation of them. The ordinary death rate per annum among adult males in England is 9 per 1000. A very large majority of the Kanakas in the Maryborough district are adult males, and they number 1340. The mortality in the year 1879 for the district was 74 per 1000. On the plantations owned by Messrs. R. Cran and Co. the death rate averaged for five and a-half years 92 per 1000. In 1879 it was 107 per 1000, and for the three months ending 31st March, 1880, it was 100 per 1000.

Most of Joe's ancestors worked on Robert Cran and Co plantations, including at Yengarie and Irrawarra.

Joe Eggmolesse at the Kanaka Memorial in Maryborough.
Joe Eggmolesse at the Kanaka Memorial in Maryborough. Robyne Cuerel

"They were promised good accommodation, clothing, food and wages. But the wages were much less than a white man's. An example would be something like six pounds a year compared to a white man's six pounds a month - that's just an example."

Joe says his ancestors chose to remain in Australia when many of the islanders returned home from 1906. They "assimilated"; as he puts it, they gave up their own culture to survive.

He says they became land owners on the Sunshine Coast, but suggests their fight against discrimination and racism was far from finished. Indeed, on some level, it could be argued it is ongoing today, generations later.

He remembers the first time he encountered something beyond discrimination, something he considered to be racist.

"I was kicked out of a Kingaroy pub in the 1960s - fair enough I was underage, I wasn't 21; you had to be 21 to have a drink. But I looked older than my age and I was only drinking double sars," he says.

"I was standing at the bar drinking my double sars, no one said anything, the bloke served me, I had my money on the counter and my glass, drinking, and I was just standing there looking around, thinking about things.

And then the policeman come in and called me out and said 'Hey, don't you know you're not allowed in here?

'You get moving or I'll kick you in the arse'.

"I said, 'Can I go get my money off the counter?' And he said, 'Yes'.

So I walked in and got my money off the counter, grabbed my glass, and went to scull it and he yelled out, 'Hey, get the heck out of here'

"I walked out, not knowing anything about my rights back then, and he said 'Now get going or I'll kick you in the arse'."

And he tells the story now only to explain how dark-skinned people were treated as second-class citizens for much of the 20th century.

Things might have improved for South Sea Islanders from 1906, but it took many more years.

He says he does not hurt for what his ancestors went through (and the subsequent lack of recognition they have received since). Rather, he says, he feels sadness for them.

He acknowledges nothing will ever reverse the injustices his people faced from white Australians - with some of the worst of the treatment happening here in the Fraser Coast.

But he says the future lies ahead, and it must be greeted by one looking forward not back.

A huge part of reconciliation, for Joe, would involve the word sorry, in an official apology.

He says that governments could be liable for compensation if they recognised past faults in such a way, means it will probably never happen. But he will never to give up hope.

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