Faith, hope and charity: Blackbirding Bandler

faith bandlerThe death of Faith Bandler last week has thrown light on two reasons how Australia got wealthy and why it is selective about remembering its past.

Bandler was a key figure in the 1967 referendum which allowed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be counted in the census and also gave the Commonwealth power to legislate over Indigenous issues. These items seem small but the referendum passed with around 90% support. Bandler and others tapped into white guilt to get a rare successful change to the Australian constitution.

The fact that Australia had stolen the land, killed the natives, used the survivors as sex slaves and cheap labour and then stole even those meagre wages was not openly spoken by those promoting the change. But it was an undercurrent to Australia’s sense of self-satisfaction behind the white picket fences of the 1960s.

Bandler’s own non-whiteness added to her stature as a spokesperson but she was neither Aboriginal nor Torres Strait Islander. She got her skin colour from her Melanesian dad but her feistiness was in no small part due to her Scottish-Indian mother. This pot-pourri of cultures made Bandler a true Australian of the later part of the 20th century. It was a time Australia “unforgot” its Indigenous people and quietly cast away the White Australia Policy, a policy capital and labour supported for 60 years.

Bandler’s Melanesian background was a reminder of another shameful part of Australian colonial capitalist history, ironically blown away by the White Australian Policy. Her father Wacvie Mussingkon was from Ambrym Island in Vanuatu, an island chain affected by its brush with British and French colonial history.

After “claiming” New South Wales for Britain, Captain Cook was on his second tour of the South Pacific when he arrived at Vanuatu and named it New Hebrides. France also had designs on the region but it was the venture capitalism unleashed by the American Civil War that saw a carpetbagging Irishman named J.C. Byrne think of sending Pacific islander indentured labour to the farms of Peru.

In 1862 Byrne convinced one group of desperate and hungry New Hebridean farmers to go to South America. His success gave profiteers from other settler parts of the world the incentive to “convince” islanders to sign up to such ventures, using coercion and trickery.

By the 1870s northern Australian canegrowers, unable to attract southern white labour, got in on the act. The practice was called blackbirding, from the “blackbirds” Europeans agents caught in the wild. The growers eagerly took these blackbirds from many islands across the western Pacific, including New Hebrides, as indentured labour. Indenturing was a contract for three years and despite several laws designed to clean up the industry, the labourers were housed in primitive conditions, forced to work long hours and received little or no pay. One in five died during their contract.

About 60,000 south sea islanders came to Australia during 40 years of blackbirding, tricked into slavery to keep the Queensland economy pumping. The 1880 Pacific island Labourers Act (Queensland) gave some improvement by licensing the process but restricted Melanesians to menial jobs. The end of the century was dominated by the Federation debate and the need to create a white Australia. The sugar industry fought to continue to import cheap labour but were thwarted by one of the first laws passed by the new Commonwealth, the 1901 Pacific Island Labourers Act. The 10,000 islanders in Australia were ordered to leave and 70% were deported. About 10% were granted residency on compassionate grounds and another 20% stayed on illegally.

Wacvie Mussingkon was among that latter group, who like Stockholm Syndrome sufferers, grew to love Australia despite its inhumane ways. The Federal Government stopped blackbirding not because of the humanitarian need of Ambrym Islanders but because they didn’t want people from Ambrym in the country at all.

Yet people like Mussingkon survived and his offspring thrived. Faith’s politics were shaped by injustice. She married another outsider, Jewish refugee Hans Bandler. Hans left Vienna to escape the Nazis and shared Faith’s radical ideas about society. Faith suffered discrimination of her own due to her darker skin. Together they fought for civil rights and economic justice. Faith Bandler’s fight ended when she died last week aged 97.  Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Bandler had spent her life “pointing the way to a better and fairer Australia”. It’s something Abbott himself should aspire to.

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