Between 1860 and 1904, an estimated 55,000 to 62,500 Pacific Islanders were brought to Australia during the ‘Blackbirding’ period of this nation's history. These South Sea Islander’s contributed deeply to the foundations of Australia – kidnapped from more than 80 Pacific Islands including Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and to a lesser extent, from New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and Tuvalu and forced into slavery on the cotton and sugar plantations of Queensland and New South Wales.
This week alongside the Australian South Sea Islander community, we at the Australian Museum (AM) stand in solidarity with our Pasifika kinfolk in recognising 175 years of the Australian South Sea Island peoples and their story and their widely silenced contribution to the Australian narrative.
We honour their story past, present and well into the future.
The Australian South Sea Island community continues to thrive and survive in every aspect of wider Australian society.
Last week we had the honour of sitting down with Australian South Sea Islander, Yuwi and Torres Strait Islander artist Dylan Mooney who shared what his Australian South Sea Islander heritage means to him, how it influences his work and how the community moves into the future.
AM: Let us start by introducing yourself: who you are, where you are from and what you do?
DM: My names Dylan Mooney, I am a Yuwi man from the Mackay region in North Queensland. On my grandmother's side I am Torres Strait Islander, so my family come from Darnley Island and Moa Island and my father's side I am Australian South Sea Islander, so my family come from Santo and Ambae Islands in Vanuatu and Mailaita Island in the Solomon Islands.
I am a visual artist, been practicing for about 7 years now and made a career out of it – telling stories about my identity, my community, my family history, and our Australian South Sea Island community’s stories.
AM: The Australian South Sea Islander story – how important is that to you in 2022?
DM: It is important to me to keep those stories alive – the stories of being Australian South Sea Islander that I was brought up with. Growing up with my family and hearing those stories about my Ancestors and how they came to be here in Queensland.
My family was brought to Mackay to work on the sugar plantations and played a crucial role within the community in Mackay and wanting to keep those stories alive and those legacies and what they have left behind – it's all important to me.
AM: How does your Australian South Sea Islander heritage influence your work as an artist?
DM: For me, the history behind my family and I guess what they have done and the roles they played in the communities – taking those stories of what I have learnt from my Grandparents and putting those into my artworks are a continuation of our story – making sure that we are not forgotten.
I think Queensland and Australia do not know much about that history about what happened in the 1860’s and how we came to be here in these lands. All those stories that I grew up with help to inform my practice and just to make sure those are shared with the wider communities.
AM: You shared that you are also a Torres Strait Island and Yuwi man – are there distinctive differences between the ways you tell story from across those distinctive cultures or are they intertwined?
DM: It is like they are intertwined but then they are not. They are three distinct cultures and three distinct histories and traditions, so I tend to tell those stories differently between the three – but also the similarities; the histories, that dispossession and that separation from culture and homelands and that is apparent and connected across all three of my cultures.
I look at my Great Grandmother who was taken from Thursday Island in the Torres Straits and brought to the mainland, and on my South Sea Island side my Great-Great-Grandmother who was taken from Santo Island and brought here, and then on the Yuwi side my family were taken from country and brought to the missions just south of Mackay so there are similarities and naturally I do tend to intertwine them. It is great and important to tell all three stories, but it is difficult as I said – because they are intertwined but also not.
AM: This week is the 175th Anniversary of Australian South Sea Island recognition – what do you think further recognition looks like for the Australian South Sea Island community in the future?
DM: I think having the Australian South Sea Island history and story taught in schools Australia-wide plays a major part in that further recognition. For it to be part of regular Australian curriculum is vital so that the younger generations of Australian South Sea Islander and wider Australians alike, can grow up with that knowledge of what happened in the past and acknowledging these histories more – that this history is taught as an important part of the Australian story.
Having the Australian South Sea Island flag flown alongside the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island flags is also potentially a future discussion point.
AM: What would you like wider Australia to know about the Australian South Sea Islander story?
DM: I would like for wider Australia to know more about the silenced histories of Queensland and wider Australia. Queensland was the main place South Sea Island people were brought to – so learning more about the places they were taken to; Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Cairns, Mackay, Tweed Heads and Brisbane.
Doing more research and making connections with Australian South Sea Island peoples and organisations within their own communities – because we are out here.
AM: For Australian South Sea Islanders who may feel disconnected from their own identities – what are some encouragements for them?
DM: Be proud of where you come from. Engage more with your families, your elders, your Aunties and Uncles – they hold the stories of our pasts and our histories. We have so much knowledge behind us. Be confident within yourselves and do not be afraid to ask questions – approach people about where we do come from and ask those questions.
We are still shaping ourselves and I guess creating a new identity for ourselves – still trying to figure out what the Australian South Sea Island identity is now in 2022.
But always remember we have thrived and survived for 175 years on these once unknown lands and we are still going strong. Dylan Mooney