110 unmarked graves of blackbirded South Sea Islanders found in Mackay, Australia

Volunteers helping discover unmarked graves in the 'heathen' section of the cemetery. Photo: ABC/Sophie Kesteven

Volunteers helping discover unmarked graves in the ‘heathen’ section of the old cemetery in Mackay, Queensland, Australia. Photo: ABC/Sophie Kesteven

A project to locate the graves of blackbirded South Sea Islanders buried in Mackay, Queensland has uncovered more than 110 graves in a cemetery in the town, reports Australia’s ABC News.

Buried over 100 years ago, the graves were located in the ‘heathen’ section of the cemetery using old council records and a metal detector to find the steel pegs outlining each grave.

The project has not been able to identify any of the people in the graves yet.

Islanders from Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea were brought to Queensland to cut sugar cane in the late 19th century, sometimes against their will. Many of these ‘blackbirded’ people converted to Christianity while in Australia.

The project is led by Elton Backo, himself a descendent of blackbirded South Sea Islanders brought to Australia in 1887.

Elton Backo says helping discover the graves tugs at the heart-strings because his grandparents were also blackbirded. Photo: ABC/Sophie Kesteven

Elton Backo says helping discover the graves tugs at the heart-strings because his grandparents were also blackbirded. Photo: ABC/Sophie Kesteven

“This project for me, and I was talking to my wife as well about it, and when we saw how many were there she just nearly started crying because that’s gone, that’s our history gone,” says Backo.

“Because they came out and died here they never returned home, and when you go back to the Islands, because I’ve been back about seven times, you get people over there ‘have you seen this person, or that person’ but they’re probably here in the ground here — that’s the sad part of it”, he says.

Another South Sea Islander descendant volunteer on the project, Starrett Vea Vea, says the location of the graves is significant because “these are the ones that are lost to everyone; they’re lost to the islands where they came from and they’re lost to us here because there’s no connection in-between”.

The South Sea Islander Mackay Cemetery Project was organised by the Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association and the Mackay Regional Council.

For the full story, visit the ABC News website.


One Comment on “110 unmarked graves of blackbirded South Sea Islanders found in Mackay, Australia”

  1. Joe Mulders says:

    Regarding the South Sea islanders, I would like to point out that when visiting a cemetery at Harvey Bay, Qld. I found quite a few old graves of island people. They mentioned their names and even which island they came from such as Omba or Aoba, or Tanna. They were buried amongst other local people and not in a special section.
    That was about 20 years ago and it was rather sad to find out that these blackbirded islanders never managed to get back to their own island.
    Joe Mulders

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