Some workers were tricked into coming to Australia with contracts they had neither the cultural nor educational background to comprehend. Others, like Moses Topay Enares, were stolen.
His granddaughter (Waskam) Emelda Davis said Moses was kidnapped in the late 1800s alongside two playmates from a beach in the Tafea Province of Vanuatu and shipped to Bundaberg, never to return.
There are no formal records and his story has survived through oral tradition.
“This is overwhelmingly exciting,” said Ms Davis, the Sydney-based chair of Australian South Sea Islanders (Port Jackson), about the first formal apology.
“It’s allowing us to breathe, really, because it’s been a constant [feeling] for Australian South Sea Islanders that we are the forgotten people.
“When we talk, it’s ‘Oh, but that happened years ago. Don’t worry about it’. For Jack Dempsey to do this, he’s setting a precedent and hopefully it will have a domino effect.”
Ms Davis said the effect should extend into discussions about strategic investment in programs and services as reparations for stolen wages and other birth rights she said was valued at between $38 million and $200 million in today’s money.
While it is only one, the apology from an elected leader has been years in the making for those who have argued blackbirding is an important but often-forgotten chapter in Australia’s considerable book of colonial racism.
“This country doesn’t want to know about the pain, the hurt and the atrocities,” Ms Davis said. “It’s hard enough dealing with First Nations mob without bringing in us mob – 50,000 odd: that’s a heavy scene. That’s a big pill to swallow, especially when your Prime Minister is saying there’s no slavery in Australia.”
Ms Davis was referring to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s remarks on radio last year, amid global Black Lives Matter marches, that dismissed the notion of slavery ever existing in Australia.
Mr Morrison later apologised for the offence.