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24 July, 2021

Historic study for Islander community

ACADEMICS and university students are currently in Mackay to study the history of the region’s South Sea Islander population. The project, Archaeology Collections and South Sea Islander Lived Identities, is looking into Islander histories and aims to raise awareness about the community’s past in Queensland society. It is hoped this will contribute to a sense of Islander identity, both now and going forward.


ACADEMICS and university students are currently in Mackay to study the history of the region’s South Sea Islander population. The project, Archaeology Collections and South Sea Islander Lived Identities, is looking into Islander histories and aims to raise awareness about the community’s past in Queensland society. It is hoped this will contribute to a sense of Islander identity, both now and going forward. 

The group has been working closely with Mackay’s Islander community for the last four years in order to discover Australian South Sea Islander lived identities. Last week, the researchers were at the Old Homebush Mill, a late 19th-early 20th century sugar mill. 

They were studying workers’ cottages, particularly in the areas where Australian South Sea Islanders had lived. Dr Geraldine Mate from the Queensland Museum, who is a lead worker on the project, explained its scope.  “We’re doing this through three different things. One is around archaeology, one is around understanding objects and the other is about cultural landscapes,” she said. “As part of the project, we’ve been working to understand the important places to the community and looking at places where maybe we can do some mapping or do some archaeological work to investigate more about the ways South Sea Islander people lived in the past.”

 Current public health issues have not made it easy for the team, with lead archaeologist Dr James Flexner locked down in Sydney for the duration of the dig. “It’s been a bit of a journey, particularly with the pandemic interrupting all of last year’s fieldwork and impacting this year’s fieldwork as well,” Dr Mate said.

 “We did excavations this week at Homebush but didn’t identify what we were looking for. “But we’ve also been doing landscape mapping while we’ve been up here and we’ve been doing community workshops, looking at things like objects that are meaningful to people in terms of exploring identity.” The team has been working closely with Mackay’s islander population, many of whom are descended from the original sugar industry labourers who were brought as cheap workers from places like East New Britain, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. 

“The Australian South Sea Islander community has been really welcoming to us and we’re working with them,” Dr Mate said. “So it’s about what the community is saying is important to them, the stories that are important to them. Outputs are important to them in terms of being able to pass on stories to younger generations in different ways  whether it’s through school-based material or through online or or publications and so on.

 “And I think the community – and I can’t speak for them – from what people have said to us, is that getting the history out there and known is a really important part of this project.”


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