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Australia and the Pacific

Australia’s place as a regional power in the Pacific is represented in the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register by three inscriptions that capture differing and less appreciated aspects of the relationship between Australia and her neighbours. These are the Queensland South Sea Island Indentured Labourer Records 1863-1908, the FE Williams Collection and the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC).

The first collection is the substantial body of records held by Queensland State Archives that document the recruitment of people from many different islands to work in Queensland from 1863 until 1904, the Queensland South Sea Island Indentured Labourer Records 1863-1908. The islanders, the vast majority of them male, came from islands that are now part of Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Fiji Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu. They were brought often unwillingly but sometimes willingly to form a labour force primarily for the sugar industry, and for other industries such as cotton.

The experiences of the South Sea Islanders were frequently unhappy; apart from their removal from their own lands and cultures, they were poorly paid and endured harsh working conditions. Their death rate was far higher than that of Europeans in Queensland and they also suffered racial discrimination. Yet communities were established and some islanders were able to take control of their own working lives and ran their own farms. The importation of South Sea Island labour persisted until Federation in 1901 when the new Commonwealth government passed laws to end this practice as part of the edifice of White Australia. The final period of the scheme saw more suffering and dislocation as only some Islanders were permitted to remain in Queensland while many were deported.

The Queensland government managed the recruitment and employment of South Sea Islanders through various departments including the Colonial Secretary’s Office, the Inspector of Pacific Islanders and the Immigration Department. The records provide a comprehensive documentary resource of the lives of the South Sea Islanders who came to Queensland from 1863, including 62,000 indentured labour contracts. They cover the labour trade and its control of the lives of labourers and their families and include passenger lists, registers of agreements, wages records, ledgers, ships’ logs, exemption records and correspondence. The records thus contain personal information that is invaluable for the family histories of a distinct cultural group in Australia today, the Australian South Sea Islanders. Yet the significance of the records lies not only in their extent and the details they capture. They also document human trafficking in the nineteenth century and Australia’s relations with the Pacific in the decades before Federation.

The FE Williams Collection documents the life and work of Francis Edgar Williams who was the Australian Government Anthropologist in Papua in the 1920s and 1930s. This is a dispersed collection shared by the National Archives of Australia, the South Australian Museum and the National Archives of Papua New Guinea. The photographs, comprising almost 2000 glass plate photographs and negatives, record Williams’ interactions with the people and landscape of the then Australian-administered territory of Papua. Most were taken between 1922 and 1939.

After serving in the First World War, FE Williams, a classics graduate of the University of Adelaide, studied anthropology at Oxford University. In 1922 he was appointed Assistant Government Anthropologist in Papua and in 1928 became Government Anthropologist. The photographs he took as part of his work are powerful images of the lives of the people of Papua, encompassing everything from everyday activities to traditional customs. Some of the now best-known of his images are those of the Kovave and Hevehe mask ceremonies taking place on the beach. By contrast, the photographs of the Western Elema kwoi shields document craft and its uses, while those of Lake Kutubu record the gamut of individual and group activities and traditional ceremonies. Many of the F E Williams photographs are true images of first contact, not only between Williams and his subjects, but also between Papuans and twentieth century technology. This is apparent in photographs of first encounters with radio sets and aeroplanes.

Williams’ black-and-white photography is of a high quality. His eye as a documentary photographer is clear and sensitive; and it is apparent that he enjoyed the trust of the people whose lives he was charged to record on behalf of the Government of Australia.

The final collection representing the connection between Australia and the Pacific is the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures. Better known by its acronym of PARADISEC, it is a collaborative project of three major Australian research universities, the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University and the University of Sydney. It commenced in 2003 as an effort to create a centralised repository to collect, curate and preserve digital research sources relating to Pacific cultures. Unlike many of the collections inscribed on the Australian Register, PARADISEC is a continuing contemporary collecting project (the Register listing covers records up to 2012, when the nomination was submitted). It is also unusual in its strong focus on audiovisual cultural heritage.

Language is essential to all human cultures and the goal of preserving languages in danger of disappearing is at the centre of the work of PARADISEC. Recording people speaking their language contributes to the nurturing of culture, whether it is someone discussing everyday things or describing important cultural law and practice. As Australia lies in a region where there are around 2000 languages, many of them small languages, preservation is a critical goal.

Analogue field recordings made by Australian researchers from the 1960s and earlier in some cases have been digitised and made available for linguistic, anthropological and historical research through PARADISEC. They are also accessible by the communities whose cultures they document. As well as language, PARADISEC collects and preserves other cultural forms such as music and performance. It also preserves digital manuscripts and other images that relate to the central purpose of preserving language. In addition, PARADISEC has become an important contributor to developing international expertise on technical aspects of the digital preservation of language and other cultural materials.

Australia has a strong presence as a large and rich nation in the Pacific. The efforts of many people across multiple institutions to preserve diverse cultural forms have ensured that significant documents of the historical connections between Australia and the Pacific have survived. The inscriptions of the collections described here on the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register honour those connections.

Cover label of Register of South Sea Islanders (Pacific Islanders) employed on plantations

Cover label of Register of South Sea Islanders (Pacific Islanders) employed on plantations (Queensland State Archives Item 18844, Register - Pacific Islanders)

Copyright Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs

a photograph of pair of be'u ori eharo, dance of Waiea Ravi

Pair of be’u ori eharo, dance of Waiea Ravi. Orokolo, March 1933.

Series A6003, 192C, National Archives of Australia

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