Ingham Daily Press

Keeping People Connected

Mercer Lane mosaic part 2: The history of ‘blackbirding’ told through art

The serenity of the second panel at the Mercer Lane mosaic masks a grim reality – the abduction of Melanesian Islanders for cane cutting.

This is the second article in a series by historian Dr Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui exploring the meaning of the art mosaic that runs along the wall of iconic Ingham deli JK’s in Mercer Lane, Hinchinbrook, North Queensland, Australia.

Waving palm trees and sailboats serenely sailing in brilliant sunshine on a still blue sea greet you as you wander to the second panel in the Mercer Lane Mosaic.

The serenity of the scene masks a grim reality – the enticement and abduction of Melanesian Islanders for cane cutting in tropical north Queensland.

While Australian South Sea Islanders are a significant demographic in Queensland’s population, few people today appreciate how their ancestors arrived in Queensland.

The short- lived experiment of growing sugar cane by our first planters, Maurice O’Connell and William Mc Dowell, pictured in the first panel, proved the crop was not going to be grown on the Herbert by the hands of Europeans alone.

Those hopeful planters who followed O’Connell and Mc Dowell turned to a form of labour that had already been introduced to Australia in the form of labourers on cotton plantations and shepherds:  men and women from the islands of Melanesia.

Recruiting ships were sent to entice and abduct those men and women to toil on the cane fields of the Herbert.

The word ‘blackbirding’ came to be used for that enticement and kidnapping, while those who laboured on the cane fields were called ‘kanakas’.

The majority of those blackbirded were men. Why were they used?

Well, as the quote from John Lely, a small farmer (though aspiring planter) from lower Herbert stated, the wide-held belief was that physical labour in the tropics would damage white people’s health, while Melanesian people or people ‘of colour’ were constitutionally suited to labouring in the tropics.

Of course that was nonsense, but at the time it was a theory supported even by the medical profession.

There is so much going on in this panel.

Firstly, do you notice that many things, from the waves to the woman’s hair, the sailboats and the fish are all moving forward towards the next panel?

That is a device the artist Kate Carr used throughout the mosaic as a metaphor for European progress in establishing a sugar industry on the Herbert.

Look out for that forward movement in the other panels.

But notice how the tree branches are reaching out the opposite way.

They represent the enticing hands of the recruiters.

A large blackbird, symbolic of the process of ‘blackbirding’, perches on the tree with its reaching branches.

The woman, with her wind-swept hair and sad face, represents the women left behind, who would never see their menfolk again.

The result of ‘blackbirding’ was that families were fractured and the islands’ populations depleted of young men.

The rolling waves represent the tumultuous journey and harsh experiences awaiting the them on the Herbert.

Do you wonder why the sun dominates the panel?

It represents both the enticement of riches made to the Islanders and the sunrise of an era of colonial advancement in tropical north Queensland made on the back of the Melanesian indentured labourers.

The nautilus shell on the sail of one of the boats represents the valued currency of the Islanders.

In time, those who returned to the island brought with them a different currency: guns, tobacco, clothing and such like.

When the planters started sending out their own recruitment ships, the methods used to recruit and transport the Islanders were often cruel and resulted in many deaths on the sea journey.

As a result, the Queensland government brought in regulations to manage and control the recruitment of indentured labourers. The stars on the tree represent that government legislation.

If you look carefully, you will see a new growth of leaves on one of the branches of the tree.

Those leaves represent the advance of the sugar industry on the Herbert that was able to take place because of the back-breaking toil of the Melanesian indentured labourers.

As you can see, the Mercer Lane Mosaic (which is a dedication to the cane cutters and our local sugar industry) is not just a unique art work to enjoy for its beauty.

It challenges us, with Kate Carr’s artistic metaphors, to appreciate the oft uncomfortable events that made that industry possible.

Look out for the next instalment: Chinese workers clear the land.

Subscribe To Receive Weekly News Updates