Remembering the Australian South Sea Islanders: The Secret Life of Memorials

Author: Julie Mitchell

Mitchell, Julie, 2017 Remembering the Australian South Sea Islanders: The Secret Life of Memorials, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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Abstract

The 19th century transportation of over 60 000 indigenous South Sea Islanders to labour on colonial Queensland sugar-cane fields is an episode of Australia’s history with contested historiography, and current social, cultural and political repercussions. Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI) today are a minority group who have had little recourse for representation on either material or textual records, still struggling with issues of representation and status in Australia today. The situation for ASSI archaeology is characterised by the distinct paucity of discernible ASSI material culture and memory of their part in the Australian story remains in the liminal, threshold territory of their indentured ancestors. However, physical manifestations of the ASSI story in the form of eruptions of communal memory in public spaces have arisen over the intervening years, at various points on the Queensland landscape: memorials, spaces where history and memory intersect. It is argued that these memory places, rather than static artefactual stand-ins for the past, are dynamic material culture which have particular agency and relevance in the present, offering to archaeological inquiry, temporal, spatial, material, and cultural heritage data regarding the on-going post-colonial process. Added to the quantifiable outcomes of the study of these memory places is the conceptual consideration of memorials as holding inherently the intangible quality of the ‘memory’ of a past person, place or event significant to a local or extended community. Memorials can be understood to be public memory ‘materialised’, thus providing entry points for the archaeological interpretation of cultural heritage which otherwise has no physical presence. This research, while a material culture study focused on the materialised expression of memory, also allows discussion beyond typologies, styles and categories to consider the relational meaning and distributed agency of these objects within the complex network of public memory. In addition to considerations of their symbolic, mnemonic or representational reflections of the past, it is argued that contemporary memorials are extensions of the original ASSI event to which they refer, a part of a continuous process that is helping to shape current communities. In this way, as components of the unfolding ASSI event trajectory, the continuing story of ASSI-related memorials, which includes our academic attention, offers a cultural heritage platform from which future archaeology may derive, supporting minority representation in the national narrative. This thesis contends that by considering heritage remembrance structures that are connected with the original ASSI event as strategies to link the present day to an invisible past, we support current communities to comprehend their own cultural heritage, thus promoting a more encompassing and unified populace. This research may then be considered a precursor to a future activist archaeology which involves working more directly in collaboration with ASSI descendants and other local communities to connect the many other facets of ASSI history culture. In this way, applying archaeological thinking to the contemporary past can indeed have a direct bearing on present and future cultural heritage knowledge.

Keywords: Memory, memorial, South Sea Islanders
Subject: Humanities thesis, Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Associate Professor Heather Burke