Into the west: Torres Strait Islander railway workers, migration and belonging
Dr Shino Konishi, National Museum of Australia, 28 August 2008
MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Thank you for coming to today’s staff seminar, which will be presented by Dr Shino Konishi. Shino was an Indigenous research fellow at the Centre for Historical Research here at the National Museum of Australia. She had that position for six months before moving to become a research fellow at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University, where she is working on a project called ‘Laying the Tracks’, which builds upon the work that she will be discussing here today. Shino’s research interests include histories of race, bodies and culture contact in Australia. She is currently working on a book on Torres Strait Islander workers in the northern railways with Leah Lui-Chivizhe. Thank you very much. There will be time for questions afterwards.
Dr SHINO KONISHI: Thank you for coming. Firstly, I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal people. [I would also like to apologise for the quality of my pictures I will be showing in my PowerPoint. They were scanned from microfilm so are not that wonderful.
As you can see, this is the title of my paper [Into the west: Torres Strait Islander railway workers, migration and belonging]. I have kind of cheated a little bit and shown an interesting photo from 1975 of the railway line in the Pilbara but I will be talking about an earlier period in which I do not have such striking photos.
On Tuesday, 26 January 1965 the West Australian, a Perth-based newspaper, informed its readers, on page two no less, that:
Forty Thursday Islanders will arrive in Perth on Friday to begin work on the track-laying stage of the standard-gauge railway project.
The introduction of a nationwide standard rail gauge had been debated since 1897, and from 1949 the project had seen numerous reports and budgetary wrangling between the Commonwealth and Western Australian governments. Its construction was finally catalysed in 1960 by BHP’s investment in a steel mill, which would require 500 miles of rails to link the mine and the mill. Thus, the seemingly simple story of the arrival of the Torres Strait Islander workers was a major event, signalling a new era in the state’s industrial development and economy.
The West Australian’s article continued on to say that the Islanders would ‘form the nucleus of the tracklaying team’ used by the American firm, Utah Construction and Engineering Co., which would utilise the ‘most modern track-laying equipment available’. Further, according to the president of Franco Railroad Constructors, Lou Franco, they were also employing a crack team of workers: he claimed that ‘a lot of time and expense had been put into training the men’, and believed ‘they could compete with the best tracklayers anywhere in the world’.
A few days later, the West Australian ran another story announcing that the workers had arrived on Friday, 29 January. It claimed that the men had ‘become famous in Australia for their skills as track-layers’ and that ‘most of the Thursday Islanders came to Australia as pearl divers and gradually drifted into railway work’. The men were treated as minor celebrities, with the media waiting to photograph them, and a crowd of keen locals gathered at the Perth railway station to welcome them to Western Australia and watch them disembark.
The keen interest in the Torres Strait Islanders continued after their arrival. After the men began work the following Monday, they were regularly watched by the crowds gathered along the new tracks to watch and follow the track-laying teams. The West Australian published two photo essays on 11 February, one on the front page as well as a large double-spread supplementary section on page 20, showing the Torres Strait Islander men in action. [Shows images] Here we have an image of them using heavy tongs to lift the end of a 360-foot rail over sleepers. Here, showing little strain while they do so. And here, stoically holding the handles of a pneumatic hammer.
These stories in the West Australian mark the first arrival of Torres Strait Islanders in Western Australia and the foundation of their communities in the Pilbara, for when they completed the standard-gauge project in the south-west of the state, many Islander workers were called north, to the Pilbara, to construct the thousands of kilometres of heavy rail needed to serve the emerging multi-billion dollar iron ore industry.
This paper is part of a joint project with my colleague Leah Lui-Chivizhe, called ‘Laying the Tracks: Torres Strait Islander Migration and Labour in Northern Australia’, which traces an important history for the Torres Strait Islander community, because it is said that almost every family on the mainland had a member involved in the railways. The project, which we began late last year, is a collective biography drawing on oral history and archival research, primarily the records of Queensland’s Department of Native Affairs.
In this paper I will focus on the Islanders’ arrival in Western Australia, tracing their geographic journey west from Queensland in 1965. However, this journey also signals the Torres Strait Islanders’ entrée into Western society and capitalism. The demand for their labour enabled the men to escape the islands where the Queensland Department of Native Affairs, authorised by various Queensland protection acts together with the island councils, exerted great control over the individuals in terms of their movement, employment, wages and even their domestic life.
I will begin by locating Torres Strait Islanders within Indigenous labour history scholarship, then trace the oral history record of the men’s journey to Western Australia and conclude with some observations on how the railway workers’ journey west heralded their incorporation into Western society.
Part 1: Locating Torres Strait Islanders within Indigenous labour history
While there have been many historical studies on the use of Indigenous Australian labour, especially within the pastoral industry and during the war-time effort, these studies, according to Ann Curthoys and Clive Moore, have often been developed within the field of race relations rather than labour history. Furthermore, within the Australian popular imaginings, such studies have been dwarfed by the racist assumption that Indigenous people did not and do not work. However, Curthoys and Moore note that there is an even greater paucity of Torres Strait Islander labour history, a claim substantiated by the example of John Host and Jill Milroy who make only a passing reference to Torres Strait Islanders employed during the war in their historiographic study of Aboriginal labour in Western Australia.
There is clearly evidence that Indigenous people did work in a number of industries throughout the colonial period although, for the most part, in employment which is best defined as ‘colonised labour’. For instance, in the pastoral and pearling industries of Northern Australia. Claire Williams and Bill Thorpe argue that this form of labour was a product of imperialism and colonialism, for Aboriginal and Islander territory and people were ensnared in a racist social relationship with the settler colonists. They maintained that colonised labour was subordinate to all other forms of labour, perhaps explaining its invisibility to mainstream Australian society, and moreover that it is suffused with repressed elements of power.
Further, the assumed racial and cultural superiority of the colonists ensured that the use of colonised labour was riddled with contradictions as it was both desired and derided. According to Williams and Thorpe, the colonised workers were ultimately valued as a labour commodity but also devalued, employed and unemployed, paid but mostly unpaid, integrated but mostly marginalised. The concept of colonised labour, with all of its contradictions and complexities, is apposite to discussions of Torres Strait Islanders’ employment in the Islands of which there are only a few studies. For example, the work of Steve Mullins, Noni Sharpe, and Jeremy Beckett’s Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism from 1987.
I will just give you a map to get a sense of where the islands are [shows image]. The islands were formally annexed by Queensland in 1872, ostensibly to protect any cast-aways. However, the state was motivated by its desire to take control of the burgeoning marine industries, which harvested pearl and trochus shell, and trepang or bêche-de-mer - the sea cucumber. The London Missionary Society, arriving in 1971, observed that the marine industry had greatly impacted on the islands, for the pearlers and trepangers were forcing the men and women to work for them, withholding promised pay and abducting women to serve the sexual needs of their foreign crews.
While the indentured Asian and Pacific Islander labourers were employed on fixed contracts with their terms and conditions established at the outset, Torres Strait Islanders could be recruited and dismissed at the company’s whim. Thus, according to Beckett:
The marine industry carried the islanders to the threshold of the industrial world and left them there. They had become a part-time proletariat, drawn from their subsistence activities by the lure of consumer goods, only to be forced back onto these activities again.
In 1904 the Queensland government began controlling the Islanders’ employment when it extended Queensland’s 1897 Aborigines Protection Act to the Islands. It negotiated conditions and wages for the employers on the behalf of the individual Islander worker and collected their earnings, instigating a Protection Board levy that was greater than any tax paid at the time by non-Indigenous workers.
This prolonged governmental intervention did not go unnoticed by the Islander workers, as many of our informants spoke of their resentment at seeing the price paid for the shell when the boats arrived at the docks, and comparing it to the wages they received - and this was happening as recently as the 1950s. This disparity would have been exacerbated by the fact that Asian and Pacific Islander workers were able to negotiate their own conditions and pay directly with their employers.
A further indignity suffered by the colonised Torres Strait Islander workers was that they were issued with passbooks. Thus, they could only purchase goods from the government store, so were barred from managing their own money.
In an attempt to further regulate the marine industries, the government exerted control over the Islanders’ movement between islands by requiring permits. The permits affected when people began emigrating from the different islands to the mainland. The eastern Islanders, mainly Murray Island - which might be familiar because of Eddie Mabo - they began in 1947 as their marine industries began to wind down and unemployment rose, whereas the central and western island councils barred migration until the 1960s as they still needed workers to man their boats.
Evidently, William and Thorpe’s articulation of the contradictions of colonised labour pertains to the Torres Strait Islander workers in the Islands. However, once the Torres Strait Islanders began migrating to the mainland, this situation becomes more complex as most gained more autonomy over their employment. Queensland’s 1939 Torres Strait Islander Act did not make any provisions for Islanders living on the mainland, and after much confusion the Minister for Health and Home Affairs, HW Noble, declared that they would have the same status as exempt Aborigines. Therefore, technically those on the mainland had freedom of movement, were at liberty to negotiate their own employment and were entitled to equal pay. However, correspondence from the Department of Native Affairs reveals that they were only permitted to leave the Torres Strait and find employment for themselves subject to their conduct and industry continuing to be satisfactory in the eyes of the department. Incidentally, it is evident that ‘satisfactory conduct’ meant abstemious behavior, for in another letter the Director of Native Affairs declared that his office is not prepared to agree that these men should receive liquor.
Torres Strait Islanders on the mainland now outnumber those on the Islands, yet their labour experiences remain largely unwritten. This is primarily because of a lack of sources. Curthoys and Moore remind us that life narratives have been a valuable source for Indigenous Australian labour histories, but there are comparatively few Torres Strait Islander memoirs and none from former railway workers. Consequently, the best sources available are the reminiscences of the former workers themselves.
This also lends quite a deal of urgency to our project. Since we started this last year we have already had, unfortunately and sadly, three people who were wanting to be interviewed by us pass away in the interim.
Part 2: the long journey west
Due to my limited time today I will primarily focus on one of our informants who travelled to Western Australia to work in the railways. John ‘Kuleya’ Kennell Senior was born on Stephen Island in 1935 and helped to organise the track-laying team extolled by Franco to the West Australian that I discussed earlier. Like many others in the islands, he had originally worked on the boats because it was the only job available, especially to those who lived on the outer islands.
He resented that under the act Islanders were not allowed to vote or negotiate their pay. When the price of shell collapsed in 1957 he sought permission to look for another job on the mainland. After stints as a cane-cutter and labourer, he eventually worked in the railways for both the Queensland Railway Department and then for Franco on the Hornibrook Railway Contracting Group’s reconstruction of the Mount Isa railway. [Shows image] Here is a photo of some of the men who worked in western Queensland in the early 1960s.
This large-scale project began in 1961. These are photos from the Courier Mail of that project, the Mount Isa to Townsville line. It attracted hundreds of men to Richmond initially looking for work, which worried the local police since many spent their last two shillings getting to Richmond expecting to walk into a job, so did not have the funds to leave again.
Hornibrook reported to the Sunday Mail newspaper that they had at least 20 men inquiring about jobs each day but were only able to employ 120 in total. The project did not need a large pool of labour because it utilised new industrial methods, and instead they only had to train 60 workers and school 12 to 15 in the use of railway-building machinery. Thus Kennell was one of the lucky few to get a job and was well served by the experience for he worked on a team predominately made up of Torres Strait Islanders. According to the Australasian Post, ‘The Torres Strait Islanders, all exceptionally muscular and possessing happy-go-lucky dispositions, proved to be such tremendous workers - were strong, willing, fast, and efficient - that their fame spread far and wide.’ [Shows image] It is interesting that they have a picture of someone who looks to be drinking beer, given that they weren’t allowed to.
In 1963 Kennell’s contract had ended and he was unemployed, so he went back to the Islands for Christmas. When he returned to Mackay, which had become his new home, Kennell received a telegram from Franco who had wanted to meet him that very night, only in Brisbane. Knowing that it would be about a job, Kennell quickly flew down and then got a room at the Salvation Army before collecting James Sebasio, also known as Uncle Katang, who had also worked for Hornibrook. At the meeting Franco informed them about the standard-gauge project in Western Australia and told them to ‘go and pick up as many boys as you can, and then catch a train to Perth’.
Unfortunately, he did not give Kennell any money to do this. After buying their tickets to Townsville, Kennell only had five shillings left. So he and Uncle Katang had to sleep in a park to ward off their boredom and hunger until their train departed, only nourishing themselves with five shillings’ worth of hot chips, because they knew it was a very cheap source of food. It is very interesting how often food comes up in all of the interviews. It is obviously quite a pressing issue for them with their wages.
During his fortnight in Townsville, Kennell enlisted 150 Torres Strait Islander labourers who had also worked on the Mount Isa line. In contrast to the 40 Thursday Islanders mentioned by the West Australian and the 180 described in correspondence between the Queensland Director of Native Affairs and the Western Australian Commissioner of Native Welfare, Kennell recalls that there were 130 of them who travelled from Townsville to Perth. I’m not quite sure where these different numbers come from. They had a wagon all to themselves in which, he pointedly assured us, they behaved themselves and whiled away their time playing cards.
Due to the changing rail gauges, they had to change train a number of times, so managed to spend a day or an afternoon in Sydney and Melbourne on their way through. Kennell had never left Queensland, so he marvelled at the sights of these big cities. [Shows map] Here I will just give you some indication of where they’re travelling to. They started in Townsville, travelling down through Sydney and Melbourne, and then across to Perth. And then where they start working the standard-gauge project is in Merredin, which is also marked on the map. I also included Newman and Port Hedland, as the Pilbara lines connected the two.
In Melbourne another one of our informants, who made the same journey but who didn’t want to be identified by name, told us that the locals were intrigued by the seemingly exotic Islanders, wondering if they were African-Americans and wanting to feel their hair. Indeed, most of the informants had a similar experience when they met mainland Australians, indicating how uninformed most were regarding the location and history of the Torres Strait Islands. This ignorance is also reflected in the aforementioned article in the West Australian, which portrayed the Islanders as foreign migrants, claiming that they had come to Australia to work as pearl divers.
The fact that the Torres Strait Islanders’ seemingly positive reception was contingent upon them being misrecognised as African-Americans and not Aborigines is suggestive of contemporary race relations, and perhaps reflects the rights movement of that particular moment in time - just before the New South Wales freedom rides. The prominence of the American civil rights movement had seen student demonstrations in Sydney’s US Consulate in May 1964, which were well covered by the local media. So by the time the Islanders arrived in Sydney and Melbourne the plight of African-Americans was well known. Yet the freedom rides, which ostensibly unmasked the racism experienced by Aboriginal people, had yet to disembark, so perhaps sympathy for Aboriginal people at that time still remained largely untapped.
After a week on the train the team finally arrived at Perth station late on a Friday afternoon. This same informant remembers seeing a long line of cars and people waiting to greet them as they arrived, no doubt intrigued by the West Australian’s first article announcing their imminent arrival. He also recalled the reporters and photographers jostling for position in the crowd, but he never saw the story - that, because they were whisked away to the country.
That night some of the boys went to a nightclub, no doubt a novel experience given that those who had worked in Queensland had been based at makeshift camps along the line in the state’s sparsely populated west so had little experience of city nightlife. Unfortunately for us, neither Kennell nor the other informant went to the clubs that night, so we have no idea of their ‘conduct’, using the Queensland Department of Native Affairs terminology, nor of their reception by the Perth locals who would have had little experience socialising with Indigenous people given Western Australia’s own protection acts.
That same weekend the men travelled to the camps at Upper Swan, sleeping in caravans or dongers, and started work early on a Monday morning. Their contract with Franco stipulated that they work ten hours a day during the week and eight hours on Saturday, with Sunday off, and all of their meals were provided. Kennell was lucky enough to work with one of his uncles who had brought his family to Western Australia, so Kennell spent many of his Sundays in Midland visiting them. Without this reminder of family and domestic life, Kennell thinks he would have quit the job and gone home.
Track-laying was gruelling work, physically challenging and mentally taxing. Working in dedicated teams they would first lay out sleepers every three to five metres, and then the steel gang would place five-tonne rails on top with a mobile crane, which were then precisely aligned by hand using picks and tongs. This task demanded concentration, for the rails had to be exactly spaced to allow them room to expand and contract with the fluctuating temperatures in order to prevent the rails buckling or shrinking. The rails were then fastened with fish bolts, and then heavy dog spikes were hammered in. One of the pictures I had before showed these activities.
Finally, the ballast gang lifted, lined and levelled the track, tamping ballast around and under the sleepers. This intensive labour was completed in up to 40-degree heat. Kennell worked on the steel gang and was proud to say that they managed to lay one-and-a-quarter miles of track per day, so that within one week of arriving they had already caught up with the sleeper gang.
Kennell was a team leader and reiterated to us that the Islanders were good workers and well accepted by their non-Indigenous employers and co-workers. Contemporary newspaper reports corroborate this, for a group of white surveyors told the Australasian Post that they had never worked with better mates. Indeed, the Australasian Post showed a photograph of Islander and non-Indigenous workers working together.
They also said that the Islanders were ‘the best bunch of jokers’ they had ever worked with. Further the ‘Islanders themselves say they have found no evidence of a colour bar, reporting that there is one queue at the mess, and many are invited into whites’ homes’. Wilfred Bowie told the Australasian Post, ‘We are accepted openly, and people are very friendly towards us.’ That these amicable relations were stressed by the workers and the media reflects the fact that tacit, if not official, racial segregation was still practised in the community.
Once the first stage of the project was completed, Kennell returned to north Queensland. This was not uncommon. According to James Sebasio, many of the Islanders left the south-west in the winter due to cold weather and homesickness, pointing out that some were married and decided that they’d had enough money to go home. However, others continued on to stage two of the standard-gauge project, and many went north to work on the construction of the railway lines to services the new iron ore mines in the Pilbara. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to discuss that history here but will say that the Torres Strait Islanders’ reputation as excellent railway workers was now cemented and that construction contractors such as MKMO specifically targeted Islanders in their recruitment drive, travelling to the islands and to north Queensland. [Shows image] Here you have an ad that MKMO posted in the Cairns Post. You can see that they are specifically wanting Thursday Islander labour.
Part 3: the Islanders’ incorporation into Western society
The almost unremarked history of Torres Strait Islander labour in the railways has resulted in this paper being quite descriptive, so I will conclude with a few observations and speculations on how the workers’ journey into the West also reflected their admission into Western society and the newly-found autonomy that this ensured.
Firstly, their working conditions changed dramatically. On the Islands, the Torres Strait Islander Act enabled the protector to control their labour and set their wages, especially in the marine industries, which in the mid-twentieth century were kept afloat by the cheap Indigenous labour. For instance, we have found many letters by different marine industry operators and ship-owners petitioning the Department of Native Affairs that they should be allowed cheap Indigenous labour, and appealling against any charges that the department made against them for not treating their workers appropriately, withholding the kind of minimal wages that they were paid. Some of these letters are quite angry. It is really interesting that they have this sort of absolute right that they should be able to exploit this Indigenous labour.
Further, the act committed the Department of Native Affairs to impose levies on wages to support the Islands’ reserves. The discrepancy in wages between Indigenous and white workers was widely recognised, especially on Thursday Island, the administrative hub of the islands, and increasingly fostered Islanders’ resentment.
In their move west to work in the railways, the Torres Strait Islanders were able to sign on to normal contracts and receive equal wages. This was because, according to the Department of Native Affairs correspondence, railway workers had to be members of the Australian Workers Union [AWU], so were subject to that award rather than the conditions stipulated by the Protection Board.
However, the Torres Strait Islander workers’ access to Western autonomy was always conditional. Many knew that their access to ‘proper wages’, as they termed it, was contingent upon them staying on the mainland.
One of our informants, Alfred James, who was recruited from the Islands to work in the Pilbara in 1966, absconded shortly before his contract ended as he knew he would be sent straight back to the Islands as soon as the job was completed. Once back on the Islands he would have been forced back into poorly paid labour or subsistence, as Torres Strait Islanders residing in the Islands were not entitled to unemployment benefits, an inequity vociferously condemned by the Island councillors in 1965.
These are the minutes [shows documents]. Every four years the different Island councils would have a conference in which they would come together and talk about their islands’ concerns, and also they would have a meeting with the Director of Native Affairs, who would then be the go between between their interests and the government. Just in this section of the minutes, it says:
This conference of councillors of the Torres Strait views with alarm that, in spite of statements to the contrary, the Commonwealth government still persists in treating Torres Strait Islanders as second-class citizens, whilst the Islanders continue to retain their right as Australian citizens to occupy their homelands, by refusing to recognise their claim to unemployment benefits during the period when it is not possible to obtain employment. This benefit is extended to all other Australians who retain their right of selection of place of residence, to recognise the Islanders as fellow Australians in this instance.
I think that this kind of demand about their right to choose where they should reside and still have other public benefits available to them resonates with recent interventions going on now.
However, the nature of the employment might have also contributed to the workers’ adopting a modern and nationalist outlook. Lisa Lindsay argues that this was the case for young Indigenous Yoruba men, in her study of the expansion of the Nigerian railways in the 1940s to 1960s. She argues that those who left their homes to work in the railways were different to other Indigenous Nigerian workers, as the nature of the work offered them new opportunities not available within traditional occupations: they gained a familiarity with industrial technology, travelled to and through new places, and engaged with a multi-ethnic workforce.
The Yoruba men’s experiences parallel those of the Torres Strait Islanders in Western Australia. The standard-gauge project used advanced technology, as we have seen from the newspaper reports, required the men to travel all along the east and southern seaboard observing life in new cities, and it employed over 1,500 workers from all over the world.
Our informants have discussed their experience working with Anglo-Australian, Portuguese, Yugoslavian and Aboriginal workers, just to name a few, and even others from different parts of the Torres Strait, which would have been a novelty given that the Protection Board required permits to travel between the Islands.
I don’t have space to talk about it in this paper, but there are a lot of tensions between the Islanders from the east and west islands, because they hadn’t had much intercourse since the annexation of the Islands. Their rivalries had been fostered by the missionaries who liked to have labour for the marine industry gangs to compete in gathering shell.
Perhaps this modern outlook, inaugurated by the workers’ move west, also affected their domestic arrangements. Away from the protectors they were free to marry how they chose. Another informant, Miliana Davey, was engaged to a man from Daru, an island within the Papua New Guinean borders, and remembers being harassed weekly by an Anglo-Australian administrator who tried to dissuade her from marrying him, although this happened just before Papua New Guinea’s independence. He warned that if Papua New Guinea wasn’t granted independence, she would not be able to return to her island.
On the mainland, the Islanders escaped governmental interventions in their relationships. By migrating, the men also ameliorated the strictures of the Torres Strait Islanders’ domestic culture. Beckett reports that Islander men were required to pay a bride price to the bride’s family before they could marry. In the late 1950s, this price was about $200 to $300, the equivalent of two to three years’ income on the Islands. The bride’s parents additionally benefitted from this high price because it enabled them to enjoy their daughter’s labour for a few extra years as the men saved up the money. However, migration to the mainland also changed this as men earned higher wages so could afford the bride price much earlier.
I am intrigued by what effect this might have had on the railway workers’ masculine identity. Lindsay’s study offers some interesting possible parallels. Lindsey found that their employment transformed the nature of Yoruba masculinity, as marriage marked a young man’s transition to adulthood for it was when he was able, which was marked by his ability to set up his own household.
Like the Torres Strait Islanders, Yoruba had to pay an exorbitant bride price, which was what catalysed the men into working in the first place. We have found that the majority of our informants began work as single men and then married shortly after. But we have not questioned them directly as to the relationship between their employment, marriage and masculine identity.
Finally, I would like to return to Indigenous labour history, and Curthoys and Moore’s argument that most studies have considered the history of Indigenous workers in the context of race relations rather than labour history. Our project makes a genuine intervention into this historiography.
While the Torres Strait Islander railway workers were evidently perceived in racial terms - for example, their mis-recognition as African-Americans and race-based claims about their particular ability to tolerate extreme heat - their most significant experience seems to be that they largely escaped colonial constructions of indigeneity, especially in the context of the protection policy still in effect in the Islands at the time.
However, this difference was even more striking in Western Australia. Within the same period, in which the West Australian was excitedly reporting on the Islander track workers, they were also worrying about the ostensible economic burden of Aboriginal welfare in the north [shows image].
A study found that the Pilbara’s iron ore boom should coerce local Aborigines into the labour force but that there was a wrangling over who should bear the costs of the assumed inefficiency of these workers, whether it be the employers or the state. This is in stark contrast to the track layers who, upon leaving the islands and travelling west, seemed to be no longer considered exclusively as Indigenous and subject to special interventions.
Perhaps studies on Indigenous labour and even protection policies need also to consider spatial and geographic constructions of indigeneity, and not just racial constructions. This is in terms of colonisers’ definitions of indigeneity, I should say. Thus, a more nuanced reading of these Indigenous histories as labour history rather than race relations history is able to tease out these complexities.
Just to conclude, the journey west for Torres Strait Islanders who found employment in the railway industry was a transformative experience. Through the redemptive power of labour, a theme which has a powerful resonance in many Australian history narratives, these men were able to remake themselves as autonomous individuals, mostly free from governmental intervention and racial prejudice. Unfortunately, this independence came at a price. They had to leave their islands and seas and were exiled on the mainland. However, it was this migration that established the Torres Strait Islander communities which now flourish in northern Queensland and Western Australia today. Thank you.
QUESTION: Shino, thank you very much. Why weren’t white workers laying the tracks?
Dr SHINO KONISHI: Well, they were. In the standard-gauge project they employed about 1,500 workers, and there were probably about 200 Torres Strait Islander workers.
QUESTION: For the same wages?
Dr SHINO KONISHI: Yes. It was really difficult work. They were saying at the time the temperatures were getting up to often over 40 degrees. Up in the Pilbara the temperatures were reaching 50 degrees, so I guess the white workers didn’t want it. But when construction was starting on the Mount Isa to Townsville line, they did report that there were hundreds of men flooding into Richmond, and I think that included white workers as well.
QUESTION: I just suppose I’m exploring that notion of is this a labour market issue or is it a race issue? I suppose the question then is: are these workers filling gaps that white workers will not fill, or are these workers being attributed specific skills that white workers don’t have? Or at the basic level of giving them a job, is there no difference recorded, and it is just newspapers like the Australasian Post, which has its own very interesting take on racial issues through the 1960s as it says, ‘Here’s a story, let’s beef it up.’
Dr SHINO KONISHI: Yes, that’s true. I think that there was in some instances quite a heavy demand for labour in some of these places. I think it is through some Torres Strait Islanders kind of getting a foothold. A couple of people we have heard about eventually became gangers, so they were responsible, not for recruiting themselves, but at least had the ear of the foreman who would be recruiting. So they started bringing in their family and friends and getting jobs. I think the reputation of those initial few gave them that sort of influence over the foremen to employ other Torres Strait Islanders, and then eventually the contractors started thinking that they were good workers as well.
One of the difficulties that we have had with this project is that, having it be based on oral history interviews, the former workers themselves have their own kind of narrative and do sort of stress that they were good workers and normal workers. They are very reluctant to talk about things in racial terms or talk about any kind of prejudice or discrimination they found in the railway sites. We can only speculate if the employers had any full-on racist and racial ideas and that is why they sought the labour, or if they were just proving to be good workers.
QUESTION: This partly follows on that point. There is the thesis that it is a trick of colonialism to never employ native labour in the place where the labour is to be used. So you don’t employ Fijians to work on Fijian sugar plantations, you bring in Indians, because if you employ Fijians they won’t stay, they’ll go back to the villages and go back to their lives.
To what extent is this a part of the attraction of Torres Strait Islanders as opposed to the kinds of issues that are coming out in that last article you have up on the screen – that you employ Torres Strait Islanders because they don’t raise the kinds of questions that employing local Indigenous workers would. But to add another spin to that, when the Torres Strait Islanders are saying, ‘We’re good labourers’, it’s not a racial question and I wonder if even underneath that there is kind of a relational thing, ‘We’re good workers, we don’t want to be tarred with the same brush that might be applied to local Indigenous workers.’ Who are they contrasting themselves to?
Dr SHINO KONISHI: That’s a good point. When we started the project, we were thinking that the Torres Strait Islanders did kind of fit that model of indentured labour and that they are a controllable labour pool because they are essentially alien to that area that they are working in. They don’t have social networks to escape, or that kind of thing, that local Indigenous labour might have. That is something that I guess is still in our minds, but again we’re not really wanting to impose that view on the informants themselves. This is something we’re going to have to keep grappling with when we come to writing it.
In terms of Islanders’ attitudes about Aboriginal labour, I have been told by some Islanders that within the Islands there was a culture that they were converted to Christianity, they were hard workers, and there was some sense that they were kind of better than mainland Aboriginal workers and people.
Part of that comes out of the fact that the Torres Strait is a very multi-cultural kind of society. You have got all kinds of racial hierarchies with the whites at the top, but then you also have a range of Asians - Malay, Japanese and Filipino workers - and then Pacific Islanders, and then Torres Strait Islanders at the bottom. So they kind of come from a stratified society. I think that they were quite happy to sit Aboriginal people below them on that kind of scale. So there is that thinking. But then at the same time a lot of the informants that we have talked to married Aboriginal women, although those women tend to follow the Islander cultural practices rather than the Aboriginal. Again, I’m still not sure, we have got different messages being voiced. On the one hand, they feel superior because of their better ability to assimilate, but at the same time they are integrating with Aboriginal communities as well. I don’t know.
QUESTION: Thanks, Shino. That was a really stimulating paper. It must have been stimulating because I’ve been drawn to think about colonial labour theory, and I never have before. I’m frankly confused about whether these workers fit into that colonial labour situation that you discussed early on, because on the one hand they are almost bonded in the sense that they have been recruited as a group, they have been employed as a group, and there are conditions on them. On the other hand, some of them abscond -- although even the word ‘abscond’ suggests that there is kind of a bond, doesn’t it? As you say, on the mainland these people are able to make their own lives much more freely than they could if they were on the Islands, or indeed if they were Aborigines on the mainland. So it seems to be quite an ambiguous situation.
You talked about the contradictions of colonial labour - desired and derided, employed but also unemployed, paid and also unpaid. Where do these people fit into that series of contradictions there? Can you come to some sort of resolution about whether they are securely within this colonial labour paradigm or whether they have actually broken out of it because of the particular circumstances they come from?
Dr SHINO KONISHI: I think that the labour on the Islands definitely fits in with that model. But on the mainland it is more complex. The fact that they were then covered by AWU awards kind of pulls them out of the colonised labour because they then have equal conditions and pay.
One thing I didn’t include in my paper, just to make the paper run a bit smoother and not complicate my argument too much, is that there is correspondence from the Department of Native Affairs saying that 100 Islanders who had gone home after the standard-gauge project in which they had worked for Utah Construction did complain that they weren’t actually paid. Whereas the people we have talked to haven’t actually ever mentioned that there were any problems with their pay. They attribute all that to back on the Islands and say, ‘Well, when we were here, it was all good.’ I’m not really sure about what the correspondence suggests about whether Utah did think they could continue to exploit the workers, whether it was just specifically and only with Torres Strait Islander workers they didn’t pay all of the conditions that they stipulated in the contract or if that was a wider practice.
I’m still not really sure how the workers on the mainland fit into that model. I think superficially they are not really fitting in that colonised labour model any more. It’s hard to measure the ongoing racial attitudes and how that fits in.
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Date published: 13 October 2008