Jane Smith lives in Bundaberg, Queensland. Her grandparents were brought to Australia from Vanuatu in the late 19th century to work in the sugar cane plantations along with 60 000 South Sea Islanders. Today Australia is the third largest sugar provider in the world. Many of the islanders were kidnapped, others were tricked and some came on their own will. Without laws or labor contracts, they were effectively treated as slaves.
Jane and her husband Geoff, have a variety shop in Bundaberg called Moke Scrub Shack that sells Vanuatu products including Tanna Coffee and Bella Coconut virgin oil. In this week’s Sista i Shine, Jane talks about her Ni-Vanuatu identity and her beloved mother, Hope Nagas Eggmolesse. Next week Jane and Geoff talk about the exploitation of Ni-Vanuatu seasonal workers in Queensland and how they were treated like modern day slaves.
My mum’s parents come from Tanna and were brought to Bundaberg during the black birding era. My grandmother died at a very young age from cervical cancer. All her kids were born in Australia and after her death, my mum ended up raising her siblings.
My mum was married twice. Her first husband was from Epi and she had five boys with him. It was an arranged marriage and he was a lot older than her. Then she remarried my father, who is an Aboriginal, and had three more children with him, so I’m a bit of a salad bowl.
I grew up feeling indigenous and I’ve always accepted and respected both my cultures of being a South Sea Islander and Aboriginal. I’m an elder and traditional owner of the Gooreng Gooreng tribe and even when I go to Vanuatu, I say I’m indigenous. I am proud of both my countries.
I feel like Vanuatu is home even though I wasn’t born there
I have a big passion for my home in Vanuatu. I can see the people’s struggles but they are still just so happy and lovely. It’s so different from Australia. We are so materialistic here. The first time I came to Vanuatu was in 2007 and I haven’t stopped coming back since. When I went to Tanna, it was very emotional for me. The Tannese people were very surprised by how many families that are in Australia who are from Tanna. It’s the same in Australia – there’s so many South Sea Islanders who don’t think they have family in Vanuatu but they do.
When we were in Tanna, my husband saw a fella sitting over in the grass. He took one look at him and knew exactly who his family was in Australia. They are actually very wealthy and well educated and one of them is even a professional football player! My husband shook his hand and said ‘I bet I could tell you who you’re related to’. It was the first time this fella had ever spoken to a white man. He was shocked because my husband knew his last name! This fella has family all over the north of Queensland and thought they had all died.
Geoff is my second husband. My first husband and I were married for 25 years. We had two kids but he died at a very young age. Then I met Geoff. He’s got white skin but a black heart. When we go to Vanuatu, he fits right in. He’ll go off and have kava and all the mamas are telling me to look out for him but I know he’s all right.
I’ve been back to Vanuatu at least nine times. Every time I go home, the hospitality is amazing – they cook for me, clean for me and I feel like everyone is my family, even if they aren’t my blood. Everyone is so welcoming and caring. If you only knew the amount of times that people have come into my shop in Bundaberg and seen the Vanuatu flag and told me how much they love the people.
I want to get my Ni-Vanuatu passport
My heart is in Vanuatu, even though I live in Australia. Even if I wasn’t born there, it’s a part of my mum. That’s how strongly I feel – it is home for me. I get so excited when I know I’m coming home. It’s not about the holiday – it’s about the people. I’m trying to get my passport but it’s been hard because immigration said I didn’t have enough paperwork. I’ve got my mother’s birth certificate now and hopefully I’ll get it when I come back in July.
My mum’s name is Hope Nagas Eggmolesse. She never spoke about going home. She just focused on her kids and her siblings because she was responsible for them at young age. I always promised her that I would go back to Tanna for her. She lived until she was 92 and I took one of her dresses and burnt it, then buried it and marked a grave for her in Tanna. That was very emotional for me to see where she had come from.
We faced racism growing up in Australia
There was a lot of discrimination in Australia. My mum couldn’t get a house. There used to be people who lived in tin huts like they do in Vanuatu. People think I’m kidding. Luckily my mum had a dear white friend who was a businessman. He wrote a letter to the Housing Commission and said she’s a good woman and good worker so they gave her a house. We had some really hard times here and if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have got a house. That’s why I love Vanuatu. No one’s better than the other and they all look out for each other. We are all one even though we all come from different walks from life.
We lived out in the bush and we were happy, even if the other kids at school called us ‘kanaka’ and ‘black nigger’. There was a girl who would call me names and I would say, ‘What did you say?’ then I’d pull her hair. She’d cry to her mum that an Indigenous girl was hurting her. Her mum came over to talk to my mum who just said, ‘Tell her to stop calling my kids a black nigger and kanaka then she’ll stop.’
Even today this prejudice is still there. But back then the Australians really hated the South Sea Islanders and Aboriginals. Not only that but they hated each other too! There was a lot of bickering between the South Sea Islanders and Indigenous Australians due to jealousy. My eldest brother was murdered in a fight between Aboriginals and South Sea Islanders. It was a drunken brawl and he was stabbed. I was about 14 when he died. The doctors told us he would have survived coz he was so athletic, but the bloke who stabbed him kept turning the knife. All six of my brothers are dead and my mum managed to outlive them all.
My family has diseases that my grandparents caught when they were black birded to Bundaberg
One of my brothers died from an enlarged heart and three of them died from kidney failure. In fact, a lot of South Sea Islanders have kidney problems. All of us kids had Hepatitis B and although mine is not contagious, I still have to check up on it every year. My sister is no longer a carrier. Some people don’t know if they have it and others don’t even want to know. When I went to the doctor, I said ‘How could I have it? How could three generations have it?’ It was passed through breast-feeding. When my grandma came over on the ship, they were put in the bottom of the ship. The hygiene was so bad that they picked up all these diseases.
Even though my family didn’t live in Vanuatu, Vanuatu lived in us
My mum used to call herself the black currant in the cake. She had that nature where she’d have only 200g of mince and was able to feed 20 people. Even though she wasn’t brought up in Vanuatu, it was built in her to share with no worries at all. She was a tough woman. She wouldn’t stop working. She had one job after the other. She used to stand up all day grading tobacco and then she’d go clean the schools as a janitor. When everyone went home, we would stay behind to help her. It was okay for us, we understood it was to better our lives so that we were dressed and fed well. We even had a couple of cars.
My mum didn’t just raise her own 8 children. She raised others too, at least another 15 kids, and she raised her siblings up as well. I’m in my early 60s and when I finish work, I come home and crash. My mum would finish work and be cleaning the house until midnight! She would put the copper on, boil the clothes, use the outrigger washing, scrub the floors and make lunches on the wooden stove. She never stopped!
I worked at IGA supermarket for over 16 years. We had a rule that we weren’t allowed to serve family but everyone would call me Aunty Jane. Management would tell me said I’m not allowed to serve this person or that person because they referred to me as Aunty Jane. I had to tell them that they are calling me Aunty because they respect me.
Then when I was working as security for Big W for 10 years, people would come in and hug me and say ‘Hi Aunty.’ Once I was told I had to stop it. I told them I’d rather hand in my resignation. It’s the Ni-Vanuatu in me to say hello and be friendly and there is no way that they are taking my culture away from me.