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'Blackbirding' history to become part of Vanuatu's school curriculum
The trade of Pacific Islanders forcibly shipped to Northern Australia to work on sugar and cotton plantations was known as 'blackbirding'. The majority were taken from Vanuatu, where the Government is now putting the dark chapter of the country's history back on the education agenda.

Catherine Graue reports.
JIM MIDDLETON, PRESENTER: Blackbirding may be a simple word, but it's the name given to a terrible stain on Australian history - the forced shipment of Pacific Islanders to work on Australian plantations.

In Vanuatu, from which most of them came, the 150th anniversary of the trade has sparked interest in the episode, especially among young people, many of whom are only now discovering what their forbears endured.

Catherine Graue reports.

(Footage of Marcel Meltherong playing reed pipe plays)

CATHERINE GRAUE, REPORTER: Marcel Meltherong is a filmmaker and musician living in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila.

ROBERT MANN, AUSTRALIAN SOUTH SEA ISLANDERS (Singing): From the mountain's to the sea, he reigns over her …

CATHERINE GRAUE: Robert Mann lives some 2,000 kilometres away in Australia. While both Marcel and Robert have music in their blood, the two 30-somethings also have something else in common.

ROBERT MANN: My great great grandfather was from West Ambrym, from Wacon village in Vanuatu. The boat came to shore, and basically back then the village was very close to the beach and so that was like very accessible for the blackbirders to come through and just collect the islanders, and, yeah, he happened to be one of them.

MARCEL MELTHERONG, VANUATU FILMMAKER (translation): There may have been members of my family taken. There are stories people went down to the beach or on their canoes and never came back. We don't know.

(Photographs of blackbirder boats and blackbirded Pacific Islander are shown)

CATHERINE GRAUE: The destinies of these two young men were decided by who was taken and who was left behind when, in the late 19th century, recruiters descended on a land across the Pacific on the hunt for cheap labour to work in Australia's burgeoning sugar and cotton industries.

As many as 62,000 people, mostly young men, were taken, often forced or tricked on to ships. And the majority came from Vanuatu, known then as New Hebrides.

(Footage of remembrance ceremony in July 2013 is shown)

Hundreds turned out as the island nation paused to remember the first ship's departure in 1863.

MARCEL MELTHERONG (translation): It's like an uncut wound 150 years later but it hasn't healed by time. The pain from it is still raw.

CATHERINE GRAUE: Although storytelling is a popular past time in Vanuatu, the stories of those who were blackbirded have been surprisingly neglected.

CHIEF DAVID FADANUMATA, VANUATU INDIGENOUS DESCENDENTS ASSOCIATION (translation): It is a dark chapter of Vanuatu's history but it's been lost. It's been hidden since independence. I don't know why our leaders have done that. It should be in the school curriculum because children today know nothing about blackbirding.

(Footage of remembrance ceremony plays)

CATHERINE GRAUE: But Vanuatu's government is now undertaking a massive overall of the national school curriculum, which more than 30 years after Vanuatu gained independence, is still heavily influenced by its former colonial Masters England and France.

CHARLEY ROBERT, PRINCIPAL EDUCATION OFFICER (translation): The curriculum reform is now entirely homegrown. All of the concepts and all of the philosophies for any of the subjects must originate from our country.

CATHERINE GRAUE: The new syllabus is still in its draft stage but there are high hopes it can start being rolled out in 2015.

Although the legacy of blackbirding has been recognised and commemorated, the government in Vanuatu, already a large recipient of Australian aid money, is adamant it doesn't simply want compensation for those who were taken.

But it does want the Australian Government to make it easier for its citizens to once again work here under the Pacific Workers' Scheme.

RALPH REGENVANU, VANUATU LANDS MINISTER (translation): It would be a way to reconnect families that have been broken. It would facilitate a cultural exchange, and at the same time it would help bridge a gap of disadvantage in terms of Vanuatu's development.

CATHERINE GRAUE: The new government of prime minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil also has its sights set on amending the constitution to allow dual citizenship for South Sea Islander descendants in Australia like Robert Mann, who visited his home island and met distant relatives for the first time this year.

ROBERT MANN: As soon as I stood on the beach, I just really felt like I was home. I dug my feet into the sand, I rubbed my hands in the sand, and I in my heart I said, "Well, I'm back home."
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