Pacific region a victim of Australian colonial interests

Sunday, February 23, 2014
South Sea islanders cut sugar cane in Queensland c1890.

Many see Australia as a small power dependent on British and then US power for protection, but it is important to note that Australia has its own imperialist agenda it pushes the Pacific region.

From the late 19th century to today, Australia's ruling class has been finding ways of extending its influence on nearby countries. It has even succeeded, if only temporarily, in gaining colonial possessions.

This began even before federation in 1901, as the new capitalist class, having accumulated capital from the gold rushes in the mid-19th century, was looking for outlets for investment.

From the 1860s until its abolition in 1903, about 60,000 indentured labourers were recruited from nearby Melanesian islands. They came mainly from New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Solomon Islands and Papua new Guinea and were sent to work on farms, especially in Queensland's sugar industry.

The practice of coercing or kidnapping people to work as labourers was called “blackbirding”. There are no records of how many of the indentured labourers were blackbirded.

However, even life as a legally obtained indentured labourer was virtual slavery. Workers were bound to work for their employer for a specified number of years and were often not paid and badly treated.

The importat of such labour was finally banned ― not on moral grounds, but because the White Australia Policy barred entry to Australia to most non-whites.

Most of the labourers were deported, but some were allowed to stay for various reasons, such as having married whites. Their descendants, known as Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI), faced the same discrimination as Aboriginal people.

When Aboriginal people finally began to win some rights in the 1960s, ASSIs were left behind. They were finally recognised in 1994 ― though Queensland, where most ASSI people live, delayed formally recognising them until 2000.

Some labourers were sent to Fiji. The Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) company, founded in Sydney, dominated the sugar industry in Fiji. By 1900, CSR had invested more than 2 million pounds in the industry. It was exporting 88% of Fiji's sugar products ― 65% of its total exports.

CSR was a big motivator for bringing Indian indentured labourers to the country, which would have dire effects on Fiji's future. By the mid-20th century, half of Fiji's population was Indian and the racial tensions have contributed to the coups that have plagued the country since.

In 1883, then-Queensland premier Thomas McIlraith sent a party to Port Moresby, hoping Britain would annex New Guinea. It did not work. This was followed by a movement to annex New Hebrides, involving at least 50 public meetings in Victoria alone.

During World War I, Australia sought to gain influence in the Pacific at the expense of competing colonial powers. At the time, The Age wrote: “We have long realised that we have a Pacific Ocean destiny ...

“By virtue of the European war an unexpected path has been opened to the furtherance of our ambition [to lay down] the foundations of a solid Australian sub-empire in the Pacific Ocean.”

Another chance to gain the New Hebrides came with plans of joint administration by Australia and France. Australia postponed the talks, hoping the French could be pushed out by the end of the war.

At the Paris peace conference after WWI, Australian prime minister Billy Hughes fought for a special C-class League of Nations mandate that would cover Namibia and some south Pacific Islands. Under such a mandate, the occupying power could apply its own laws ― such as the White Australia Policy.

Australia's defence of such racist policies was so belligerent its arguments with Japan ― which opposed such policies ― threatened to undermine the formation of the League of Nations. It contributed to the tension between the growing Japanese empire and Western interests in the Pacific.

Australia's role in World War II is bathed in the myth of Western allies liberating Japanese-occupied people. But as Tom O'Lincoln describes in 2011's Australia's Pacific War: Challenging a National Myth, the liberators were often brutal and they sought to reinstall the old, white oppressors.

A WWII veteran told how Australian soldiers were ordered to massacre entire villages for collaborating with Japanese.

“Fuzzy wuzzy angels”, the indigenous Papuans who helped Australian troop on the Kokoda Track, were often forced to work, many paid nothing, and did not know what the war was about. In some villages, all fit adult males were conscripted.

Former “angels” told how two-thirds of them tried to escape. The sons of escapees were conscripted so their fathers were forced to return and face punishment. One of the most feared punishments was drum beatings. A fire was lit in a large drum, the offender placed across it and beaten.

East Timor could have avoided the entire war if the Allies, including Australia, had not invaded it to pre-empt a Japanese invasion, which was never actually planned.

Timorese who sided with the Japanese were murdered by Australian troops. Those who helped Australians were left behind to face Japanese reprisals when the Allies retreated. About 50,000 Timorese died in the war, one-tenth of the population.

Australia's offensives later in the war have been criticised as unnecessary. Australian commander in chief Thomas Blamey justified them by saying: “Were we to wait until Japan was finally crushed, it would be said that the Americans ... were responsible for the final liberation of the natives in Australian territories, with the inevitable result that our prestige both abroad and in the eyes of the natives would suffer much harm.”

Therefore, more young men died to bolster Australia's international power and secure a fledgling empire.

After the war, many thought Europeans would be grateful for help they received to defeat the Japanese. Instead whites confiscated gifts from soldiers, or money from selling carvings, claiming them stolen.

Australian major-general Basil Morris said the “native mind” responded best to visible marks of distinction, claiming they held more value in a medal than money or goods.

The Allies even used Japanese soldiers to help them put down independence movements and restore former colonial authority. Australian soldiers were used to help the Dutch fight independence fighters in Indonesia.

George Bliss of Australia's Seventh Division wrote: “On arrival we were lined up on the wharf, fully equipped in battle order, and marched though the town out to the Dutch barracks about three miles out. That was the first act of intimidation.”

Most soldiers were sympathetic to the independence fighters, often found fraternising or even agitating among Indonesians. This was largely due to the role of the Communist Party of Australia in organising support in the army for an Indonesian republic, as well as trade union solidarity with Indonesians.

Australia's relationship with Indonesia is marked by a need to maintain trade relations and protect Australian investments in the country. This priority overrides concerns for Indonesia's abuses, such as in East Timor and West Papua.

In both those countries, independence movements were suppressed for decades. East Timor won formal independence, but immediately found itself in an ongoing fight with Australia over its oil and gas resources, which is its greatest hope for raising the nation out of poverty.

Australia continues to support Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, where Indonesia regularly kills independence activists. There is huge mineral wealth in West Papua.. Big Australian mining firms, such as Rio Tinto, have major holdings there and in neighbouring PNG.

PNG was placed under Australian administration in 1914. Under native regulation laws, Papuans could not drink alcohol or see a movie alongside Europeans. They had to move aside for Europeans when walking along a footpath. Australian rule remained dictatorial and cruel until its independence in 1975.

As Antony Loewenstein explains in last year's Profits of Doom, PNG has been made dependent on Australian aid, about $500 million a year. About 60% of this is estimated to end up with Australian corporations.

The development of the resource centre has specifically benifitted Australian corporations, while locals suffer the social and ecological damage caused by their activities.

Australia's colonial and neo-colonial activities continue to wreck havoc in our immediate region.

From GLW issue 998