Weet-Bix and pastries with Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson founding board member Aunty Shireen Malamoo. By Alex McKinnon.

Aunty Shireen Malamoo

“I’m glad I’m black.”

At the Pyrmont headquarters of Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson, Aunty Shireen Malamoo is holding court. More accurately, Malamoo and chairwoman Emelda Davis are conferring in the living room of Davis’s home. Headquarters is the front room down the hall. Over pastries and Weet-Bix, Malamoo, a founding member of the ASSI-PJ board, reflects on the work done by the organisation Davis co-founded in 2009. On the coffee table sits a laminated photo of Malamoo as a young woman with Davis, a little girl, at her feet.

ASSI-PJ is the latest, and arguably most successful, incarnation of the push for official recognition of the “blackbirding” trade, Australia’s largely ignored history of transporting Pacific Islanders to work as indentured labour in the sugar cane plantations of Queensland and northern New South Wales in the 1800s. Australian South Sea Islanders – the descendants of the 62,500 Islanders transported to work the cane fields, many of whom either died or were sent back when the White Australia Policy came into effect – have long struggled to have their existence and legacy validated.

“It’s not talked about, but we took slavery from the United States. Slavery finished in America and the same year it started here. The thinking was, ‘Just bring some blackfellas in, they can do it,’ ” Malamoo says. “The attitude that black people are lazy… Well, who did the work? Look at the economic base black people brought to Australia and America.”

Malamoo’s grandfather was kidnapped from the island of Tongoa in Vanuatu some time in the 19th century and brought to Queensland.

“My mother was related to the high chief on Tongoa … She used to say, ‘We come from chiefs.’ ”

She grew up at Plantation Creek in Ayr, an hour’s drive east of Townsville, where those Australian South Sea Islanders who successfully resisted deportation established a large community on the lands of the Birri Gubba people, whom they lived alongside.

“We stripped cane, chipped cane. Cleaned people’s houses, cleaned the police station, the courthouse. We were brought up under the Pentecostal regime. They were big on that: ‘Get to work, get to church,’ ” says Malamoo. “Even though they talked about flying to heaven with Jesus, we weren’t allowed in the picture theatre or the swimming pool.”

As a child, Malamoo was fascinated watching white women during Pentecostal church services. As she sat at the back of the church, in the pews reserved for non-whites, she would watch the women begin to speak in tongues and erupt, spontaneously, into song and dance and wonder: What did they tap to bring that out?

In the ’70s, Malamoo began working for the Department of Social Security in Townsville. Now nearing 83 years old, she has decades of advocacy and advisory work across the health, government, education, community, Indigenous and Australian South Sea Islander spaces behind her. She served as a commissioner with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in the early 1990s and sat on the NSW Parole Board. In 2011, she and other members of the City of Sydney’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advisory panel successfully pressured Lord Mayor Clover Moore and other councillors to describe Australian settlement as an “invasion” in the preamble of the city’s plan for 2030.

But as she has begun to pull back from a relentless schedule, recognition has started to come from some unlikely places. Earlier this month, she received the Mercie Whellan Women+Wellbeing Award, which is sponsored by the supplements giant Blackmores and the non-profit Community Care + Wellbeing. Malamoo still seems faintly disbelieving that she is receiving accolades for her work.

“For me to get this award, it’s just beyond my comprehension,” she laughs. “You just do what you have to do, you know? In the medical service or legal service or wherever, to improve the lives of others. You do it. To get an award for that, it just blows me out.”

Malamoo’s idea of stepping back still sees her setting a dizzying pace. On Sunday, she will be celebrating her 83rd birthday with a jazz cruise in Sydney Harbour. She’s not only attending but also performing – along with singer, Birri Gubba man and fellow Ayr local Johnny Nicol.

She is both a prolific producer of art and subject – having sat for the Archibald Prize three times. Two of her artworks, saved from various exhibitions, hang on the walls of ASSI-PJ’s domestic headquarters. During the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival in 2015, she performed an impromptu rendition of George Gershwin’s jazz classic “Summertime” with New York’s Mimi Jones–Camille Thurman Quartet.

When the party is over though, Malamoo will be back at work, pushing governments to recognise the history of Australia’s domestic slave trade. “We should be teaching that history in the schools. Tell the story of the slave trade,” she says.

“If this country comes to term with its past, with Aboriginal sovereignty, then we can all grow up.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 23, 2019 as "Making the past present".

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Alex McKinnon is Schwartz Media's morning editor.

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