Australian Biography

Faith Bandler - full interview transcript

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Tell me about your mother.

My mother was beautiful, she had beautiful, long black hair, very long. She almost sat on her hair. It was blue-black and she was an exceptionally kind and generous person, very fastidious; she drove us mad in the house, particularly with the laundry. She had a thing about laundry. Like all the beds were covered with white marcella quilts and every Monday those quilts were ripped off and put into the big copper, which had a fire underneath it, copper and stick, but she always insisted that this be done and the sheets had to be blue-white, not just white. She wasn't much of a cook but she insisted that there should always be a lot of food however simple it might be. She sewed our clothes, she made our dresses until we were old enough to make our own. Well, I can say this, she had a tremendous influence on me, but it is only in the more recent years that I have seen this. You know, when I go around this house and I'm picking up things and I'm saying to Hans, 'Have you emptied the rubbish yet?' or have you done this or have you done that, and then I stop and I think, my God, this is what my mother did to me. Laugh ... yes, she had quite an influence on me.

What was her own racial background?

Well, you know, the truth is I'm only just beginning to work it out, now, that my mother was part Scottish, part Indian and of course very much Australian. I think that mixture contributed very much to her beauty. She had this deep olive skin against this jet-black hair. She had a hard background, it wasn't easy. My grandmother, her mother, was poor, but poor but pleasant, good to be with. There's a lot of Scottish habits, my mother had a lot. You know, nothing should be thrown away, and we had to bank, we didn't have to, but she reminded us that it would be good to bank our pocket money; had to take care of food, food was important. And clothes, you know, she'd have no problem at all cutting up old sheets to make table napkins or old towels. She'd rip them up so that the boys would have a towel outside hanging on the mango tree, regularly, a clean towel to wipe their hands on, this kind of thing, you know. I even do this today.

So you're a very good housekeeper, are you Faith, like your mother?

Well, unfortunately, I'm a good housekeeper, I've always managed the house, all the years Hans and I have been married and I hate it, I absolutely, hate it. But I can't bear disorder and I find it very hard to be at the sink and switch off and go to the desk. So, sometimes instead of switching off and going to the desk, I ring up a friend and we go down the road for coffee, only because, well, I mean who likes managing a house? It's so boring, so monotonous, so repetitive. If people ask me today, what would I really like in life ... [INTERRUPTION]

Now that was your mother, could you tell me now about your father? Who was your father, where did he come from and what sort of an influence did he have on you?

I don't think my father had the influence on me that my mother did, in actual fact. I don't remember my father awfully well because I was awfully small when he died. I can vaguely remember his funeral. I remember that my father had a banana farm up on the North Coast of New South Wales. You see, he was born on the tiny island of Ambrym, which [is one of] the islands of Vanuatu and he was kidnapped and brought to Australia as a child of 13 years old and he was put to work on the canefields as a child in Mackay. He told us all this. Like where we lived, it had two kitchens - there was my mother's kitchen, but there was his kitchen. It was a kind of lean-to, and there was an open fire where the yams were roasted and the taros and the big black kettle hung from the bar chain from the roof and there was a saucepan for the milk; and around that fire, these stories would be told to us by our father. I remember when my daughter began to listen to stories and every night we told her a story and I could tell her the same story or read her the same story night after night after night, and if I didn't sometimes, she'd say, 'Tell the one about, you know', and she could hear it a thousand times over. Well it was like this with my father. He could tell us about that trip coming over from Vanuatu to Mackay in Queensland, a thousand times over but it would be new, always new, so we would beg for the same stories again and again and he'd talk about oh, life in his village, the village of Biap. I went to Biap later and it was still, after all those years, just as my father had told us around the camp fires. So I don't want historians, and I don't want anthropologists telling me how my father got here and how he worked, because he told me and that's good enough. So he worked for nothing for years and years and years. It wasn't indentured labour, he'd signed no papers, he was enslaved. But he was a good father. From what my brothers said later - you see there were eight in the family, there were four boys and then four girls - and from what my brothers said, he was terribly strict. You know, he'd give an order and it had to be carried out, there was no funny business. But he was honest.

Now, he was only 13 when he was taken from his home and yet he preserved the cultural traditions, even to the extent of having his own fireplace and his own food and so on. It was interesting don't you think, that they meant so much to him when he was so young when he came and that he knew what to do.

His background meant a lot to him. And of course he'd been working with men very much older than himself and in the barracks where they were housed or maybe in their thatch-roofed huts that they built for themselves on the cane plantations, they would maintain their culture to a certain extent. They would sing their own songs, there was no question about that and they, of course, they all planted the vegetables that they were accustomed to eating in the islands, so they would roast the taros and the yams and they'd make taro puddings, that kind of thing and this of course had a very deep impact on my father, young as he was, and so he just carried on with the tradition.

Who took him from the village and what was the ship like that he came across in? What was that story he used to tell?

Well, I can't remember the number of days it took, but it took a long time for the vessel to travel from Ambryn to Mackay. But the thing, but some of the things he told us were how rough the sea was and how ill they were and how some had died on the trip, and of course they would be thrown overboard. Many died on the way over, many. Many of the old men, who were older than my father and who would come to our place of a Sunday. [INTERRUPTION]

So, my father told us the stories of his trip and how rough it was. He didn't talk quite as much about life in the canefields except that they were forced to get up early in the morning. They were issued with flannels and nail boots, I think it was, and that was about all, and cane knives, and so, of course, he just grew up in the cane field as it was. But he talked a lot about ... [INTERRUPTION]

So, could you tell me a little bit of the story of how your father was actually taken from the island and what was the nature of the trade that promoted such activity of taking people from their villages and how that was all organised?

The first person to send vessels into the Pacific was a person by the name of Ben Boyd, a rogue if ever there was one, and he was financed by the Bank of England to come out and get businesses going here in Australia. Around about 1840, the late 1840s, the first vessel that had kidnapped the people and brought them into Australia actually came into Sydney because Boyd wanted people to work on his sheep stations. And already the Riverina was being established and he had sheep there. So the first group of people who were brought, were brought as shepherds to work - if you please, people from Vanuatu, to work as shepherds, where the nights were bitterly cold. But most of those people died and then he began, Boyd began, to bring people for his whaling industry on the South Coast. That was at the beginning of the slave trade. So later of course, other people got ideas, and one by the name of Robert Towns, after whom Townsville is named in North Queensland. Now Towns got into the business in a very big way and at one stage it is said that he had over 30 vessels raiding the islands for men. [INTERRUPTION]

So, was it one of Town's ships do you think that brought your father? And how did the raids, how did they organise the raids? How did they induce the people to come or did they just force them?

The people were enticed to go out to the vessels because the crew would have trinkets of different kinds and when they would swim out to the vessels they would then be lassoed and pulled on board. But in actual fact, many were taken on board, they went up because they were curious. They had never seen white people, they had not seen a vessel, so I can understand that they'd go aboard to have a look around; then of course, they'd be pushed down into the hull and the lid would be closed. And you know, I heard these old men talking when I was so young, about their experiences and how it was for them, and some had been kidnapped from different islands, because some of the Micronesian islands were practically wiped out, and there were 60 000 in all who were brought. But I believe that was 60 000 men - I doubt if they counted children like my father - but they were put to work in the canefields. It was a vigorous trade and most of them were sold for the sum of £7/10/00, the equivalent of £7/10/00 - at first, of course they were sold in sovereigns or bought in sovereigns, but it was a very cruel trade. Some of the vessels were designed on the same design as the vessels that kidnapped the people from the African states, to be taken to what became the United States of America. So it was a vigorous slave trade.

And those that died on the ship, what did they die of?

Well, many were extremely seasick. I can always remember my father telling me how seasick he was because the boats would rock, you know, out on the ocean. But I would think they were fed very poorly and that would contribute to their illness no doubt. But when they were actually working on the canefields, many, many died and they were buried in common graves, at times. Sometimes they'd pick up the dead at the end of the day and they'd have to dig a big grave so they could get them all into it. And many died of pneumonia and pleurisy and to some extent malnutrition because at first the rations were very poor. And there was actually a Royal Commission held into the condition of the islanders at one stage, because it was believed that they were being underfed.

What put a stop to this whole trade?

The trade came to an end because there was an outcry from the anti-slavery movement in Britain. It began because of the American Civil War and the end of the slave trade there. And then Britain, of course, needed new markets for cotton and those who came first, certainly those that were brought by Ben Boyd were brought to be shepherds, but Robert Towns was in the cotton industry before the sugar cane, so he brought his first lot to work on the cotton because Britain was looking for a cotton market.

So your father came and worked as a slave in the canefields. When did that stop? How long did he work there and what brought an end to that period of his life?

Well, first of all there was the public outcry by the Anti-slavery Society and Australian people were also beginning to hop up and down and object to it. Not in a big way because not awfully many knew about it in the south and communications were poor then. But the trade stopped at the turn of the century and deportation then took place. Mainly, it was stopped because of public outcry. It would not have been stopped otherwise and then deportation took place and the people were rounded up to be sent back. Now my father wasn't sent back, because by then he'd married my mother and had a family and those who were married were permitted to stay.

So he married your mother while he was still working in the canefields?

No, no, no. He'd escaped and he'd left the north and had come down to the Tweed when deportation began to take place.

Now, could you tell me about the escape, why he did it and how he did it?

Oh well. I can only tell you the story of his escape as he told us and that is, he actually set off with his brother and his brother's partner whose name was Kate, a woman who I became very close to later, Aunt Kate, and they walked on and off from Mackay to Brisbane, only walking at night, so they couldn't be seen and hiding during the day. My father got a job, believe it or not, in Brisbane, as a house boy. He was a man by then, well and truly and he worked for a woman there, who taught him to read and to write and he took care of her and he looked after her and did her cooking and did her laundry.

Did she know that he was an escaped slave?

I don't know. I don't know if she knew he had escaped but he suited her. And then later he'd heard about other island people who had gone on to the north coast of New South Wales and started market gardens, so he thought he would do the same thing. But he really wasn't a gardener like my brothers, who all became good gardeners. He got a farm going, he didn't like the idea of going around knocking on doors, selling fruit and vegetables, so he got a banana farm going. Right up in the hills on the north coast of New South Wales.

Is that where you were born?


And how did your parents meet each other?

How did my parents meet? To tell you the truth I wouldn't have a clue. But you see, island, all people who were other than white, did get together. They got together in churches, many were tongue-in-cheek, but it was a good place to assemble. You know, my father went into the ... there was a church built in his honour, by the people of island descent or islanders who had settled on Terranora Heights, a beautiful place and he'd go into the pulpit on Sunday and take the service but you know, I don't know if he really believed there was anything up there. I don't think so. I'm almost sure he didn't. It didn't rub off onto us.

So, it was really more a community and social thing, the church?

Yes, I think so. I recall as a child how we were all hustled into the sulkies, carts, it was a great gathering place. People would go from Tweed Heads, Coodgin, Burringbar, Murwillumbah, and they'd assemble on a Sunday at church there. It is a little bit vague to me, I'm very dependent on what my brothers and sisters have told me, but I vaguely remember the church.

Your mother was part-Scottish, part-Indian. Your father, being a South Sea Islander in Queensland at that time and probably also on the north coast of New South Wales, these people who were often called, in a derogatory way, Kanakas, Kanaks, were not looked up to in any way in fact they were often discriminated against. Do you think that it was quite an independent act of your mother to have married your father?

No, I don't really. I think she just liked him. You know he was six foot plus, straight as a telephone pole, a very good looker and I think my mother just fell in love with him. I really and truly do. Gosh when I get talking about my mob I can't stop, because it's all so rich. I look at the lives of so many people today and I think how empty they are compared with my life and even my life as a child and you know, it's difficult to talk about my father because there was just so much there. Like Sunday at our place. Sunday at our place was a great day and it was a perfect day of rest and I, to this day, am a great believer in a rest day and whether it's Saturday or Wednesday or Sunday or Tuesday, it doesn't matter. I think that all shops should close, people ought not to play sport and that we should have one quiet day in the week, play beautiful music. Well, my father absolutely insisted that Sunday should be a perfect rest day, absolutely. And we couldn't pick up a pair of scissors on a Sunday, or whatever. And yet many of the old men came to our place for their haircuts, so we'd have to wait until the evening before they'd get their haircut from my father. But Sundays were good days but they were ... and I think of it now and I remember how all of these men came to our place for Sunday dinner and there would be half a dozen or a dozen chooks cooked and roasted yams and the whole works. And my mother would make two plum puddings and they would be immense, like this, huge things in a cloth with masses of fruit and a dozen eggs in each. And whoever came would be welcomed and we'd all eat outside under the trees and these men would talk about their islands and they would talk in their own language. And there were the men from Malekula and Tanna and Ambrym, all the islands that make up Vanuatu and there they would be sitting there at our place, reminiscing, reminiscing in pidgin-English most of the time. And I think back now and I think how good those days were. We were poor but everyone around us was poor. The Irish farmers were poor and we bartered with the Irish farmers. We gave them fruit and vegetables and they would give us, like preserved fruits and there was one farmer, whose wife made tomato sauce, so we'd have homemade tomato sauce, and this kind of thing went on.

How many children in the family?

Eight, there were eight in our family. And we were all brought up to be very independent, extremely independent. And I recall my brothers being awfully good to my mother, when my father died. This independence has brushed off onto my daughter of course. I always think of my mother as a good feminist. You know, no one got out of the housework. My brothers did the ironing, my sisters did the laundry, my brothers did the cooking and we had to wash up. There was no fuss about it, it was just taken for granted. I recall my eldest brother who is quite a number of years older than me taking a partner, and they were partners for well over 30 years, and she never knew what it was to do the laundry, to iron a shirt, hardly ever cooked a meal, and my brother did all the shopping.

Where did you come in the family?

Second last, I am. It was the best part, I think.

Have any of the other members of the family taken up a public role in life the way you have?

I had a brother whose name was Walter. Walter Mussing. And he played A-grade for St. George and it was wonderful to go to a game and see him play, absolutely wonderful. You know he'd pick up the ball in his huge hands and no one could get it from him and he wouldn't run, he'd bolt from one end of the field to the other and his teammates called him, Wanooka, after the racehorse and when he played he was very famous, very famous indeed. Died a few years ago, three years ago. Beautiful person, great footballer.

What brought you to Sydney?

I don't know.

You can't remember?

Oh, I always had a yen for bright lights. I always thought about going to concerts in the Town Hall. I never ever believed I would, when I was a very small child, I would read about them, and when I actually had the opportunity to do that, it was wonderful. I met my husband at a concert in the Town Hall, changed my life.

How old were you?

When I came to Sydney? Oh it's so long I can't remember. I'm just so old now.

Were you a teenager?

No, I think I was more than that. I was old enough to join the Women's Land Army and ...

So, you decided, at a point of your life on the North Coast, you decided that you needed to move to Sydney to make a life of your own?

I wanted to have a life of my own and it would never have developed, living in a country town in New South Wales. There is nothing more certain than that. You see, the island people were not segregated as the Aboriginal people were and we had the right to vote. We didn't exactly have, or my brothers didn't have the right to work because they were banned from joining unions, the AWU, but so were the Aboriginal people. But the Aboriginal people where I grew up lived way out of the town - it wasn't a government-controlled reserve - but they lived all together, but I'm sure that was for protection for each other. We didn't live like that. We lived more among the Irish settlers and the local farmers and we developed great friendships with those farmers. We kind of looked after each other.

Did you have anything to do with the Aboriginal people at that time?

I know that we had nothing whatsoever, no friendship at all with Aboriginal children and they didn't go to school. They were just there with their parents. There was no relationship between us and the Aboriginal people at all. One never saw Aborigines in the township at all. It was very different for the descendants of the islanders. The Aborigines of course were treated very cruelly by the white people in the town, in the country towns, even to this day they are still racists. It is very deeply imbedded.

Did you experience any racial discrimination yourself?

Well, I didn't really experience racial discrimination, but I think that had an awful lot to do with my mother. You know, she was a very proud woman, she would walk down the streets of Murwillumbah and I have told this story before, but if the businessmen didn't doff their hats she wouldn't respond to their greeting. And you know she kind of ...

... set a standard

... set a standard. She set a standard for us

[end of tape]

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