Bittersweet Harvest

Winner - 2021 Blackened Billy Award for Australian Bush Verse

This poem is on a subject that I have wished to feature for a long time. Ultimately the poem took me 6 years (and many failed attempts) to write. I did a lot of research, but it was not until I visited the Sugar Museum at Fairymead House, Bundaberg, and stood in the room dedicated to the contribution by Pacific Islanders, that a particular photograph took my eye, and got under my skin.

Bittersweet Harvest
(c) Shelley Hansen 2020

Author's Note: During the second half of the 19th century, thousands of South Pacific Islanders were lured by deception or kidnapped from their islands in a practice known as blackbirding, to provide cheap labour for the sugar industry. It is estimated that as many as 15,000 died in Queensland alone, a staggering mortality rate of 30%.

Your back is almost breaking and your muscles, taut and aching,
rebel against the swinging cane knife's blade.
Just sixteen years and willing, you were kidnapped with a shilling
by ruthless men engaged in human trade.

You signed three years indenture with a yearning for adventure –
the lure of wealth persuaded you to roam.
But here in this new nation, just a sugar cane plantation
is all that you will ever call your home.

Their promises were broken and their gifts a puny token
of guarantees intended to be fake.
Lives deemed not worth a penny, they returned to capture many
in ships that spewed forth anguish in their wake.

No money for your wages as you labour through the stages
of planting, burning, cutting of the cane.
You work for food and lodging, keeping silent, always dodging
the foreman's acid tongue, the whip's sharp pain.

From dawn till dark you're toiling in the Queensland summer, boiling
in fields where stifled air is far from fresh.
Your itchy skin is loathing white men's heavy woollen clothing –
their modesty prohibits naked flesh.

The cane fires haunt your sleeping and the smell of ash is seeping
through sinuses that taint your sense of taste.
The water you are drinking comes from stagnant ponds whose stinking
mosquito-ridden depths hide human waste.

Your name has been forgotten, just as surely as the rotten
and rancid meat they serve you drains your breath.
You answer to "Kanaka" as relentless, grinding yakka
defeats your spirit, numbs your mind to death.

At night you dream of beaches with their endless sandy reaches,
of coral pools whose blueness never dies.
Where coconuts are falling you can hear the seabirds calling
as far away, the waters meet the skies.

You dive with sharp precision and your underwater vision
is heightened by the penetrating light.
The bounty of the ocean filters past in liquid motion
with silver flashes darting by in fright.

You hear your mother singing, cooking fish that you;ve been bringing.
The little ones surround her silhouette –
their childish laughter blending with embraces she;s extending ,,,
and even in your dreams, you can't forget.

Then suddenly she's wailing, and you're on a ship and sailing
so far away, beyond her loving arms.
No time for last embracing. Now you're wide awake and facing
another day of slavery on farms.

You long to be returning to your Island, where the yearning
transports you back and will not let you rest.
But tears are unavailing, and the punishment for failing
impels you out of fear, to do your best.

You've never been a quitter, but it turns your belly bitter
to taste the juice of sugar cane, so sweet.
Enduring scorn and sneering for the white man's profiteering,
you bow your head, acknowledging defeat.

I stand here on a mission to embrace an exhibition
of cultural involvement in the past.
My brimming eyelids glisten as I take the time to listen
and learn how fortune's fatal die was cast.

Your photograph compels me, and your stoic silence tells me
much more than word-rich essays can convey.
Your gaze meets mine to bind me, yet it seems to look behind me
as if to focus somewhere far away.

In vain we seek excuses for indignities, abuses.
Perhaps we simply try to shift the blame
and leave the past behind us, till your haunted eyes remind us
that we should learn the lessons just the same.

A Human Rights Commission may at last grant recognition
but it will take a hundred years and more,
and white man's legislation cannot calm the agitation
or wipe out cold injustice done before.

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