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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Ida Lessing Faith Bandler (1918–2015)

by Tony Stephens

Faith Bandler, by Bruce Howard, 1975

Faith Bandler, by Bruce Howard, 1975

National Library of Australia, 42270240

When Faith Bandler filled in her census form on Tuesday night, she identified herself as "Australian South Sea Islander". There was no provision in the form for such a response. Mrs Bandler did not expect one.

South Sea Islanders in Australia are a lost race. Faith Bandler calls them a forgotten people.

This splendid woman is not angry. Anger is not the sort of emotion to touch her heart and mind. She has a great faith in humanity. So she admits to feeling "a bit indignant", while describing the forgetting of her people as an"oversight".

Others see it as evidence of the dark side of the Australian soul. South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia as slaves. Slavery in this great, egalitarian south land. It is not a subject with which Australians feel comfortable.

Faith Bandler's father, Wacvie Mussingkon, was kidnapped in 1883 from the island of Ambrym in what is now Vanuatu. His kidnapping was part of an activity called blackbirding, which author Hector Holthouse has called "one of the most violent means of procuring labour by force". Blackbirding was a means of meeting the need for cheap labour which arose with the end of convict transportation from Britain. It turned a Pacific paradise into a place of terror and fear.

Wacvie was one of more than 60,000 South Sea Islanders who helped establish the Australian sugar industry. Some came voluntarily. There were also several thousand women. In line with government policy of the time, the women were not counted. However, the women often fetched $40 each, while a man's price varied from $7 to $24. Faith Bandler had an aunt, Kate, who had been brought out at the age of 10 or 11 to work as a domestic for a sugarcane planter at Mackay.

Campaigns against forced labour were bolstered by tragedy. In 1871, Anglican Bishop Patteson was murdered by islanders who mistook him for a disguised recruiter. Later, 85 Solomon Islanders were murdered after trying to escape from the hold of a ship.

Wacvie Mussingkon was sold as a slave in Mackay and worked on sugar plantations until escaping in 1897, finally settling at Tumbulgum, northern NSW. He married a Scottish-Indian woman and they had eight children, including Faith.

She was only four when her father died in 1924, but she recalls the banana plantation he worked outside Murwillumbah with a white family and her father handing her a hammer to help make the boxes for the fruit. She remembers, too, his stories about his island and its people.

"You never knew anyone so independent," the daughter says. "He would take absolutely nothing for nothing. And he'd never take an insult on account of his colour. So we all grew up the same. We were all fiercely independent."

Now she is calling for a letter-writing campaign to the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, to get some action for her forgotten people. As vice-president of the Evatt Foundation, she oversaw a report detailing the history and plight of the 15,000 to 20,000 descendants of blackbirding. To be published by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council next month, the report calls for the Government to "implement immediately remedial programs to redress the disadvantages of this minority group because of their ethnic origin".

It says: "The great extent to which the development of the modern sugar industry depended on the labour of South Sea Islanders is not generally understood. Such profitable Australian companies as CSR and Burns Philp made full use of this labour."

A testimonial luncheon for Mrs Bandler will be held at NSW Parliament House next Friday. Announcing the luncheon, Mrs Franca Arena, MLC wrote: "Faith Bandler is a woman who deserves some recognition for her contribution to Australian society ... She is a splendid woman and many of her friends feel we would like to tell her publicly how much we have appreciated her untiring work throughout the years."

"I am nervous," said the guest of honour. "But one of the good things about Parliament House these days is that they use the dining room for ordinary bods like me."

Her work throughout the years includes fighting the 10-year campaign which led to the 1967 referendum bringing black Australians the vote and full citizenship. She has worked for Aboriginal education and housing, was a founding member of the Women's Electoral Lobby and has written five books, two with Len Fox. More recently she was a founder member of the Australian Republican Movement.

Now the South Sea Islander cause is the most important issue of her life. It takes her back to the 1967 struggle. "At the moment, for census purposes, Aborigines are not even counted as existing," she said in May of that year.

Until 1967, South Sea Islanders had fared better in Australia than had Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. They had the vote, for a start. "We weren't told to get out of town when the sun went down," says Mrs Bandler. The referendum led to legislation specifically designed to help Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. "We assumed our own people would be included," she says.

A terrible irony was to emerge for Faith Bandler and other islanders who had worked for a "Yes" vote. The only way they could share these benefits was to become part of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island families, or to pretend to be.

"It's my honest opinion that when the Government changed the constitution to enable it to legislate for the benefit of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the fact we were overlooked was genuinely an oversight," says Mrs Bandler.

The Royal Commission on Human Relationships reported in 1977 that, as a black minority group, South Sea Islanders were discriminated against because they were not eligible for benefits available to Aborigines ... "a number of special benefits in fields such as education, health and housing have been introduced for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. The South Sea Islanders are not eligible for these benefits unless they claim to be Aboriginals, a claim which many feel is a denial of their own origin ... These people suffer unjustified hardship because of this exclusion."

South Sea Islanders have no claim for land rights. They were forced from their lands and brought to Australia. Their land cannot be restored to them. They cannot claim land in their new country. They are not identified within the Public Service Act as a category for the purpose of equal opportunity programs. They are excluded from eligibility to any of the Aboriginal employment programs.

Mrs Bandler says the then Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam, told her in 1975 that the error could be rectified with the stroke of a pen. Mr Whitlam's elected government was sacked by the appointed Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, soon after.

Mrs Bandler says the introduction of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission this year has made reform all the more urgent. This is because many who previously identified as Aboriginal and were given the benefits of doing so have now missed out. Some have lost their jobs in Aboriginal-identified positions and many families feel they will not be able to educate their children without the help of Abstudy.

She says Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are now in charge of funding and there were cases of these people discriminating against the other islanders. "Being black makes you very conscious whenever white racism is around," she says, "but there is nothing as vicious as black racism."

Weren't normal welfare benefits sufficient?

"No, because the people have been through up to six generations of poverty based on the colour of their skin and the circumstances of their coming to Australia."

Faith Bandler says she would rather spend her time writing and gardening than helping in another campaign. Some friends think she has been saying this for a long time.

Pat O'Shane, stipendiary magistrate and black activist, applauds her warmth, tirelessness and high degree of commitment to social justice: "She is not only committed to causes but to good relationships with people." Ms O'Shane, one of those who believe the islander matter is a reflection of the dark side of the Australian conscience, says: "The people have lost their psyche."

Four different writers asked if they could write Mrs Bandler's biography before she decided to do it herself. She recently spent a week at Varuna, the writers' centre run by the Eleanor Dark Foundation in Dark's old home at Katoomba. The foundation offers residential fellowships to writers to stay at Varuna for periods of up to 12 weeks, providing the opportunity to work undisturbed by the normal demands of daily life. The foundation has decided to name the rooms at Varuna after a living Australian writer and one will be named after Faith.

The autobiography has taken her back to her childhood. "I had a marvellous childhood. We played with white children and our own people would come once a fortnight, on Sundays, for a feast. The fruit was there, we grew our own vegetables and knocked off 10 or 12 chooks for roasting."

Her mother was a practical and proper woman who made table napkins out of bleached flour bags during the 1930s depression. She insisted on table cloths, even if they were newspapers, cut in fancy shapes.

Faith has been married for 39 years to Hans Bandler, who also knows about discrimination. A Jew born in Vienna, he saw the Nazis march into his country and spent time in Dachau and Buchenwald before an aunt bribed guards to secure his release. Mrs Bandler served in the Land Army during the war and her brother Eddy died on the Burma-Thailand Railway. "We hated the Germans and Japanese with every fibre of our bodies," she says.

Hatred seemed beyond her?

"Oh, not in war."

Hans became a naturalised Australian in 1944. "It was a wonderful feeling to be no longer a 'reffo' or an enemy alien, or even a friendly alien, but a real citizen of Australia," he says. Hans Bandler is a retired engineer who has been active in Scientists Against Nuclear Arms and in the environment movement.

Their daughter, Lilon Gretel, is a doctor in Newcastle. Her first name is islander, her second Austrian. Her husband, Stephen, is also a doctor who works three days a week and keeps house.

An important influence on Mrs Bandler's life came from Jessie — later Lady — Street, who organised the "sheepskins for Russia" campaign during the war, influenced the inclusion of the rights of women in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and campaigned for the 1967 referendum. Lady Street's two daughters and their four children will attend Friday's luncheon. Neville Wran will deliver the main speech. People like opera singer Lauris Elms, professors Donald Horne and Ted Wheelwright, former Justice Jim Staples, Wendy McCarthy and Independent MP Clover Moore will also attend.

Mrs Bandler's father was a lay preacher but Faith has always put her faith in people. "If there's something after this life and I get beaten over the head for doing something wicked, I shall think it grossly unfair," she says.

Leaving behind the flowering trees, the abundance of fruit and the clear running streams had not as yet disturbed Wacvie. Foremost in his thoughts was the sound of his mother's weeping. He vividly remembered the wailing of the women for their men as they were being savaged by the crew of the slave vessel. He tried to recall which men managed to dive overboard and swim clear of the boat, back to Biap. Were they the young men on whom the village was now dependent for the gathering of the clans from the other villages? Those who helped the chiefs for the coming together of the people for the festivals?

The island's population had been severely reduced by the white invaders. The toll of the rampage had been so severe that it was possible their well-ordered and peaceful mode of living had been permanently ruptured by the boats coming and taking away the young men. — from Wacvie, Faith Bandler's biographical novel about her father.

Original Publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Bandler, Ida Lessing Faith (1918–2015)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012