family

"Her name was Sarah: My great-grandmother was beaten to death by a white man."

Her name was Sarah.

In the 1930s in Queensland, my great-grandma, a woman of colour, was pulled off her horse and beaten to near-death by a white man.

She went home and essentially slowly died in her bed. No point in getting the police involved. No access to medical support. When you die at the hands of a white man, apparently that’s your own secret shame and fault.

The man who killed her was someone in the town who had raped her on a number of occasions. This was not uncommon, apparently, that women of colour would be sexually abused by white men in the town who called them ‘sluts’ and ‘trollops’ and taunted them. We don’t know if, on that day, she had rejected his advances or there had been a disagreement. But Nana recalls vaguely (as she was only three years old) that her mother, Sarah, came home, laid in bed for days and later died.

Nana and her five-year-old brother were taken in by a couple who had no children of their own. An Aboriginal woman and her aggressive white partner. Domestic violence and sexual abuse marred the rest of Nana’s childhood in that foster home until she escaped as a teen. Nana and her brother had light brown skin, and it was explained to them that their mother was a South Sea Islander and their father was a Dutchman who had left them and their mother to marry a white woman.

For context, South Sea Islander people were routinely stolen, kidnapped or coerced from the Pacific Islands to come and ‘work’ in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century. In reality, it was free slave labour.

Nana and her brother never saw or heard of their father again. This essentially left them as orphans who were negotiating race for the rest of their lives. They found they weren’t dark enough to be fully accepted into the Aboriginal mob they were being raised in, not light enough to be accepted into a prejudiced white community, and they had no connection to any of their South Sea Islander family or ancestry.

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At 16, Nana trained to become a nurse and later, after study, moved to Melbourne for a new start. She met my grandfather, a white man, who sadly, was a regular perpetrator of domestic violence. He did not care to understand her past. He taunted her and called her racist names. She felt helpless, she explains, because he was a white man who was an elder in the church and a policeman. She, as a woman with light brown skin, less education and less social power, knew she had no voice and no chance of being believed.

She eventually worked hard to become financially stable and divorced him when my mum and aunty were teenagers. She then began the search to find out about her past.

To this day, South Sea Islander history is barely acknowledged, recorded or understood. Nana’s lifelong search for identity and the considerable hardship, trauma and the prejudice she has experienced have somehow not hardened her, but widened her capacity for empathy, grace and love.

She did not really know her mother, Sarah, but Nana does not doubt that the strength of Sarah and her South Sea Islander heritage are a burning flame in her chest, even now at 81 years young.

Nana doesn’t need my tears of white fragility, of which there have been many over the years of growing to understand this history. But she does ask for me to use my white privilege to communicate her story, she expects me to challenge racist and sexist attitudes. She implores me to use the fact that I’m educated to research, learn and understand. And to continue to teach my kids about the injustices that still take place in their own country of Australia every single day.

The author of this article is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous. 

Image via John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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