I was speaking to an auntie from northern Queensland recently who, with great excitement, was filling me in on the latest family developments. Apparently, a politician from the Solomon Islands was funding research into identifying those who had been brought over to Australia historically as slaves. As I already knew, our family was part of that horrendous practice.

What happened is almost unknown in Australia. From the 1860s, tens of thousands of men, women and children from the Solomons, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tuvalu, and Kiribati were “blackbirded” – taken by force or fraud – to work on sugar plantations in Queensland. Technically they were indentured labourers, but it felt like slavery to the poor Islanders. They were paid a pittance, they were treated brutally, they died like flies, and they were buried in mass graves. When the system ended and White Australia was legislated, thousands were deported against their will.

In the words of a descendant of a blackbirded worker, “America had already fought a civil war over the end of slavery at this point and here in the Pacific it was just taking off.”

But to my great surprise, when I asked my auntie how she personally felt about our ancestors as having been possibly blackbirded, she gave the same answer that my late father had given me. She said that while what happened historically was clearly wrong, it didn’t bother her now at all! Australia was her country, and she simply wanted to make a positive contribution to the community. Indeed, both my dad and his sister were deeply grateful for the many wonderful opportunities which they had been given. 

The Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, recently came under fire for saying that slavery never existed in this country. I think that a charitable understanding of what he meant was that slavery was not an institutionalised strategy of the original colony, which is true. As Mr Morrison later explained, “Australia, when it was founded as a settlement, as New South Wales, was on the basis that there be no slavery, while slave ships continued to travel around the world.”

However, while slavery did tragically occur, especially involving people from the South Sea Islands, what impact should this have on us as a nation today? In my humble opinion, it should be negligible. Learn from the past, sure, but let’s not perpetuate the pain by revisiting the sins of the fathers upon their children. That’s inherently unjust.

One of the most formative experiences of my childhood was going with my father to Centrelink to apply for possible government assistance. Even though we were not Aboriginal or from the Torres Straits, a few of our relatives had started to identify as such and were receiving significant financial benefits. They were encouraging us to do the same.

But my father came away from that meeting convinced that it was the wrong path to take. When I questioned him further about this he said that it was because if we did then, we’d never take responsibility for our lives – that instead of making a contribution to the community, we’d only become a burden.

Did my father – or even myself for that matter – experience racism growing up? Sure. But when it did occur, those around us were quick to call it out. And we were never held back in life simply because of the colour of our skin, but were treated according to the level of our achievements and the content of our characters.

My dad and mum (who was white) went on to start their own earthmoving business and were heavily involved in both church and community groups. They both worked incredibly hard and made many personal sacrifices so that my sister and I could have every opportunity educationally and in life to succeed. While they have sadly both passed away, I look back on their examples as a model for persevering in marriage, raising children and giving back to society.  

I have since lived in Wee Waa, a remote NSW town comprised of people who are 40 percent indigenous. My own children went to a school where white Australians were in the minority. But while the social problems within these communities are significant, it was never my experience that systemic racism against people of colour played a part. Indeed, I have been personally involved in and observed first-hand the good works of many anonymous Christian people in Wee Waa who have generously and sacrificially made a real difference in the lives of indigenous people.

Dr Anthony Dillon – an Aboriginal academic at the Australian Catholic University – recently informed me that the public school in Wee Waa had the highest success rates regarding indigenous education. What was their secret? Dr Dillon told me that it was because Aboriginal children were treated exactly the same as everyone else. And that was one of the key principles in helping everyone to move forward.

The African-American radio host Larry Elder insightfully argues that the modern welfare system has only exacerbated social problems in financially supporting non-nuclear families. And Oscar-winning African-American actor Denzel Washington recently made the point that most of the issues in coloured families in the United States stem not from prejudice but from the absent father syndrome in the home.

Sadly, substance abuse, physical violence, domestic violence and sexual assault are all commonplace. But as Jacinta Nampijimpa Price, a Northern Territory politician, has recently pointed out, “Realising that there are fundamental connections between child neglect, child sexual abuse, Aboriginal victims of crime and the high rates of incarceration will allow us to address these critical issues affectively.”

What’s more, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are recipients of A$33 billion dollars every year in financial assistance and associated benefits. (Note, approximately $6 billion is directly target, and the remaining $27 billion includes mainstream services). I’m not saying that these funds should be removed. But we do need to find a better way forward, because the current policies are simply not working. Because while the welfare system in Australia is extremely generous, I have also observed first-hand how it can also discourage people from taking personal responsibility.

Unfortunately, there are always going to be people who are racist, but I’m deeply grateful for what our forebears have provided. What’s more, I personally don’t want anyone to apologise, or pay reparations to me for what happened to my ancestors, and I don’t think you should be made to feel guilty about doing so either.

If anything, I am eternally grateful for what white missionaries – particularly within my own denomination – did in bringing the Gospel to my forebears in the South Seas.

It was said of the Presbyterian missionaries John Paton and John Geddie that when they came to the New Hebrides – now Vanuatu – there were no Christians. But by the time they left, there were few pagans. By the way, if you’re not familiar with their story, then I would highly recommend Paton’s classic autobiography, or the shorter and more recent biography by Paul Schlehlein, John G Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas, both of which are superb.

This is an integral part of the rich missionary heritage of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. And it’s something that I am proud to acknowledge and affirm. I’m not sorry white Europeans brought the Gospel to the South Sea Islands, but eternally grateful! Indeed, they themselves were at the forefront of stopping the so-called “Kanaka” slave trade.

I do not think that the right approach is for white Australians to apologise for any privileges which they now enjoy. The challenge is to do something with those privileges. We need to be positive and supportive of indigenous people by befriending them and being generous to them. My own denomination does this well by providing scholarships to some of our schools which has helped young Aboriginal people grow in statue and opportunities for service themselves.

What’s more, if we borrow too much from secular critical race theory – which views life through the binary lens of victims and oppressors – we cede too much ground to Cultural Marxism. (For an excellent explanation and analysis of which see this article by Rob Smith). This is a profoundly anti-Christian worldview that is currently dominating the modern Zeitgeist and protest movements.

Ultimately, the fundamental problem that we all have as human beings – black or white – is not our race, but our rebellion. And as descendants of the same ancestor we have not only all been equally made in God’s image but we also share in the same fallen, sinful nature.

The way forward then, is not with a faux humility of apologising for the colour of one’s skin, sexuality, gender or education. The beauty of the Christian Gospel is that our ethnic backgrounds no longer define us. Instead, as the apostle Paul says:

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

Mark Powell

Mark Powell is a columnist for The Spectator Australia and the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.