Fulton University College students meet blackbirded descendants

Fulton Vanuatu students with the chief (centre, pink shirt) and Jerry Tuwai (beside the chief, in blue vest).

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Students from Vanuatu studying at Fulton University College (FUC), Fiji, travelled last month from Nadi to the suburb of Newtown just outside Suva to meet with the descendants of those who were blackbirded during the 1800s.

“Blackbirding” is a term used to describe the historical practice of kidnapping Pacific Islanders and using them as forced labour, in particular on sugar and cotton plantations in Australia.

In this case, the students met descendants who were sent to work on cotton plantations in Fiji from Vanuatu, then known as the “New Hebrides”.

The theme of their trip was prayerfully decided on as “Away from home but not far from God”, relevant not only to the blackbirded descendants residing in Newtown but also the students from Vanuatu studying at FUC, many of whom spend up to five years studying in Fiji before returning home.

Delegation leader Chris Keleb said that the motivation behind the trip was to establish friendships internally and externally.

“It’s one of the key objectives of the Vanuatu Cultural Association at Fulton. . . . [We want to] bring about spiritual and physical strength,” he said.

The 55-member strong delegation initiated outreach activities including visits to homes of descendants of blackbirded individuals, including the chief of the group in Newtown and the 2019 World Rugby Men’s 7s player of the Year and gold medal-winning Olympian Jerry Tuwai.

“It was like a great reunion day for us and it was most interesting to be among those with similar heritage but who speak a different language in Fijian,” said Mr Keleb. “Tears were shed as stories were shared on blackbirding experiences.”

The trip was supported by FUC’s director of student services, Jefferson Trief, and youth director for the Trans Pacific Union, Pastor Charlie Jimmy. The opportunity has opened the door for future visitations.

“Though history may seem dark, we know for sure that God has a better plan for these descendants as well as for the rest of us,” Mr Keleb said.

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