Locals remember 1882 stand-off between whites and immigrants in the Battle of the Burnett.
Locals remember 1882 stand-off between whites and immigrants in the Battle of the Burnett.

Battle of the Burnett

NEARLY 130 years ago today, Bundaberg was the site of a rare stand-off between Sinhalese contract workers and whites, described by historians as the “Battle of the Burnett”.

On November 17, 1882, the sailing ship Devonshire glided up the Burnett River to disembark more than 80 workers recruited from Ceylon to work in the cane fields of the district.

The Brisbane Courier-Mail, on November 20, 1882, headlined the incident as an “anti coolie disturbance at Bundaberg”, and said the labourers who had arrived at the pilot station were met with about 50 “whites” while marching from their ship to Rubyanna plantation.

“The Sinhalese slowly retreated, then drew their knives, and made towards the whites, who at once ceased hostilities and ran away,” the newspaper reported.

Long-time Bundaberg resident Gay Fielding, great-granddaughter of an Australian-born interpreter onboard the Devonshire, yesterday said this was a little-known but important incident in Bundaberg’s colourful past, which had impacted on the family histories of many local descendants who still lived in the region.

Mrs Fielding stumbled across the fascinating story while researching her family history, including how her great-grandfather Norman Angus Campbell came to live and work in Bundaberg.

She has since spoken to some of the local descendants of the Sinhalese workers and yesterday met to discuss and share information with Bundaberg Aboriginal elder Mervyn Johnson, whose great-grandfather was an original Sinhalese worker onboard the Devonshire.

Mrs Fielding said the workers on board were not abducted or “black-birded” as were the South Sea Islanders at the time, but were indentured workers on contracts and very low wages.

“I think (the Sinhalese) should be recognised as part of the indigenous culture of Bundaberg, not just the South Sea Islanders ... the Sinhalese have their part as well,” she said.

The Courier-Mail article from 1882 also reported that the day after the initial greeting between whites and contract workers, about 80 Sinhalese marched into Bundaberg town, where they were jeered by a gathering crowd.

Mr Johnson said he was proud of his Sinhalese-Aboriginal heritage and he believed young people should be aware of the importance of the anniversary.

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