Billy Tanna

Billy Tanna

Last Name

Tanna

Given Name:

Billy

Arrival in Queensland

1870

Date of Birth

ca. 1856

Place of Birth

Tanna, Vanuatu

Place of residence in Queensland

Homebush (near Mackay)

Occupation
Labourer

Billy Tanna , a South Sea Islander, arrived in Australia in 1870. He was a 57-year-old labourer living at Homebush (near Mackay) in 1913, the year that the Queensland government collected information about ‘coloured labour’ and ‘Asiatic aliens’ resident in the state.

In 1906, a meeting of the Pacific Islanders Association was held at Mackay. Approximately 200 Islanders were present. The local newspaper (Daily Mercury, 1 May 1906) named a small number of Islanders at the meeting including Henry Tonga (Chairman), John Bomassie, Joe Suchy, Tue Tonga, George Tonga, Alick Mallicoola, David Marrie Sandwich, Billy Tanna, Noah Sappo and Harry Suar. A passage in the article reads:

"Billy Tanna informed the Chairman and those present that he had received a printed circular from the Pioneer River Farmers and Graziers’ Association, requesting him to forward his subscription and become a member. He stated he had replied, thanking the white association, and as the circular did not clearly point out what advantage it would be to him to join and his position as one of their members, he had asked them to kindly give him full particulars, and reminded them that he was a Pacific Islander and a member of their Association."

As Glen Hall writes in his article on the sugar mills of the Mackay District (see Online Resources below), the Homebush Sugar Mill opened in 1883 and closed in 1922. It was owned by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). Foreign or ‘alien’ labourers were brought in to work in the mill and its fields, including South Sea Islanders (Pacific Islanders), Cingalese (from Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon), Chinese, Javanese (from Indonesia) and Japanese. In 1891, CSR decided to solve the labour problem by subdividing the land and selling it to farmers who would work their own land and supply sugarcane to the mill. By 1895, there were 150 farmers and former employees, including South Sea Islanders, supplying sugar cane to the Homebush Sugar Mill.

The earliest mention of Billy Tanna in the Mackay district occurs on 17 April 1888 when the Mackay Mercury reported that he pleaded guilty to drunkenness and was discharged. However, Billy also pleaded guilty to assaulting Constable Fraser for which he was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. Fred Tanna and Alex Tanna were also named in the article, pleading guilty to ‘inciting resistance to the police’. Like Billy, they were sentenced to one month in prison with hard labour.

Billy Tanna of Homebush is also possibly referred to in an 1884 article appearing in the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, about an expedition to New Guinea. The Billy Tanna employed on that journey had been working in the Torres Straits for 14 years, dating his arrival in Queensland to 1870. The article continued that Billy ‘speaks very good English’ and that he ‘related with considerable glee some amusing adventures that had occurred to him since he first left his native island of Tanna’. This Billy Tanna said he had previously worked for Captain Howell and related an incident off the coast of New Guinea where they fought off an attack by the local people who swam out to the schooner with tomahawks strapped to their feet.

There are over 30 articles in Queensland newspapers referring to men named Billy Tanna who lived in or near Homebush, Mackay, Cairns, Childers, Maryborough and Bundaberg. Presumably there were at least 3 or 4 men of this name, if not more, as it was common for South Sea Islanders to be given first names such as Billy, Charlie and Johnny followed by the name of the island on which they were born (George Tonga, Billy Tanna, Charlie Sandwich, etc). This meant that many men from the island of Tanna in Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) shared the same surname as Billy despite not being closely related.

Researcher and author: Jan Richardson, Harry Gentle Resource Centre.
Date of publication: 23 April 2022.

Images (above):
Homebush Sugar Mill, Mackay, ca. 1895 (State Library of Queensland)
South Sea Islander labourers planting sugar cane at a plantation in Mackay in the 1870s (State Library of Queensland)

Archival Resources

QSA, Coloured labour (Asiatic Aliens), Item ID ITM86558

QSA, Coloured labour and asiatic aliens in Queensland 1913 (data file)

Newspapers

The Age expedition to New Guinea

The Age (Melbourne)
14 Jun 1884

At the Police Court (p. 2, col. 4)

Mackay Mercury
17 Apr 1888

The Pacific Islanders Associaton

Daily Mercury (Mackay)
1 May 1906

Online Resources

Glen Hall, ‘Homebush Sugar Mill 1883-1922’, Mackay History website