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Fatnowna, John Kwailiu Abelfai (1866–1906)

by Clive R. Moore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John Kwailiu Abelfai Fatnowna (1866?-1906), sugar-plantation labourer and community leader, was born about 1866, son of Luifera and Sauroro of the Rakwane descent group on Malaita, one of the Solomon Islands. He was educated in the customs of his island, which in his youth had barely been visited by Europeans. In common with other Solomon Islanders, Malaitans propitiate their ancestors through elaborate rituals controlled by priests who generally claim descent from a mythical founder. Traditionally Malaitans live in small cognatic descent-groups in the mountains or on artificial islands in the lagoons around the coast. Kwailiu lived on mountain slopes overlooking Fakanakafo Bay in the dialect area of Fataleka.

Kwailiu was recruited twice to Queensland: on the first occasion he was probably kidnapped but the second time he went willingly. Little is known of the first period except that he served out the customary three-year indentured term; he would have received the statutory payment of £6 a year plus food, accommodation and a limited supply of clothes. On his return to Malaita he married Orrani from West Fataleka. Soon afterwards the couple were recruited for Queensland. As an experienced labourer, Kwailiu would have received a higher cash payment, perhaps as much as £10, but in other respects the conditions of his service would not have changed. Probably the couple worked for three years in the Innisfail district; their first two children were born on the Johnstone River in 1891 and 1893. Having served their indenture, Kwailiu and his wife elected to remain in Queensland. As time-expired labourers they had much greater freedom of movement and their earnings, though much less than those of Europeans or Chinese wage-labourers, would have been greater than those serving their first indenture. As a female, Orrani would always have earned less than Kwailiu.

By 1895 Kwailiu and Orrani had moved to Mackay where their next three children were born in 1895, 1897 and 1901. There they lived for the remainder of their lives, working on plantations and farms. Oral testimony from the present day Islander community leaves no doubt that Kwailiu was one of the most important Malaitan leaders in the Mackay district, a conclusion confirmed by the unprecedented scale of his funeral in 1906. This pre-eminence depended entirely on descent and on force of character: he remained pagan all his life and held no position recognized by Europeans, unlike other leading Islanders who gained status from positions in a Christian Church or the Pacific Islanders Association. Kwailiu's grandfather Dedeana had been a powerful leader of the Rakwane; if Kwailiu had returned to Malaita as he was often urged, he would have assumed the position of Fataabu (priest) among the Rakwane.

After Kwailiu's death of malaria on 25 March 1906 at Pioneer, Orrani married Luke Logomier, another Fataleka man and lay preacher at St Mary's Anglican Church at Farleigh outside Mackay. They both died in the influenza epidemic in 1919. Kwailiu's daughters married other Solomon Islanders at Mackay, as did their son, who adopted the surname Fatnowna. Their families are prominent in the present day Islander community.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Reynolds (ed), Race Relations in North Queensland (Townsville, 1978)
  • Mackay Mercury, 28 Mar 1906
  • registers (Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Mackay, Queensland)
  • private information.

Citation details

Clive R. Moore, 'Fatnowna, John Kwailiu Abelfai (1866–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fatnowna-john-kwailiu-abelfai-6146/text10551, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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