Image Pacific Islander labourers planting sugar cane, Mackay, 1870s

TLF ID R8003

This is a black-and-white photograph showing large groups of poorly dressed indentured Pacific Islanders planting sugar cane on a plantation at Mackay in Queensland. Fourteen or more Pacific Islanders are manually placing sugar-cane cuttings at regular intervals in long furrows. Two mounted white men oversee their work while others appear to be supervising on foot. In the background several horsedrawn ploughs till more furrows in the extensive field.

Educational details

Educational value
  • Thousands of Pacific Islanders such as the people seen here were brought to Qld to work on emerging sugar plantations in the late 19th century. The majority of Islanders recruited and 'indentured' - contracted to work for a fixed period - were young men and boys. The Pacific Islander 'trade' of the time was fundamentally similar to slave labour, with exploitation of one people for the material gain of others.
  • It is estimated that up to 62,500 Islanders, mainly men and boys, were brought to Qld or northern New South Wales between 1863 and 1904. Initially about 10,500 were recruited illegally but later many volunteered, as they understood indentured conditions better and were protected by new legislation. Some 80 western Pacific islands acted as a vast labour pool for European enterprise, with most workers coming from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) or the Solomons.
  • Sugar-cane growing, one of the agricultural industries developed to support the new colony of Qld, was very labour intensive at the time. Planting, seen here, clearing land and harvesting all had to be done by hand, and it was believed that white men could not do such arduous and intensive work in the tropics. It was assumed that 'lower' races, particularly those people with darker skin, were more suited to carrying out these backbreaking tasks.
  • The cheap indentured labour of Pacific Islanders made sugar cultivation viable in Qld from 1862 when Louis Hope began production at Cleveland, and it spread north to Mackay in 1865. As can be seen here, sugar cultivation was flourishing along the coast by the early 1870s. Sixty-five mills were producing sugar and rum and in 1874 production surpassed the colony's needs and began contributing significantly to Qld's economy.
  • Many Pacific Islanders suffered severe exploitation. Many were kidnapped or tricked into sailing to Qld. Their living and working conditions were determined by the attitudes of owners and overseers, who had unlimited control over them. Wages were meagre, their work was menial and limited and allotted duties could not be refused. Service under one 'master' was permanent and higher paid jobs forbidden. As bonded workers, Islanders had few rights.
  • The death rate of Pacific Islanders in north Qld was four times higher than that of Europeans of the time. Reasons included withdrawal of or poor food, inadequate housing, medical neglect, inter-tribal and inter-island fighting, overwork and mistreatment. Vulnerability to disease in a new environment - Qld - the change in diet, a refusal of medication at times and insanitary conditions also contributed to their mortality.
Year level

5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
  • Description: Content provider
  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
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  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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