Image Pacific Islander labourers outside slab-hut dwellings, late 1800s

TLF ID R8004

This is a black-and-white photograph showing indentured Pacific Islanders and their families posing by their slab-hut homes, probably on a coastal Queensland sugar plantation. They are wearing Western-style clothes, with the women in long skirts and the men wearing jackets and trousers. The huts appear to have been constructed with care and pride, displaying items such as a formal stone-edged flower garden and a sapling fence along one wall. The huts front onto a dirt road edged with banana trees, while dense bush encroaches at the back of the clearing.

Educational details

Educational value
  • Thousands of Pacific Islanders were brought to Qld to work on emerging sugar plantations in the late 19th century but transporting whole families, such as those seen in the photograph, was an unusual occurrence. The majority of Islanders recruited and 'indentured' (contracted to work for a fixed period) were young men and boys.
  • Islanders' homes were a reflection of their culture and way of life and they preferred to build their own rather than use the barracks-style accommodation supplied by many plantation owners. Huts were placed together in mini-villages and strict traditional rules for relationships between males and females were adhered to. Homes were divided into sections, with the front porch providing a meeting place for both sexes. Gardens often supplied traditional foods.
  • 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.
  • It is estimated that up to 62,500 Islanders 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. Clearing land, planting and harvesting all had to be done by hand, and it was believed white men could not do such arduous and intensive work in the tropics. It was assumed that 'lower' races, particularly those with darker skin, were more suited to carrying out the backbreaking routine tasks.
  • The practice of importing indentured labour virtually stopped with Federation. In 1901 the 'Pacific Island Labourers Act' was passed, with recruitment to cease after 1903. The Australian Government had the power to deport any Pacific Islander after 1906. In 1904 deportation began, and 7,068 were deported in the first four years. In 1902, 85.5 per cent of Qld sugar was produced by Pacific Islanders but by 1908, 87.9 per cent was being produced by white labour.
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
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  • 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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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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