Image Pacific Islander labourers clearing land, c1895

TLF ID R8006

This is a black-and-white photograph showing nine Pacific Islander men using picks and axes to clear undergrowth and small trees from a clearing in a thickly vegetated area at Farnborough in central Queensland. The men are bare-chested, hatless and barefoot, with some wearing sarong-like garments. A white man stands in their midst and supervises their work.



Educational details

Educational value
  • These Pacific Islanders, clearing virgin land, were among thousands 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.
  • Many Islanders were unused to such hard constant work in unfamiliar conditions. Their experience of cultivating small-scale plots on their home islands was in direct contrast to clearing, planting, maintaining and harvesting large fields of cane. As working hours were not regulated, they worked continuously with heavy steel hand tools, usually from sunrise to sunset.
  • 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 and then 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.
  • 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, 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.
  • 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

Learning area
  • History
Strand
  • History/Historical knowledge and understanding

    Other details

    Contributors
    • Publisher
    • Date of contribution: 06 Sep 2013
    • Organisation: Education Services Australia
    • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
    • URL: http://www.esa.edu.au
    • Copyright holder
    • Organisation: State Library of Queensland
    • Address: Brisbane QLD 4000 Australia
    • Remarks: Reproduced courtesy of State Library of Queensland
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    Access profile
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    • Hearing independence
    Learning resource type
    • Image
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    • © Education Services Australia Ltd and State Library of Queensland, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements