Image Pacific Islander labourers hoeing a cane field, c1902

TLF ID R8007

This black-and-white photograph shows indentured Pacific Islanders methodically hoeing weeds from a large sugar-cane field at Herbert River in north-eastern Queensland. They wear Western-style clothes and hats. A white man, only just visible on the left and facing the Islanders, stands in front of the line of labourers, presumably overseeing their work. Adjoining is a field of tall sugar cane with trees and a house set in the distance.

Educational details

Educational value
  • Thousands of Pacific Islanders such as these men were brought to Qld to work on sugar plantations from 1863 to 1904. The majority of Islanders recruited and indentured (contracted to work for a fixed period of three years) were young men and boys. Qld's trade in Pacific Islanders was fundamentally similar to slave labour. The major difference was that their 'masters' were meant to return them to their home islands after their period of service.
  • These men formed part of the 26,000 Islanders recruited in the period 1885-1904, a large number of whom had volunteered for the work. They were familiar with indentured conditions and knew there was some protective legislation. This had not always been the case. From 1863 to 1875 the majority of 10,500 Islanders were recruited illegally. From 1876 to 1884 recruitment was increasingly legal for the 24,000 arriving Islanders.
  • Many Pacific Islanders suffered severe exploitation. Their living and working conditions were determined by the attitudes of masters and overseers who had unlimited control over them. Wages were meagre. As seen here, their work was menial and often backbreaking and allotted duties could not be refused. A labourer could not change masters and higher paid jobs were forbidden. As bonded labourers they had few rights.
  • The death rate of Pacific Islanders in north Qld was four times higher than that of Europeans in the region at the time. Reasons included withdrawal of or poor food, inadequate housing, medical neglect, overwork, mistreatment and intertribal and inter-island fighting. The introduction of the workers to a new disease environment, a change of diet, insanitary conditions and a refusal of medication at times also contributed to their mortality.
  • The use of cheap indentured Pacific Islander labour, which made sugar production viable in Qld, was founded on the racist attitudes of the time. Cane cultivation required a large labour force to clear land and plant and harvest crops. It was believed that a white labour force could not undertake such arduous and intensive tasks in the tropics. Most white people considered that 'lower' races, particularly those with black skins, would be more suited to this work.
  • The cane field where these men were working was probably under the direct or indirect control of one of the large wealthy corporations that dominated the northern sugar industry. A boom in cane cultivation in coastal northern Qld from the mid-1880s attracted southern capital and advanced technology, and the Victorian Colonial Sugar Refining Company established three large mills in northern Qld, the largest being the Victoria on the Herbert River.
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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Learning Resource Type
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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and State Library of Queensland, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements