Image Pacific Islander labourers in the Mackay District, late 1800s

TLF ID R8008

This posed black-and-white photograph shows indentured Pacific Islanders by their grass hut homes, probably on a Mackay sugar plantation in Queensland. Some are seated on logs or rough timber benches and one woman can also be seen. They are dressed in Western-style clothes. More huts can be seen on the cleared rise in the background, while a garden of some description is in the foreground.

Educational details

Educational value
  • The people seen here were recruited from Pacific islands, indentured (contracted to work for a fixed period of three years) and brought to Qld to work in the fields. It is somewhat unusual to see a woman as the majority of those recruited were young men and boys. Qld's trade in Pacific Islanders was fundamentally similar to slave labour, the major difference being that their 'masters' were meant to return them to their home islands after their period of service.
  • Between 1863 and 1904 it is estimated that up to 62,500 Pacific Islanders were brought to Qld or northern New South Wales. Initially around 10,500 were recruited illegally, often being kidnapped or tricked, but in the later stages of the trade many volunteered as they had become familiar with indentured conditions. Some 80 western Pacific islands acted as a vast labour pool, with most workers coming from the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu) and Solomons.
  • Islanders' homes were a reflection of their culture and way of life and they preferred to build their own rather than use the barrack-style accommodation supplied by many plantation owners. Huts were placed together as a mini village and strict male and female traditional relationships were adhered to when socialising. Homes were divided into sections with the front porch providing a meeting place for both sexes. Gardens often supplied traditional foods.
  • Islander grass houses used local resources. They were usually timber-framed and lashed together with vines or natural fibre ropes. 'Bladey' grass ('Imperata cylindrica') was cut, tied in bundles, dried and then used as thatch for the walls. Palm-leaf waterproof roofs were made by thatching layers of leaves sewn into lengths of fibrous material. Grass houses were often opposed by authorities who believed them to be unhealthy, ill-ventilated and flammable.
  • Many Pacific Islanders suffered severe exploitation and their working conditions were determined by the attitudes of masters and overseers who had unlimited control over them. Wages were meagre, the 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.
  • Cheap indentured Pacific Islander labourers such as the people seen here made sugar cultivation viable in Qld from 1862, when Louis Hope began production at Cleveland. It spread north to Mackay in 1865 and in the early 1870s flourished along the coast. 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.
Year level

F; 1; 2; 3; 4; 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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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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Learning Resource Type
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