Image Pacific Islanders arriving at Bundaberg, 1895

TLF ID R8009

The black-and-white photograph shows Pacific Islander men and women arriving in the sugar port of Bundaberg after being recruited to work as indentured labourers on Queensland's sugar plantations. The posed shot shows more than 60 Pacific Islander men, women and boys and one European on the deck of a schooner at the dock. The Islanders crowd the levels of decks dressed in clean Western-style clothes. The women, numbering around ten, are clothed in modest smocks.



Educational details

Educational value
  • Schooners such as this one brought thousands of Pacific Islanders to Qld to work on sugar plantations in the late 19th century. Most Islander people recruited and indentured (contracted to work for a fixed period of three years) were young men and boys. The Pacific Islander 'trade' of the time 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.
  • These people formed part of the 26,000 Islanders recruited in the period 1885-1904, a large number of whom volunteered. They were familiar with indentured conditions and knew there was some protective legislation. This had not always been the case as from 1863 to 1875 the majority of 10,500 Islanders were recruited illegally, often kidnapped or tricked. From 1876 to 1884 24,000 Islanders were recruited, increasingly under a legal process.
  • Some 80 western Pacific islands acted as a vast labour pool for ships like this one to exploit, with most workers coming from the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu) and Solomons. Once recruited, the Islanders were treated as merchandise and carried like freight in the ships' holds. On board seasickness, poor ventilation and foul water caused problems, but by 1895 atrocities such as leaving Islanders to drown if they jumped overboard to escape had ceased.
  • The use of cheap indentured Pacific Islander labour, which helped establish agricultural industries in Qld, was founded on the racist attitudes of the time. Cultivation required a large labour force to clear land and plant and harvest crops, and it was believed a white labour force could not undertake such arduous and intensive tasks in the tropics. Most white people thought that 'lower' races, particularly those with black skins, were more suited to this work.
  • 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 'Mother Hubbard'-style dress the women are wearing was introduced by missionaries to the Pacific Islands in the 1800s. Intended to cover as much skin as possible, the long, wide, loose-fitting gown had long sleeves and a high neck. Missionaries considered the traditional grass or leaf skirts worn by the half-naked women to be improper and that the all-covering dress would be a civilising influence. Island motifs were added later as a form of decoration.
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
    • Content provider
    • Author
    • Date of contribution: 1895
    • Name: R J Cottell
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    • Image
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    Rights
    • © Education Services Australia Ltd and State Library of Queensland, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements