Image Former Pacific Island indentured labourers waiting for deportation, 1906

TLF ID R8010

This black-and-white photograph shows Pacific Islanders mustered at the Cairns Court House in Queensland awaiting a medical examination prior to their deportation under the Australian Government's 1901 Pacific Island Labourers Act. The group, including a woman, some children and an Islander holding a bicycle, would probably be returning to islands such as the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu) and the Solomons. They wait in an orderly fashion in a picket-fenced grassy yard with tropical vegetation and hills in the background.



Educational details

Educational value
  • These Pacific Islander people represent the final moments of a 'trade' in human beings that began in 1863 and involved up to 62,500 Pacific Islanders being brought to Qld or northern New South Wales. The trade was fundamentally similar to slave labour, the major differences being that the people were indentured (contracted to work) for a fixed period of time and their 'masters' were meant to return them to their home islands after their period of service.
  • In the lead-up to Federation in 1901 the six Australian colonies agreed that the trade would stop and all Pacific Islander labourers would be sent home, and so in 1904 the deportations began. In the first four years 7,068 Islanders were deported. The numbers of people still indentured had already fallen dramatically with increasing regulation of the trade and the employment of white labour, particularly Italians.
  • Many indentured Pacific Islander labourers suffered severe exploitation, even in the more regulated final stages of the trade. Their conditions were determined by the attitudes of masters and overseers who had unlimited control over them. Wages were meagre, their work was menial and allotted duties could not be refused. A labourer could not change masters and higher paid jobs were forbidden. As bonded workers they had few rights.
  • From the mid-1880s, with the rise of organised labour unions and the consolidation of the racist view that Australia was for the 'white man', white Australian workers opposed the importing of Asian or Pacific Island labour. Their unions believed that white labourers were being deprived of work, wages were being maintained at artificially low levels and a non-white underclass was being created.
  • In 1901 the Pacific Island Labourers Act was passed by the Australian Parliament, specifying the cessation of recruitment after 1903. It gave the Government the power to deport any Pacific Islander after December 1906, pay compensation to the sugar industry and provide for the introduction of white workers at a suitable wage. Islanders who had arrived prior to 1 September 1879 or had obtained a certificate of exemption could remain in Qld.
  • In 1906 a Royal Commission into the repatriation of Islanders led to the 1901 Act being amended. Those living in Qld for 20 years or more or whose marriage meant risks to themselves or their family could stay, as could the old or infirm and owners of freehold land. In all, a total of 1,380 Islanders were able to stay and it is estimated another 1,000 stayed illegally. Those who stayed generally suffered major discrimination.
Year level

5; 6; 7; 8; 9

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: 1906
    • Organisation: Ruddle
    • Remarks: photographer
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    Learning resource type
    • Image
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    • © Education Services Australia Ltd and State Library of Queensland, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements