Image Pacific Islander workers on a coffee plantation, c1900

TLF ID R8011

This black-and-white photograph shows indentured Pacific Islander labourers manually gathering coffee beans from lines of bushes on a Kuranda coffee plantation on the Atherton Tableland in Queensland. This image shows male, female and child labourers standing among the shoulder-high coffee bushes. The Pacific Islanders are dressed in Western-style clothes.

Educational details

Educational value
  • The workers pictured are some of the thousands who laboured on coffee and sugar plantations in northern Qld in the late 19th century and formed part of a 'trade' in human beings that began in 1863. The trade was fundamentally similar to slave labour. The major differences were that these people were indentured (contracted to work) for three years and 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, mainly men and boys, were brought to Qld or northern New South Wales. In the initial stages of the trade around 10,500 people were recruited illegally, often kidnapped or tricked, but by 1900 many volunteered, being more familiar with indentured conditions. Some 80 western Pacific islands acted as a vast labour pool, with most workers coming from Vanuatu and the Solomons.
  • 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 such work.
  • Coffee emerged in the mid-1890s as a commercial crop in far north Qld and northern NSW after rust affected the coffee crop in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and cheap land was made available under the terms of the 1864 Queensland Sugar and Coffee Regulations Act. In 1901-02 plantations in Australia were able to supply 40 per cent of the country's own requirements and the high quality of beans won prestigious international awards.
  • The Australian coffee industry declined in the early 1900s, mostly due to the Australian Parliament's 1901 Pacific Island Labourers Act in which Islander labourer recruitment was to cease after 1903 and Islanders were to be deported after December 1906. Resulting high labour costs meant the Australian coffee industry could not compete with countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and various countries in Central America.
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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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and State Library of Queensland, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements