Image Chinese farm workers planting cane, Cairns, 1890s

TLF ID R8179

This is a black-and-white 1890s photograph portraying about 12 men, presumed to be Chinese as some wear conical hats, manually laying sugar-cane cuttings, or setts, at regular intervals in long furrows in a large paddock on Hambledon Sugar Plantation near Cairns in Queensland. In the background are a mounted overseer supervising their work and two horsedrawn ploughs tilling more furrows in the extensive field.

Educational details

Educational value
  • Sugar-cane production was very labour intensive and plantations such as Hambledon employed Chinese and Pacific Islanders to undertake the backbreaking labour required. Hambledon was established by Thomas Swallow and others in 1881 and was employing 150 Chinese and 150 Pacific Islanders by 1882. This plantation of nearly 2,500 ha grew mostly sugar cane but also produced bananas, pineapples and citrus fruits.
  • These Chinese workers may have been indentured to work on the Hambledon Plantation for a fixed period or may have given up gold mining for steadier employment. Chinese had been used as indentured labourers in Australia from the 1840s, working as servants, shepherds, carpenters and agricultural labourers, while at the height of the gold rushes more than 100,000 Chinese had arrived in Australia, largely from the poor southern area around Guangzhou.
  • The use of cheap labour, which made sugar production viable in Qld, was founded on the racist attitudes and beliefs of the time. Cane cultivation required a large labour force to clear land and plant and harvest crops and 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 yellow or dark skins, were more suited to this work.
  • The number of Chinese labourers employed at Hambledon was low and falling during the late 1880s and the 1890s. In 1888 the Plantation employed only 29 Chinese workers. The Chinese proportion of the overall Australian population had fallen to about 1 per cent by 1891 and was still declining. This was due to colonial legislation restricting Chinese immigration, such as the Qld 'Chinese Immigrants Regulation Act' and 'Gold Fields Amendment Act' of 1877.
  • At the time of the photograph this extensive cane field may have been under the control of the Victorian Colonial Sugar Refining Company, one of the large wealthy corporations that came to dominate the northern sugar industry. A boom in cane cultivation in coastal northern Qld from the mid-1880s attracted southern capital and advanced technology and in about 1897 the Victorian Colonial Sugar Refining Company bought the Hambledon Mill.
Year level

4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9

Learning area
  • History

Other details

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  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
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  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
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  • Organization: Education Services Australia
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  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
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  • 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
  • Image
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