Image Pacific Islanders harvesting cane on Bingera Plantation, 1884

TLF ID R8189

This sepia photograph shows around ten Pacific Islander labourers in a sugar-cane field at Bingera Plantation near Bundaberg in Queensland as the cane is being harvested. A well-dressed European man and two young children pose in the cleared foreground, while in the mid-ground stands a fully laden horsedrawn wagon with several Islanders near it. In the background the remaining Islanders cut cane by hand.

Educational details

Educational value
  • Thousands of Pacific Islanders such as these men were brought to Qld to work on the emerging sugar plantations in the late 19th century. The majority of Islanders recruited and 'indentured' (contracted to work for a fixed period) were young men and boys. The Pacific Islander 'trade' of the time was fundamentally similar to slave labour, with exploitation of one race for the material gain of others.
  • Islanders 'signed' a contract (by thumbprint) with their employer for a period of three years, after which employers were legally bound to return them to their home island. Most Islanders could not understand the contracts, which set out their very basic conditions - work, clothes, food and lodging provided in return for six days of hard work per week. Some Islanders returned for a second or third time and some even decided to stay permanently in Australia.
  • Between 1863 and 1904 it is estimated that up to 62,500, mainly men and boys, were brought to Qld or northern New South Wales. Initially around 10,500 were recruited illegally, but later many volunteered, understanding indentured conditions better and having the protection of legislation. They came from 80 western Pacific islands, mostly the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu) and the Solomons, which acted as a vast labour pool for European enterprise.
  • In 1884 sugar-cane growing was very labour intensive with clearing land, planting cane and weeding all having to be done by hand, and cane harvesting, as seen here, a particularly arduous and intensive task. Most white men believed that they could not do such work in the tropics and that 'lower' races, particularly those with black skins, were more suited to carrying out such backbreaking tasks.
  • Many Pacific Islanders suffered severe exploitation. Aside from the original kidnapping of some, their living and working conditions in Qld varied according to the consideration of masters and overseers. Their masters had unlimited control over them, and wages were meagre, occupations were limited and menial, allotted duties could not be refused and were arduous, and service was fixed under one master. As bonded workers they had few rights.
  • The practice of importing overseas labour virtually stopped with Federation. In 1901 the Pacific Island Labourers Act was passed, forbidding new recruitment after 1903. The Australian Government had the power to deport any Pacific Islander after 1906 but in fact the number of Islanders deported from 1904 to 1908 was 7,068. By 1908 white labour produced 87.9 per cent of Qld sugar whereas in 1902 Pacific Islanders had produced 85.5 per cent.
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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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and State Library of Queensland, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements