Image Pacific Islanders at irrigation channels, c1905

TLF ID R8192

This sepia photograph shows around 20 Pacific Islander men posed on either side of a narrow irrigation channel in a cane field at Bingera Plantation near Bundaberg in Queensland. Some are holding long-handled hoes or shovels. A junction of the irrigation channel is visible in the foreground with equipment necessary to divert the water. The photograph is captioned 'Bingera's Kanaka Irrigators before starting work'. The word 'Kanaka' was a derogatory term for South Pacific Islanders.

Educational details

Educational value
  • The Pacific Islanders seen here were part of the estimated 62,500 indentured labourers, mainly men and boys, brought to Qld or northern New South Wales between 1863 and 1904. Initially around 10,500 were recruited illegally, but later many volunteered, understanding the conditions of labour better and having the protection of legislation. They came from 80 western Pacific islands, the majority from the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu) and the Solomon Islands.
  • At that time sugar-cane growing was very labour intensive, with land clearing, planting and harvesting all needing to be done by hand, and it was believed white men could not do such arduous and intensive work in the tropics. Most white people assumed that 'lower' races, particularly those with black skins, were more suited to carrying out such backbreaking routine tasks and so Pacific Islanders were recruited as indentured labourers.
  • The Pacific Islander 'trade' of the time was fundamentally slave labour, with exploitation of one race for the profit of others. Young men and boys were recruited and 'indentured' (contracted to work for a fixed period) with an employer or 'master' for a period of three years, after which employers were legally bound to return them to their home island.
  • 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.
  • As the photograph shows, irrigation was sometimes necessary to grow sugar cane. Sugar cane was irrigated in the Burdekin, Bundaberg and Maryborough districts as rainfall was unreliable or insufficient. The low-technology channel and furrow irrigation system allowed the water to follow the land's gradient as it was directed to flow through narrow furrows between the crops. Maintenance of the system included eradicating weeds and keeping it free-flowing.
  • 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 Commonwealth Government had the power to deport any Pacific Islander after 1906. The number of Islanders deported from 1904 to 1908 was 7,068, possibly including these men.
Year level

5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10

Other details

  • Author
  • Person: C F Skyring
  • Description: Author
  • 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
  • Person: C F Skyring
  • Description: Author
  • 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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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and State Library of Queensland, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements