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Australian South Sea Islanders Discover the Past

Video clip synopsis – Joe and Monica Leo are the descendents of ni-Vanuatu who helped build Queensland's sugar industry.
Year of production - 1995
Duration - 4min 47sec
Tags - Australian History, civics and citizenship, culture, identity, oral history, Pacific region, social justice, South Sea Islanders, Vanuatu, see all tags


Australian South Sea Islanders Discover the Past

How to Download the Video Clip

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About the Video Clip


Australian South Sea Islanders Discover the Past is an excerpt from the film Sugar Slaves (56 mins) produced in 1995.

Sugar Slaves
Few people know that the Australian sugar industry was founded on the sweat of men and women enticed or kidnapped from the islands of the South Pacific. Sugar Slaves is the story of that human traffic, euphemistically known as “blackbirding”. Between 1863 and 1904 about 60,000 islanders were transported to the colony of Queensland, where they toiled to create the sugar plantations. Then, after the introduction of a White Australia policy, most were deported. A unique community – the only substantial black migrant group in Australia – is at last uncovering the past.

A Film Australia National Interest Program. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Curriculum Focus


Historic knowledge and understanding
Historic reasoning and interpretation

In Level 6 History, students have the opportunity to

  • Use the issue of Sugar Slaves to investigate a significant Australian event.
  • Enhance their historical skills by using a range of sources and the higher order thinking skills of reasoning and interpretation.
  • Actively engage with a number of key historical concepts.


Physical, Personal and Social Learning
Interpersonal Development – working and learning in teams, values as social constructs, resolving conflicts
Personal learning – ethical considerations, manage own learning
Civic and Citizenship— Concept of democracy, personal identity, knowing rights and responsibilities as a citizen, human rights, social justice. (Australia’s place in the Asia Pacific region and the world are examined).

Interdisciplinary Learning
Opportunities for enhancing

  • Communication skills
  • ICT skills
  • Higher order thinking skills
This material is an extract. Teachers and Students should consult the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority website for more information.

Background Information

Between 1863 and 1904 about 60,000 Pacific Islanders were transported to Queensland, where they toiled to create the sugar plantations of the far north. Some of these islanders moved there willingly on the promise of income, whilst others were kidnapped from their island homes. Pacific Islanders were ‘recruited’ from various islands including the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu (then the New Hebrides) and the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia. This human trafficking is euphemistically known as ‘blackbirding’.

Queensland was deeply divided on the labour issue and in response to trade union or missionary and humanitarian pressures, governments banned the labour trade from time to time.

Race relations had been one of the formative issues of the Federation movement of the 1890s. One of the first acts of the new Australian parliament after Federation in 1901 was the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (often referred to as the ‘White Australia policy’). Most South Sea Islanders were deported. A few thousand were permitted to remain and today north Queensland is home to more than 20,000 of their descendants.

In 1994 Australian South Sea Islanders won official government recognition as a distinct ethnic group.

Today Australian South Sea Islanders are beginning to trace their history and are finding their long-lost relatives in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations. A unique community, the only substantial black migrant group in Australia, is at last uncovering the little known story of Australia’s sugar slaves.

The documentary Sugar Slaves, from which this video clip is taken features the journey of Joe and Monica Leo — whose grandfather and father respectively were kidnapped and forced to leave their homeland — as they return to the birthplace of their forebears, Vanuatu.

Classroom Activities

  1. Using data from the video clip, what are the climatic (for example, rainfall and temperature) and geographic conditions (for example, landform) necessary for the growing of sugar cane? In the pre–machinery age of production what types of manual labour tasks were needed to grow sugar cane in Australia? Using the video clip and other sources investigate how the practice of kidnapping Pacific Islander workers began and what arguments were used in support of this practice.
  2. The video clip claims that few people in Australia know about the use of Pacific Island workers on the Australian sugar cane fields in the late nineteenth century. What evidence is used to support this claim? What evidence and research strategies do you think would be needed to prove the claim?
  3. What do you think is the purpose of the imagery in the video clip of the faces of islander people being superimposed behind images of burning cane fields? What does this suggest to you about the interpretation of the use of islander workers by the makers of the video clip? What other strategies do the filmmakers use to convey their opinion of the practice? Or are the filmmakers neutral in their views?
  4. In small groups, investigate a sample of Australian history schools texts and report to the class on the ways in which the use of Pacific Islander labour is recorded in the text books. (Try to obtain both older and recent textbooks.) Are there any variations? How would you explain the variations?

Further Resources


Go to Pacific Stories Learning for Interactive Compass Map with facts about the Pacific region.

For interview transcripts, books and references for this Digital Resource go to Pacific Stories, choose Sugar Slaves, select INDEX, and go to MORE INFORMATION.