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The Sugar Labour Trade

Video clip synopsis – Phyllis Corowa's father and grandmother were taken from Vanuatu to work on a Queensland sugar plantation.
Year of production - 1995
Duration - 4min 6sec
Tags - Vanuatu, exploitation, immigration, slavery, workforce, see all tags

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The Sugar Labour Trade

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About the Video Clip

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The Sugar Labour Trade 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

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This Digital Resource and support materials on the Pacific Stories website (www.abc.net.au/pacificstories/) can be used to achieve the following outcomes:

5.1 explains social, political and cultural developments and events and evaluates their
impact on Australian life
5.3 explains the changing rights and freedoms of Aboriginal peoples and other groups
in Australia
5.5 identifies, comprehends and evaluates historical sources
5.8 locates, selects and organises relevant historical information from a number of
sources, including ICT, to undertake historical inquiry
5.9 uses historical terms and concepts in appropriate contexts

In respect to what students learn about, this video clip gives students the opportunity to find out how a particular group of people lived in Australia around the turn of the century and about the working conditions of that group. It also gives students the opportunity to learn to use primary sources to describe features of lifestyle of a variety of social groups and identify the working conditions of men and women.

Students may also consider:

  • Why Pacific Island workers were banned from organising at a time when the Trade Union movement was increasingly active in fighting for the rights of other workers in Australia.
  • How some groups in Australia did not benefit from the major social legislation of the new Federal Government.
  • Why the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was implemented and how it resulted in the deportation of many South Sea Islanders.
  • The purpose of the lesser known Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901.
This material is an extract. Teachers and students should consult the Board of Studies website for more information.

Background Information

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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’. The Islanders worked in harsh conditions in the Queensland sugar fields, some in conditions akin to slavery. According to the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, *conditions varied from plantation to plantation depending on how considerate the owners and overseers were. However few Islanders escaped some form of physical or mental violence. Abuse of the Islanders included being beaten, being deprived of food or leisure time, medical neglect and sometimes separation of married couples. In the late 19th century trade unions in Australia were fighting for workers’ rights but the Pacific Islander workers of Queensland were banned from organising as a group. They were forbidden by law from striking and from leaving their place of employment. Workers who left without permission or ‘absconded’ faced three months imprisonment.

Because the Pacific Islanders were paid so poorly compared to other unskilled workers in Australia, they were seen by some as a threat to employment. Opposition to these non-white immigrants came in some cases from those involved in the labour movement. They did not object when the Commonwealth decided to deport most Pacific Islanders between 1904 and 1908 as part of the implementation of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (often referred to as the ‘White Australia policy’). In the southern states of Australia there were others, including those in labour movement, who took a different view and called for fair treatment of the Pacific Island workers.
After Federation a few thousand Pacific Islanders were not deported and were permitted to remain in Australia. Today north Queensland is home to more than 20,000 of their descendants.

*The Call for Recognition: a report on the situation of Australian South Sea Islanders, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1992 – cited in ‘The Call for Recognition’, Department of the Premier and Cabinet (Queensland)

Classroom Activities

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  1. What kind evidence could Phyllis Corowa have drawn upon to find out about the life of her maternal grandmother – or to ‘piece all these things together ‘as she puts it?
  2. View the video clip The Sugar Labour Trade again and jot down some notes about Elizabeth Oba. (You may find it useful to view the relevant part of the clip more than once.)
    Using your notes. write a short biography of ‘Elizabeth Oba’ – with the following headings:
    1. Birth—name and describe the location of her island birthplace
    2. Relocation and Name Change
    3. Working Life in Australia—include information on who she worked for, what she did and what working conditions were like for her.
  3. Using information provided in the video clip, compare the rights of the Melanesian workers of the Queensland Sugar Plantations like Elizabeth Oba to those of other workers in Australia.
  4. In the video clip, the Queensland Labour System is described as being the subject of fierce controversy in Australia:
    1. What was controversial about it and why was it opposed?
    2. Where was most opposition located?
    3. What were the arguments for the continuation of the system?
  5. Through an internet search – find out further information about the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 mentioned in the background notes above.
    1. What is this Act commonly called?
    2. What were the concerns and pressures current at the time the Act was drafted that led to it being supported and subsequently being passed by the parliament?
    3. What happened to the islanders who lived in Queensland as a result of this Act?

Further Resources

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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.