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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 - Australian History, federation, immigration, indigenous cultures, White Australia Policy, see all tags


The Sugar Labour Trade

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About the Video Clip


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


By viewing this video clip, students have the opportunity to examine how economic, social and cultural changes within Australia are connected to events such as immigration and Federation. They will be able to:

  • investigate the contribution of Pacific Islanders to development of the Queensland sugar industry
  • gather additional sources to describe daily life and working conditions of the 1890s
  • assess the impact of the Immigration Restriction Act on Pacific Islanders
  • reflect on perspectives presented on the treatment of Pacific Islanders

For further information, please consult Queensland Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Framework’s SOSE Essential Learnings and Standards.

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’. 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

  1. Determine the usefulness of the interview of Phyllis Corowa as a historical source in helping you to understand the impact of the Immigration Restriction Act on Pacific Islanders. Considering the following:
    1. Is this primary or secondary source?
    2. Who created the source?
    3. When was the source created?
    4. Who was the intended audience of the source?
    5. What was the original purpose of the source?
    6. Identify and describe the events referred to by Phyllis Corowa in this interview?
    7. What attitudes and values are expressed by Phyllis Corowa in the interview?
    8. What conclusions do you draw from this interview about how the Immigration Restriction Act affected Pacific Islanders working in the Queensland sugar industry?
    9. Does this interview help you understand the issue
  2. Responding to Phyllis Corowa
    After viewing this interview of Phyllis Corowa talking about her father and grandmother who were taken from Vanuatu to work on a Queensland sugar plantation, comment on the perspectives presented on the treatment of Pacific Islanders by:
    1. Identifying ideas and points-of-view presented in the interview; and
    2. Reflecting on the issues raised.
  3. Using this Film Australia interview of Phyllis Corowa, determine how the idea of a ‘White Australia’ and the issue of immigration restriction affected Pacific Islanders living and working in northern Queensland during the lead-up to Federation.
  4. In the video clip, the Queensland Labour System is described as being the subject of fierce controversy in Australia. Consider:
    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. Investigate the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Key questions to consider are:
    1. what is the 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 at a result of this Act?

Further Resources


The Making Multicultural Australia website offers an extensive selection of Queensland-focussed materials dealing with issued of cultural diversity, including the section Queensland’s Island Trade

For more information about the contemporary lives of South Sea Islanders

Pacific stories website
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.