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Video clip synopsis – Joe and Monica Leo embark on a journey to Vanuatu to recover a small part of their past.
Year of production - 2005
Duration - 4min 32sec
Tags - civics and citizenship, culture, historical representations, identity, imperialism, nationalism, South Sea Islanders, Vanuatu, see all tags


Sense of Belonging

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About the Video Clip


This interview with Joe and Monica Leo was recorded for the Pacific Stories website produced in 2005.

Joe and Monica Leo are the descendents of ni-Vanuatu who helped build Queensland’s sugar industry.

Pacific Stories is a co-production between Film Australia’s National Interest Program and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Presented by Vika and Linda Bull, the project explores the geography, history and culture of the South Pacific.

Curriculum Focus


Area of Study 2 & 3, Social life and Cultural expression.
This video clip is linked to the VCAA VCE History Study Design. A case study for students to both understand and make meaning of the past and to also draw links between contemporary society and its history. The video clip also enables students to enhance their skills in analysing, interpreting and representing different forms of data and evidence.
Students are introduced to the interplay between domestic, regional and/or international events which influenced the changes in social life for a community or group in the last decades of the twentieth century, and how these experiences have been represented. A case study for the exploration can be the challenges in social life facing the new Australian nation at the time of Federation. There was a widely accepted notion of egalitarianism and a focus on national identity. Links to VCE History also includes the debates during the first decade of the new century about who could and who could not belong to this new society.

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 people from the islands of the South Pacific were transported to Queensland, where they toiled to create the sugar plantations of the far north. While many of the Pacific Islanders were enticed to travel to Queensland, perhaps seeking a better life, others were kidnapped. This human trafficking was euphemistically known as ‘blackbirding’.

At the beginning of last century harsh legislation such as the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, known as the ‘White Australia policy’, resulted in the deportation of many South Sea Islanders. A few thousand were permitted to remain and today north Queensland is home to more than 20,000 of their descendants.

In the late 1980s, an Evatt Foundation report (initiated by some South Sea Island leaders concerned at the deteriorating social and economic situation of their community), made the Federal Government aware that Australian South Sea Islanders had become a ‘forgotten people’ in Australia’s multicultural society. In 1983 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) released a report called The Call for Recognition.

The Commission’s conclusions included: that the islanders were one of the poorest groups in Australia with a century of racial discrimination and harsh treatment the main contributing factors; that the islanders as a group were in a situation of high need with particular difficulties in respect to school retention, employment skills, home ownership and health; and that the group had been denied government recognition as a distinct black minority group.

Among the Commission’s recommendations were that the Government should formally recognise Australian South Sea Islanders as a unique minority group severely disadvantaged as a consequence of racial discrimination, and that Australian South Sea Islanders should be identified as a high-need group in equal opportunity, access and equity programs.

In 1994 Australian South Sea Islanders won official recognition as a distinct ethnic group. Since then, there have been efforts by governments to correct the significant disadvantages facing these people. In 2000, the Federal Parliament formally recognised Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group. This was followed by a public apology to the Islanders for their decades of mistreatment.

Further Resources
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. What were the social values held by Australians at the beginning of the twentieth century? In what ways do you think the use of ‘Sugar Slaves’ on the Queensland cane fields might have challenged patterns of everyday life?
  2. In what ways and for what reasons did trade unions in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century intervene in the use of indentured workers from the Pacific region?
  3. Using the video clip, analyse and evaluate the use of ‘oral tradition’ as a source of historical evidence. How effective is oral tradition as a form of cultural expression by a minority group captured in this video clip?
  4. Using the data from the video clip identify how both individuals and organisations reflected the situation of the ‘Sugar Slaves’. Evaluate which form of the preservation of cultural expression is more likely to be effective.

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.