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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 - blackbirding, civics and citizenship, culture, identity, Pacific region, Vanuatu, 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


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.

This clip is directly linked to Level 6 Civic and Citizenship domain in which Australia’s place in the Asia Pacific region and the world are examined.

Other Links to VELS:
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

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’. 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. Use evidence from the video clip to list the work that women from the Pacific Islands did on the canefields. Using material from all four video clips choose one Pacific Islander – female or male, with a particular type of work – and write a detailed diary entry, called ‘A day in the life of a Pacific Islander on the Queensland canefields’. Share some of your stories by reading them to the class.
  2. Why do you think that Phyllis’s grandmother never talked about her experiences on the canefields?
  3. How reliable are the black and white photos as evidence of work and life on the canefields? Who do you think took these photos?
  4. Why were the Pacific Islander workers unable to better their working conditions? Is it possible for groups of workers today to work in similar conditions? Give reasons and evidence for your answer.

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.