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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, communities, exploitation, heritage, identity, Pacific region, slavery, Vanuatu, see all tags


Australian South Sea Islanders Discover the Past

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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


This Digital Resource and support materials on the Pacific Stories website ( can be used to achieve the following outcomes:

4.5 identifies the meaning purpose and context of historical sources
4.6 draws conclusions about the usefulness of sources as evidence in an inquiry
4.10 selects and uses appropriate oral, written and other forms, including ICT, to
communicate effectively about the past.

In terms of ‘Working Historically’ the following historical skills can be integrated:

  • identify primary and secondary sources
  • distinguish between fact and opinion
  • examine the actions, motives, values and attitudes of people from the past
  • draw conclusions about the usefulness of sources for an historian (including a website)
  • identify perspectives of different individuals and groups

In respect to Heritage Issues – students will learn to describe some aspects of family/community heritage and will begin to appreciate the value of preserving and conserving our heritage.

This material is an extract. Teachers and students should consult the Board of Studies 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. View the video clip and write down 4 statements made in the introduction.
    For each statement determine whether it is ‘fact’ or ‘opinion’ and give reasons for your choices. Consider how statements made in the clip could be checked for historical accuracy or ‘truth’.
    After watching the whole video clip write a summary of what you think the film maker wanted to communicate to viewers by making this film.
  2. Go to the Pacific Stories website ( and click on the first fuzzy black and white box to the right. This takes you to the stories on Sugar Slaves. Click on the box of ‘Production Stills’. Two of the stills are described as re-enactments. Answer the following:
    1. What is a re-enactment and why are re-enactments used?
    2. What could the film-maker do to help make the re-enactment historically-accurate?
      The other three stills are not re-enactments. For these stills consider the following:
    3. If just one still could be kept to show to students in the future – which one would you select and why?
    4. To what extent was your choice influenced by the information accompanying each still once you opened it?
  3. Imagine you are a member of parliament representing an electorate in Queensland which includes Australian South Sea Islanders. Several of the islanders want government assistance to help trace and then visit their forbears. What reasons could you put before the relevant department/minister as to why such assistance should be given? What reasons might be given against providing such help?

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.