Image Pacific Islander women working in cane fields, c1890

TLF ID R8193

This sepia photograph shows eight indentured Pacific Islander female labourers preparing to hoe weeds in rows of cane at Hambledon Mill, near Cairns in Queensland. The women and girls, some barefoot, stand at the edge of the cane, which is above head height. The foreground is bare soil and a thickly wooded hill rises in the background. There are two captions, one printed - 'KANAKA WOMEN WORKING IN SUGAR CANE' - and one handwritten - 'Kanaka women working in cane field'. The word 'Kanaka' was a derogatory term for South Pacific Islanders.

Educational details

Educational value
  • Recruiting females such as those in the photograph to work in Qld as indentured labourers was unusual in the Pacific Islander 'trade' of the late 19th century. The majority of Islanders recruited were young men and boys. They were officially contracted to work for a three-year period before being returned home. The Pacific Islander trade was fundamentally similar to slave labour, with exploitation of one race for the profit of others.
  • The number of women recruited was never more than 9 per cent of the total Islanders in Qld at any one time. The Qld Government had insisted that female recruits must be accompanied by their husbands and have obtained their chief's consent. This ruling protected the families of unmarried women, who would lose their bride-price and suffer economic disadvantage if they were recruited from the Islands before marriage.
  • Between 1863 and 1904 it is estimated that up to 62,500 Pacific Islanders, mainly men and boys, were brought to Qld or northern New South Wales. Initially around 10,500 were recruited illegally, many being kidnapped. Later many Islanders volunteered, understanding indentured conditions better and having the protection of legislation. They came from 80 western Pacific islands, mostly the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu) and the Solomons.
  • Many Pacific Islanders suffered severe exploitation, with living and working conditions in Qld varying according to the consideration of 'masters' and overseers. Their masters had unlimited control over them and wages were meagre, occupations were limited and menial, allotted duties could not be refused and were arduous, and service was fixed under one master. As bonded workers they had few rights.
  • The death rate of Pacific Islanders in north Qld was four times higher than that of Europeans of the time. Reasons included withdrawal of or poor food, inadequate housing, medical neglect, overwork, mistreatment and intertribal and inter-island fighting. The workers' contact with the diseases of a new environment, a change of diet, insanitary conditions and a refusal of medication at times also contributed to their mortality.
  • The practice of importing overseas labour virtually stopped with Federation. In 1901 the Pacific Island Labourers Act was passed, stating that recruitment would cease after 1903. The Australian Government had the power to deport any Pacific Islander after 1906. The number of Islanders deported from 1904 to 1908 was 7,068. In 1902 Pacific Islanders produced 85.5 per cent of Qld sugar but by 1908 white labour was producing 87.9 per cent.
Year level

5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10

Other details

  • Contributor
  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
  • Description: Content provider
  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and State Library of Queensland, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements