Not sweet at all – Australia’s sugar slaves (Part 1)

South Sea Islander cane workers on a plantation in North Queensland ca. 1868Many Australians are unaware of the key role that ‘sugar slaves’ played in establishing the Australian sugar industry that is now worth around $1.5 – $2.5 billion to our country’s economy.

Throughout the last half of the 19th Century, South Sea Islanders (so-called ‘kanakas’) cleared the bush and rainforest and planted, maintained and harvested sugar cane in northern Australia. In general, these workers had few rights and suffered terrible conditions.

Amazingly, these exploitative labour market practices in the sugar industry started in 1863 – almost 60 years after Britain and the United States had made slave trading illegal.

This was also 30 years after the British Parliament had passed laws to abolish slavery in the British Empire and coincided with the civil war that aimed to end slavery in the USA.

Even after 1904 when the practice was finally outlawed, the discrimination did not end. By then, the ‘White Australia’ Policy had been introduced and was soon after followed by laws that prohibited ‘non-whites’ from working in specific rural industries.

And Australians are naive if they think that such treatment was restricted to the Islanders and the sugar industry or that we are immune from slavery, human trafficking and exploitation today.

South Sea Islanders & the Australian sugar industry

With the convict era over, ‘coloured’ labour was considered to be critical to opening up the tropical north. ‘White’ labour was scarce, far more expensive, and not believed to be suited to hard labour in this harsh climate.

South Sea Islanders arriving by ship in Bundaberg QueenslandOver a period of four decades, around 60,000 men, women and children were kidnapped, coerced, tricked or otherwise recruited from more than 80 Pacific Island Countries to work as manual labourers in the (then) colony of Queensland and northern New South Wales. The majority came from the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and Solomon Islands.

During the first five years of the practice, these workers had no legal protection whatsoever and were totally at the mercy of the people who had ‘bought’ them.

A law was passed in 1868 that aimed to stop the practice of kidnapping of Islanders (‘blackbirding’) and improve the treatment of Islanders on the boats and farms. From this time, the ‘slaves’ were classified as ‘indentured labourers’, but the workers received relatively few benefits in practice.

In theory, plantation owners were required to provide wages, food, clothing and lodging and to pay their workers’ fare home after a maximum of three years – if they survived – or to return their wages to the families of deceased workers.

The workers were also required to sign a labour contract – even though few spoke English or understood the rights outlined.

The Islanders were generally segregated from mainstream society and largely excluded from medical and other services. They were not permitted to join unions or strike and could be jailed if they left their place of employment. Physical and mental abuse and neglect were common.

Their meagre wages were a fraction of what an unskilled European worker would have received and were typically paid every six months or at the end of their three year term (if at all).

The British Navy sent ships into the Pacific in an attempt to suppress the trade and eliminate the worst ‘blackbirding’ practices – but with limited effect. One notable exception occurred in 1869 when HMS Rosario seized the schooner Daphne and released its human cargo.


(Despite having a licence to take 58 labourers to Brisbane, the skipper was caught taking almost twice that many to Fiji as the recruiters could get 6 pounds for each of 108 Islanders compared with 9 pounds for each of the 58 that the Daphne was permitted to carry. 

The ‘recruits’ were not in irons but their sleeping quarters had no bedding or matting and the ship was crowded. The islanders appeared to be undernourished and the vessel was not carrying the food, clothing or supplies for its passengers required under its licence.)

The British Parliament also tried to regulate activities in countries that were outside the protection of English law via its Pacific Islanders’ Protection Act 1872 and an 1875 amendment.

Although this legislation established a monitoring system for recruitment vessels and indentured labour, it did not outlaw the practice. For example, ships were required to carry a government representative on board to ensure that labourers were fairly and willingly recruited and not kidnapped or tricked.

It is unclear whether any of these strategies were effective as bribes and others incentives could easily have been offered to encourage officials to turn a blind eye.

(Some authors suggest that even if kidnapping was used early on, it was more likely to inspire retaliation and would not therefore have been a sustainable practice. Reports of ‘stealing’ people may have resulted from ‘miscommunication’ and cultural differences – e.g. where labourers were recruited voluntarily but no compensation was paid to the friends and families who were left behind).

The Queensland Government (pre-Federation) also introduced laws governing the importation and employment of labourers from 1880 – but not necessarily to help the workers.

Early on, some Islanders worked as domestics and shepherds on grazing properties and on cotton farms and cattle stations further inland. However, new licences would now only be granted for work in tropical or semi-tropical agriculture within 30 miles of the coast. This included banana, pineapple and other plantations, as well as the sugar cane fields.

An 1884 amendment further limited Islanders’ employment to menial agricultural jobs, such as clearing, planting and weeding, and left the more skilled jobs, such as fencing, for ‘white’ workers. It also explicitly excluded Islanders from domestic work and jobs in sugar mills and maritime industries.

Loading cane South Isis N.C. Railway ca.1900(The new restrictions resulted in labour shortages during this period that were met by illegally trafficking thousands of workers from New Guinea – many of whom died soon after their arrival in Queensland.)

A ban on indenturing Pacific Island labourers was passed and would have come into force from 1 January 1891, but it was postponed due to an economic recession in the sugar industry.

In 1901, Australia’s new federal Parliament introduced nation-wide legislation that aimed to protect jobs for ‘white’ Australians (the so-called ‘White Australia’ policy). This included the:

  • Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (that applied to people from Africa, Asia or any island in the Indian or Pacific Oceans)
  • Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 (that ended the recruitment of Pacific Islanders after 1903, granted compensation to the sugar industry, and gave authorities the power to deport any Islander found in Australia after December 1906).

South Sea Islanders standing in front of a house in Mackay in 1907Over 7,000 of the workers who had arrived in the last 15 years of trade were deported back to their Pacific Island homes and many families were split up. Around 2,000 Islanders were permitted to stay and a number of other Islanders who did not want to, or could not, return home managed to escape or hide from the authorities.

The Islanders who stayed in Australia and their descendants found it hard to find employment and were treated much like indigenous Australians at the time. For example, they could not join unions, be served alcohol or take out bank loans. 

Workplace incentives favoured employees of European descent and the Queensland Sugar Cultivation Act 1913 made it illegal to use ‘coloured’ labour in the sugar industry from 1919 to 1964 (apart from a short period during World War II).

Cane farmers reading newspapers Tully ca. 1929(‘White’ workers still faced back-breaking work and gruelling conditions in the cane fields but were paid fair wages and enjoyed much better living conditions. 

Throughout the 20th Century, Australia progressively improved upon the early pioneering generations of mechanical cutting machines and loaders. By 1979 the industry had been completely mechanised. This meant that sugar cane could be cropped without the need for pre-harvest burning and significantly reduced the number of manual labourers required.)

Similar laws were passed restricting ‘non-white’ employment in other primary industries, such as the Banana Industry Preservation Act 1921 (but exemptions were provided for labourers already working in the industry).

Until 1942, the Islanders were only eligible for one quarter the amount of a full old age pension and they did not receive full citizenship until a constitutional amendment in 1967.

In the early 1990s, the Australian South Sea Islanders were finally recognised by Parliament as a distinct ethnic group who had suffered “a century of racial discrimination and harsh treatment”.

But the South Sea Islanders were not alone. Other racial groups received similar treatment in Australia and other British colonies, such as British Colombia (Canada) and Fiji, from the mid 19th Century. These included large numbers of Chinese and Indian labourers, as well as many of the Japanese pearlers.

And discrimination, exploitation and human trafficking for labor and sexual bondage continue to this day in Australia and around the world.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – Slavery, human trafficking & exploitation in Australia today (here).


The Slave Trade Act 1807 made it illegal for British ships to carry slaves between Africa, the West Indies and America and stopped ship owners from purchasing insurance on vessels carrying slave cargo. 

The United States and many other countries also outlawed the slave trade in the early 19th Century but internal slavery (and illegal slave trading) continued.

Britain legally abolished slavery throughout the British Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 and subsequent acts related to the British West Indies in 1838 and India in 1843.

Slavery was abolished in the French colonies in the 1790s but was reintroduced by Napoleon before being abolished again in 1848. 

The United States abolished slavery in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.


Sources: (Accessed 19-21 Aug 2014 unless otherwise noted)

Photo credits: (Images are out of copyright & reproduced with permission from the State Library of Queensland unless otherwise noted)

Categories: Workplaces

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6 replies

  1. ​Great piece! Really learn’t something. Perhaps a reminder of Australia’s sugar history could be made through introducing Fairtrade certified sugar from the Pacific island!

  2. Reblogged this on Feng Shui Steps and commented:
    Following my Cherry Picking story, this is part 1 of a very interesting article that I’d suggest you to read – part 2 follows soon


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