Investigation 2

Why were workers from the South Pacific islands important to Queensland’s development?

The tropical areas of Queensland around Mackay, Bundaberg and Cairns were suitable for the cultivation of sugar cane, and large plantations were established. Sugar was exported to the other Australian colonies where it was used in a variety of products, including sweets.

In order to compete with the sugar imports from places such as Fiji, Queensland’s sugar cane growers needed a source of cheap labour. The work of clearing the land and cultivating the cane in the heat and humidity was considered too difficult for ‘white men’. So, the plantation owners imported people from the South Pacific Islands, in particular New Caledonia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. These Polynesian people were brought to Queensland as indentured labourers, meaning that they were the responsibility of the plantation owner for a fixed period of time, usually three years. They were paid at the end of their service, and then returned to their islands.

Your Task

Investigate the working conditions of South Pacific Islander workers, and their significance to the Queensland sugar cane industry.


  1. In groups of four, read the article about Bingera Plantation. List the kinds of work that you might have seen on a sugar plantation in north Queensland in the late 1800s. Work together to create a poster of the types of work. Label the jobs to indicate whether they could be done by people or machines or both.
  2. Examine the photograph. What kinds of work do you imagine the South Pacific Islanders would be doing on a sugar plantation? What do you think is the job of the man in the top section of the photograph? On your posters, tick all the jobs that you imagine would have been done by South Pacific Islander workers.
  3. Read the three text extracts about Polynesian labour. Complete a group chart outlining the ‘plus, minus and interesting’ facts relating to South Pacific Islander workers in Queensland in the late 1800s.
  4. In your group, brainstorm ways in which you might have changed the working conditions of South Pacific Islanders in Queensland in the 1800s. Present your ideas to the class.
  5. As a class, discuss whether the South Pacific Islander workers would have continued to be important to the sugar plantation owners if their conditions had been different.