‘They put them in galvanised iron huts as cold as an ice chest in winter.’ The little-known story behind Australia’s sugar trade

Sugar. You could be forgiven for thinking of it as a kind of inconsequential good, a humble everyday staple, selling for a couple of bucks per 3kg bag. But the trade in sugar changed the world.

Sugar has shaped the world

The story of sugar starts some 10,000 years ago. Temperatures were warming, and the conditions were right for people in Papua New Guinea at the time to begin the domestication of sugarcane; they’d chew on the reeds, releasing the sweet juice inside and getting a calorie kick. From there, sugar spreads around the Pacific and Indian oceans about 3,500 years ago, before making its way to India where it is first refined.

Now that sugar is becomes easier to transport, that technique sees sugar spread east to China, and west to Persia and further afield. At this time, sugar was expensive, rare, and a luxury item.


Sugar was imported from the Middle East to Europe for use as both a medicine and as a luxury food additive for the wealthy and royal.

But it would take the Europeans’ westward push to the new world to drive the price of sugar down, creating new demand for sugar for those outside the wealthy classes; it was a key commodity that would be produced by European powers in the new world, and the cheap forced labour of slaves to do it; in the process causing a great movement of people ripped away from their life and their land. The sugar trade changed the world, in ways that are still present today.

Columbus took sugarcane to Hispaniola; the Portuguese turned Brazil into a sugar-producing powerhouse; the English began in Barbados before ruining that island and jumping ship to Jamaica. And this, all of this, was built on the backs of slaves.

Sugarcane needs tropical weather to grow. It likes the humidity and the heat, it’s a hardy plant; harvesting by hand is hard work, and before the harvesting machines of the modern era there was only one way to do that, and that was with manual labour.

And the cheapest labour was slave labour.

So some 13 million Africans were ripped from the lands they knew and taken to the new world. European empires were built on this trade, and the home markets became hooked on sugar. The ‘democratisation’ of sugar, whereby what was once a luxury ingredient became an affordable staple of households, was driven by slave labour, and soon enough English campaigns to abolish slavery would seize upon this injustice.

“In every pound of sugar used, we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh,” wrote the abolitionist William Fox in 1791, in his pamphlet, ‘An Address to the People of Great Britain on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum’.

Eventually, slavery was abolished. We tend to think of slavery as a distinctly European and American phenomenon. But our own sugar industry has a sordid history of using ‘indentured’ labour to get going.

The Queensland sugar industry

Queensland is the home of the Australian sugar industry — some 95 percent of our sugar production comes from the sunshine state. But from the 1860’s up until federation in 1901, the sugar industry in Queensland — which got towns like Mackay and Townsville going — had its own sordid, shameful past.

From the late 1800’s, some 55,000 South Sea Islanders — from places like the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and more — were brought to Australia to work in the sugar cane fields of Queensland.  The process of acquiring these workers, who were referred to as kanakas at the time, would become known as blackbirding. The techniques used to bring them from their island homes to Queensland involved persuasion, coercion, and outright force, and the promises made to them during recruitment often vanished once they arrived.

Once here, legislation prevented them from resigning their posts. If they ‘absconded’, they were imprisoned for three months; they were prohibited by law from organising like others were doing in trade unions at the time. They were afforded nothing in the way of rights.

The conditions were awful; often living on site at the plantation, they signed contracts for three years employment, for the legislated pay of six pounds a year, during which time they had little in terms of rights — they were slaves by any other metric.

An interview in Mackay’s Daily Mercury from 1950 with someone who was involved in blackbirding back in the day, recalled the conditiions:

“They put them in galvanised iron huts as cold as an ice chest in winter, and in the summer the huts were so hot the natives could not live in them,” they wrote. Natives, in this instance, were those from the South Sea Islands, from places like Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji.

“We used two boats during blackbirding operations,” the article continued. “One boat went on the beach to do the recruiting, and the other kept about 50 or 60 yards out to cover those ashore.

“Then we would go towards the shore in the boats. Everyone was armed — the native crew boys with Schneiders, and the whites with Winchesters and six-shooters.”

It was hard work in tropical Queensland, and the rate of deaths for South Sea Islander labourers “averaged 51.1 per 1,000 between 1868 and 1904,” according to the Australian Human Rights Commission. The mortality rate peaked at 147.7 per 1000 in 1884; that contrasts with a mortality rate of 15-17 per 1000 for Anglo-Australians in tropical Queensland at the same time.

The practice ended with with the introduction of the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 in the newly formed federal parliament, with some advocating for the policy for humane and compassionate reasons, and others, well, not so much. This was the era of the white Australia policy.

Some, like prime minister Edmund Barton, wanted to see blackbirding stopped once and for all.

“Putting aside all questions but the one great question of right and wrong, this Government thinks that the traffic in itself is bad, and must be ended,” he said at the time. “The traffic, we say, is bad, both for the kanaka and for the white man. It is bad for the kanaka … I say this because in some aspects it must be slavery.”

The opposition leader at the time, George Reid, had less admirable motivations to end the practice. 

“They say in clause 3 that no Pacific Islands labourer shall enter Australia on or after the 1st day of March, 1901. That is a prohibition on account of race and colour—a totally plain, straightforward prohibition to all eternity of the Pacific Islands labourer. That is the sort of legislation that some of us are in favour of.”

Emelda Davis, a second generation descendant of South Sea Islanders who were brought to Australia during the 1800’s, has written that 55,000 South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia to work in the sugar industry. Others have estimated that in the 1890’s these people accounted for around 85 percent of the sugar industry workforce.

The Pacific Island Labourers Act changed all that and provided for the deportation of some 7,500 South Sea Islander labourers (it’s estimated that around 2,500 were allowed to remain for various reasons). By 1912, Pacific Islanders would make up just four percent of the labour force growing sugar in Queensland.

It’s a histroy which has been at best, largely forgotten, and at worst, wilfully ignored.  


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