Australian Screen

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South Sea Islanders Cutting Cane (1899)

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South Sea Islanders cutting cane education content clip 1

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

This clip filmed in 1899 is one of the few pieces of footage of Melanesian labourers cutting cane in Queensland. The workers stack the cane onto a wagon while their supervisor keeps a watchful eye.

Curator’s notes

This footage was taken by the official photographer of the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Frederick Charles Wills, and his assistant Henry William Mobsby. The department commissioned them to capture scenes of Queensland agricultural life using a static Lumière Cinematographe.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This silent black-and-white clip shows a labour gang of Melanesian men cutting sugar cane in Nambour, Queensland, in 1899. While one group hand-cuts the cane, slashes off the leaves and throws the stalks onto a pile, other labourers collect the stalks and stack them onto a wagon. The labourers’ work is supervised by an overseer.

Educational value points

  • The clip is taken from film used to entice British farmers into migrating to Australia. It portrays the cheap labour available to sugarcane growers and provides a rare historical record of Melanesian cane workers in Australia.
  • In the second half of the 19th century, the Queensland sugarcane industry rapidly expanded and a recruitment drive began for cheap farm labour. Between 1847 and 1904, nearly 60,000 Melanesians, also known as South Pacific Islanders, were indentured (contracted into service). They were contracted for three years and worked 10-hour days in harsh conditions, earning a wage of £6 a year (in 1907, the basic weekly wage was £2 2 shillings). During recruitment, or 'black birding’ as it became known, Islanders were often deceived and sometimes taken against their will.
  • The clip offers historical insight into Australia’s early attitudes towards immigrant labour. While the employment of Islanders to do the physically demanding work of cane cutting was embraced by sugarcane growers, their enthusiasm was contrary to the political push for restrictions on 'non-white’ immigration. At the end of 1901, the Pacific Island Labourers Bill was enacted to phase out the recruitment of Islanders by 1903, and from 1904 most workers were deported. Descendants of those who stayed in Australia number around 20,000 today.
  • The clip shows early footage of sugar production in Australia. Sugar cane probably originated in New Guinea, and the first successful sugarcane crops in Australia were grown by Captain Louis Hope (1817–94) in 1862 near Brisbane. By 1865, Hope had also opened Australia’s first raw sugar mill. As the industry expanded, sugar cane spread north and by 1877 mills were established as far north as Cairns. Sugar cane was also grown in northern New South Wales.
  • Early sugarcane farming, from planting through to harvesting, was undertaken manually. Each year, between July and December, the cane was burnt off and then hand-cut by workers in gangs using flat broad-bladed knives. It was then loaded onto horse-drawn wagons and taken to the closest mill.
  • This actuality footage was shot on a Lumière Cinématographe camera by the official photographer of the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fredrick Charles Wills, and his assistant Henry William Mobsby. The film was sponsored by the Queensland Agriculture Department, and represents one of the few times that Islander cane gangs were captured on film.

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australianscreen is produced by the National Film and Sound Archive. By using the website you agree to comply with the terms and conditions described elsewhere on this site. The NFSA may amend the 'Conditions of Use’ from time to time without notice.

All materials on the site, including but not limited to text, video clips, audio clips, designs, logos, illustrations and still images, are protected by the Copyright Laws of Australia and international conventions.

When you access australianscreen you agree that:

  • You may retrieve materials for information only.
  • You may download materials for your personal use or for non-commercial educational purposes, but you must not publish them elsewhere or redistribute clips in any way.
  • You may embed the clip for non-commercial educational purposes including for use on a school intranet site or a school resource catalogue.
  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

All other rights reserved.

ANY UNAUTHORISED USE OF MATERIAL ON THIS SITE MAY RESULT IN CIVIL AND CRIMINAL LIABILITY.

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