1863 - 2000

Australian South Sea Islanders

State Library of Queensland

Today’s Australian South Sea Islanders have a special place in Queensland’s cultural diversity and history. They are the descendants of South Sea Islanders brought to Queensland from 1863 to 1904 from 80 Melanesian islands to work the State’s cotton and sugar plantations. The 62,000 men, women and children were considered a cheap source of labour, with many being kidnapped, tricked or blackbirded. By 1908, many had been deported under the “White Australia” policy and those who remained suffered harsh treatment and discrimination. Today, Australian South Sea Islanders have a unique identity in Queensland, which is embedded in a rich heritage and vibrant culture.

Bittersweet journey
Photographs from the John Oxley Library reveal multiple layers of Australian South Sea Islanders’ experience during the 19th and early 20th centuries in Queensland. Captured through the lens of time, we see cultural diversity, and the contribution to heritage made by Islanders who were brought to Queensland as indentured labourers from 1863 through 1904. Many of these labourers were boys in their early teens, coerced to Queensland by dubious and unethical means, often trickery and kidnapping. We see transformation of their social and cultural identity through changes of dress, work and play. Many images depict very difficult and dangerous work conditions, and reveal a fraught time in Queensland’s history. Some 150 years later we realise what a significant contribution Australian South Sea Islanders have made to our collective heritage.
The Written truth
Heritage maps from the John Oxley Library show the world as it was depicted from the early 1860s to the early 1900s, when South Sea Islanders arrived by vessel from nearby islands to work as indentured labourers in Queensland. Over time the maps change, with variant spelling of names, the addition of islands and more. 
Australian South Sea Islanders today
More than 1000 contemporary images donated by photographer Brian Rogers to the State Library of Queensland begin to document the people and places that make up the many Australian South Sea Islander communities along Queensland's coast. These images are the first major contribution of Australian South Sea Islander life to the State Library’s collection since the early historical images of 150 years ago.
A history of South Sea Islanders in Queensland
Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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