The Dark History of Sugar and our Sweet Holiday

Picture taken by Rhiannon as we drive past fields and fields of sugarcane

The sign name for Mackay is M and SUGAR. Sugarcane is everywhere here. The industry is worth $2 billion a year in the state of Queensland, but its history is far from sweet. Sugarcane seeds arrived in Australia with the First Fleet of convicts in 1788, but it didn’t take off until it was planted in Queensland in 1862. The far north proved a perfect climate, but it was hard to find anyone willing to do the backbreaking cane cutting in the heat and humidity of the tropics.

According to the Australian Sugar Museum, people were used to the ‘cheap compliant labour of convicts’. Without convicts or slaves, it was near impossible to find anyone willing to work the fields.

Eager businessmen turned to the Islands east of Australia. They convinced, coerced and kidnapped people from the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and elsewhere. Once in Australia, these Islanders found they themselves stuck in low-payed exhausting work. They were exposed to diseases and slave-like treatment. If they tried to leave, they were arrested and imprisoned. 30% of workers died.

South Sea Islander farm workers on a sugar plantation. Many are carrying hoes. Their boss is sitting behind them.
From the State Library of Queensland

Over 40 years 62,000 Islanders were brought to Australia. Then, in 1904, the White Australia policy was introduced and these workers were sent back to their home countries.

The beach near our campsite in Cape Hillsborough National Park

It’s hard to imagine this misery as we camp in the stunning surrounds of Cape Hillsborough National Park.

There’s no Wi-Fi where we are, just a lot of kangaroos, mountains, shallow blue waters and volcanic rocks ideal for climbing.

Touch training on the beach at sunset

Author: sarahklenbort

I'm a Brisbane-based writer and mother of two children--one deaf and one hearing. I'm also a sessional academic at the University of Queensland, where I teach literature and creative writing. In 2016, my husband and I took the kids out of school and travelled around Australia with a camper trailer, visiting deaf schools along the way. When we found Toowong State School, it was so good, we decided to move to Queensland! We still have the trailer and take off for the bush whenever we can.

One thought on “The Dark History of Sugar and our Sweet Holiday”

  1. Such a beautiful place and what a contrast to the ugliness of this tainted history of sugarcane and the exploitation of all those people. Thanks for telling us about it!


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