Sugar Slaves

Australian Workers Film Guide


A revealing documentary about the abominable use of Pacific Islander slaves on the Queensland sugar cane plantations between 1863 and 1904. 60,000 people were either abducted or enticed to work as indentured labour under slave like conditions. Many would die on the plantations. When the practice was banned years later, the introduction of the White Australia policy would see most of the survivors deported, while a small number remained and struggled to be accepted by Australian society. Those returning to their homelands also faced feelings of social and cultural dislocation. 

While exploring the history of the Queensland sugar cane slave trade through historical footage, stills, newspaper headlines and re-enactments, the film’s poignancy comes from profiling the family stories of a number of descendants as they grapple with the enormity of past injustices and seek personal and national reconciliation. There are many moving moments in the film, such as Joe and Monica Leo returning to the beach on Pentecost Island where their grandparents were abducted, Des Eggmolesse tending to family graves in Bundaberg, and Phyllis Corowa recounting how her father walked along the beach to Sydney to avoid deportation.

After the 1890s Depression, the film also exposes racism within the Australian working class towards the sugar slaves, with the Australian Workers Union determined to exclude all but white laborers on the cane fields. This forced the islanders to work under the cover of darkness, until they were later needed during the Second World War.

Special Notes/Achievements

Commissioned by ABC TV.

  • Official selection – Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival (USA), 1995
  • Official selection – Golden Gate Awards, San Francisco Film Society (USA), 1995
  • Official selection – New York Festivals (USA), 1996 [1]

[1] Screen Australia (n.d.), Sugar Slaves, The Screen Guide [website], viewed Jan 21 2023  <>

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 56 mins

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Film Producer: Penny Robbins, Trevor Graham,

Film Writer: Jean-Jacques Portail, Jonathan Jolmes (Narration),

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