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 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Sikh cane workers

Stories of Indian workers in the sugar cane industry

Indian workers played a significant part in the sugar industry in New South Wales. During the 1890s and 1890s Indian Hawkers and pedlars settled in rural areas in NSW and Victoria. They were collectively known as ‘Hindoos’ although the majority of them were Sikhs. Other Indians found work as labourers in sugar cane cultivation and some rented farms to grow sugar cane. In 1893 information tabled in the NSW Parliament showed that there were 521 ‘Hindoos’ in the Richmond, Tweed and Clarence River districts, with the largest number living on the Richmond River.


Sylvia Singh's story

"The Hindus, Sikhs and all of them were called, even the Muslims were called Hindus by the Australians. They came from Punjab in the 1880s. There had been a famine in India, and these were mainly people with farms, and they came out here as farming labourers. They came here because it was a British colony, and they were allowed to come out here from India because India Punjab had been taken over by the British in 1857.

They came out here on sailing ships, which on some of the records, it does say that some were swept overboard because they could not afford to pay the fare, so they were out on the decks as steerage passengers, with their own food and everything they required on the trip. Sometimes they were just called “Natives of India,” with no names."



Neville Singh' story

"When I first started, I did about half a year shoulder-lugging. You had to cut it, heap it up in shoulder loads, and then put it on the trucks. It finished then. When I really started, it finished then, and then the loaders came in. You would only cut it and drop it, and they would load it and pick it up. That shoulder loading was very, very hard work."



 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Canecutters lined up with stalk of cane, c1940.

Tweed Regional Museum Collection. TH128-11


The Immigration Restriction and Pacific Islanders Acts, both passed in 1901, were introduced as part of the White Australia Policy, and essentially put an end to the practice of bringing contract labour (either legal or illegal) into Australia from the Pacific to work on the cane plantations, and by 1908 most of the Islanders in Australia had been deported back to their homes. Farmers in the Tweed still required workers for their plantations, and newly-arrived immigrants fulfilled this need, especially after World War II when refugees from European countries devastated by war received financial assistance from the Australian Government to immigrate to Australia provided they work for two years to repay the debt.

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

A cane cutting gang around 1930 in the area at the back of Burleigh Heads.

Tweed Regional Museum Collection. No: TH125-32


Work on the cane fields was hard and physically demanding, and not all the men who presented themselves at the mills for work were able to remain in the job. The cane was cut by hand with crude, often handmade knives. The cane cutters worked in gangs of seven or eight, some of the gangs also had a cook who would provide all their meals. Some of the cane cutters lived in tents, others travelled from their homes to the plantations. The Ganger would lead the gang and determine how fast the men had to work. Cane cutters worked from dawn until it was too dark to see, encountered rats and snakes in the cane and often suffered cuts, blisters and boils.

Ernie's Story

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Hand loading cane by shin stick method into cane punt 1914.

Tweed Regional Museum Collection. TH161-22


”The cane was cut off at ground level and topped, then put into rows of heaps, so the farmer could haul in field trucks for us to load – you could load up to three tons per truck per man but when trucks were short it was possible to load four tons. The farmer would then tie the cane down, haul the field trucks out to the main line by horses where a small locomotive would haul them to Crabbes Creek Railway station for loading onto rail trucks and taken to the Condong mill for crushing.”

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Shin Stick. A shaped stick, approximately 1 meter long, frequently made from Kurrajong wood, because it is light and pliable.

Tweed Regional Museum Collection. No: MUS1998.176


“…so five of us came to the Tweed to help out …The cutting was the same but loading of the punts [flat bottomed boats] was quite different as we had to use a shin stick, which was a stick about 2 foot 6 inches long. When the farmer brought the cane to the river bank you would put the shin stick under a bundle, what you could carry on your thigh, and walk along a plank to the punt. The plank was only twelve inches wide. If the tide was out you would have to walk along two planks which was fair way with a bundle of cane. The planks were 20 feet in length, so if you lost your balance you’d end up in the mud.”

Ernie Cobb, recalled in 2008



Last Updated: 18 October 2013