Advance Australia! Chapter 11


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Sugar had rapidly become an important crop for both Mackay and Queensland. Early history, coloured labour, prejudice, kanakas, swindling, Indian workers, Cingalese workers.

The early history of sugar growing in Mackay:

Although the cultivation of wheat is developing very rapidly, sugar-growing is at present the only agricultural industry of any importance that Queensland possesses. Her climate and soil are no doubt favourable to others, and, in small quantities, tobacco, coffee, and cotton have been grown successfully. But, so far, sugar alone has been cultivated to any great extent, and undoubtedly it is an industry that has a great future before it. It is only of late years that it has commanded much attention, and it is extremely interesting to see the rapid progress that has been made. For a long time sugar-growing languished. As is always the case in a new country, the pioneers were not altogether successful, and the losses which many of the early planters sustained deterred capitalists from investing their money until it was proved whether sugar could be successfully grown or not.

To Mackay belongs the honour of being the parent of all sugar-growing in Queensland. In 1866 Mr. John Spiller first made the experiment of growing cane in this district, and the end of the year saw twelve acres growing, which was increased to 140 acres the following year.

In 1868 the first mill was erected by Mr. John Ewen Davidson, and the output for the first season was 230 tons of sugar. From this date the progress was steady until 1875, when a serious visitation of "rust" took place. This disease for a long time puzzled all the efforts of scientific men and planters either to discover its cause or to arrest its progress, and its effects were so serious that at one time the sugar industry seemed about to entirely collapse. Many of the planters were working on borrowed capital, and the ravages of the rust were so great as to completely ruin some of them. Even now the real origin of the disease remains a mystery. All that is certain is that some varieties of cane are more liable to it than others, and the epidemic has so far been of service that it has enabled the planters to determine what varieties can be most profitably grown, and turned their attention to the economical working of the plantations--a consideration that had been too much effaced by the enormous profits made before the appearance of the disease.

In two years the district had pretty well recovered itself, and in 1879 the crop amounted to 10,000 tons. The following season was a bad one, and the yield fell off to 7500 tons. In 1881 10,000 tons was again reached, and then a "rush" on sugar commenced among the southern capitalists. The success of sugar-growing was considered to be assured, and, after the manner of a new country, a perfect spasm of speculation set in. Many of the older planters of Mackay took advantage of the sugar mania that prevailed down south, and sold their plantations at high prices.

The profits made about this time were very great. One of the oldest planters in Mackay in one year cleared £40,000 on his crop, and the next year sold one of his plantations for £95,000 and the other one for £85,000. The run on land anywhere within twenty miles of Mackay was astounding, and every acre, good, bad, and indifferent, was taken up. Land that had been for years considered barely worth paying rent for as a pastoral selection, and that nothing but the most vivid imagination could suppose capable of growing sugar, was readily disposed of to southern speculators at £10 per acre.

In the course of two years (1882, 1883) eleven new mills were erected, with a crushing capacity of 12,000 tons per season, bringing the total of the whole district to more than 30,000 tons. Taking the average price at £25 per ton, the annual output of the district has risen in fifteen years from £3500 to £350,000, and the total value of the sugar grown during that time is fully two millions sterling. (1) When we consider that this represents merely the probationary period of sugar-growing in the district, we may safely predict that its future is a great one; and the impetus that the industry has received from the tremendous accession of capital invested during the last few years, makes it certain that the progress that has already been made will be trifling compared to the advance that will take place during the next ten years.

There are now thirty mills at work in the district, and others in course of construction. The white population has more than doubled during the past two years, and now amounts to 7000.

The sugar industry had a tremendous need for cheap labour:

The great rock ahead of sugar-growing in Queensland at present is the difficulty of obtaining coloured labour, and it is astonishing that the planters do not display more enthusiasm on the subject. They are at present waiting with apparent indifference until their masters--the working-men--have made up their minds how to legislate in the matter.

No class in the colony is so entirely at the mercy of legislation as the planters. No class has shown itself more apathetic to its own interests until it is too late to protect them. The planters are a small community; but the absolute identity of their interests, and the fact that numbers of them live close together, makes it very easy for them to co-operate. Their trade is one involving an enormous outlay of capital, and a heavy current expenditure, so that any interruption in the work on the plantations is a matter which entails very serious loss. They are absolutely dependent for their existence upon being able to obtain a sufficient supply of coloured labour to do their work in the cane. It has been conclusively proved, in the first place, that white men cannot and will not do the work done by niggers in the field; and, in the second place, that if white labour were available, it would only be at wages which the planter could never afford to pay. The sugar industry, therefore, is entirely dependent upon coloured labour.

The working classes were strongly against the importation of foreign laborers, a position which Finch-Hatton thought was against their own best interests:

The legislation of Queensland is entirely in the hands of the working-men; and it is only in a new colony, where a six-months' residence suffrage gives full scope to ignorance and prejudice, that we can realise the suicidal mistakes which they are occasionally capable of making. A more extraordinary instance of inability on the part of working-men to understand their own interests than is afforded by the agitation against coloured labour in Queensland cannot be imagined.

We will take the case of Mackay. Before sugar-growing was started there were not a hundred residents in the whole district, and there were never likely to be any more as long as it was merely used for pastoral purposes. It is now one of the most thriving and rapidly increasing places in Queensland, with a population, as has been above stated, of 7000 whites and 3500 kanakas. Last year's sugar crop was worth over £300,000, and next year's will be very much larger. The amount of money annually expended in wages in the district is startling. The monthly paysheet of one of the plantations alone is £5000. There is a very fair foundry in the town, and the demand for timber is so great as positively to have run the southern markets dry at times. Houses are being run up as fast as material can be procured, and are let before the piles to carry them are in the ground.

The whole of this progress is entirely due to the development of the sugar industry, which is, as has been said, dependent upon coloured labour. If this were withdrawn, the Mackay district would shut up like a match-box. And yet, so obstinate are the prejudices of the working-classes in the colony, that the very men in the district themselves--carpenters, sawyers, ploughmen, engineers, and all who get their living entirely from the plantations--are foremost in the insane outcry that has been raised against coloured labour. The planters are represented as slave-drivers, and as taking the bread out of the mouths of white men to put it into the mouths of niggers. The fact is that the niggers do work in the plantations that no white man could or would do in such a climate, and by doing it they develop an industry that supplies thousands of white workmen with a means of living in clover.

In return the working-men of Queensland are doing all they can to bring in a Bill for prohibiting the introduction of Black labour, which, if passed, would for a time paralyse the growing of sugar throughout the colony. That so important an industry as the sugar-growing of Queensland has now become could be permanently destroyed by any such false legislation I do not for a moment believe.

The result of any attempt on the part of the Brisbane Government to stop Black labour would inevitably be to make the north of Queensland, where the sugar is grown, insist upon separation from the south.

South Sea Islanders, known as kanakas, provided most of the labour for the sugar cane farms:

Up to the present time, the coloured labour market of Queensland has been supplied by kanakas, as the inhabitants of the South Sea Islands are called. The work "kanaka" is really a Maori word, signifying a man, but in Australia has come to be applied exclusively to the inhabitants of the South Sea Islands. The trade is carried on by means of schooners which run between Queensland and the Islands. These vessels are usually the joint property of one or two planters and the captain, who share the risks and the profits of the venture between them. At first there was not much difficulty in inducing the kanakas to come to Queensland and enter into an engagement for a term of years' work there. But as the demand increased, greater difficulty was experienced in obtaining a sufficient supply; and there is no doubt that in many cases the captains of these vessels resorted to unlawful means to induce the kanakas to leave their homes. Kidnapping became frequent, and as a matter of course this aroused the resentment of the natives, who in one or two instances have retaliated by massacring the crews of the schooners that visited their islands. The kanakas themselves, when well treated, are a cheerful, hard-working, and rather intelligent race.

There is not the slightest doubt that as a general rule they are well treated on the plantations, and perfectly contented and happy. There are, of course, instances where they have been treated with injustice and cruelty, but they are the exception and not the rule; and a convincing proof of this is to be found in the fact that many kanakas elect to remain in the country of their own free will, and many others return a second time after having paid a visit to their native country.

The kanakas were swindled mercilessly by the local shopkeepers:

Not a shilling of their wages do they ever carry back to their own country, either in money or in money's value. The whole of their wages passes into the hands of the storekeepers of the nearest town, whose right to plunder them there is none to dispute. It is illegal to supply liquor to kanakas, so the storekeeper has no rival to fear in spoiling them of their hard-earned gains. The storekeepers of Mackay have earned an unenviable notoriety by the alacrity with which they have turned the ignorance of the unsuspecting savage to account. They import a special class of fancy goods, of the most utterly worthless description, and realise fabulous profits by selling them to the kanakas for about four hundred times what they are worth. There is no one to interfere with them, and it is difficult to see how it could be done, for, of course, at the end of his agreement the kanaka is entirely his own master, and if he likes to pay an exorbitant price for a worthless article, there is no way of preventing him. ...

Of course the storekeepers justify their conduct by saying that as long as the kanaka is satisfied they fail to see what injury he sustains. That is all very well; but to my mind there is something intensely melancholy in the spectacle of an industrious savage returning to his native country, after three years' toil in a foreign land, with nothing to show for it but a musket that would kill him if he tried to fire it off, and a cotton handkerchief that would fly to pieces if he blew his nose in it.

A proposal to import Indian workers was highly unpopular:

In the meantime the present supply of labour from the South Sea Islands is rapidly becoming quite inadequate to meet the increasing demand. Not only has the cost of obtaining kanakas greatly increased, but much difficulty is experienced in inducing them to come to the country. In view of this state of affairs, the attention of the planters was naturally directed to India as a source of labour supply. Both from her enormous population and from her geographical position, the country seems to be most fitted to supply the requirements of Queensland in this respect. It is known that in India there are millions of coolies exactly suited for the class of employment that Queensland can supply, and to transfer some of them from the one country to the other would be to confer a benefit upon both. It would help, if ever so little, to relieve the great difficulty which is experienced in India in finding work for the enormous working population, and at the same time it would supply what is rapidly becoming a pressing want in Queensland.

The proposal to introduce coolies into the colony was met with a universal howl of rage. For electioneering purposes it was invaluable, and dismal pictures of the future of Queensland overrun by niggers, and her white population starving, formed the pièce de résistance in every idiot candidate's address.

Other attempts were made to import cheap labour, with poor results:

The very serious position in which the planters now find themselves has induced them to try several experiments for the purpose of obtaining such low-class labour as they require to carry on their operations. So far, these experiments have all resulted in something worse than failure. A shipment of Cingalese [descendants of the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka] was brought down. Anything less like agricultural labourers never was seen. They were arrayed in fine linen, with tortoise-shell combs stuck in their hair, and looked as if they had never done a harder day's work than stealing their own dinner in their lives. Some of them were very well-educated, and spoke three or four languages; but evidently they had all been induced to come under false pretences, and had no notion of the sort of work that they were expected to perform. The majority of them absconded from service, taking with them as much of their employers' property as they could conveniently remove, as a souvenir of their visit to Mackay. A few Malays have been introduced, and a shipment of Maltese were tried, but with very discouraging results.

(1): In comparison to Mackay's sugar yield in 1884 of over 30,000 tons at £25 per ton, the Mackay region currently produces about 1,000,000 tons of sugar per year at a market price of $260/ton, which is a much lower price in real terms.

See also:

The history of sugar-growing in Mackay (PDF file, 577 kb)
The Kanakas and the Cane Fields
Pacific Island Labourers Act Amendment Act 1884 (Qld)

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