By Queensland Museum Network
Museum of Tropical Queensland
An area 'best suited' for sugar
A long established sugarcane growing area lies just 100 km north of Townsville in the fertile plains of the Herbert River Valley (the Valley), land traditionally owned by the people of Girringun (a collective of nine Aboriginal groups).
Macknade Mill, Halifax by Courtesy of Wilmar SugarQueensland Museum Network
In 1864, European explorer George Dalrymple entered the area, and his inland expedition from Cardwell opened up the region for the development of the sugar industry. Dalrymple described the land as “undoubtedly the best suited” for the growing of sugar in Queensland.
The first cane was planted in the Valley in 1868. Land clearing started, with devastating repercussions for the people of Girringun through loss of their traditional lands.
Gairloch plantation house, Herbert River (1873) by Courtesy of Hinchinbrook LibraryQueensland Museum Network
Large-scale farms or ‘plantations’ spread across the landscape.
Gairloch opened the first mill in 1872 followed by Macknade, Bemerside, Hamleigh and Victoria.
Each plantation required a resident labour force, a crushing mill and wharf for transporting raw sugar to Dungeness, the little port at the mouth of the Herbert River.
Planters retreat (1876) by Courtesy of Hinchinbrook LibraryQueensland Museum Network
Around 1875, the first hotel opened. Called the ‘Planters Retreat’, it was located on the coastal stock route and became the half-way stop between Gairloch and the ‘Camping Reserve’.
The reserve soon filled with permanent residences and shops, with market gardens established by the Chinese community who were amongst the first small-scale growers of sugarcane.
In 1879 the reserve was named ‘Ingham’ after William Bairstow Ingham, once a local plantation owner.
The labour force
The plantations required an extensive labour force capable of working in harsh, tropical conditions. Considered beyond the capabilities of white Australians, plantation owners first engaged local Aboriginal people although large numbers of labourers were not available.
South Sea Islanders Chipping Cane Lower Herbert Area (1899) by Courtesy of Hinchinbrook LibraryQueensland Museum Network
To address the shortage, labourers were recruited from Asia and the Torres Strait although most were from Melanesia - Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Louisiades and the Solomon Islands. All were indentured to an employer for a specific period of time.
Many of the Pacific Islanders were kidnapped in a practice known as ‘blackbirding’ and faced punishing conditions and back-breaking work during their three year indenture. They were known collectively as ‘Kanakas’ (a term now regarded as derogatory) and became the backbone of the early sugar industry.
Thousands of their descendants live in Queensland and are known as Australian South Sea Islanders.
The beginning of the end of the plantation era
In 1880, August Anderssen, together with a group of other hopeful farmers, purchased land in the lower reaches of the Herbert River to grow cane. Rather than build and maintain their own small mills, they successfully negotiated with the managers of Victoria Mill, CSR, to crush their cane for them.
They formed the Herbert River Farmers’ Association in 1882, and became the forerunners of the small farm and central mill system which would eventually characterise today’s sugar industry.
Macrossan Street, Halifax (1900) by Courtesy of Hinchinbrook LibraryQueensland Museum Network
In 1885 Anderssen offered some of his land for subdivision as a township. The town was named Halifax in 1886, after the Earl of Halifax, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Lucinda Point - The Port to the Herbert River (1905) by Courtesy of Hinchinbrook LibraryQueensland Museum Network
CSR built a wharf on the Herbert River on land it purchased from Anderssen. Increasing siltation made the river unnavigable and so the company extended its tramway in 1896 from Ingham to the new port at Lucinda.
Reaping the changes
The recruitment of non-European labourers in the sugar industry was controversial and in 1885 legislation attempted to phase out ‘non-white’ recruitment by 1891. Although this decision was reversed in 1892, the industry had begun to suffer from labour shortages.
The first of the white cutters (1904) by Courtesy of Hinchinbrook LibraryQueensland Museum Network
To help circumvent this problem, over 300 people were recruited from Italy in 1890 and arrived in Townsville the following year. Over 100 were destined for the Valley and within 30 years many had established their own cane farms.
The last of the Kanaka cutters (1903) by Courtesy of Hinchinbrook LibraryQueensland Museum Network
The decision to allow the continuation of Islander recruitment was temporary and in 1901 the Pacific Island Labourers Act was released, calling for the mass deportation of non-white labourers by 1906.
Between 1863 and 1904 the number of Pacific Islanders recruited into Australia was approximately 61,000.
The cook, the gang and the barracks
With the expulsion of Pacific Islander labourers, most of the remaining and incoming sugarcane workers were of European origin, who continued to live on the farms. In response, the Queensland Government enacted the Accommodation Acts 1905-1906 which dictated that employers provide reasonable shelter for their workers.
Cooking in the barracks (1950) by Courtesy of Herbert River MuseumQueensland Museum Network
The ‘barracks’ ranged from tents to brick structures although most were constructed of corrugated iron and timber and divided into rooms. Each shelter housed a cutting gang and their cook, although some housed families. The rooms were lined with bunk beds with a basic wood stove for cooking and heating.
The cook played a pivotal role in the success of the day’s cut. If the men were hungry they would be unable to undertake the hard work required of them
Isolated from the towns and other countrymen, the sugar crews looked to each other for mutual support and entertainment.
The war years marked the advancement of technology which had a direct impact on the industry. Tractors took the place of horses and with the appearance of mechanical planters, hand planting became a thing of the past.
Some insects and animals create serious problems for sugarcane through damaging activity or the spread of disease.
The native greyback sugar cane beetle (Dermolepida albohirtum) and its root-eating grubs have long been a pest. The beetles eat the leaves and the larvae, which hatch underground, eat the roots, which either kill or stunt the growth of the plant.
The South American native cane toad (Rhinella marina) was introduced as a solution to the beetle problem in 1935. One hundred and two adult toads were collected in Hawai’i and transported to Gordonvale for breeding. Within weeks, over 2500 toadlets were released. The cane toad has since become one of the most damaging of all introduced pests.
Pavetto's farmers (1936) by Courtesy of Irene CoxQueensland Museum Network
In the early 1930s, many cane cutters were struck down by the often fatal Weil's disease. The cause was discovered to be the bacteria Leptospirae, transmitted by rat urine through open skin.
Burning of the cane began in 1936 to ‘sterilise’ it before handling to protect workers from potential infections. This process still continues today in cane farms across North Queensland.
Today and tomorrow
The Valley is now known as the Herbert cane-growing area with approximately 550 growers producing about 15% Australia’s output. The region still has its own port at Lucinda, with the longest offshore sugar loading facility in the world at 5.76 kms.
Sugar Cane (2018) by Queensland Museum NetworkQueensland Museum Network
Disease and pests still present many problems, especially rats, feral pigs and the cane beetle. No cane is fully resistant to their grubs, although hardier species are constantly sought through research.
Victoria Mill, Australia (2018) by Courtesy of Wilmar SugarQueensland Museum Network
The industry has done much to address environmental concerns through the use of technology and better land management practices. Improved practices include reduced burning, close monitoring of irrigation water and soil moisture levels, and replanting of trees adjacent to waterways.
Macknade Mill, Lucinda (2018-07-08) by Lucinda Mavic, Courtesy of Wilmar SugarQueensland Museum Network
The $640 million North Queensland Bio-Energy (NQBE) project at Ingham is due to commence operations in 2021. It will be the first of its kind in Australia, crushing up to 3.1 million tonnes of sugar cane to produce approximately 350,000 tonnes of raw sugar annually and up to 200,000 litres of ethanol per day.
It will also use the waste product from sugar production, called bagasse, to generate sufficient renewable green energy to power 28,000 homes every day for a year.
This exhibition was developed in conjunction with the Herbert River Museum, Halifax, as part of the Queensland Museum’s Regional Partnership Agreement.
Thanks and acknowledgment to Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui, historical consultant; Lawrence di Bella, manager, Herbert Cane Productivity Services Ltd, Ingham; and Doug Kingston, Project Implementation Manager, North Queensland Bio-Energy Corporation Limited (NQBE).
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are sourced from the Local History Collection, a part of the Heritage Collection held at the Hinchinbrook Shire Library and used with permission from the Hinchinbrook Shire Council.