The history of the sugar industry on the Capricorn Coast was a short one with unfortunate far-reaching effects. Commencing in 1883 and ending two decades later, its impact is still felt today. Only in recent times have the records, stories, and photographs of the saga come under public scrutiny.
The Yeppoon Sugar Company
The Yeppoon Sugar Company was the brainchild of William Broome who had property a few kilometres north of Yeppoon. Needing investors, he floated the company in 1883, and a crushing mill was subsequently built at Farnborough. The mill relied on other people to do the growing, but sugar was a premium commodity of the day.
Fuelled by Broome's enthusiasm and glowing media reports promoting the merits of growing sugar-cane along the Capricorn Coast, land owners as far afield as Farnborough, Cawarral, and Joskeleigh were soon planting cane.
The plantation on Broome's Woodlands Estate property however yielded poor crops. In Yeppoon, Robert Ross of Taranganba Gold Scandal infamy also grew a crop and encouraged others to follow. Ross was also a shareholder in the mill. Fifty kilometres south at Sand Hills (an area later renamed Keppel Sands and Joskeleigh), German-born pastoralist Paul Joske attempted growing cane but with dismal results as his land proved unsuitable. Joske's experiment with sugar cane was abandoned quickly and he successfully returned to growing more stable crops.
Broome’s vision collapsed in 1883 due largely to late summer rains. The banks foreclosed, and the business was taken over by the company’s Rockhampton backers. They auctioned it promptly at a significant loss to two of the mill’s former shareholders.
The Farnborough Sugar Plantation
Rutherford Armstrong took the reins of the new venture, renamed the Farnborough Sugar Plantation. He trebled production and several good seasons followed.
In 1896, twenty properties were growing cane at a rate of 21 tons per acre, which was considered good for the industry. However the Depression combined with a low world sugar price and changes to the Pacific Islanders Protection Act, brought the mill to its knees once more. It finally closed its doors in 1903. As late at 1911, attempts were made by various parties to resurrect the sugar industry with proposals for central mills at Rockhampton and Yeppoon, however people's memories were long, and financier's did not come forth.
With no financial guaranteeship for a local industry, the Sugar Commission concentrated on building mills in the north of the state, where arguably the climate is more suited to sugar cane.
In the aftermath of the failed Yeppoon sugar industry, the indentured labourers who had worked the cane fields found themselves facing new fears. Freed from service, they were not free in the eyes of the state. Some of the Islanders had been in Australia for decades, and during that time, their rights had dwindled away.
Plantation owners on the Capricorn Coast were not unique in sourcing South Sea Islanders for indentured labour. Indeed it was the norm, and Yeppoon had a better track record than most, providing adequate food and shelter for the workers, even if they were substantially underpaid.
The issue, however was not so much the conditions of employment, as the manner in which the labour was procured.
The idea of using Pacific Islanders in the cane fields was not a random act. Some Islanders had come willingly as early as 1847, and landholders viewed them as more intelligent and better suited to the task than Chinese or Indian labourers. With Queensland's rapid growth however, demand began to outstrip supply, so enterprising ship owners developed new methods for sourcing workers from the Pacific.
From 1863 to 1904, over 62,000 South Sea Islanders were ‘blackbirded’ to serve as cheap or free labour on Queensland’s vast agricultural holdings. Blackbirding meant the recruitment of people through manipulation or simply kidnapping. Essentially it was enslavement. In some instances, entire villages were taken onto ships to work the sugar fields. Conditions aboard ship were notoriously poor with little sanitation or food, and frequent brutality. Many islanders died during their voyages to Australia. The Queensland Government made some attempts to limit the effects of the practice, notably the Polynesian Labourers Act 1868, but the provisions were frequently evaded by unscrupulous ship owners who were paid per head of cargo. The British Navy also patrolled for blackbirding ships, but with little effect.
In Queensland, the government faced an uncomfortably quandary; Slavery was illegal but the state needed cheap labour. Hence, in 1880, the British Government implemented the Pacific Islanders' Protection Act 1880 which outlined the minimum standards for importing "indentured labourers". The Act may or may not have helped improve standards aboard ship, as its principal purpose was to licence operators and their human cargo. Later revisions of the Act focused on making it more difficult for the trade to continue rather than the plight of the Islanders themselves. In 1890, the Act was amended for the third time so that no more licences would be issued, however plummeting profits in the sugar industry saw the amendment retracted so the trade in cheap labour could continue.
Finally in 1901, the Pacific Island Labourers' Act 1901 was passed. Its purpose was to deport the vast majority of Pacific Islanders working in Australia. A week earlier, the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was also passed. Combined, the two Acts prohibited Pacific Islanders from entering the country after 1904, and those who had arrived beforehand had to be licenced. The Acts also provided that from 1906, any Pacific Islander still in Australia could be instantly deported. Further it was illegal to work for pay, which meant that anyone who slipped through the net would not have the means to provide for themselves.
Around ten thousand Islanders were deported, many to the wrong islands. Others however, managed to stay on technicalities. Islanders who had lived in Australia for twenty years were classified as Australian citizens, as were any children born since their arrival. Many whites were sympathetic to the Islanders’ plight. In Farnborough, Robert Armstrong, the former manager of the mill, gave employment to some of his former workers to tend his farms, and in the south, Paul Joske and other landholders leased them blocks to grow crops and raise their families. Many Islanders moved onto these blocks, and after Joske’s death, the area was renamed Joskeleigh.
The Islanders formed a close-knit community there. They lived in traditional thatched huts and survived by growing vegetables and selling them. Conditions improved, and in 1913, a school was opened in Joskeleigh. The old headmaster's house in now the Joskeleigh Museum, and around thirty Islander families still live in the community. There is also a substantial Islander community in North Rockhampton and throughout the Capricorn Coast.
The term Kanaka (from the French Canaque, and Hawaiian Kanak meaning man), perhaps once derogatory is nowadays worn as a badge of honour. Perhaps for their tenacity and perseverance, the Australian South Sea Islanders achieved an untouchable status, which unfortunately was not afforded to the native Aboriginals of the time. While some Islanders and Aborigines inter-bred at Joskeleigh, the last of the indigenous Darumbals living there were removed by the State in 1930.
As an interesting point of closure to the history of the mill, the manager of Farnborough Sugar Plantation, Rutherford Armstrong, died in 1958 at age 97. In accordance with his expressed wish, his ashes were scattered on the old mill site.
I've included a link to another page on this site that you might enjoy, directly related to the above topic. While the piece is fictional, part of my Tales of Irukandji series, it touches on the plight of South Sea Islanders returning home after years of working as indentured slaves in a strange foreign land. It's called The Tale of the Twin Pearls.
If you enjoy Central Queensland history, you can find additional articles on the Central Queensland History page. You can also leave comments on this article below.
Have a brilliant day,