The History of the Sugar Industry

How it all got started

Sugarcane was brought to Australia in 1788 on the ships of the First Fleet.  It was not immediately successful even though attempts were still being made more than thirty years later to grow sugarcane commercially at Port Macquarie in NSW.

Captain Louis Hope and John Buhot established the first viable cane plantation near Brisbane in 1862.  Two years later Hope started up the first commercial sugar mill and it was in the following year that he brought Pacific islands labourers to work his plantation.

Indentured labour

It was 1861 when the first white squatters moved into North Queensland to develop a string of sugar and gold ports along Queensland’s northern coast.

The Queensland Government was desperate for income, and trade of any kind was often recklessly encouraged.  The government supported the setting-up of vast sugar plantations.

The new northern colony had grown accustomed to using a cheap and compliant workforce, in the form of convicts, ticket-of-leave holders, emancipists and indentured servants but, when convict transportation was stopped the problem arose – Who was to take on the back-breaking work needed to develop tropical Queensland?

A common view was that white men didn’t have the physical stamina to cope with the work in the ferocious tropical climate but it may have been more truthful to say that many white Europeans felt that field labour was socially beneath them.

European settlers knew how profitable it was to use black labour in other parts of the world (the flourishing trade in African Negro slaves to America, parts of South America and the West Indies, since the 1500’s, was confirmation enough).  It was strongly believed that, just like those countries of the New World, Queensland could not possibly be developed to its true potential without the benefit of cheap, hopefully even free, black labour.

A source for that labour was found close by, on the islands of the South Pacific Ocean.

An estimated 62,500 Islanders were brought to Queensland between 1863 and 1904.  Virtually all of them came from Melanesia – Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides.  A small number of labourers came from the Polynesian and Micronesian islands such as Samoa, Kiribati and Tuvalu.  While most Islanders came voluntarily, some were brought over illegally, having been kidnapped or ‘blackbirded’ (although official documents and Islander stories seem to differ on the numbers).  Other Islanders were persuaded to leave their homes and travel by ship to Queensland by coercion, force or deception.

Islanders who came to Australia on recruitment ships were usually contracted or ‘indentured’ for three years.  Some Islanders recruited to come here as indentured labourers for a second or third time and some even decided to stay permanently in Australia.  This suggests some recruits had decided life in Australia was more beneficial to them than returning to their homeland.

Cane cutters

In 1904 recruiting finally ceased, following Federal Government legislation in 1901.  This legislation also ensured that most of the existing Islanders would be deported by 1906.

Migrants from Italy and other European countries arrived in Australia after this time, seeking a better life for themselves and their families.  They quickly took up the opportunity to gain employment in the Queensland sugarcane fields.

Many Italian cutters worked long and hard and earned enough to buy their own small farm.  The growing of sugarcane became the preserve of small, family-operated farms and, today, many sugarcane growers in Queensland are descendants of the early cane cutters.

Development of mechanical cane harvesters

Hand cane cutting was a laborious process – picking up and loading the cane proving even more time consuming.  Cane growers were constantly seeking a faster, easier, cheaper way of cutting and loading their crop.

Sugarcane farmers were, and still are, an inventive bunch and many innovative machines were developed.  It soon became obvious though that the system had to work everywhere – on flat or hilly land, in the dry and in the wet.

From the 1930’s to the 1950’s great advances were made in cane loaders.  In the 1940’s Toft built a hydraulic cane loader and the 1950’s heralded the arrival of a front end loader.

Most harvesters being developed had cutters to cut the tops off the cane stalks and in the 1960’s a mechanical topper was developed.  After that mechanical harvesting really took off, with chopped cane harvesters starting to appear, replacing the older whole stick harvesters.  Massey Ferguson and the Toft Brothers (now Austoft) were great rivals, producing machines that were later sold all around the world. 

Milling and processing

Sugar mills are large, self-contained factories, located in close proximity to the farms which supply them with sugarcane.  Mills work day and night during the cane season (usually June to November in Far North Queensland) and handle cane promptly to ensure the quality of juice is maintained.  Australian Mills crush around 30 million tonnes of cane and produce more than 3.5 million tonnes of raw sugar.  In the milling process the cane is crushed to release the sugar juice, which is then evaporated until crystals of raw sugar form and grow.

The process is efficient and very little of the cane is not used.  Fibre left after the cane is crushed becomes fuel for the mill boiler and Ash and Mud from the Mill is returned to the cane field as fertilizer.  Molasses, which is a syrup residue remaining after the raw sugar crystals are made, is used in Distilleries and for stock feed.

Raw sugar is taken to large bulk storage sheds at various ports along the Queensland coast.  Australia has the largest bulk raw sugar storage and handling system in the world.  Even though Mills operate only for half the year, the storage facilities permit year round sugar deliveries to be made.

Development of Queensland and the cultural influence

The multi-cultural diversity enjoyed in many districts in Queensland can, in no small part, be attributed to those early immigrants who contributed so much to our sugar industry.

Their influence is shown throughout almost every region, with annual events and festivals held to celebrate their origins and cultures.