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Email Link   Sugar Cane Farming

As the supply of easily won cedar on the Tweed River dwindled in the 1860s, and the costs of obtaining and shipping it multiplied, settlers turned to farming the rich alluvial soil as an alternative source of income. But they were hampered by the poor communications on the Tweed and the difficult bar at the mouth of the river, the cause of lengthy shipping delays. The settlers had already been growing maize as a substitute for flour when they were unable to obtain supplies due to shipping delays, but it was not suitable as a commercial crop. They could not rely on getting their produce to market, and when ships were delayed, the maize was left to rot on the banks of the river. After experimentation with a variety of crops such as coffee, tobacco, cotton, millet and even opium, sugar emerged as the most suitable crop.

The first experiments in growing sugar cane in the Tweed Valley were carried out around 1869 by two early settlers in the district, Joshua Bray at Kynnumboon near the present town of Murwillumbah and Michael Guilfoyle at Cudgen. The sugar story is entwined with that of the South Sea Islanders and Indian migrants, who played a significant part in the sugar industry in New South Wales.

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Applying fertiliser to young cane, draught horse pulling fertiliser bin controlled by man.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection. No: TH178-19

Getting Established

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Condong Sugar Mill c1897.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection. No: TH38-13

Europeans were initially drawn to the heavily forested Tweed Valley in the 1840s by the promise of profits from harvesting the highly-prized red cedar trees. By the 1870s however, the supply of red cedar in the region was virtually exhausted and the potential of the area’s rich alluvial soils for agricultural industries had been recognised.

Farmers in the area experimented with a range of potential crops, including coffee, tobacco, cotton, millet and even opium, but it was sugar cane that proved to be the most promising. The first experimental crops of sugar cane were grown in 1869, but it was difficult for individual farmers and small mills to make a success of sugar cane farming. What was needed in order for the sugar industry to become properly established in the Tweed in the 1870s was a large workforce, one that was relatively unskilled, could do hard, manual labour and wouldn’t cost land owners a lot of money in wages. These workers were required to clear, drain and grub the land, meaning removing stones, trees and other plants, and then to grow and harvest the crops.

 - Copyright Tweed Shire Council

Cane barge. Loading cane onto punts on the river using a shin stick. The cane was pulled from the field to the river bank using horse and slide, then placed onto skids so that a shin stick could be put underneath the cane to lever it onto the barges.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection. No: Th101-17

The other major factor in developing the sugar growing industry was the decision by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (now known as CSR) to establish plantations and build a large sugar mill at Condong. By the end of the 19th century the foothills of the Tweed River Valley had been largely cleared and replaced with sugar cane plantations.

Florence's Story

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Interior of Condong Sugar Mill showing endless chain moving sugar cane into mill, hand loaded from cane punt. c1890.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection. No: TH38-25

“In 1878 Mr. Haley and Mr. W.R Isaacs came to the Tweed to find out the possibilities of growing sugar cane for a large mill. … There was a great deal of discussion as a few of the farmers were doubtful about trying a new crop, instead of the corn and potatoes they had always put in…but eventually the matter was decided and Condong mill was built on the South Arm and Mr. Isaacs became the first manager."

Florence Bray, quoted in Daily News 115th Birthday Supplement, 2003

South Sea Islanders

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Cane cutters in front of tent - taken at Cudgen on Geo. McCollum's farm. Standing - Mark Watego, George Slockee, Billy Logan. Sitting - Tommie Slockee, Johnny Mussing, Ben Long. Lying Down - Les Slockee, William Yettica, Bob Rotumah. 1928.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection. No: TH01-10

In 1875 William Julius purchased land at Cudgen and established a sugar cane plantation. He also built a mill to process his cane and employed a workforce made up largely of men from the South Sea Islands, also known derogatorily as Kanakas. The story of the Kanakas, and of the infamous practice of blackbirding, or Europeans kidnapping Islanders after luring them on board ships with offers of trade, is an integral part of the story of sugar farming in both Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Farmers required cheap labour to make their plantations economically viable and the solution in the 19th century was to import contract labour from the neighbouring South Pacific Islands, mainly from the Solomon and Vanuatu groups.

Mr. Julius employed South Sea Islanders who had completed their contracts on Queensland plantations, or who had escaped south over the New South Wales-Queensland border. When he sold his plantation in 1892 to John Robb, the estate was known as a safe and comparatively comfortable place for Islanders to live and work. The conditions on Queensland plantations were often harsh and labourers were treated poorly, but on the Robb Estate in 1903 the Islanders were paid wages of around £1 per week and were provided with food, housing and other amenities.

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Cane Cutting Knife. When cutting on rocky country, a short handled cane knife was used so the cutter could see the rocks.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection No: MUS1996.42

Although their labour was needed, the South Sea Islanders were disadvantaged by the dominant attitudes and policies of the late 19th century that viewed white (and especially British) people as superior. These attitudes were seen in initiatives by the Government such as imposing an excise (a kind of tax) on all cane and then paying a bounty (a reward) to those growers who used only white labour on their farms. These attitudes were also expressed in the Government's White Australia Policy that was devised to keep non-Europeans of all descriptions out of Australia.

Did You Know?

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Hand print from work contract for South Sea Islander c1900.
Tweed Regional Museum Collection. No: K1206

Between 1863 and 1904 more than 60,000 South Sea Islanders were taken to Queensland to work on sugar plantations, and approximately 350 are known to have arrived in the Tweed between 1874 and 1918. The Pacific Islanders Act of 1901 allowed Islanders who had married in Australia or had lived here for 20 years or more to stay. This meant that close to half of the Islanders were able to remain in the Tweed.

Work in the Cane Fields

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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's 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

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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

South Sea Islanders and cane farming - Further Reading

Sweet harvests

Sweet Harvests (DVD)

This film, made in 2011, explores the tenacity, camaraderie, humour and sheer hard work of the South Sea Islander and Indian populations who worked the banana farms and cane fields of the Tweed Region. Made with assistance from the NSW Migration Heritage Centre. Watch the video online here:

'Blackbirding' transcript, 13 September 2004
The story of one family’s return to the island community their ancestors were removed from in the late 1870s.
George Negus Tonight - ABC

'Kanakas' workers in Queensland Canefields 1899
Workers from the South Pacific were brought to Australia, often against their will, to work for British farmers in appalling conditions. After Federation, this practice was eventually stopped and the Kanakas deported, as they were seen as unfair competition to the white workforce.
Federation Films, Australian heritage Film Collection, National Film and Sound Archive

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