Ingham Daily Press

Keeping People Connected

Mercer Lane mosaic part 3: The cost of progress — displacement, exploitation and repatriation

The advance of the sugar industry in the Herbert River Valley came at great human cost. Those who came out the losers in the end game of establishing a viable sugar industry were the traditional landowners, the Melanesian indentured labourers and the Chinese.

To the left of panel 3 of the Mercer Lane Mosaic you see a Chinese man. We know that because of his distinguishing hat. He is wielding an axe, clearing trees. In the background there are paddocks in different stages of cultivation.

Large numbers of Chinese men were employed on the sugar plantations on the Herbert in the 1880s supplementing the Melanesian indentured labour force. In 1884 there were as many as 640 employed by the sugar mills but some were also market gardeners, shopkeepers and sugar farmers in their own right. Most of those were leasing land from Europeans. The Chinese would clear the land and establish the first crops for the owners. They were the first small sugar farmers in the district. They also worked for white small farmers who initially, were not allowed to employ Melanesian labour.

By 1885 the Chinese population on the Herbert was quite large and well off and there were even twenty-five married men with families. There were Chinatowns at Gairloch with commercial centres in East Ingham and in Halifax.  With the restrictions imposed by the White Australia Policy legislation and the Sugar Bounty Acts which ruled that sugar be grown and harvested using only white labour, Chinese people were forced off the Herbert. Very few remained.   

Moving on we see an Indigenous man standing proudly with his family. He is holding a shield painted in the traditional manner. At first the Indigenous people watched warily, even helped the Europeans, working on the plantations. But soon as land came to be cleared of timber and fenced off, and grazing animals and introduced crops caused a loss of native animals and plants upon which the Indigenous diet relied, they retaliated fiercely, but to no avail.

At the bottom of the panel you will see the Rainbow Serpent representing the living, thriving traditional culture of the Indigenous people: the Bandyin, Njawaygi, and Warrgamay peoples, that was destroyed with European settlement. That is why it disappears with this panel. Its disappearance and the screaming blood red sky indicate the abrupt loss of land and life. Underneath the Serpent is the life-giving water and fish representing the bountiful natural resources of the tropics upon which the Indigenous people lived. The water also represents the mighty Herbert always gushing onwards out to sea.

From blood red sorrow we move next to blue skied optimism. Six mill chimneys billow smoke into a starry sky: Gairloch, Macknade, Bemerside, Hamleigh, Ripple Creek and Victoria. All were worked on the back of Melanesian labourers in the field and Chinese and Europeans in the factories. Kate Carr, the artistic designer of the mosaic panels was inspired in this panel by Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Why did she choose this metaphor?

Well, because the speculative planters had stars in their eyes. None was more starry eyed than the handsome, charming William Bairstow Ingham after whom Ingham is named. Though he cleared and planted cane, and brought in machinery for a mill that never was built on his plantation Ings, his venture never got off the ground. The planters rode on a short wave of prosperity which soon came to a abrupt end allowing for the small farmers to take their place in the industry. The seven circular stars also represent the seven-year contract that the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) – the owner of Victoria Mill – offered the small farmers. It enabled them to grow cane to be milled by Victoria Mill.

But what was a happy event for white small farmers was the end for indentured labour. By 1892 the Queensland Government was already talking about repatriating those remaining back to their islands. This was tragic, because many had married, had children and had been on the Herbert for many years. Under certain conditions, some were able to avoid repatriation but with the forced repatriation of the rest came the end of a strong Melanesian presence on the Herbert.

The planters found that growing cane on the Herbert was not a path paved with gold and so they returned from where they had come or died in the process of trying to make a go of it. Meanwhile, the Chinese, the Indigenous people and the Melanesian labourers also found that there was no place for them in the sugar industry on the Herbert. For many of those, this came with catastrophic consequences.

Watch out for the next installment where we will learn about the life of the small farmer.

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