Plantation to small farm: A historical geography of the Lower Burdekin sugar industry, 1880-1930

Griggs, Peter D. (1990). Plantation to small farm: A historical geography of the Lower Burdekin sugar industry, 1880-1930 PhD Thesis, School of Geography, Planning and Architecture, The University of Queensland.

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Author Griggs, Peter D.
Thesis Title Plantation to small farm: A historical geography of the Lower Burdekin sugar industry, 1880-1930
School, Centre or Institute School of Geography, Planning and Architecture
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1990
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Supervisor -
Total pages 468
Language eng
Subjects 0701 Agriculture, Land and Farm Management
210303 Australian History (excl. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History)
Formatted abstract
The subject of this thesis is the growth and development of a regional sugar production system between 1880 and 1930. The region selected for study was the Lower Burdekin. Apart from the uniqueness of extensive irrigation, the Lower Burdekin was a microcosm of what occurred throughout much of coastal Queensland between 1880 and 1930.

Particular attention in this study will be given to the following seven issues: the changing spatial organization of the system (i.e. expansion of cropping, changing allocation of suppliers to the mills); system structure (i.e. production units); system regulation; the impact of governmental policies on the system; the influence of autonomous local decision makers; the significance of the resource base; and the role of technological change.

In considering the first issue, it will be argued that the spread of cane growing throughout the region was dependent upon the physical environment (i.e. soils and topography), land availability and the location of the mills and transport networks. Also, it will be shown that the pattern of expansion was ordered, not haphazard. Accompanying these changes was another series of spatial patterns that were associated with the changing allocation of suppliers to the various mills. The development of these arrangements was influenced by the location of the district's rail network, competition between millers and formal contractual agreements between miller and supplier. It will be noted, however, that there was not a profusion of different allocation patterns, but that the mills quickly developed "core" localities from which they drew their cane, and that subsequent change occurred only at the extremities of the catchment areas.

The production system established on the Lower Burdekin in the early 1880s was based on neoplantations. This system was still in existence in 1905, although it only embraced three units (i.e. Pioneer, Kalamia and Seaforth estates) tied to two mills. Several of the incipient neoplantations established in the early 1880s (e.g. Airdmillan, Drynie, Maidavale) failed to fully develop because of the depression in the sugar industry in the late 1880s forcing their owners to abandon their plans or into insolvency. The durability of the surviving neoplantations was in large measure dependent upon John Drysdale, who was the unusually capable manager of the estates and mills and equally effective in stopping moves for a co-operative mill. His success was founded upon an ability to secure cheap, indentured labour to work the neoplantations. Despite the persistence of the neoplantations, it will be argued that central mills supplied by small farms worked by 'whites' would emerge. This certainty was a result of the broader socio-political forces that were in operation, such as the White Australia policy, agrarianism which favoured small-scale farming and opposition from the trade union movement to indentured workers.

A feature of the development of the Lower Burdekin sugar industry was the regulation of the operations of the planters-cum-millers and small farmers. It will be suggested that the emergence of this characteristic was inevitable because of two factors: first, the need of the millers to have tight control over the crop's production and harvest to ensure an efficient supply of appropriate cane to the mill; and second, the national importance of the sugar industry which resulted in government intervention to ensure the industry's prosperity, but within a controlled context to avoid overproduction.

Governmental policies in the areas of land disposal, infrastructure provision and industry protection and support had some bearing on the evolution of the Lower Burdekin sugar industry. Inputs of capital and labour from the millers and small farmers, however, were also essential therefore, governments had a more facilitative rather than a critically decisive role in this study. Indeed, many of the important decisions which shaped the Lower Burdekin sugar industry were made by local decision-makers, the most important being John Drysdale.

The physical environment as mentioned above partially influenced the distribution of cane growing throughout the region. Low and erratic yearly rainfall also shaped the region's sugar industry, although its impact was on the amount of cane that could be cultivated and yields, not on where the crop could be grown. To reduce this impact the Lower Burdekin planters and farmers resorted to irrigation.

Advances in milling technology also contributed to change in the Lower Burdekin sugar industry, for an infusion of new techniques and machinery into the mills in the early 1890s set the scene for the increased output between 1895 and 1915 as new areas were brought under cultivation to meet the expanded capacities of the upgraded factories. The limited introduction of machinery into the field after 1910, however, probably had minimal impact on the industry's evolution.

It is concluded that the special contributions of this investigation are twofold. First, the study has tried to integrate the forces of social change occurring in Queensland and Australia with those specific local circumstances to show how they in combination shaped the evolution of a regional sugar production system. Second, it has answered some of the issues treated too briefly in the general histories, such as the development of mill catchment areas and the role of the planters-cum-millers in influencing the regulation of the production system and supporting their small suppliers. Together these findings will contribute to the greater understanding of the development of the Queensland sugar industry before 1930. As such this study supports Meinig's assertion that history and geography must be written "not from the top down, but from the bottom up".
Keyword Sugarcane industry -- Queensland -- Burdekin River Region -- History.
Agriculture and state -- Queensland -- Burdekin River Region -- History.
Farms, Size of -- Queensland -- Burdekin River Region -- History.
Additional Notes The author has given permission for this thesis to be made open access.

Document type: Thesis
Collections: Queensland Past Online (QPO)
UQ Theses (RHD) - Open Access
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Created: Thu, 10 Dec 2009, 08:59:59 EST by Ms Natalie Hull on behalf of Social Sciences and Humanities Library Service