This vibrant small town was founded in 1877 as the port town for the Hodgkinson River Goldfields. After a series of names such as as Terrigal, Island Point, Port Owen and Salisbury it was settled with the name Port Douglas. Named in honour of former Queensland premier John Douglas.
Gold fever bought the population to 12000. The industry grew. Thriving on tin, silver, sugarcane and logging for cedar trees. During this time a total of 27 hotels were established.
After the gold dwindled and the completion of the Cairns/Mareeba railway in 1893, this once booming town started to loose its people. The bad luck continued through to 1911, when a severe cyclone devastated much of the town. The industry became not much more than a fishing village and a gateway to ship sugar from the Mossman Central Mill until 1958. By 1960 this once booming town ended up with a population of about 100 people.
Sugar cane was introduced to Australia by the First Fleet in 1788. However, early attempts to grow sugar cane around Sydney Cove, Port Macquarie and Norfolk Island were unsuccessful. It wasn't until the 1860s that a viable sugar cane plantation and raw sugar mill was established at Ormiston, near Brisbane, by Captain Louis Hope.
By the 1880s, cane lands were being developed further along Queensland's tropical coast and along the northern coast of New South Wales. However, the high cost of wages for Australian workers made it difficult for the industry to compete successfully with overseas sugar producers such as Fiji, Java (Indonesia) and South Africa. To overcome this problem, cheap "contract" labour was brought in from the South Pacific islands. Between 1863 and 1904, more than 60,000 Kanakas (as they were called) were brought to Queensland to work on sugar plantations, some illegally through a process known as "blackbirding". This involved Europeans luring islanders onto ships by pretending they wanted to trade with them. Instead, they would kidnap the Kanakas and ship them to Australia where they were forced to work on the sugar cane plantations and live under very poor conditions.
In the late 1880s regulations were introduced to control the recruitment of Kanakas and by 1908 many of the Kanakas had been returned to their homelands although some stayed in Australia.
However, the need for labour on the cane fields continued and in the early 1900s a new type of canecutter entered the industry. These were young European migrants who came to Australia to "make their fortune" on the cane fields. Italians in particular contributed to the growth of the Australian sugar industry with large numbers being brought to Australia as canecutters in the mid-1950s.
During the 1950s, the sugar industry boomed and dramatic changes were taking place within Queensland. In 1954, bulk handling of raw sugar was introduced into Australia replacing bagged sugar and mechanical cane harvesters gradually began to replace manual labour in the fields. By the late 1960s, more than 85% of Australian sugar crops were mechanically harvested. In 1979, Australia achieved 100% conversion to mechanical cane harvesting.
Today, the Australian sugar industry is internationally regarded as one of the most efficient sugar producers in the world and a leader in mechanical cane harvesting and bulk handling of raw sugar.
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In the 1880s, the sugar industry was booming and there weren't enough "Kanakas" (South Sea Islanders) to do the work. Sugar plantation owners turned to Asians to fill the gap. Chinese workers were already in the country, and many worked for the sugar cane industry, especially doing the hard work of clearing the land. The planters also brought in Javanese (now in Indonesia), Singhalese from Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), and especially Japanese, who came in from the late 1880s.
The Japanese had a strong government looking after their interests, so they were well treated. They had Japanese officials inspecting the plantations where they were employed. Japanese workers insisted on being fed Japanese food, getting paid £20 and keep, and having hot baths. A Consulate was established in Townsville to supervise the labourers.
Japanese workers were between 18-24 years old and were hired for 3 to 4 years. They were considered reliable, intelligent, skilful and sober. Unlike other cultures, Japanese were allowed into the country after the White Australia policy was put into practice in 1901, though in smaller numbers. They continued to work in the sugar industry until the 1930s. They were also used as labourers in the sugar mills as they were considered more capable than other non-white peoples. This was in keeping with the ideas about race of the day.
By 1939 there were fewer than 300 Japanese employed in the sugar industry, and they were interned (imprisoned) during World War II. Most were deported to Japan after the war. Today, few people remember their contribution to the sugar industry of Queensland. (Cairns museum)