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Sugar and Ecological Imperialism: Environmental Change in the Pioneer Valley, North Queensland, 1860s–2000s

  • Clive Moore (a1)


The Pioneer Valley at Mackay is the centre of a thriving sugar industry that supports 120,000 people and brings millions of dollars into the Australian economy through milling sugar cane. The valley presents a vista of kilometre after kilometre of flat green and brown symmetrical patterns. In the growing season, rectangles striped with furrows carry on as far as the eye can see, blending into green blocks as the cane grows, with the pattern broken only by natural topographic features such as creeks, the Pioneer River, occasional hills and small towns. Cane totally dominates the flat land, but at the edges of the valley it is gradually overshadowed by the brown and grey of the higher untamed areas. Within this green, brown and grey picture is another pattern, the imposed logistics of roads, railways, and glistening galvanised roofs on the houses and sheds, softened by the dark green of mango and other fruit trees, stately hoop pines, fig and shade trees. On the edges of the valley floor, the hills become more numerous, feeding into the surrounding mountain ranges. The visual pattern partly relates to topography, but includes elements dating back to the shapes of the first land selections and subsequent surveying from the 1860s onwards, as well as the need for road and rail links between early settlements, and more recently by the needs of modern mechanical farming.



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1 Griffiths, Tom, ‘Introduction’, in Griffiths, Tom and Robin, Libby (eds), Ecology and empire: environmental history of settler societies (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1997).

2 Griggs, Peter, Global industry, local innovation: the history of cane sugar production in Australia, 1820–1995 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2011), pp. 625–9.

3 Roth, Henry L., The discovery and settlement of Port Mackay, Queensland (Halifax: King, 1908); Kerr, John, Pioneer pageant: a history of the Pioneer Shire (Mackay: Pioneer Shire Council, 1980); Kennedy, Kett H., Mackay revisited (Mackay: Mackay City Council, 2002).

4 Manning, Ken W., In their own hands: a north Queensland story (Farleigh, Qld: Farleigh Co-operative Sugar Milling Association Ltd, 1983); Rolleston, Frank, The defiance: the story of North Eton Co-operative Sugar Milling Association Limited (North Eton, Qld: North Eton Co-operative Sugar Milling Association Limited, 1987); Kerr, John, A century of sugar: Racecourse Sugar Mill, Mackay (Mackay: Mackay Sugar Co-operative Association Limited, 1988); Ford, Lyall, Roads to riches: development of the main road network in the Mackay district of tropical Queensland, the first 100 years (Brisbane: Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads, 2012); Moore, Clive, Kanaka: a history of Melanesian Mackay (Port Moresby: Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies and University of Papua New Guinea Press, 1981).

5 Griggs, Global industry, local innovation.

6 Berenis C. Alcorn, ‘The cultural landscape engineers: humans and environment in the Maroochy District, 1850–1950’, PhD thesis, University of Queensland (2008); also see Alcorn, Berenis C., Moreton Sugar Mill: sweet heart of Nambour (Maroochydore, Qld: B. Alcorn and R. Dunn, 1997).

7 Ford, Roads to riches, pp. 3–13; Moore, Kanaka, p. 101.

8 Gourlay, M. R. and Hacker, J. L. F., Pioneer River estuary sedimentation studies (Brisbane: Department of Civil Engineering, University of Queensland, 1986), pp. 31–2, 67–70.

9 Graeme Butler & Associates, Mackay Region Pilot Heritage Study (Fairfield, Vic.: Graeme Butler & Associates 1994), Environmental History, 1; Gourlay and Hacker, Pioneer River estuary sedimentation studies, pp. 29–30.

10 Spiller in Kennedy, E. B., Four years in Queensland (London: E. Stanford, 1870), pp. 170–1. See also E. S. Rawson in British Australian and New Zealand Mail, 9 May 1901, Supplement, xii.

11 Lampert, Ronald, ‘Waisted blades in Australia?’, Records of the Australian Museum, 35, 4 (1983), 145–51.

12 Terrill, Angela, ‘Biri’, in Languages of the World/Materials 258 (München: Lincom Europa, 1998).

13 M. J. Rowland, ‘Whitsunday Islands: archaeological survey’, 12–25 September 1982, Archaeological Branch, Department of Community Services, Queensland, February 1985 (typescript in possession of the author); Rowland, M. J., ‘The Whitsunday Islands: initial historical and archaeological observations and implications for future work’, Queensland Archaeological Research 3 (1986), 7287; Rowland, M. J., ‘The distribution of Aboriginal watercraft on the east coast of Queensland: implications for culture contact’, Australian Aboriginal Studies 2 (1987), 3845; Rowland, M. J., ‘A long way back in a bark canoe: Aboriginal occupation of the Percy Islands’, Australian Archaeology 18 (1984), 1731. I am indebted to Dr Bryce Baker, University of Southern Queensland, 24 January 2013, for his advice on recent research.

14 Moore, Clive, ‘“Restraining their savage propensities”: The South Kennedy and North Leichhardt districts in the 1860s and 1870s’, in Reynolds, Henry (ed.), Race relations in north Queensland (Townsville: Department of History and Politics, James Cook University, 1993), pp. 83114; Moore, Clive, ‘Blackgin's Leap: a window into Aboriginal–European relations in the Mackay district, Queensland, in the 1860s’, Aboriginal History 14, 12 (1990), 6179; Moore, Clive, Preliminary historical report for the Wiri/Yuibera Native Title Rights and Interests Claims in the Pioneer Valley and Nebo Regions for the Central Queensland Land Council (2001).

15 Gammage, Bill, The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011).

16 Dunn, Desmond R., Bloomsbury, St Helens & Jolimount Stations, 1860–1900: their first forty years (Mackay: Desmond R. Dunn, 2012).

17 Ford, Roads to riches, pp. 45–51, 64–80, 89–90, 92–4.

18 Shlomowitz, Ralph, ‘The search for institutional equilibrium in Queensland's sugar industry 1884–1913’, Australian Economic History Review 19, 2 (1979), 91123; Graves, Adrian, Cane and labour: the political economy of the Queensland sugar industry 1862–1906 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993).

19 McNeil, K. E., ‘The treatment of wastes from the sugar industry’, in Barnes, D., Forster, C. F. and Hurdey, S. E. (eds), Food and allied industries, vol. 1: Surveys in industrial waste water treatment (Boston: Pitman, 1984), pp. 168.

20 Menghetti, Diane, The red north: the popular front in North Queensland (Townsville: History Department, James Cook University of North Queensland, 1981), pp. 2942; Griggs, Global industry, local innovation, pp. 355, 411, 529, 530, 627, 628, 629.

21 I am indebted to Dr Mark Dawson, Sugar Research Institute, Mackay and to Mr John Ryan, Farleigh Mill, for their advice on aspects of sugar production, 1996.

22 Thorpe, Bill, Colonial Queensland: perspectives on a frontier society (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996), p. 88.

23 Queenslander, 21 July 1877; The Gentleman's Magazine, 249 (1880), 61; Queenslander, 10 September 1881.

24 Ole Matsen Diary 10, 41 (copy in the author's possession).

25 For a wider study of rainforest removal, see Birtles, Terry G., ‘First contact: colonial European preconceptions of tropical Queensland rainforest and its people’, Journal of Historical Geography 23, 4 (1997), 393417.

26 Mackay Region Pilot Heritage Study, Environmental History 2.

27 Roth, Port Mackay, p. 81.

28 Roth, Port Mackay, p. 82.

29 Roth, Port Mackay, p. 85.

30 Finch-Hatton, H. H., Advance Australia: an account of eight years' work, wandering and amusement in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria (London: Allen, 1885), p. 32.

31 Blainey, Geoffrey, Black kettle and full moon: daily life in a vanished Australia (Camberwell, Vic.: Viking, 2003), pp. 206–11 describes the way in which nineteenth-century Australians used the bush as their larder.

32 Finch-Hatton, Advance Australia, p. 32.

33 ‘Crocodile in Pioneer River’, Mackay Mercury, 21 March 1980. There is a plaque in the Leichhardt Hotel (on the site of the Riverview) which record the event and size. If the details are accurate, this is by far the biggest crocodile ever shot in the world.

34 Roth, Port Mackay, pp. 85-89.

35 Barnes, A. C., The Sugar Cane (London: Leonard Hill, 1964), pp. 167–93; Mackay Mercury, 10 November 1891.

36 Burrows, Geoff and Morton, Clive, The canecutters (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1986).

37 Moore, Clive, ‘“Me blind drunk”: alcohol and Melanesians in the Mackay district, Queensland, 1867–1907’, in MacLeod, Roy and Denoon, Donald (eds), Health and healing in tropical Australia and Papua New Guinea (Townsville: James Cook University, 1991), p. 106; Kerr, Pioneer pageant, pp. 30–1, 46, 51.

38 North Queensland Register, 7 February 1976; Kerr, A century of sugar, p. 72.

39 Kerr, Pioneer pageant, p. 171.

40 Kerr, Pioneer pageant, p. 179.

41 Kerr, Pioneer pageant, p. 171.

42 Kerr, A century of sugar, p. 73.

43 Kerr, A century of sugar, p. 179.

44 Daily Mercury, Supplement, ‘1869, Mackay City Council, 125 Years’, 1 December 1994, 44.

45 Kerr, A century of sugar, pp. 179–80; Griggs, Global industry, local innovation, pp. 732–5.

46 Kerr, Pioneer pageant, p. 172.

47 Griggs, Global industry, local innovation, pp. 738–9.

48 Kerr, Pioneer pageant, pp. 171–2, 179–82.

49 Watson, Joanne, Palm Island: through a long lens (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010).

50 Moore, ‘Blackgin's Leap’.

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Sugar and Ecological Imperialism: Environmental Change in the Pioneer Valley, North Queensland, 1860s–2000s

  • Clive Moore (a1)


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