Cairns has been home to many cultures since the town began in 1876. The Aborigines are the original people here. They have continued to live in Cairns to the present day. The other Australian indigenous people are Torres Strait Islanders. Since they began to work in the fishing industries, they have settled in Cairns too. Cairns has also been home to large groups of South Sea (Pacific) Islanders, Chinese, Japanese, Sri Lankans (called Singhalese), Indonesians, Malaysians and Philippinos (called Manillamen), and every type of European nationality.
Cairns was a gold-rush port and gold attracted people from all over the world. Among them were hundreds of Chinese, from south-east China, who came to Cairns as the gold rushes declined. They became cooks, storekeepers, farmers and market gardeners. A market gardener grows vegetables and fruit for a nearby town.
In 1901 the new Federal Government of Australia put a White Australia policy into practice. The new rules made it impossible for more Chinese to immigrate to North Queensland. Anyway, most of the Chinese who came to North Queensland planned to make their fortunes and return home to China. By the 1920s, the Chinese-born population was too small to be noticeable.
Between 1876 and 1920, though, the Chinese were a big part of Cairns life. "Chinatown" in Sachs Street (later Grafton Street) was the centre of the Chinese business community. There were boarding houses, shops, clubs, temples, banks, herbalists selling Chinese medicines, opium sellers and gambling places. The Chinese actually began the banana and sugar industries in Cairns. The Hop Wah plantation grew sugar, cotton and other crops between 1878 and 1885. It's said that some of this cotton is still growing wild in the area today (around Earlville Shopping Centre). Like many other sugar plantations in the 1880s, it ended because of low world prices for sugar.
The Chinese had to deal with a lot of prejudice from white society. Cairns was more tolerant than most towns in Australia, despite a bad start, when a group of Chinese trying to land at the new port in 1876 were thrown into the sea by a rowdy mob. However, white people believed that Chinese were essential for a healthy society because they could grow vegetables and fruit better than anyone else. They were accepted as market gardeners and small farmers. Other cultures also enjoyed Chinese fireworks, colourful parades, Chinese opera performances, puppet shows, and gifts of food on special occasions. The Chinese are remembered as being honest, kindly and generous. Unfortunately a lot of people, especially children, seemed to think they were a good target for practical jokes. Stealing a watermelon or orange from a Chinese garden was a favourite past-time.
Book to read: Cathie May, Topsawyers.
When the sugar industry began, it needed a lot of labour. Workers were needed to clear the land, plough it, plant the cane, chip out the weeds, and harvest the cane. This meant the cane had to be cut, loaded onto horse-drawn tram carts, and taken to the mills. People believed that white men could not work out in the tropical sun. So they looked for cheap labour, preferably black, like the African slaves who worked in the sugar plantations in the West Indies and Brazil. The Aborigines were not very co-operative as they were a hunter-gatherer society, not farmers. The nearest group of black people who were used to farming were the Melanesians of the South Pacific. These people were known as South Sea Islanders or Pacific Islanders. In Queensland, they were called "kanakas".
By 1876, when Cairns began, these Islanders were already being used as shepherds on sheep stations and labourers on sugar plantations further South. Many also worked on the plantations of Fiji. They were known as good strong workers who were used to labouring in their gardens (small farms) in the tropical heat. Sugar planters sent small boats out to bring them to Queensland. The main islands were Vanuatu, the Solomons, and some of the islands off Niugini.
In the 1870s and 1880s some of the Islanders were kidnapped. This was called "blackbirding". Christian missionaries in the islands complained and the Queensland government and British government brought in laws to stop kidnapping, to make sure Islanders were treated reasonably well, and to have them returned home to their islands when their time in Queensland was finished. They were indentured servants, bound for a three-year term. This meant that they could not leave their employers until the three years were up. If they ran away, the police would bring them back. They earned the princely wage of £6 a year - when white men were earning £3 to £4 a week.
Life in Cairns was difficult at first for the Islanders. The climate was harsher, either too hot or too cold. There was plenty of food but it tasted horrible because it was mostly damper and salt beef, instead of the fresh fish, fruit and vegetables the Islanders were used to. They were also expected to live in barracks with people who might be traditional enemies to their own people. Sorcery was a big part of their culture and sleeping in the same room made them vulnerable to magic. If the plantation owner let them, they built traditional grass huts and planted vegetables and fruit trees. They also roamed the bush on Sundays, their day off, looking for bush tucker. Sometimes they might quietly murder any enemy who was unwise enough to be out in the bush without his friends. Unfortunately there was a high death rate due to illness among Islanders. They were exposed to many new diseases to which they had no immunity, like measles and influenza.
Most Islanders were young men, about 15-25 years old, but some women came too. The women could work in the fields but were usually domestic servants in the manager's house.
Islanders were resourceful and adaptable, and soon adjusted to life in North Queensland. Many decided to stay on in Queensland when their three year terms were up, or decided to come back after returning to their islands. A strong motive was to buy guns, steel axes and knives. They were not supposed to take guns back to the islands and there was often a battle of wits between themselves and the Customs Officers as they tried to smuggle the guns aboard ship.
In 1901, the White Australia policy came in. No more Islanders were to be brought in and those still in Queensland (about 4000) would all be sent back by 1907. This was a cruel decision as a lot of Islanders had made their homes here. They owned farms and businesses, and had married women of other cultures or women from the wrong island, and could not take them back with them. After protests to the Government, some were allowed to stay and others hid out in the rainforest with the help of friends. Their descendants are still here, and have re-established links with their ancestral islands.
Books to read: Clive Moore, Kanaka.
Patricia Mercer, White Australia Defied.
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.