I acknowledge the Traditional Owners on whose land I walk, I work and I live. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and future.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

"The deserted air of an eternal slack"

Source: Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade. Townsville: Department of History and Politics James Cook University, 1990,
Plumes of flowers appearing over waving fields of maturing sugar cane herald that the harvest season is nigh. In farm sheds preparations have been going on for the harvest all over the slack with harvesting machinery being dismantled and overhauled. But now mill navvy crews are starting to emerge from the mill yard as they work their way around the district rail network checking and doing maintenance work. All is still quiet however in the fields as good rainfall has set back planting.
What would seem strange for a time traveller from say, the year 1950, is that even as the 2016 harvest season clearly approaches Ingham still has “the deserted air of an eternal slack”. There appears to be no sense that the community may soon be basking “in the sun of the crushing boom.” While undoubtedly anticipation is high amongst mill workers, harvester crews and farmers, little of the “exhilarating climate of the annual crushing season” of yore can be discerned walking the streets of Ingham town.
The days when a thousand young men descended on Ingham eager to sign on for the good money to be made for a season of cane cutting are long gone. Then as the Queen’s birthday weekend approached in sugar towns up and down the coast it was clear that “The long sleep is over.” The month of May would have seen prospective cane cutters arriving by road or rail and queueing up for the sign-on. While this description in a novel entitled Cane! is written of Innisfail it could just as well have been written of Ingham: “Storekeepers have restacked their shelves, publicans have filled their cellars and tightened the screws on bar-rails and doors. In the boarding houses freshly patched sheets cover old mattresses, spiders and cockroaches have been routed, ant-holes blocked, and clean glass ashtrays decorate the dressing tables. Even the windows have been polished so you can see what goes on the other side without spitting and rubbing-hard with your elbow. The bootmaker stands in his doorway, squinting down the long road to the station, licking his lips and juggling the small ancient coin in his pocket that is his luck-piece. Sam Batten can smell money on the other side of a ten foot wall. Along Down Street the girls are naked in their rooms, having a last look at their working clothes. Innisfail is ready.”   
Conducting a sugar industry in war years was impeded by many difficulties. Enlistments and internments meant there was a limited labour force while there were wartime restrictions of farm products and confiscation of equipment. The shortfall of labour was occasionally met by women and partially by Indigenous workers recruited from Palm Island. The latter group who, despite have performed most satisfactorily, were no longer employed as cane cutters once war was over. Instead post war immigrants were directed to Ingham cane fields.  With this new labour force 1950 looked to be bumper year all round. The Townsville Bulletin of May 18 1950 reported that:
“The best sign-on since 1941 resulted in the first sign-on of cane cutters for Macknade last week. With the arrival of about 100 Italian migrants, who have been nominated by friends and relatives and, in the few weeks here, have already undergone the 'nursery' tuition in the work of general farm labour and canecutting, there will be no aboriginal cutters employed.
Macknade mill will make history in four avenues in the 1950 crushing season. It will be the first mill to start in Queensland, had the earliest sign-on in the district's history, also the earliest start in crushing and will treat a record aggregate crop for the district, which is estimated at 348,000 tons.”
The other group that new cane cutters were being drawn from in the post war period were 'Balts' or Displaced Persons. This newspaper report of 1949 describes one group's arrival in Ingham. Because of the 2 year contract to which they were obligated as a condition of their being accepted as migrants to Australia many of those 160 would have returned in 1950 to Ingham or to another cane cutting district as directed.

Quotations drawn from:
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade. Townsville: Department of History and Politics James Cook University, 1990, 94.
Gollschewsky, E. “The Yesterdays and Todays of the Sugarcane Industry.” Bulletin, April (1969): 75
Donaldson, R., M.Joseph, & R. Braddon. Cane! Sydney: Sphere Books, 1936, 42-43

 “Ingham sign-on,” The Townsville Bulletin, May 18, 1950, 5.

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