In 1888 Mr Kerr at Geraldton (Innisfail) had only
one kanaka employed on his selection, and the use of aboriginal labour, as he could always have a few boys when he wanted
them. But he was not yet able to make a living on the land and believed that if there was a mill on the same side of the river
as his property then he would grow cane for it and do very well, but not with European labour. To be profitable for growing
cane kanaka labour was about as suitable as any labour they could have.
To make a living for the past two years, when he had been unable to keep himself,
he had to go in for contracts, with a partner, for clearing the undergrowth off the telegraph line to Cardwell, through a
good few miles of dense scrub and the mostly open forest country favoured by the Government surveyors.
He was a contractor with his partner, Peter Forbes, at Goondi and used aboriginal labour, over
seventy, who worked satisfactorily, but he was unable to make a profit only bare wages, and sometimes not even that. The aboriginals
were recompensed with food and tobacco and he paid them about 1s. a week. But he
could not rely on them as they would go away at a moment’s notice, and if they wanted to go away it was no use trying
to keep them. The contracts he undertook were for weeding and cane cutting.
But Mr Kerr would not undertake to carry on his agricultural farm in the way he was doing with
European labour, even if it could be obtained, unless it was very much cheaper than it ever had been. He felt a certain portion
of the work could be done by European labour, but not exclusively, and did not think a European labourer could work with a
hoe. The Chinese did a lot of that sort of work and did it for considerably under one pound – 16s or 17s. a week and found. He felt that the summer climate was suitable
for Europeans but only for certain types of work, not the type of work the kanakas did. He had never known Europeans refuse
to weed, trash or cut cane, as he had never employed them at that type of work but could not see that it would pay anybody
to employ them. Even he would not work at hoeing or anything else like that in the field amongst the cane. He said it was
not so bad felling scrub in the open, but he would not work in the cane field.
There were three other men in the district who also used aboriginal labour, having between seventy
and eighty on Goondi Plantation, working for the sugar company. In all, there might have been 200 actually at work, counting
boys, gins and pickanninies – all doing their little bit.
Mr Kerr’s fifteen acres was cleared well with a good many of the stumps being out. He thought
he would have had a good crop of bananas this year but was unable to sell very little off his selection as the grub attacked
the bananas very badly and they came to nothing.
Labour, he believed, was the principle drawback to carrying on tropical agriculture in the district
as reliable labour could not be had. The cheapest labour, if it was not reliable, was not cheap.
Generally selectors wished to have kanaka labour. Some men when they first came into the district
were in favour of employing nothing but European labour. They were working men, and, after a year or two’s residence,
they became convinced that the sugar industry could not be carried on by European labour. Kanakas were considered the best
of the different classes of labour to be seen employed in the district.
Mr Kerr’s land was rather far back from the Johnstone River
and was never cultivated by Chinese as they liked to be near a river. Some Chinamen looked at it once or twice, but being
one and a-half miles from the river it was too far for them.
The want of capital was the other drawback to carrying on tropical agriculture as there didn’t
seem to be any capital in the district to speak of, unless it was that of the Colonial Sugar Company.
The cost to clear land - to fell, burn off and clear - was about seven to eight pounds an acre,
although a year or two previous it was a good deal more. To stump the new land immediately after burning and falling could
not be done for less than thirty pounds an acre but if left five or six years it could be done for a trifle, about six pounds
Even if Mr Kerr had sufficient kanaka labour he was not be prepared to go into extensive cultivation
until there was a mill.
There was very little fever this year and the white selectors’ health had been better during the
past two years than it used to be. It was a healthy district for Europeans after they got acclimatized. For two or three years
they were liable to fever, but after they got over that they were healthy enough.
There was any number of new chum emigrants employed who stood the
climate very well. There were a number employed at Goondi Plantation all through the crushing, with a good many still there,
but any complaints were mostly of the heat. They were employed both in the field and in the mill, drawing in trucks, laying
rail, and such work as that. They were never seen weeding or hoeing.