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James O'Halleran

Geraldton (Innisfail) 1885

In 1888 Mr James O’Halleran was the acting manager of the ‘Innisfail Estate’ at Geraldton (Innisfail), which had a total of 2,900 acres made up of two 1,265 acre lots, in all 2,530 acres. There were also two homesteads which brought it up to over 2,900 acres.


He did not have any experience of sugar growing outside of Queensland, nor a great deal in Queensland. He had been on the plantation for six years and found he had the very best means of communication by water, the Johnstone River. The ‘Palmer’ or the ‘Burdekin’ came up to the wharf and took the sugar away, and there was no great expense in it, because the sugar was taken down in trucks to the wharf and put on board the steamer.


There had previously been 400 acres under cultivation but there was only 320 acres at this time, all planted with cane. Only 210 acres were cut and sold to ‘Goondi’ where they got 11s. or 12s. a ton for it, cut and delivered at the bank of the river, where the mill took it away. Owing to the seasons and deficiency of labour of late they had not had full crops. The weight of cane per acre was 40 tons, but there had been 60 and 70 tons taken off the top selection. Of course the price of sugar always affected the price of labour and the lower the price of sugar the lower the wages.


The varieties of cane grown included Rose bamboo, rappoe, meera, and others, in patches of about twenty acres. There was also striped Singapore, which was the best cane Mr O’Halleren had seen on ‘Innisfail’. Other good varieties were Rose bamboo, and meera.


There was a paddock on nineteen acres of good land of ‘Daniel Dupont’ which was doing well, but it was not a class of cane that could be planted in large quantities. It was a different cane from the others, which were easy to trash, it being very hard to trash, like the Elephant type they had had. They did not always trash, but they generally gave the cane one trashing, and if they had time gave it two. White men would not have done two rows a day as they wouldn’t do this sort of work. He had not grown lahina cane. There was no nursery.


Sugar was manufactured on the plantation and during the last two years they crushed and turned out 210 tons and 215 tons. There was no crushing during any other years. The price of cane when Mr O’Hallaren arrived was 36 and 40 pounds a ton, and was about 23 pounds a ton at this time. The price of sugar had a great deal to do with the present position of the plantation – the fall in price and the scarcity of labour.


No other crops had been grown except sugar. The land wouldn’t grow corn as it grew rank and would not mature.


Not one bit of the plantation was exhausted as there was no better land in the colony, but the past three seasons had been very bad. Just as the plantation was looking well, the grub came and destroyed a lot of the plant cane, 100 acres, and it had to be replanted, three times, and they were expecting a crop next season.


The grub was one of the wood type, only a smaller class with a hard red head and white body. It was found in the soil under the root of the cane and it was unknown what the grub turned into, as the boys were sent out after the plough to pick them up and burn them. The Mourilyan people sent grubs down to Brisbane for investigation, and could do nothing with it. A large gray moth had been seen about, a good few, but it was locally unknown if it was related to the grub.


The only other disease in the cane in the past six years, besides the grub, was rust, but not a great deal, in the cherebon variety.


Up to this season 36,000 pounds had been invested in the plantation and mill, which was solely Mr Fitzgerald’s investment. There was a mortgage between 36,000 and 37,000 pounds to Miss O’Reilly, who was then in possession of the place and Mr O‘Halleran had been in her employ for three and a half years. The plantation, which had been very backward, could only keep itself since Miss O’Reilly took it over. The plantation had only paid working expenses and barely that, with a total expenditure of about 1,300 pounds a year, and if they been crushing the amount would have been 5,000 pounds.


There was no interest being paid on the original debt and was dead capital, gone. The value of the land was seven pounds an acre but if put into the market would not realize that and would not represent the money sunk into it.


The drawback was in the getting of labour. Labour employed on the plantation was kanakas, when they could be gotten, Javanese, Malays and Europeans, but he had never employed Chinamen.


A plantation could not afford to pay 15s. or one pound a week and rations, which were very low wages, to white labour to work on the plantation, and even if that were offered to a kanaka it was hard to get the labour. They had to turn around and employ white labour, and couldn’t pay them less than 15s. or one pound a week, and at that rate of wage it did not pay.


A plantation could employ white labour in some things, but not in work in the field. A European was profitable labour to work after horses. Kanaka labour was not good after horses, and was only good where white men would not work. Kanakas agreed with the white men very well and the white men did not object to their employment, never saying anything about it or interfering with them. They did not work with the kanakas, but they need not have been put side by side with them. There had never been any likelihood of a collision between them on the Johnstone as each had his own particular work – white men following the plough, and horse and dray work, ploughing, harrowing; the kanakas being restricted to the field, hoeing, trashing, cutting, etc. Putting white men into a cane field to hoe by themselves, they would do it, but they could not afford to pay one pound a week at the present price of sugar.


There were seven Europeans, but they employed more during the season. Some were paid one pound a week, some 15s. and others 14s, who came under agreement from Townsville. They were young men from eighteen to twenty-five or perhaps thirty years of age. They were engaged in farm labourer’s work, in making themselves generally useful. At the same time the Divisional Board paid European labour eight shillings a day.


Mr O’Hallaren never saw a white man who showed any willingness to continue to work in the cane field. They preferred to finish their day’s work when once they started as they would rather finish work than knock off. So there was no proposal to allow the men to rest during the day of the noonday sun and to pull up their time in the course of the morning and evening. He often let them have a short spell if the day was very hot, and they pulled up at night. He also let them have two hours at dinner time and was very careful of his ploughmen and horses, as they were bound to do it.


Previously Mr Charles Nolan tried to work the place with white labour only. The crop had been sold to him, about 200 acres, and he worked it with white labour and did so at a great loss, losing between 500 and 600 pounds for three months’ crushing, which was greatly attributed to the employment of white labour and it was unknown what he paid for the cane.


Mr Nolan was a general storekeeper, having no plantation of his own, who merely bought the cane as a speculation without any experience in the crushing of sugar cane. This had something to do with his loss of 600 pounds, as crushing cane required employment of skilled labour. One would never take an inexperienced man and put him in charge of the vacuum pan.


Mr Nolan was joined by the two Wanlesses in the speculation, with the younger one in charge of the mill and also the locomotive engineer. The old man had charge of the outside work, with very little to do with the working of the place. Mr O’Halleren was there at the time but would never have taken the crop, to be taken off with white men, unless it could be gotten for a cheap price. If the price of sugar had increased he would have been able to offer more than one pound a week wages.


Mr McDonald was the manager and kept the books, who had a plantation of his own once, but lost it.


In other tropical climates it was customary to cease working from about 11 o’clock till about 2 o’clock and then make up for it in the cooler part of the day, so as to avoid the intense heat of the noonday sun. Mr O’Halleren had no objection to this idea, as it was all the same if they pulled up later and made full time. But the newly-arrived immigrants never objected to working in the cane field in the heat. They might have said, “It’s pretty hot,” but they never said that they would prefer knocking off for a few hours and make it up in the evening.


If white labour ceased work from 11am to 2pm it would greatly affect the workings during crushing time.


The real objection was that they would not go into the cane field hoeing. They did not believe in hoeing, and said it was not work for white men, only for black fellows.


It was also felt that it was wrong for white men to work side by side with the kanakas, that such a thing should be done, to put two distinct classes of labour to work in the same place. It had happened that Mr O’Halleren had some Javanese working in the field with white men, and by accident they came to work together, and the white men refused to work. They could not work alongside the Javanese as the Javanese took too much out of them.


The Javanese labour was not a great success but it was better than nothing if nothing better could be got. It was better than Chinese. He would not care much about renewing agreements with the Javanese if he could get kanakas. Javanese were a class of labour that if they could best you they would best you, and keep you bested. They would lie in their hut and pretend to be sick, and when the farmer had gotten out of their hut after being seen they would rise up and commence hooting.


Mr Fitzgerald had gotten twenty-six from Java, who cost 500 pounds to bring out and they cleared out for home before their time had expired. They would not work, and he had some of them taken before the court, and they were sent to gaol, but when they came out again they were just the same. They would often stick him up by refusing to work when he was crushing. Kanakas were the most reliable labour while the Javanese would lie down three or four day a week and wouldn’t work.


The white men refused to work with the Javanese because of the colour and Mr O’Halleren would not give them an hour’s work if he could have kanakas. He would employ kanakas over white labour in the field preferring them in the cane field, trashing, cutting and hoeing round about the sugar. White labour was suitable for harrowing, ploughing, and carting cane, as it was the cheapest labour to get. Then there were the sugar boilers, engineers and mechanics.


The highest wages he could afford to pay good ploughmen and horse-drivers was one pound a week and tucker, and they had to be very good at it.


Some white labourers had broken their agreements and run away at different times, but very seldom. They generally carried out their agreements, which were for six months. At the expiration of six months they generally asked for a rise of wages, and if they did not get it went away.


There were nineteen kanakas, all time-expired boys, who were paid from 15 to 20 pounds a year and rations. The average was about forty boys employed, inclusive of Javanese and Malays.


They were considered the best with cane and were the most reliable labour in the colony. It was not cheap labour by any means but it was labour that could be relied on when they were available. They stood working in the field very well entirely and had not had a death during the past four years. It was unknown of any deaths before that time. They worked ten hours a day from 6am to 6pm with an hour for breakfast and dinner. Sometimes a few female kanakas came among the boys, they worked well and were not any trouble.


They had cleared between eighty and ninety acres of scrub land this year with thirty-eight kanakas, and planted it themselves.


The islanders were under agreement with the plantation, with some of them expiring on New Year’s Day next and then going off. Mr O’Halleren had not tried obtaining labour from the islands and sometimes had trouble getting time-expired men. Sometimes they came readily and sometimes not.


He was not fully handed at present, not by half and was short by about sixty, as there was considerable trouble in getting a sufficient quantity of labour. If they were easily obtained the proprietors would have increased the area of cultivation.


The kanakas gave not the slightest trouble to the police, not a bit. One got in trouble with a white man late in the year, they had a row, but the police stuck the white man up for grog. The kanakas had sometimes been seen with a drop of liquor, but that was rare.


When the boys were ill he sent them to the hospital, or sent for Dr White, who was paid to come and attend the kanakas. It was better to send the boy to the hospital if he was bad but the general state of the health of the kanakas was very good. They had not had a death on the plantation for five years.


The Europeans did not stand the work well in the field. They would not work with the hoe but would do ploughing and following horses, but would not do anything else. They growled against it and would not do it. They could do the work as well as the men in the south on the Downs or about Brisbane but did not stand hoeing cane or planting it, but, in fact, they would not do it. White men kept their health working in the field pretty fairly, with only a few going to hospital.  They worked about nine and a half hours, with both kanakas and Europeans working during the whole of the heat of the sun.


The greatest part of plantation labour was suitable for Europeans who could perform it. The heat and climate was no obstacle to their doing it as they were not heard complaining much about the heat. The kanakas were put to hoeing, planting, and cutting cane and even though Europeans were capable of doing it, they wouldn’t and Mr O’Halleren had seen and experienced this. The general health of the European population was very good and there had not been seen a case of fever in the past four years. The general climate of the Johnstone admitted of the employment of European labour, except working in the cane field, hoeing, cane cutting, etc.


There were gold fields in the district at the Russell River with a white population of from fifty to sixty at that time, so it did not operate much to keep up the rates of wages.


Malays and Japanese stood working in the field but they were a class that could not be relied on.


There was no one on the place who kept records of the temperature at ‘Innisfail’ but Mr Canny kept it at the ‘Queensland’ plantation.


At the present price of sugar Mr O’Halleren thought, if he could get a fair season and reliable labour, it would pay. 30 tons to the acre and 11s. per ton, as with this year’s crop, would pay.


There were different kinds of tropical trees grown in the garden, and grew well – oranges, limes, lemons, mangoes, and mulberries, which grew the best of all.


Tropical fruits could be grown here and Europeans were well adapted for its growing.


Chinamen leased land in the district from the Government for the cultivation of tropical fruits. Bananas principally, and other fruits. There were also several selectors up the river who had leased land to them as well.


There were some Europeans on the Johntone River who were growing tropical fruits on their own land with their own labour, without employing kanaka labour and making a success of it.

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