Monday, 7 September 2015

The "Italian Experiment" - Jumna Immigrants, 1891

In the 1880s the Queensland Government passed legislation that sought to bring an end to the use of South Sea Island labour in the sugar industry by 1890. The government was responding to growing public discomfort about the labour trade as well as to fears that these workers were threatening the job prospects of “white” Australians.

Italian sugar cane workers taking a tea break in the cane fields, Innisfail District, in 1923. Left to right: R. Cavallaro, F. Leonardi, P. Zaia, A. D'Urso, M. Bonanna, S. Zappalo, L. D'Urso, G. Lizzio, Alfio Lizzio (child) and Carmela Lizzio (cook).
Photo: State Library of Queensland.    

However, the crackdown on South Sea Island labour coincided with an economic slump in the sugar industry, prompting the plantation owners to consider looking elsewhere for workers.

In 1890, Townsville businessman C.V. Fraire, who had emigrated to Queensland from Italy in 1872, travelled home to Italy on behalf of the plantation owners to recruit agricultural workers. Mr Fraire took six months to engage 335 immigrants, which included 21 married couples with 18 children.

The new recruits arrived in Queensland in early December 1891 aboard the ship Jumna.
Watercolour of the ship Jumna.
Image: State Library of Queensland.

The Queenslander described the potential suitability of the immigrants arriving on the Jumna as being of “a superior class”. Sourced mainly from the northern Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy, the newspaper reported that:

“Every precaution has been taken by the authorities to ensure none but suitable people are emigrating. They have agreed to work until they obtain more knowledge of the cultivation of sugar cane and other tropical products, and then land will be sold to them in suitable areas on terms extending over ten years”.

As if to reassure its readers of the good character of the new arrivals, the newspaper went on to say that:

“The marshal in charge of the immigrants and the officers of the ship speak in high terms of the behaviour of the Italians throughout the passage.”

When the Jumna arrived in Townsville, 266 immigrants disembarked and after undergoing medical checks, were transferred to sugar plantations throughout the Herbert and Burdekin districts. The remaining 69 people continued in the Jumna to Bundaberg.

The Burdekin district received more than half of the new migrants, with 153 transferring to the Pioneer, Kalamia and Seaforth plantations, while the remaining 113 went to the Herbert River plantations Macknade, Ripple Creek and Hamleigh.
Macknade Sugar Plantation, viewed from the Herbert River, Ingham, 1874.
Photo: State Library of Queensland.

However, employment was not confined to the cane fields, and the new migrants also worked at clearing scrubland and felling and splitting timber for fencing.

Despite initial public suspicion, the Italian workers quickly proved they were capable of hard, physical labour in a difficult climate.

In January 1892, the Queenslander reported on the visit of A.S. Cowley, the Minister for Lands, to the northern sugar mills.

“I saw the recently arrived Italian labourers at work on the Herbert River. They are men of splendid physique, evidently accustomed to hard work, and they are plodding along quietly,” Mr Cowley said.

“Of course, as was to have been expected, there have been a few little disagreements, but nothing at all serious, and the men were working very amicably and satisfactorily,” he said.

Initially the experiment to bring Italian workers into the northern sugar industry seemed like a failure as many of the new arrivals had left the cane plantations within months, having secured better paid work in other industries. 

However, by 1911 many plantations had been subdivided into smaller farms and north Queensland was home to over 600 Italians with more than half the cane cutters in the Herbert River district of Italian origin.

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