The most significant objects in our collection will often be a point where several histories connect. The cane knife, for example, is symbolic of the history of Queensland and there are several examples of these knives in the Queensland Museum Network Collections. This unassuming object represents farming, industry, and Queensland prosperity as well as the contribution South Sea Islanders and migrant workers made to that wealth, despite policies that overlooked their human rights.
Cane farming was a key industry for many Queensland regions beginning in the mid-1860s. Sugar was considered essential for the colony and so its farming was prioritised, growing best in what was to become the sunshine state. In the 1860s and 1870s more sugar was produced in Queensland than anywhere else in Australia and Queensland still accounts for 95% Australia’s sugar cane, which is particularly noticeable around Mackay and North Queensland. The cane knife, used to cut the sugar cane at harvest time, is symbolic of the prosperity that accompanied the success of the sugar cane industry.
The knife also symbolises the people who used it, those working the farms. Cane knives are a heavy, austere tool with a wide metal blade that was often bent at the end to slightly minimise the distance the worker would have to repetitively bend down to reach the base. The handle was usually wooden and worn smooth with use, some bearing indentations from where it had been held tightly and used often. The workers would bend to cut the cane at the base of the stem before using the knife to strip the leaves from the top…and then repeat. The work of cane harvesting was hard and many of the early Europeans in Australia were unwilling to labour outdoors under such unforgiving conditions. To address the labour shortage South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia to work on the farms, some people were recruited but there is a documented history of some South Sea Islanders coming to Australia as a result of ‘blackbirding’, using coercion and kidnapping. Upon arriving in Australia many went into a system of indentured labour where there they were exploited, working harder for less pay and received lodging and rations. The South Sea Islander work ethic and efficiency was often praised as they became integral to the success of the sugar cane industry and their role would come to be an important part of Australian South Sea Islander identity.
The employment of so many Pacific Islanders fuelled tensions that were already growing, as it appeared white European people were being overlooked for employment in favour of migrants. In 1901, one of the first actions of the new Federal Government was to pass the Pacific Island Labourers Act, ordering the deportation of the 10,000 Pacific Islanders residing in Queensland by 1906. This particular act was a part of The White Australia Policy aimed at the cane industry, ensuring jobs were readily available for white men at a fairer rate of pay. It was decreed that South Sea Islanders must leave Queensland or face deportation despite having established strong roots and families in the time that they had been in Australia. Over 7,000 South Sea Islanders were deported.
South Sea Islanders cutting cane captured by Frederick Charles Wills, and his assistant Henry William Mobsby on a Lumiere Cinematographe. Video: Queensland Museum Collection.
Even with the enforced deportation of South Sea Islanders, many migrants, now coming from European countries like Italy or Malta, were working the cane farms. With the promise of fortune and a new life for those not afraid of hard labour they came to Australia to work the cane fields with the aim of financial security for their families and a farming legacy. In the 1950’s the cane harvester was introduced and mechanised the process, removing the cane knife from its central role in the industry. Despite losing relevance in a working capacity, cane knives have taken on a second life as a physical representation of the hard labour to establish the Australian Sugar Industry. They are a strong symbol of Queensland’s history, cane farming and industry as well as the huge contribution that South Sea Islanders and migrants made to the iconic industry that went undervalued at the time.