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Mackay was barely two years old when the first sugar cane was grown in Queensland.  Captain Louis Hope planted a crop at Ormiston near Brisbane in 1864 and made some sugar with his results.  Before long sugar plantations were making an appearance in southern Queensland, each with its own small mill to crush the cane.  It did not take very long to realise that the rich river plains of the Pioneer were potential sugar country.

Thomas Henry Fitzgerald, the man who surveyed the Port of Mackay and helped establish the sugar industry in Mackay and later in the 1880's at Innisfail.

One of the first to take up land under the new Sugar and Coffee Regulations was Thomas Henry Fitzgerald.  He named his plantation 'Alexandra', the name he would have liked for the township.  John Spiller selected land on the north side of the river and planted cane he obtained from Java on his 'Pioneer  Estate', later producing a small amount of sugar in an experimental crushing.

About the same time as Spiller, Fitzgerald planted his first cane on land he owned in River Street, before developing his 'Alexandra' plantation.  In partnership with John Ewen Davidson, Fitzgerald built the Alexandra Mill which began crushing in 1868.  It was the first steam driven mill in north Queensland, and the largest in the colony at the time.  The village of Alexandra on the Peak Downs Highway was built over the site.

In the early days, plantation owners erected their own individual mills.  A few years later, in 1875, a disease called 'rust' spread through the sugar plantations and some were wiped out. Fitzgerald's interests in Meadowlands and Te Kowai were hit hard and as a result he went into receivership.

When the rut devastated the sugar plantations there were17 steam mills working in the district and already several small mills, including some horse-drawn ones, had disappeared.  With little or no cane to crush many mill owners faced ruin.  It was not until the early 1880's that the sugar industry made a recovery.

During the decade of the 1880's, a building boom saw the appearance of many mills, including Richmond on the north side, whose brick chimney is the last noticeable relic of those early mills.

The last mill built was Cattle Creek at Finch Hatton that began crushing in 1906.  By that time the concept of each plantation having its own mill had been replaced by a co-operative system whereby individual farmers could have their cane crushed by a central mill.  North Eton was the first to be built as a central mill in 1888.

One by one the privately owned mills in the Mackay district closed down until only seven remained - North Eton, Marian, Racecourse, Farleigh, Pleystowe, Plane Creek and Cattle Creek.  In a restructuring programme that commenced in 1988, North Eton closed in that year and Cattle Creek in 1990.  Today, Pleystowe is the oldest surviving mill in the district.

It was a widely-held belief in the early days that white men could not do heavy work - such as cutting cane - in the tropics.

Robert Towns, after whom Townsville is named, was the first to bring in Pacific Islanders to do the heavy manual work on his cotton plantation in southern Queensland.  The sugar planters in Mackay, Fitzgerald and Davidson, followed suit and the first ship-load of recruits arrived in the Pioneer River from the New Hebrides to work on the Alexandra plantation in 1867.

It was the start also of a long-running controversy about the recruitment of unwilling islanders, and ill-treatment by plantation owners, are no doubt true, but whether the stories represent everyday events or isolated incidents, the attitude of white races towards coloured people in the 19th century was the same all over the world.  That of master and servant.

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Mackay Historical Society

Mackay Historical Society and Museum Incorporated 2001-2006.
created 12 August 2004.
last updated 09 August, 2006 .
Site maintained by Glen Hall