1891 Italian labour for the cane fields

Italian cane cutters, Innisfail, 1923. Image: State Library of Queensland

Much has been written about the Italian influence on Australia’s cuisine as a result of post-WWII immigration. That period, thanks to migration, increasing overseas travel and a more international outlook did see Italian food increasingly accepted by Anglo-Australians. But, in some parts of the country, the Italian culinary influence started much earlier. In North Queensland, it began with the importation of Italian labour to work in the cane fields.

In 1891, an immigration scheme promoted by a Piedmontese businessman, Chaiffredo Fraire, saw a group of Italians arrive in Queensland to work in the sugarcane districts of Burdekin and Bundaberg. The scheme was intended to provide Italian labour to replace the Pacific Islanders (known as kanakas) who had previously been the main labour force. The Queensland government had legislated against the importation of cheap labour from the islands, which was seen to compete unfairly with “white” workers.

Fraire was a native of Piedmont in Italy but had lived in Queensland since 1872. He became an influential figure in Townsville business circles and was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1888. In 1891 he travelled to Italy where, despite some objections from the Italian government, he persuaded more than 330 Italians to emigrate to Queensland. The group included 21 married couples with 18 children. All were selected on the basis of their agricultural backgrounds. They travelled aboard the ship Jumna.

The choice of labourers reflected the prejudice of Northern Italians against those from the south. The Jumna immigrants were all from Piedmont or Lombardy, and this was offered as reassurance to those who questioned their suitability for Australia. In their defence, The Queenslander wrote in 1891:

Others, again, through ignorance, connect the Italian with everything that is bad, and in particular with the use of the knife to avenge his wrongs…In Australia we have a large number of Italians who are peaceable and law-abiding colonists. The recent events in New Orleans in connection with the Mafia Society have created a sort of dread…However, there is nothing to be feared in that direction so long as the lower classes from Sicily and Southern Italy do not find their way to our shores in numbers, which is very unlikely. The Mafia is almost an unknown word north of Naples.

The initial Italian labour experiment was not an unqualified success. Many of the immigrants left the canefields to take better-paying jobs and some returned to Italy. However, over the following three decades, some managed to buy their own sugar properties and encouraged family and friends from their homeland to emigrate and join them. By 1925, about 44 per cent of the sugar plantations in the Herbert River district were owned by Italians.

Their growing prosperity alarmed some Anglo-Australians and there were rumblings about the “olive peril”. Again, the press leapt to their defence, with the Rockhampton Evening News proclaiming in 1925 that “The more the matter of Italian immigration is discussed the plainer does it become that the main opposition comes from the work-shy”.

By 1933 there were 8,355 Italy-born people in Queensland, more than a third of Australia’s total Italian population. This encouraged even Anglo-Australian companies based in the state, such as Huttons, to begin making Italian-style products like “Formaggio Romano” (Roman cheese) for the local market.

Despite a difficult time during World War II when many were imprisoned as enemy aliens, the Italian communities of North Queensland expanded. Today, more than half the population in towns such as Ingham claim Italian descent. The annual Australian Italian Festival, in Ingham, celebrates Italian food and culture.

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