Chinese prospectors attracted to north Queensland’s goldfields were responsible for the first successful cultivation of rice in Australia.  High import duties on rice prompted small scale cultivation, until 1888 when Thomas Behan built a steam-powered rice mill near Cairns. The industry had only moderate success in the area and growers turned to sugar cane.

Although there were earlier gold discoveries elsewhere in Queensland, the first to attract significant numbers of Chinese prospectors was the Cape River Goldfield, near Charters Towers in 1867. Many more arrived after the discovery of gold at Palmer River, inland from Cooktown from 1873 with an estimated 18,000 Chinese people living in the area in 1877.

The import duties on rice were seen as a way of taxing unpopular Chinese immigrants, who responded by growing their own. However, the hand mills they used to process the rice produced a grain viewed by Europeans as an inferior product.

In 1885 a 25-year-old surveyor, Thomas Behan, obtained a leasehold on a site at Stratford on the Barron River five miles from Cairns and, in partnership with a merchant, Mr. J. Johnston of Ipswich, ordered steam-driven milling machinery from Squires & Co. of Buffalo, New York.

Contemporary newspaper accounts report that the rice would be grown by “Chinamen and others”. Behan offered £8 10s. a ton for all the paddy (raw rice) that could be delivered at the rice mill and £8 for paddy delivered in Cairns. Transport was assured by the river with a deep water port on one side of the site and the railway on the other.

Behan's Central Rice Mill
Image: State Library of Queensland

The mill began production in 1888. Behan floated his company in 1889 and the mill operated as the Central Rice Mill and the North Queensland Milling Company under various owners until 1903 when the boiler exploded and the mill closed. Behan left the company in 1893 to resume his surveying career.

Behan’s mill had competitors – Kipling’s Rice Mill in Freshwater, a suburb of Cairns, was also processing rice but was driven by water rather than steam. Later, the Cairns Rice Manufacturing Co opened a larger mill.

The industry faltered when the gold rushes ended and many Chinese immigrants who were growing the rice returned to China. Despite the use of ‘kanaka’ and white labour, it was soon more profitable to grow sugar cane.