Sweet and sour: accounting for South Sea Islander labour at a North Queensland sugar mill in the late 1800s

Irvine, Helen J. (2004) Sweet and sour: accounting for South Sea Islander labour at a North Queensland sugar mill in the late 1800s. In 10th World Congress of Accounting Historians, August 1 – 5, 2004, St Louis, Missouri and Oxford, Mississippi, USA. (Unpublished)


The sugar industry in the colony of Queensland (Australia) began in the late 1800s, initially following the plantation model. Since slavery had been abolished, and it was believed that white men were incapable of working in the tropics, a number of sugar entrepreneurs recruited South Sea islanders to provide the labour necessary for clearing the dense tropical vegetation and establishing cane growing as an economically viable industry. It is estimated that from the early 1860s until 1904, over 60,000 islanders were recruited from more than eighty islands to work as indentured labourers. In spite of their huge contribution to the sugar industry, however, they were never really wanted in Australia, and in the late 1800s, various laws were passed which at first protected, then restricted, and finally required their deportation.

It was against this backdrop of colonial culture, indentured labour, a struggling young sugar industry, the growth of trade unions, and the movement that led to Federation and a White Australia Policy in 1901, that the Colonial Sugar Refining (CSR) Company established its plantation and sugar mill at Goondi (North Queensland) in the 1880s. Driven by a desire to maximise profits and maintain healthy dividends, the CSR directors saw the use of indentured labourers as a purely economic matter. Political factors such as the breakdown of the plantation system, and the restriction on the use of South Sea islanders had to be balanced in the management of their sugar plantations and mills in order to maintain profitability.

To this end, the accounting employed at Goondi Mill focused heavily on recording and controlling costs, with a high level of accountability required of the mill manager in all aspects of the mill’s operations. The low wages paid to indentured labourers were a vital factor in maintaining profits, and the recruiting and management of this labour force was a constant and demanding task. The recording of islanders not as individuals, but as a group, whose wages were kept very low to serve the purposes of CSR’s investors, exposes the entrenchment of racist attitudes and class structures through indentured labour. It illustrates the reality that accounting operates within an institutional setting, usually an unquestioned and unchallenged reflection of the opinions and values of the day, and of the power of various interest groups. Reflection on accounting history enables us, as accountants, to consider what practices were are taking for granted and leaving unchallenged in our times.

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ID Code: 13044
Item Type: Conference Paper
Refereed: Yes
Additional URLs:
Keywords: accounting history, south sea islander labour, Queensland sugar industry
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY (210000) > HISTORICAL STUDIES (210300) > Historical Studies not elsewhere classified (210399)
Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > COMMERCE MANAGEMENT TOURISM AND SERVICES (150000) > ACCOUNTING AUDITING AND ACCOUNTABILITY (150100) > Accounting Auditing and Accountability not elsewhere classified (150199)
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > QUT Business School
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2004 (please consult author)
Deposited On: 19 Mar 2008 00:00
Last Modified: 05 Jan 2011 13:35

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