Women, race and Queensland’s 19th-century sugar plantations

Bianka Balanzategui examines the presence of women, white and of colour, in the “masculine” spaces of tropical north Queensland’s sugar plantations. This post is based on an article that appears in the 2020 issue of Lilith, available now on open access here.

In anthropologist Carl Lumholtz’s 1889 work Among Cannibals his descriptions of Indigenous woman Nelly are largely tongue-in-cheek, and lacking any real empathy with the brutality of her existence. In his opinion ‘her existence was a happy one, marred only by an occasional flogging from her husband’. Due to the predominance of men in frontier society, the ‘frontier’ is assumed to have been a masculine space. Women were peripheral, and if white, referenced with pity, or if women of colour described with amusement or contempt, if mentioned at all. To assert that women, both white and of colour, were vital to sustaining and advancing human endeavour on the Herbert River in tropical north Queensland is a novel interpretation of plantation life.

Fleshing out the lives of women from the male record is no easy task. Nevertheless, for the first time the contributions of a group of women, white and of colour, living alongside each other in plantation era tropical north Queensland have been identified and acknowledged. Rather than pitiable or contemptuous the women are revealed to have been adventurous, skilled, inventive, entrepreneurial and brave in the face of danger, deprivation, and loss.

The enigmatic Italian Caterina Cordelia arrived with the first hopeful planters in 1868, presumably as housekeeper, but the naming of various landmarks after her indicates infatuation on the part of one of her male companions. The group left the Herbert within a year of arriving and of Caterina there was no further record. Isabella Mackenzie and her brothers followed, occupying the cottages that Caterina and her companions had vacated. The Mackenzies set up the first plantation and mill – Gairloch. Isabella was a landowner in her own right and together with her ne’er-do-well husband was left to pick up the pieces after the plantation failed. Her travelling companion Isabella Campbell, a widow with two children, married immediately on alighting the steamer and together with her new husband set up the first hotel on the Herbert in 1875, the Planter’s Retreat, and lived out her life there. Elizabeth Burrows and her husband sought seclusion and landholding independence so took up an isolated small selection which they worked side by side. Twenty years her husband’s junior, it was she who thatched the roof of their cottage. There she and her husband met gruesome deaths at the hands of the local Indigenous people. Their demise evidenced a growing resentment felt by the Indigenous people as Europeans encroached on their lands.  Louisa Buchanan married Swedish immigrant Christian Anderssen, a blacksmith. When he was crippled while shoeing a horse, she became a midwife to support her large family, a number of whom died as children under tragic circumstances. Louisa lived to a fine old age and was remembered with admiration for her dedication to her profession.

Elizabeth Jane Look Hop (née Ah Bow) 1925. National Archives of Australia, NAA: Series no. J2483, 391/45, Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test (CEDT), 14 November 1925.

These white women were visible, to lesser or greater degree, in contemporary accounts but it has only been in the twenty-first century that women of colour Manbarra woman Jenny, Melanesian Annie Etinside, and Australian-born Chinese woman Eliza Jane Ah Bow have been identified, incidentally by female researchers. Jenny was a house servant and a married woman in 1892 when her life changed irrevocably on her recruitment by Barnum and Bailey Circus agent Robert A. Cunningham to tour America and Europe performing and being ‘exhibited’ on the circus circuit. One by one, during the tour, her husband, Dilagroo or King Bill, and five others of the touring group of eight died. On her return to Australia in 1898 she disappeared from the records. Her story only came to light because of the painstaking research of Roslyn Poignant for her critically received book Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle published in 2004.

Annie Gosling (née Etinside Barslo) and George Gosling 1885. Courtesy of Albert and Rachel Garlando.

Similarly, the remarkable details of the life of Annie Etinside, indentured labourer, housemaid and farmer, were finally revealed because scholar Rachel Garlando, undertaking family history research, came across Annie and made her the subject of an assessment paper in 2018: ‘Annie Gosling and a family living outside the South Sea Islander experience’. Annie married Englishman George Gosling and passed her children off as European resulting in her descendants’ complete disassociation from the Melanesian community. Likewise, it was only because of the collaboration of historian Sandi Robb with Ingham Family History Association Inc. member Cheryl Gossner for an exhibition of the Chinese immigrants’ contribution to the history of the Herbert River Valley, Rediscovery Buk Ti, that Eliza Jane Ah Bow’s story came to be known. Eliza lived in the Chinatown adjacent to the hotel owned by Isabella Campbell, and it was at the Planter’s Retreat in 1891 that she married at the age of 13, becoming a mother four months later. She spent various periods of her life in China and her children retained strong connections with their village and family in China.

The lives of these women were an invisible narrative running parallel to the well documented one of men’s exploits. Their stories add to our knowledge of the gender history of the Queensland plantation period and challenge the notion of the frontier as an entirely masculine landscape. Rather than pitiable or contemptible they were strong, active participants in, and survivors of, the drama of colonisation that opened the Herbert to white settlement, displaced the Indigenous land-owners and melded cultures from across the globe.

Dr Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui is a casual academic at James Cook University, historian and historical consultant. She researches the sugar industry and migration history of tropical north Queensland, with published works such as Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade (JCU, 1990) and ‘Basking in a Different Sun: The Story of Conchi Mendiolea’ in Amatxi, Amuma, Amono: Writings in Honor of Basque Women, (University of Nevada, 2003) marrying those themes. She also has a keen personal and professional interest in the local history of the Herbert River Valley, north Queensland and her current research explores that history within an international context.

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