Plantation agriculture in the Northern Territory (1878-1889)

  • Ian Mackintosh Hillock

    Student thesis: Masters by Research - CDU


    The study of the first major tragic failure of agriculture in the 'Top End' affords an overview of a little-known undertaking to develop prosperous settlement in South Australia's Northern Territory through establishment of sugar plantations. A thriving and vibrant agriculture in the region has been the hope of successive generations of Territorians and the persistent dream of all governments, both State and Federal. This study investigates one of the earliest attempts at sustained agriculture in the Northern Territory.

    The story itself spans some twenty years from its beginnings when the South Australian Government first devised the idea and passed an Act offering a bonus of five thousand pounds for the first five hundred tons of sugar produced and manufactured in the Territory. No one ever claimed the bonus.

    At the time the scheme evoked tremendous interest not only within the Northern Territory of South Australia and in South Australia itself, but to a lesser degree in the rest of the world.

    Today it has been largely forgotten. The ignominious failure of sugar growing in the Northem Territory precipitated a lack of confidence so great that it caused South Australia to eventually opt out of the commitment to the Northern Territory it had so ardently sought, fought and schemed for a few decades earlier and the Federal . Government took over ultimate responsibility tor Territory administration and development in 1911.

    The heroic effort of many of the people involved, though long forgotten, has foreshadowed much subsequent endeavor and resultant failure. Yet its failure was indeed seminal and it, along with the blatant fraud that was associated with mining in the early days, had a disproportionate effect on how the Northern Territory subsequently developed.

    Putting together the facts has been no easy task. Apart from a few brief references by contemporary and modem writers very little is known about the particulars of this early attempt. This paucity of information necessitated an undue reliance in the initial stages of the investigation on information almost entirely culled from contemporary newspaper reports. However, information thus game red eventually produced leads to sufficient archival material to enable evidence from other records. These had to be adequately cross-checked and triangulated, despite a dearth of financial information due to concurrent bank failures which might have been very relevant if available.

    Research sources are listed in the Bibliography. Evidence has been extracted from available archival material, from books and newspapers written at the time, from modem writers and government records. The range of material is necessarily limited. Writers of the period have been evaluated, interpreted and compared with more recent material in discussion and interview with various experts and long-term residents of the region.

    The study investigates the background to the decision to promote the establishment of plantations and thus encourage large-scale investment, intended to deliver the nucleus around which a viable and long-term infrastructure could be developed, and at the same time provide the required catalyst to population and capital growth.

    The years between 1879 and 1889 saw the rise and fall of the first real trial of large-scale agricultural production in the Territory. It involved some 50 000 acres of actual plantation with over 100 000 acres earmarked and 'taken up' by speculators for the cultivation of sugar cane. Total sugar production from the venture probably amounted at best to something under ten tons. The consequent Commission of Inquiry of 1895 resolved nothing.

    Research has concentrated principally on the Palmerston Plantation Company's and their successors' effort to establish sugar cultivation on the Daly River. However, it necessarily touches upon, though in less detail, other plantations that briefly flowered and died during that fateful decade.

    Definitive identification of the location of the Palmerston Plantation Company's operations presented further difficulties. Though the general area, the Daly River, in which the plantation was established had been recorded, the precise site of the early project could not be identified or specifically located on any known map in my preliminary investigation.

    This was a serious problem because without proper site identification no real appreciation of the land capability was possible and therefore no conclusion could be drawn as to the inherent feasibility of the original venture, other than by relying on subjective contemporary reports. However, by field work and with help from those who are identified in the acknowledgments, the most probable site has now been identified and the data relevant to land capability has been adequately processed and analysed.

    The complete failure to enable the establishment of any viable agricultural enterprise at all in the Territory may be sheeted home directly to the ineptitude of successive South Australian Governments unable to come to grips with the problem. But for this, the nucleus of an agricultural industry could have been established on the Daly River at that time with concomitant benefits to successive generations. In the jargon of today 'a window of opportunity' was lost.
    Date of AwardMar 1999
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorMichael Christie (Supervisor)

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