The new home: Australia // Sugar cane cutters

Sugar cane cutters

Article 'Care of our soil' by Bruno Tapiolas

The portrait: Vilasecans

In 1863, the Victorian government tried to recruit Europeans by writing to the British Consulates in Palermo, Genova, Marsella, Baiona, Bilbao and Barcelona to attract skilled migrants for work in vineyards, growing olives and tobacco. In Barcelona, the government warned the population that anyone eligible for military service who decided to leave for Australia would have to pay 80 British pounds to find a military substitute.

In 1907, the Colonial Sugar Refining Company introduced 104 Catalans to work in the sugar cane plantations in Innisfail, North Queensland, part of a consequence to the White Australia Policy (as the former Kanaka labourers had been returned to New Caledonia). They covered their passage to Australia and assured a work contract for a couple of years. When the contract expired, most migrants went to Melbourne or stayed in Innisfail, and a few left for Sydney and Western Australia.

The work at the sugar cane fields was very hard and the newcomers had to deal with high temperatures, poisonous animals and certain discriminatory attitudes from their Australian patrons. Despite the bad conditions, they were widely recognised for their hard work and their eye for business.

“As for the nationalities of the men engaged we were practically without choice owing to the difficulties thrown in the way by the various governments, but the Catalonians are described as being a very satisfactory class of agricultural workers” – 30 May 1907, Colonial Sugar Refining Company Collection, Archives of Business and Labour, Australian National University, Letter Book 9, Macknade Out 142/1515.

Esteve Guardiola Genovès was one of the first Catalans from the Vila-seca area that decided to migrate to Australia. In 1898 he started to work in the sugar cane industry in Innisfail. Later on he moved to Melbourne, where he met Salvador, who told him about the ´Spanish Restaurant´ and they eventually found out that both had the same surname and were born in the same town, Vila-Seca.  

In 1906, Joan and Esteve Arboli Torredeme, Salvador Casas Guardiola and Anton Tusach escaped from military service to Australia. They first worked at the sugar cane industry in Queensland, but eventually moved to Melbourne, where Salvador opened his own restaurant and Anton worked as a classical music singer. Pere Alberich Morera and Joan Alvira Vilafranca also escaped their military service and worked in Innisfail, till they moved to Melbourne to open a fish and chip business.

Josep Pedrola Santadella was one of the few Vilasecans that stayed in Innisfail all their lives, where his family settled.

Pere Alberich Morera and Joan Alvira Vilafranca and their families also travelled to Australia with the supported immigration program run by the Australian government. On the other hand, Joaquima Alberich Saune and Pere Vilardebo Relats decided to migrate to Australia during World War I. As the Suez canal was closed, their route around Africa took more than two months.

Esteve Rosselló Ràfols, Vicenç Martí Gesalí and Esteve Vilafranca Llunas also left to work at the sugar cane fields, as well as Enric and Lluís Alvira Ferré.