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May 7, 2021

A sweet and sour history of local immigration

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[author]Luis Feliu[/author]

The fascinating stories of the lives and hard work of South Sea Islander and Indian families who settled in the Tweed and were part of the rich history of banana and sugar cane farming on the north coast have been recalled in a new documentary.

Called Sweet Harvests, the DVD is a Tweed River Regional Museum project which celebrates the contribution by the two groups of migrants to local agriculture. It was launched by Tweed mayor Barry Longland last Saturday at a function at the Coolamon Cultural Centre in Murwillumbah attended by many of the descendants of those early migrants.

Senior curator Judy Kean said the museum recognised the need to collect and document the diverse history of the region and Sweet Harvests was the latest in a series of projects that captured the unique, personal perspectives of those who helped shape and develop the cane and banana industries and the Tweed as we know it today.

The DVD includes interviews with nine men and women who give their personal accounts as well as relating stories told by their parents or grandparents of the hardships and good times they experienced.

David Togo tells how his islander grandfather arrived in Australia to work on north Queensland sugar cane plantations around Mackay and Maryborough which were then ‘bad for blackbirding’, referring to the controversial enslavement of islanders to work on cane plantations.

Walked to Tweed

But northern NSW was not so bad, David said, and he ‘walked all the way to the Tweed’ and settled at Cudgen to work on crop and cane farming. He said his father was the first to grow sweet potatoes in the Tweed and paid off his farm with the first year’s crop.

‘Sweet potatoes were used as pig feed, but dad just took the vines off the walls and put them in the ground; it cost him nothing,’ he said.

Neville Singh said his family were the first Indians to settle on the NSW north coast ‘and now we’re in the fifth generation and there’s about 350 in the family altogether’.

Jack Esau said his father came to Australia by ship but was not allowed to disembark at any of the major cities due to the racist White Australia policy at the time. He eventually got off in Townsville then later moved to Mullumbimby to work on banana plantations.

Diana Skinner told how her father left school at the age of 13 and worked at planting and chipping bananas. Diana herself worked in the cane fields around Cudgen as a young woman in the 1960s, stripping cane ready for planting. ‘It was very hard,’ she recalls.

Jeet Singh’s father came to Australia in 1910 and cut cane and grew bananas. Jeet himself was six when he left Punjab for Australia and has good memories of his years cutting cane.

In an age before mechanised harvesters, cutting and hauling cane was done by hand, which was very hard work, especially in the hot sun. In both banana and cane growing, the threat of venomous snakes and machete wounds was commonplace, as many interviewees recalled.

One recalled how coloured cane cutters were paid only two shillings a day while white workers were paid 15 shillings plus board.

Oral history

Cr Longland said the DVD uses oral history and historic images ‘to explore the tenacity, camaraderie, humour and sheer hard work’ of the two groups.

Sweet Harvests provides us with a fascinating window on the development of two industries that remain important in the Tweed today,’ he said.

The project was jointly funded by Tweed Shire Council and the Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum. The DVD can be purchased from the museum offices in the Coolamon Culture Centre. For further info, call Judy Kean on 02 6670 2500 or email [email protected].

Image: Interview participants (l–r rear) Jeet Singh, Neville Singh, Allan Togo, Jack Esau and David Togo and (l–r front) Ellen Petrie, Sylvie Singh-Grewal and Diana Skinner. Photo Luis Feliu

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