Image Chinese workers on banana punts near Innisfail, early 1900s

TLF ID R8176

This black-and-white photograph shows three Chinese workers transporting bananas on a punt near Innisfail in northern Queensland. The Chinese workers are wearing traditional dress and conical hats and the punt is laden with boxes and stalks of bananas. At the bow of the small flat-bottomed punt two of the men push long poles into the bank or river bottom to propel it through the shallow narrow channel of a waterway, while the third man works the rudder. A banana farm can be seen along the far bank.

Educational details

Educational value
  • These labourers are typical of the Chinese who lived in the Cairns and Geraldton (later known as Innisfail) districts of Qld in the first decade of the 20th century, many of whom were fine agriculturalists and came to dominate the banana industry in Australia. Qld was the main supplier of bananas in Australia, and Chinese-Australian producers and importers are estimated to have handled more than half of all bananas ripened and traded in Australia in the early 20th century.
  • Banana growing, mostly by Chinese on the rich alluvial flats, boomed in the Innisfail area from 1901 to 1905, although Chinese workers were subject to continuing restrictive legislation. Unnaturalised Chinese were forced to lease uncleared land from Europeans on a short-term basis, so the quick-cropping banana was ideal for them. By 1906 the enforcement of fruit fly regulations and a cyclone caused the majority of Chinese growers to leave the industry.
  • Punts were a useful form of transport in the Innisfail area as they could traverse the shallower waterways that led to the deeper Johnstone River where steamers waited to take the bananas to southern markets. The bananas were usually loaded manually in bunches directly from the punts over the side of the larger ship.
  • The hard manual labour of moving the punt typifies the difficult and pioneering work undertaken by the industrious Chinese that helped stimulate northern Australian agriculture. Clearing and working the land and harvesting and transporting the bananas all had to be done by hand and it was believed white men could not do such arduous and intensive work. It was assumed that 'lower' races were more suited to carrying out the backbreaking routine tasks.
  • In the Innisfail area, Chinese workers were either self-employed or employed by other Chinese, which meant that many were at the mercy of people from their own country, sometimes suffering harsh conditions. Chinese hierarchy was influenced by a number of factors: membership of trade societies for the labourers, powerful secret societies and different Chinese ethnic groups.

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  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
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  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia
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  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and State Library of Queensland, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements