Dreams of a new plantation society: Legacies of British Slavery in Queensland, Australia

by Emma Christopher, University of New South Wales

The doyen of Queensland sugar planters, John Ewen Davidson, was a man with one single conviction: ‘he believed in sugar, the sugar of the West Indies.’[1] Sugar, and the vast enslaved workforces that produced it, had made his great-grandfather, and his paternal and maternal grandfathers exceedingly wealthy. And for all the plantocracy claimed that the end of slavery had ruined them, the Davidsons—John’s father Henry and his uncles Duncan, John and William—gained vast payouts at the time of emancipation. In fact John’s father had purchased more plantations in the 1810s and ‘20s with the expectation of a large compensation payout, and had an enslaved workforce of more than 4,000 men, women and children by 1834.[2]

John Ewen Davidson

John Ewen Davidson, n.d.

It seems plausible that at least some of the £301,500 John Ewen Davidson invested in his Queensland sugar estates came indirectly from the £166,612 his father had received as compensation for the loss of his enslaved workforce some 30 years before, especially since John was an only son.[3] John had visited his father’s Highbury plantation in Berbice after graduating from Oxford University and clearly aspired to recreating this in Queensland, all the while keeping quiet about his family’s slave owning past.[4]

Davidson was not the only scion seemingly trying to relive family glories of the West Indies in Queensland. Among the colony’s ‘aristocracy’[5] was the founder of the sugar industry Louis Hope, the grandson of John Wedderburn of Ballindean of Knight vs. Wedderburn infamy. Louis’ elder brother had claimed compensation for the enslaved of Blackness estate in Jamaica.


Left: Louis Hope, 1870s. Right: Hope’s Ormiston Mill c.1871

Francis T. Tyssen Amherst (or Amhurst) was from the aristocratic family who had once founded plantations in Antigua. He owned Foulden plantation and then purchased Farleigh and owned ships that recruited in the South Sea Island labour trade.



3-South Sea Islander in Foulden plantation

South Sea Islanders on Tyssen Amhert’s Foulden Plantation, c. 1880

Three great-grandsons of Beeston Long, Chairman of the West India Merchants, were also Queensland sugar planters. George Long would drown ‘recruiting’ labour in the South Pacific, while William returned to England, leaving behind only Edward M. Long, namesake of his father’s cousin, the Edward Long who authored The History of Jamaica. Edward founded Habana plantation, named for the Cuban capital, just outside Mackay.

2-Habana Creek outside Mackay ca. 18802-Habana Sugar Mill outside Mackay ca. 1884

Left: Habana Creek c. 1880. Right: Habana Mill c. 1884

Down the coast at Bundaberg were Horace, Ernest and Arthur Young, grandsons of Emily Baring. One of their uncles was a partner in Barings Bank while another, Sir George Young, was involved with a slave emancipation payout in Grenada. The Young brothers were prominent planters and Pacific labour recruiters, while their sister Florence established a mission among the islanders.


Left: an advert for Florence Young’s South Sea Mission, n.d. Right: Report of ill-treatment aboard Young’s Schooner ‘Helena’, Maryborough Chronicle, 2 Jan. 1885

Charles Armstrong, better known as Kangaroo Charlie and the one-time husband of Dame Nellie Melba, was the grandson of George Alexander Fullerton who inherited his great-uncle’s estates in Jamaica and received the compensation for the enslaved people who worked there.


Charles Armstrong with Nellie Melba c. 1902

Others had smaller payouts, such as Dorothy Reddish, whose granddaughter, Maria, married Maurice Hume Black, and John Buhôt’s parents. Buhôt, who today has a plaque to his sugar-growing efforts in the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane and who worked for Louis Hope, was from Barbados. Both of Buhôt’s parents had received slave compensation; his mother, Elizabeth Walcott, likely received £708 15s 5d for 34 enslaved people in Barbados.



7-Buhot Plaque6-johnbuhot

None of these sums of money, Davidson’s excepted, may be enough to draw direct links between slave-made wealth and/or compensation and the early Queensland sugar industry. It does, however, cast another view on these planters’ insistence that ‘coloured’ labour was necessary in Queensland, a belief that resulted in the Pacific Labour Trade. These men were, after all, only a handful of those who arrived in Queensland from the Caribbean and Mauritius carrying with them ideas of labour and labour management from across the seas.



[1] ‘A Sugar Pioneer’ Cairns Post, 14.12.1923, p9

[2] Admin, ‘The History of Highbury’, Guyana International Times, 14 Jun. 2013.

[3] Aeneas F. Munro, The Sugar Fields of Mackay, (Mackay: Hodges and Chataway, 1895); David Ryden, ‘The Society of West India Planters and Merchants in the Age of Emancipation, c. 1816-1835’ [pdf], Unpublished paper, Economic History Society Annual Conference, March 2015.

[4] ‘Arrivals’, The Creole, Guyana, 24 December 1862, p2.

[5] Sir Ralph Cilento and Clem Lack Snr., Triumph in the Tropics: An Historical Sketch of Queensland (Brisbane: Smith & Paterson Pty Ltd, 1959) 94n.



John Ewen Davidson, Louis Hope, Ormiston Mill, South Sea Islanders at Foulden, Habana Creek, Habana Mill, Piri and Polly, all courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.

Charlie Armstrong and Nellie Melba, courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

John Buhôt, courtesy of State Archives of Queensland.

All above out of copyright.

Buhôt plaque, author’s own, 2017.