Diane Menghetti, The Red North (Studies in North Queensland History No 3, James Cook University of North Queensland 1981)
The student of North Queensland history frequently encounters evidence of widespread political radicalism which is difficult to reconcile with her personal experience of the district.(The Red North, the beginning of the Introduction)
Indeed! Mention that the only member of the Communist Party of Australia ever to be elected to a parliament was in Queensland, where Fred Paterson was MLA for the seat of Bowen from 1944 to 1950, and the most common reaction is, ‘What happened?’ Diane Menghetti doesn’t set out to answer that question, but her book is a solid account of the second half of the 1930s when the CPA was more of a force in North Queensland than in any other part of Australia.
The Studies in North Queensland History series ran from 1978 to the mid 1990s.* I must have got hold of The Red North, No 3 in the series, soon after it was published and then been daunted by its non-commercial feel. It makes no pretence of being other than an MA thesis, set in courier with a foreword by a professor, footnotes and 60 pages of appendices.
But it turns out to be a fascinating read – for me, and I expect for many people like me who hail from that part of the world, as well as anyone interested in the history of the labour movement and Communism in Australia. With a wealth of detail, Menghetti describes how the CPA became an integral part of the social life of many North Queensland communities, supporting non-British labourers in the face of the British-preference policies of the Australian Workers Union, raising an extraordinary amount of money for the Spanish Civil War, organising social events, providing regular entertainment in the form of public meetings featuring gifted orators such as Fred Paterson.
We didn’t hear much of the history of the North in my childhood: snippets of family lore in a family that wasn’t much given to story-telling, and nothing at all at school that I can remember. When we were taught that Australia was settled in 1788, it wasn’t just tens of thousands of years of prior habitation that were ignored, but also the reality that settlement/ invasion occurred over decades – reaching north Queensland well into the nineteenth century. Even today, people talk as if Australian was mono-culturally Anglo-Celtic during the 1950s, erasing not just Indigenous peoples but also the large number of ethnic Chinese, Koreans, Italians, Maltese, Jugoslavs who I went to school with, many of whom had been around for generations.
So there’s a particular joy for me now to read a whole book about our history, about significant struggles that took place in places from my childhood: not just Innisfail, Cairns and Tully, but Mourilyan, Goondi, South Johnstone, El Arish, Flying Fish Point and Etty Bay. I especially love the moments where this narrative intersects with the little bits of history I had from my parents. I’ll give two examples.
First: in my childhood, the sugarcane was burned before it was harvested. We loved the spectacle of the cane-fires, and were told that their purpose was to kill the rats that infested the cane because the rats carried the deadly Weil’s disease. Burning the cane was necessary to save the lives of the canecutters.
That’s accurate. What it leaves out is one of the main episodes of this book, the bitterly-contested Weil’s disease strike by canecutters and mill hands from August to October 1935. Something of the flavour of the times, and of what we are deprived of when this history is erased, can be gleaned from events in Tully on 24 September 1935. The AWU, which generally opposed the strike, had called a meeting of all canecutters and millhands for that day:
During the previous night [the strike committee] had worked to turn the AWU meeting to the strikers’ advantage, and when the hour of the conference arrived, over a thousand strikers and sympathisers formed up at the top end of Tully’s main street. This street slopes fairly steeply down to where the Plaza Theatre is situated, almost at the end of the main town area. Thus the great procession, led by the Tully Pipe Band, marched right through the business area before the start of the conference. The AWU organiser opened the meeting with a call for nominations for the chair. Eric Driscoll, Communist mill representative was duly elected, and the executive of the strike committee took its place on the platform, reflecting its control over the total strike. The expressed purpose of the meeting was the election of delegates to represent the men at a compulsory conference of millers, farmers, strikers and the AWU. Towards the end of the meeting the ‘scabs’ from the mill arrived to cast their vote. They were escorted by police and their entry was considered by the strikers to be an act of provocation. Nevertheless, at [strike committee leader Jack] Henry’s urging, the election was concluded peacefully. The conference was never held.(page 40)
Second: When I was in my 30s my mother astonished me by saying that the Depression didn’t happen in Innisfail, that out-of-work people from ‘down south’ used to come to our door asking for work or food. I knew there had been a large unemployed camp in the Cairns showground, so I put this down to my mother’s over-protected life at the time as the fiancee and then bride of a cane farmer.
Two short quotes from The Far North are relevant. First, confirming my view:
In the far north the Depression set in early with a slump in world sugar prices. With economic hardship came xenophobia.(page 53)
But then this, offering some support to my mother’s account:
In the years preceding World War Two unemployment remained very high. The mildness of the northern climate may have reduced some of the distress among the local unemployed, but it also had the effect of attracting large numbers of men from the south, either looking for work or merely travelling to fulfil unemployment relief conditions. For many the journey terminated in Cairns where a large unemployed camp was established.(page 109)
After I’d written most of this blog post I discovered that a new edition was published by Resistance Books in 2018 (details here). ‘The Red North,’ they write, ‘is a fascinating episode and one deserving of serious study by all those interested in seeing the development of a serious progressive force in Australian politics.’
The Red North is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
* Other titles in the series that I’ve been able to find are:
- 2 Peter Bell, If anything, too safe: the Mount Mulligan disaster of 1921, 1978
- 4 Christine Doran, Separatism in Townsville, 1884 to 1894: we should govern ourselves, 1984
- 5 Dawn May, From bush to station: Aboriginal labour in the North Queensland pastoral industry, 1861–1897, c1985
- 6 Cathie R. May, Topsawyers, the Chinese in Cairns, 1870–1920, c1984
- 7 Dorothy Gibson–Wilde, Gateway to a golden land: Townsville to 1884, 1985
- 8 Anne Smith, Roberts Leu and North: a centennial history, c1986
- 9 Dorothy M. Gibson–Wilde and Bruce C. Gibson–Wilde, A pattern of pubs: hotels of Townsville 1864–1914, 1988
- 10 Helen Brayshaw, Well beaten paths: Aborigines of the Herbert/Burdekin district, north Queensland: an ethnographic and archaeological study, c1990
- 11 Marjorie Pagani, T.W. Crawford: politics and the Queensland sugar industry, 1989
- 12 Bianka Vidonya Balanzategui, Gentlemen of the flashing blade, 1990
- 13 Janice Wegner, The Etheridge, 1990
- 14 Christine Doran, Partner in progress: a history of electricity supply in North Queensland from 1897 to 1987, 1990
- 15 Todd Barr, No swank here? The development of the Whitsundays as a tourist destination to the early 1970s, 1990
- 16 Ferrando (Freddie) Galassi, Sotto la Croce del Sud = Under the Southern Cross: the Jumna immigrants of 1891, 1991
- 17 Dawn May, Arctic regions in a torrid zone: the history of the Ross River Meatworks, Townsville, 1892–1992, 1992
- 18 Bruce Breslin, Exterminate with pride: Aboriginal–European relations in the Townsville–Bowen region to 1869, 1992.
- 19 Eileen Hennessey, A cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down, 1993
- 20 Anne Smith, This El Dorado of Australia: a centennial history of Aramac Shire, 1994
- 21 Patricia Mercer, White Australia defied: Pacific Islander settlement in North Queensland, 1995