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Brown or white? : a history of the Fiji sugar industry, 1873-1973

Date

1978

Authors

Moynagh, Michael

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Abstract

For nearly one hundred years the sugar industry has been central to the Fiji economy, and has been dominated by the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd (CSR). After Cession in 1874, government sought to attract capital to the colony, and CSR responded because it needed raw sugar for its refineries in Australia and New Zealand. The company had originally hoped that its mills would be supplied with cane mainly from outside growers, but initially it was disappointed. Income from cane was too low to attract Fijians, while many of the early settlers were unable to make profits from cane and had to leave Fiji. However, during and after the 1890s better cultivation methods increased the returns from cane. European contractors supplied the mills and CSR began to lease its estates to plantation overseers. The process of leasing was accelerated after 1905, so that by 1914 most of the cane was grown by Europeans. This enabled CSR to obtain supplies more cheaply than if it had grown all the cane itself, and it increased the industry's influence with government. The import of Indian indentured labour from 1879 provided cheap labour for plantations. After serving their indentures, immigrants settled in the vicinity of plantations under conditions designed to encourage them to seek wage employment for parts of the year. In certain respects, these conditions impeded the development of Indian agriculture. In 1916 India halted the supply of indentured labour. There was immediate upward pressure on wages which CSR - in effect supported by government - tried to resist. This led to strikes in 1920 by labourers on eastern Viti Levu, and in the following year by cane growers on western Viti Levu. The industry was saved from collapse by the introduction of government subsidies and the transition to cane production by Indian growers. In the 1920s and '30s CSR, which had become the sole miller of sugar in Fiji, tried to protect the smallfarm system from forces which might otherwise have produced demands by growers for an increase in the price of cane. The interests of CSR and farmers were in fundamental conflict. Following population growth and war-time inflation, in 1943 growers refused to harvest their cane unless the price was increased. The strike was defeated and an inquiry subsequently held by Professor C.Y. Shephard. But CSR prevented the implementation of those proposals of Shephard which would have entailed government intervention in the industry. In 1950 the cane price was increased, though the company could have afforded to do this before then. Nine years later CSR tried to revise the cane contract in ways that would have been to the disadvantage of growers. A strike by farmers followed, after which Sir Malcolm Eve was asked to conduct an inquiry. His findings were designed to strengthen CSR's position in the industry. In 1969 Lord Denning arbitrated in another dispute between growers and CSR, and his report was so favourable to farmers that the company withdrew from Fiji in 1973. The thesis argues that though the industry has brought some economic gains to Fiji, in a variety of ways it has also impeded the country's economic development. It was found that George Beckford's model of plantation enterprise was largely applicable to the case of CSR in Fiji.

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DOI

10.25911/5d7392415b711

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