Thiru Arumugam. courtesy of THE CEYLANKAN, vol XXI: 4, November 2019, where the title is “How 500 Ceylonese arrived in Queensland in 1882 in the s.s. Devonshire to work in the cane fields”
In 1882 about 500 Ceylonese were recruited in Ceylon and transported in a chartered steamship, s.s. Devonshire, to work on contract terms in sugarcane fields in Queensland, which was then a colony of Britain. This article describes how they were recruited, transported, received in Queensland and their subsequent life in Australia. The entire episode was a private arrangement by the sugarcane Planters of Queensland who were desperately short of labour. The Governments of Ceylon and Queensland were not involved in any way. Since the Ceylonese were British Subjects, there was no problem in their coming to work in the colony of Queensland on contract terms. This was by far the largest single block of Ceylonese migrants to arrive in Australia.
Wickrema Weerasooria: Wickrema Weerasooria was educated at Royal College and entered the University of Ceylon where he obtained a Law degree with first class honours. He qualified as a Barrister and in 1971 he obtained a PhD from the London School of Economics. He joined the academic staff of Monash University, Melbourne in 1972, returning to Ceylon in 1977. In 1986 he was appointed High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Australia. He held this post until 1990 when he re-joined Monash University as an Associate Professor. In 1988 when he was High Commissioner, he published a 313 page book titled “Links between Sri Lanka and Australia”. The book is a useful source of information about the Devonshire 500.
Queensland: Governor Arthur Phillip founded the Colony of New South Wales in Sydney in 1788. At that time this Colony included present day New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania. On 06 June 1859 Queen Victoria separated Queensland from New South Wales and declared Queensland a separate Colony. On 01 January 1901, Queensland was one of the six colonies which together formed the federated country of Australia.
The newly established Colony of Queensland was anxious to develop sources of revenue in the second half of the nineteenth century and one of the sources selected was the cultivation of sugar cane. Sugarcane planting companies bought or leased large tracts of land for this purpose. Among the major companies was the Colonial Sugar Refining Company which had estates covering 10,000 to 20,000 acres.
One of the major problems in developing this land was the scarcity of labour. White immigrants were reluctant to engage in the back-breaking labour of clearing and levelling the bush. In the 1860s the plantation companies started bringing to Queensland as labourers Kanakas or Melanesian South Sea Islanders, mainly from Solomon Islands. They were indentured into three years service as unfree labour and in some cases had been kidnapped – a process known as ‘blackbirding’. They were given accommodation and were paid in weekly rations. Their wage of six Pounds a year was paid only at the end of three years.
Due to their lack of resistance to diseases introduced by the Europeans, inadequate diet and difficult working conditions, there was high mortality rate among the Kanakas. This resulted into growing resistance among the Queensland public in the 1880s to bringing in any more Kanakas from their native countries. In the early part of the twentieth century, with the introduction of the White Australia policy, most of the Kanakas were forcibly repatriated back to their home countries.
With the Kanakas no longer available, the sugar Planters had to look for other sources of cheap labour. Since India had been exporting labour to work in the cane-fields in Mauritius, West Indies and Fiji, the Queensland Government commenced negotiations with the British Government of India. Negotiations continued over several months but fell through with the Government of India refusing to agree to the Queensland Government’s proposed condition that on the expiry of the five-year contract, the Indian labourer remaining in Queensland would be imprisoned until he agrees to go back to India or re-indentures himself to another Planter.
Labour from Ceylon: It was at this stage in 1882 that some of the Queensland Planters hit upon the idea of getting down labour from Ceylon on a private arrangement, without the involvement of the Governments of Queensland and Ceylon. One of the Queensland Planters was formerly a coffee Planter in Ceylon and one of his contacts in Ceylon was F St. George Caulfield a Planter in Nuwara Eliya. Caulfield was appointed as the Agent in Ceylon of the Queensland Planters. Caulfield’s responsibilities were to recruit 500 young Ceylonese, sign contracts of employment with them, arrange shipping, provision the ship and send off this ‘human cargo’ to Queensland. He advertised in English and Sinhala in the Ceylon Observer newspaper and was flooded with applications. At this time coffee plantations in Ceylon were devastated by ‘coffee leaf rust’ and there was mass unemployment in coffee estates and among those providing ancillary services to the estates..
Some of the conditions of the contract of employment in Queensland were: the contract period was 2 ½ or 5 years; the work was agricultural labour in Queensland mainly on sugar plantations; wages would be at the rate of 20 Pounds per year; rations and clothing would not be provided: accommodation would be provided similar to that provided on Ceylonese coffee estate labour lines; 242 square yards of land per person would be allocated for a kitchen garden; free passage to Queensland; for those on 5 year contracts, free return passage after 5 years but for those on 2 ½ year contracts only half the cost of the return passage would be met by the employer; the working week would be six days; and the minimum number of Ceylonese working for a particular employer would be ten Ceylonese.
The screw steamer “Devonshire”
The ship that was chartered for the transport of 500 Ceylonese was the screw steamer “Devonshire”. It was built in 1878 in Stockton, England. It was 316 feet long and had a draft of 2317 tons. The ship owners were G Marshall and Sons, London. The Master of the ship was A Purvis and it had a crew of 20 Europeans (mainly English) and 13 Chinese firemen and trimmers. Because 500 passengers were travelling, the ship was modified for the journey by Walker & Co who fitted out a cooking house on the deck and also a small medical bay. Dr M A Dharmaratne was appointed as Ship’s Surgeon for the voyage.
When Sir James Robert Longden, the Governor of Ceylon, heard about the proposed voyage, he instructed the Colonial Secretary, J Douglas, to issue a Gazette Notification dated 06 September 1882 listing the minimum quantity of food to be provided daily for each passenger. This is reproduced as Fig. 1. Subsequently Caulfield, the Agent in Ceylon of the Queensland Planters, wrote a letter to the Editor of the Brisbane Courier which was reproduced in its issue of 31 January 1883, in which he listed the quantity of provisions loaded on the ship in order to meet the Ceylon Gazette requirements for 500 passengers for five weeks: “300 bushels of rice, 10 cows, 20 pigs, 150 lb salted fish, 1000 lb curry stuffs, 600 lb flour, tea, sugar, etc.”
The same Ceylon Government Gazette Notification also required that the number of toilets should be two for the first hundred passengers plus one more for every hundred passengers, or part thereof, in excess of hundred. This required a minimum of six toilets in the Devonshire for the 500 passengers.
The Gazette Notification continued for a further two pages listing the medicines that should be carried on board the voyage to Queensland. Separate lists were given according to whether there was a Surgeon on board or not, and also according to the number of passengers, in blocks of 100 passengers. The list of medicines gave rise to this cynical comment in “The Week”, Brisbane, in its issue of 18 November 1882: “According to the schedules of articles for the use of the Cingalese passengers to Queensland, they ought to have a capital time on board ship, if they happen to have to go into hospital. Calomel, blue pill, rhubarb, jalap, Epsom salts, and the like are provided galore, but there is an absence of medical comforts in the schedules which would at once repel the European immigrant.”
The Devonshire sailed from Galle Harbour for Mackay in Queensland on 15 October 1882. On board were 497 Ceylonese mainly from Galle and Matara districts, aged in their twenties and early thirties, contracted to work in Queensland. This total includes 12 women. They were mainly Sinhalese except for eleven Malays and eight Moors. There were in addition, a few children under the age of twelve years. Also on board were the Ship’s Surgeon, Dr M A Dharmaratne and W A Edema, a Burgher who was the official Interpreter. A few days after the ship sailed, it was found that there were about a dozen stowaways. The voyage was uneventful, except for the death of a woman named Lokuhamy. She died of dysentery and was buried at sea.
Action by the Government of Ceylon: The Governor of Ceylon, Sir James Robert Longden, realised that there was no legal barrier to such group migration. On 26 September 1882 the Colonial Secretary of Ceylon wrote to the Colonial Secretary of Queensland seeking clarification of the following points: whether the emigration from Ceylon is being organised with the knowledge and approval of Queensland Government; whether the Queensland Government is prepared to extend to the Ceylonese immigrant special protection under legislative enactment; and whether the wages offered to the Ceylonese immigrant of 20 Pounds per annum leaves a fair margin over the actual cost of living considering that the tax on rice would cost each person more than three Pounds per annum. He also said in his letter that it is intended to pass legislation shortly to control emigration.
The Colonial Secretary of Queensland took a long time to reply. In his reply he said that: the emigration from Ceylon was not organised with the knowledge of the Queensland Government; the Queensland Government did not consider that Ceylonese immigration would assume such proportions as to require any special legislation; wages of 20 Pounds per annum is not considered sufficient to leave a fair margin over the cost of living unless free rations are provided. It must be noted, however, that the contracts of employment with the Devonshire 500 did not include free rations.
Meanwhile the Ceylon Government went ahead with enacting legislation to control emigration. The Ceylon Emigration Ordinance of 1882 states that “the Governor may, with the advice of the Executive Council, from time to time by notification published in the Government Gazette, declare that the emigration of the native inhabitants of the island shall be lawful to any place described in such notification, provided that every such notification shall contain also a declaration that the Governor has been fully certified that the Government of the place to which the notification refers has made such laws and other provisions as the Governor in Executive Council shall deem sufficient for the protection of the native inhabitants of Ceylon emigrating to such place.”
Since Queensland did not have laws for the protection of Ceylonese and the Colonial Secretary of Queensland had confirmed that they did not propose any such legislation, that effectively ruled out any future emigration of Ceylonese to Queensland. The Ceylon Emigration Ordinance was passed by the Executive Council of Ceylon on 11 October 1882, but was proclaimed only on 15 October 1882. A few hours previously, the Devonshire had quietly cast off her moorings and sailed away from Galle to Queensland.
Arrival of s.s. Devonshire in Mackay, Queensland: A few days before the Devonshire arrived in Port Mackay, Queensland, an editorial appeared in the Newcastle Morning Herald of 11 November 1882, about the arriving Ceylonese: “We have seen a letter from a gentleman largely interested in their introduction in which he says: ‘They are very good labourers and the women are first class house-servants, not like the Government importations. Does the Pandora Company want any? These are used to sugar cultivation. I could land them at Keppel Bay at 20 Pounds a head passage money … I have about 100 to spare; the balance are all ordered. The Colonial Sugar Company at Mackay take 200, and 150 go to Bundaberg’. … These dark skinned ‘new chums’ will be available for all sorts of labour, so that at the cost of less than one Pound sterling a week, farmers and selectors may secure their assistance.” In short, the Ceylonese were being traded like in the slave auctions of the past, see Fig. 2 for an advertisement in the Maryborough Chronicle of 28 Nov 1882.
The Devonshire arrived in Port Mackay on 13 November 1882, see Fig. 3, where well over 300 of the Ceylonese were to disembark. The Queensland Times of 28 November 1882 describes their reception by the Anti-Coolies League: “The river bank was … the scene of a series of episodes happily unprecedented in the annals of Mackay. A considerable crowd, variously estimated to number from three to five hundred persons, assembled on the wharf for the purpose of preventing the disembarkation of the coolies … however word was brought that the Cingalese were landing at Kanaka wharf … A rush was made towards the tender, which vessel was greeted with a volley of stones … Captain Barry seeing, from the hostile attitude of the people, that he could not land his dusky passengers in safety, dropped anchor in the stream at a respectful distance from the shore. A large number held possession of the wharves until 2 a.m., when the crowd began to decrease, and only a few were present at daybreak, when the coolies were quietly put on shore.”
Arrival of the s.s. Devonshire in Bundaberg, Queensland: Having discharged part of its ‘human cargo’ in Mackay, the Devonshire sailedsouth for Bundaberg on 14 November with the remaining 150 Ceylonese, arriving there a day or two later. A description of their reception by the Anti-Coolies League can be seen in the article in the Maryborough Chronicle of 20 November 1882, see Fig. 4.
This was merely the start of their problems. The following day, sixty of the Ceylonese deserted their places of employment and this was followed by thirty more on the day after that. There was intense excitement in the town of Bundaberg and the Ceylonese were incited to disobedience by the Anti-Coolies League, which said that its quarrel was not with the Ceylonese but with those who brought them down.
The Bundaberg Star of 29 Nov 1882 carried a report as follows: “The scene in and outside the court house on Thursday was one new to Bundaberg, and with its general make-up more resembled the hiring place or slave mart of a Southern Slave State before the war of abolition than of a rising town in a British colony … The Interpreter translates the evidence, and one of the seven replies in Cingalese that he made no agreement with anyone there; they all refuse to go to work with anyone present; they refuse to acknowledge the alleged agreement and their liability to be transferred. The sentence of the Court was that they go to Brisbane goal for one month … This is British law as carried out in Bundaberg.” It is significant to note that the bench of seven lay magistrates who heard the case were all sugarcane Planters.
A public meeting was held and Ceylonese speakers said that they had been brought to Queensland under false pretences. They said that they had been told in Ceylon that the cost of living in Queensland was similar to that in Ceylon, but they found the cost of living here was much higher and that a wage of 20 Pounds per annum was a starvation wage considering that they would have to pay more than three Pounds a year as tax on rice. They said that European labourers doing the same work were being paid much more than twice the pay of the Ceylonese. They asked that immediate arrangements be made for their return to Ceylon. At the end of the meeting, an effigy of Frederick Nott, who was in charge of the arrangements for the transportation of the Ceylonese, was taken in the largest procession ever seen in Bundaberg to the riverside and burned.
The Planters were also disappointed with their new employees. They found that they were not plantation workers but “blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, barbers, house servants …” and even a couple of schoolmasters, all unemployed townsmen fleeing from a period of depression. In total, about half of them were unsuited for the arduous task of clearing the jungle and planting sugar cane.
Typical names of the Devonshire 500 selected at random include: Adoris, Anthony, Adrian Appo, Bastian Appo, Charlis Appu, Thamis de Silva, Joseph Fernando, Andris Hamy, Manuel, Padris, John Perera, John Rahmin, Albert Silva, Podi Singho and James Romis Singho. The most common last name was Appo or Appoo, names which survive in Queensland to this day.
Hume Black, Mackay’s representative in the Legislative Assembly said in a speech “The class of Cingalese who have honoured us by their presence have souls above Chinese labour. In fact, they appear to be intelligent, well trained artisans whom it is as reasonable to restrict to the shovel and the hoe as it would be to yoke a high bred and spirited horse to a bullock dray. We cannot have that class of men.”
The Brisbane Courier of 08 December 1882 reports that a public meeting was held in Maryborough on 04 December 1882 and was attended by about 2000 people, the largest number at a meeting in that town. One wonders how the speakers were heard by such a large audience in the days before public address systems. The Mayor was in the chair and the first resolution was “That this meeting views with alarm the arrival of Cingalese in the colony, and pledges itself to use every constitutional means to prevent their further introduction.” After a lengthy discussion, the resolution was passed unanimously.
The second resolution was “That this meeting, believing that the Cingalese, per steamship Devonshire, have been grossly deceived by the parties engaging them, urges upon the Government the duty of at once releasing those who are now in prison, and of providing free return passages to any who may desire to return to their homes.” The proposer of the resolution said that it was clear that the Ceylonese thought they would get free rations but they now realise that they will have to labour for 7s. 8d. a week without free rations, a wage that would barely keep them alive. He quoted the words of John Stuart Mill, the 19th century British philosopher and political economist: “Evidently persons are not committed to engagements which violates the rights of third parties, but it is sometimes considered a sufficient reason for releasing them from an engagement when it is injurious to themselves.” The speaker concluded by saying “… it was not British justice to hold a man to an agreement that he did not understand.” The resolution was carried amidst great applause. It was decided that the resolutions be forwarded to the Executive Council of Queensland.
Colonial Sugar Refining Company: The Colonial Sugar Refining Company was the largest sugarcane planting Company in Queensland. It had leases of thousands of hectares of land but was short of labour. It had ‘booked’ 200 of the Devonshire 500 even before the ship arrived.
The Queensland Times of 10 March 1883 reports on the visit of a Minister to the Homebush Estate belonging to the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. This estate extends over 13,000 acres of which 300 acres of sugar cane have been already planted and 700 acres are in the course of being planted. The sugar mill on this estate is reported as being one of the largest in Australia. The Minister found that the employees of the estate were 200 Europeans, 87 Kanakas, and 80 Chinese. There were also 120 Ceylonese working there out of the 198 that the Company had signed up. The remaining 78 were presumably absconding and working elsewhere, which led to the Company inserting a newspaper notice in the Mackay Mercury of 13 Feb 1884, see Fig. 5. It is interesting to note that the Company was in the process of signing new contracts with the Ceylonese under which their wages would be increased from 20 to 26 Pounds per annum and in addition they would be provided with free rations and four free sets of clothes per annum. The Ceylonese were satisfied with the new terms and it is said that many of the other Devonshire 500 working in the district would now receive similar terms and that confrontations with the employers had ceased.
After five years: The five year contracts of employment for the Devonshire 500 terminated at the end of the year 1887. On completion of the five year contract the options available to the Devonshire 500 were: either avail themselves of the free return passage and go back to Ceylon; or sign up with their existing employer for a new five year term and receive a bonus of 6 Pounds, a salary increase and get a free return passage to Ceylon at the end of the second five year contract; or sign up with a new employer on whatever terms could be negotiated.
The federation of the six self-governing Australian colonies was on the horizon and there was talk of a white Australia policy to be implemented after federation and formation of the Commonwealth of Australia, which ultimately occurred on 01 January 1901. The expectation was that there would then be forced repatriation of non-whites and this did happen to the Kanakas between 1906 and 1908. Some of the Devonshire 500 were worried about this possibility happening to them and opted to return home to Ceylon when their five year contracts expired. The rest decided to take a chance and call Australia home.
Fig. 6 is a typical advertisement in the Brisbane Courier of 11 Sept 1888 by Ceylonese job seekers after the five years contract were over. Those remaining in Queensland generally drifted away from the sugarcane industry and took up employment in hotels, cafes, shops, ran boarding houses and small shops or established small-holdings and became farmers. Appuhamy was the first to apply for and obtained a lease of 80 acres of Crown land. He was followed by Podi Singho who in 1888 was allocated three blocks of land. By 1905, fourteen more of the Devonshire 500 had obtained leases of Crown land for agricultural purposes. Others took up jobs as artisans according to their skills as blacksmiths, carpenters and masons. They mainly married Aborigines and South Sea Islanders. A few married British and Irish emigrants.
Descendants of the Devonshire 500
Several direct descendants of the Devonshire 500 have been traced in and around Bundaberg and Mackay. The Newsmail of 17 November 2010 reported that a meeting was held a few days previously in Bundaberg of direct descendants of the Devonshire 500.
David Silva was one of the Devonshire 500. His great-grandchildren have been traced in Gumdale, an outer suburb of Brisbane, Queensland. Kalu Appoo was born in Galle about 1863 and he was one of the Devonshire 500. He married Sara Wanigetunga who came on the Devonshire as a 12 year old child with her parents. They married on 22 February 1883 when Sara was just 13 years old. They had ten children and their direct descendants have been traced. Kalu Appoo died in Gin Gin Hospital, near Bundaberg on 08 March 1954 at the age of 94 years. He was the last of the original Devonshire 500 to pass away in Australia.
George David Silva: Widdarulargay David Silva was born in Colombo in 1847. In the late 1870s, he married Mary Appo Harmy, who was born in Wattala in 1855. When Caulfield’s advertisement appeared in the Ceylon newspapers for recruits for the cane-fields of Queensland, David Silva sent in an application stating that he was a farmer. He was fortunate in that he was one of the very few who was selected on a family basis. He travelled on the Devonshire with his wife and daughter, two year old Celestina. They disembarked in Mackay and he was assigned to work in the Palms Plantation which is in the Mackay district. The couple went on to have five more children, three daughters and two sons George David Silva (see Fig. 7) and William James Silva. W David Silva died in Sydney in 1923 and his wife Mary died in Duranbah, New South Wales in 1897.
William later moved to Ceylon while George worked in the cane-fields in the Mackay region. In 1911, George obtained employment as a farm hand in a farm owned by Hong Kong born Charles Ching. The farm was in Alligator Creek, about 30 km south of Mackay. Charles lived in a three bedroom house on the farm along with his 45 year old English wife Agnes and five of their children. The children were 15 year old Maud, 10 year old Teddy, 8 year old Dolly, 4 year old Hugh and 20 months old Winnie. On the morning of Friday 17 November 1911, Ching told George that he was going to Sarina and Plane Creek which were about 30 km away, on horseback to obtain supplies and cash for George’s wages. When Ching returned in the evening he found his house locked and no sign of the family. When he asked George where they were, George said that they must have gone to visit friends.
When night fell and there was still no sign of his family, Ching decided to enter his house by forcing a window open. He came across a horrific scene. His wife Agnes and 15 year old daughter had been shot dead. His 4 year old son Hugh and 20 month old daughter Winnie had been killed by bashing their heads. Ching immediately told George to borrow a horse from a neighbour and inform the Police in Sarina.
The Police arrived the following morning. There was still no sign of 10 year old Teddy and 8 year old Dolly who had gone to school the previous day. An Aboriginal tracker was engaged and their bodies were found in a gully about a kilometre from the house. Dolly had been shot and Teddy had head injuries. It appears that George was keen on marrying Ching’s daughter Maud and had broached the topic to the Chings, but Mrs Ching would not agree to it.
On Wednesday 22 November 1911, Inspector Sweetman of the Mackay Police went to Alligator Creek and told George David Silva “I now arrest and charge you that on the seventeenth of November 1911, you wilfully murdered Agnes Ching and her five children.” He said that accused made no answer to the charge. He was conveyed to the Mackay lockup.
George David Silva’s Trials: George was produced before the Police Magistrate, Mackay on Friday 24 November 1911. He was charged separately with the wilful murder of Mrs Ching and each of her five children. To each charge he replied “I did not murder her (or him).” Silva answered ‘not guilty’ to each of the six charges and intimated that he would reserve his defence. The trial concluded on 08 December. He was remanded. The accused was committed for trial at the next sitting of the Circuit Court.
Silva’s Mackay Circuit Court case was heard on 20 and 21 March 1912. He was found guilty of the wilful murder of Maud Ching and sentenced to death. Only one charge was made as they all carried the death penalty. The decision was, however, suspended pending a decision by a Full Court (Supreme Court) on the question as to whether the Judge was right in accepting as evidence a confession alleged to have been made to the Police.
Silva’s appeal was heard by the Full Court on 10 May 1912 before the Chief Justice and three other Judges. They were of the opinion that there was no trace of a threat in the language used by the Constable when questioning Silva nor did he set a trap to catch the prisoner, nor did he imply that he would inflict any injury on the prisoner if he did not confess. The conviction was therefore affirmed.
The Governor and Executive Council considered and confirmed the death sentence. It was decided that the execution should be carried out on 10 June 1912 at the South Brisbane Prison at 8 am. When Silva came to the scaffold he was asked whether he had anything to say. He thanked the Governor of the Goal and the Salvation Army for the kindness shown to him. He said that he was innocent and that the witnesses had told lies. He was a lay Preacher and he quoted verses from the 23rd Psalm and repeated the Lord’s Prayer several times and went on speaking. After 27 minutes, the Under Sheriff decided that he had gone on long enough and the execution was carried out. It was the longest gallows speech in the history of Queensland.
Silva is buried in the South Brisbane Cemetery. There is a plaque there which gives his name amongst the others who were executed in the Boggo Road Jail. Joseph Lesina was a member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly and an ardent campaigner for the abolition of the death penalty. The plaque quotes his speech “The criminal is not a wild beast … he is an erring brother … To take his life is not the way to cure him; you only brutalise him. It has been condemned by history as a failure … I feel perfectly sure that it will not be many years longer before the humanitarian feeling which is now spreading through this colony, and all civilised countries, will demand once and for all the abolition of the death penalty.”
Only two more were executed in the Boggo Road Jail after Silva, when in 1922 Queensland abolished the death penalty. It was the first government in the British Empire to abolish the death penalty.