Abstract

Cotton in Australia has always been entwined with America and England. From the initial stimulus of the American War of Independence to the boost created by the boll weevil outbreak in the 1920s, the fortunes of Australian cotton producers have been shaped by American history as much as their own nation's political and economic imperatives. Scientists and farmers relied on American experience, importing seed, knowledge, personnel, and technology. The global market reflected fluctuations in the US cotton industry and the demands of English cotton mills. Australia relied on the imports of the English cotton mills and an injection of funds by the British Cotton Growing Association (BCGA) in the 1920s to boost industry. While Australian politicians promoted cotton as a domestic economic and demographic stimulant, fulfilment of these nation-state objectives was deeply entangled with, and dependent on, those of America and England.

This state is destined to become a great and prosperous country,” promised Queensland premier Edward “Ted” Theodore in his 1923 re-election policy speech. His Labor “government's land settlement schemes which are in hand, the rapid development of the cotton industry, and the expansion on other industries, will soon provide work and prosperity for many thousands of additional people.”1 An agrarian socialist, Theodore regarded populating Queensland with small, leased, family-operated farms as a vital component of state development. This vision reflected the nation's perceived needs to stimulate the economy, increase population, defend the country, and fulfill the needs of the British Empire. But the success of Queensland cotton was contingent on the domestic and international politics and economics of nation-states on the other side of the globe—the United Kingdom and the United States.

Britain's Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s transformed global cotton as mechanization brought mass production and the need to import vast quantities of cotton, primarily Gossympium hirsutum (known as American upland) to meet demand. An interconnected “empire of cotton” was created among international cotton growers, financiers, and the British cotton mills.2 America entered the market in the late eighteenth century, with many states providing the ideal climatic conditions to grow cotton. The planters' access to extensive supplies of land, capital, and slave labor, along with “unparalleled political power,” enabled America to dominate the global market within decades.3 By 1802 America's transatlantic commerce underpinned the British Empire's cotton-fueled Industrial Revolution. Between 1851 and 1860 the United States produced two-thirds of the world's cotton and supplied 77.5 percent of all cotton imported in England, ensuring market domination and making Britain the largest cotton manufacturer in the world, despite not growing a single strand.4

The success of Britain's cotton industry relied on maintaining constant supply lines, as it was dependent entirely on imports. The English Lancashire mills favored the American long-staple upland varieties of cotton over the short, weak, coarse fiber grown in India and Egypt (the world's second and third highest cotton producers at the time). As only small quantities were grown in Peru, Brazil, Turkey, Cyprus, Russia, Japan, China, and Dutch Indonesia, England searched for an alternative supply of long-staple cotton to reduce America's monopoly, as America's domestic needs, seasonal variation, and unexpected pests could hijack the cotton economy.5 England's Lancashire mills sought to buttress themselves against these variables, creating alternative cotton sources through the injection of funds around the globe to stimulate production. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, Australia became one of those alternative sources.

Many scholars have studied how cotton reflects the global entanglements of the Industrial Revolution, revealing intimate connections between far-flung locations such as India, Africa, the South Pacific, the United States, and England.6 But Australia's place in the global upland cotton industry is little more than a footnote in these histories. This article, on the other hand, places Australia at the center of its analysis to reveal the nation's contributions to this global story, as well as how global dependencies shaped its regional and national development.

International ties are especially evident in British colonial settler states, Tony Ballantyne maintains, as they did not develop in isolation, and historians must be mindful of “complex global and regional currents that shape national development.”7 What might be seen as a regional enterprise to grow cotton in Australia, then a British colony, was also part of a global commodity chain, and, as Ian Tyrrell argues, following the links “elucidates relationships . . . far beyond national boundaries” to reveal connected histories.8 Sven Beckert, too, advocates commodity histories, as they can “overlook geography and the artificial boundaries of national borders” to uncover how global forces, particularly capitalism, transcend nation-state imperatives and politics.9 The success of a local industry may depend on economies, relationships, and events well beyond its control, and these external influences were clearly evident in the early development of cotton in Queensland.10 Local imperatives of nation building, as articulated by Queensland premier Theodore in the 1920s, depended on Australia's interconnectivity with the cotton empire. With an eye on exports to the Lancashire mills to meet the needs of the British Empire, Australia also looked to America to lead the way.

The genesis and early years of the cotton industry in Australia is an under-researched field, despite the country's current status as the fourth largest global cotton exporter. Apart from Robert Longhurst's brief history of Queensland cotton, other historians interested in Australian cotton have focused primarily on New South Wales in the 1960s, particularly the involvement and capital of American farmers.11 Such focus on the more recent past, while important, tends to obscure the deeper origin story of today's Australian cotton industry. From the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, the Australian government promoted cotton as a tool for settlement and economic expansion and sought access to markets, capital, and expertise from the United Kingdom and the United States to aid in its effort.

The cotton fortunes of Australia, then, have long been entwined with those of the United States and Britain. Australia imported American cotton seed, knowledge, personnel, and equipment from the cotton-belt states, and Australians visited America to gain information and expertise. Australia's cotton industry waxed and waned in response to American production, seizing the economic opportunities presented by cotton shortages during the American Civil War (1861–65), the early twentieth century and World War I, and the boll weevil plague in the 1920s. The economic success of Australian cotton also relied on the British market, and American production and prices could cripple Australia's market access. Early cotton advocates and farmers in Australia were British, and the British Cotton Growing Association (BCGA) provided essential funds to boost the industry in the 1920s. Scholars have highlighted the role of the BCGA in establishing additional sources of raw cotton around the world, but its involvement in Australian cotton has largely been overlooked.12 This article looks at the cotton industry in Queensland, revealing an entanglement between America, England, and Australia that deepens our understanding of global cotton.

The Genesis of Australian Cotton

Cotton arrived in Australia with the British colonists on the First Fleet in 1788, procured in transit from Rio de Janeiro.13 The next known seed import came from America in the 1840s, a quantity of Sea Island cotton (Gossypium barbadense) to be grown by Dr. Thompson, New South Wales (NSW) inspector of hospitals, on a pastoral station west of Brisbane.14 The nation's northern region with its subtropical climate provided the ideal conditions for cotton. Requiring warmth and moisture, Australian cotton is grown only in the tropical and subtropical regions between Kempsey and Cairns (the tropical far north Queensland is too wet) and west of Roma (fig. 1). Cotton is susceptible to frosts, and the region's frost-free springs nurtured the new season's seedlings. It favors an annual rainfall between twenty-nine and fifty-two inches and a medium loam soil with a natural capacity for retaining moisture, mixed with sand and silt. Experts regarded it as an adaptable crop, its long tap root allowing it to survive dry conditions. Planting to maturation took up to seven months, and as cotton was sensitive to sudden changes, the largely uniform temperatures in the Queensland growing season (October to April) were ideal, and with reliable rainfall, the region seemed prime for cotton.15

As early as 1857, Walter Hill, superintendent of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, produced 680 pounds of cotton per acre, and by 1860 approximately five hundred acres of cotton were grown annually around Brisbane.16 Separated from NSW in 1859, the new British colony of Queensland looked to cotton to boost its economy, and the American cotton belt provided a vision of what could lie ahead. The dream was promoted by John Dunmore Lang, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who envisaged Queensland as a vast colonization scheme for British immigrants of the “right description,” ideally white, Protestant, able-bodied men. Migration from Britain, he believed, would relieve the overcrowding and poverty in industrial Britain and build Australia. Lang promoted his vision of Australia's cotton empire in his 1861 book Queensland, Australia; A Highly Eligible Field for Emigration, and the Future Cotton-Field of Great Britain, which was designed to attract settlers. He had successfully experimented with New Orleans cotton seed beside the Hunter River in NSW, and this filled Lang with hope, leading to his “natural and warrantable conclusion that cotton could be grown by white men at Moreton Bay as well as by slaves and negroes elsewhere.”17 Although seventy bales of Queensland cotton attracted excellent prices on the English Liverpool market in 1852, and despite Lang's promotional trips to England in 1847 and 1852 to exhibit Australian cotton samples, he did not secure his desired commercial backing, and the industry languished. With a small domestic market and high labor costs that limited production, the Australian industry could only develop slowly. The American Civil War, however, soon altered the fortunes of Queensland cotton.

Australia Seizes Economic Opportunity with American Decline

The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 disrupted global cotton networks, as the Confederate government banned all cotton exports to force diplomatic recognition, while a northern blockade prevented southern exports of the commodity. The impact was hard felt in Britain, as by the late 1850s America supplied “77 percent of the 800 million pounds” it consumed. American exports to Europe plummeted during the war from “3.8 million bales in 1860 to virtually nothing in 1862.”18 English mills struggled with production, and unemployment grew. Cotton prices tripled.19 The government in Queensland recognized the opportunity to increase exports to Lancashire and devised incentives to local producers to grow cotton, offering, in addition to its high market price, a government bonus of £10 per five-hundred-pound bale.20 Further inducement was provided under Queensland's 1860 Land Act, which included a special section dealing with cotton, offering settlers land grants between 320 and 1,280 acres and a guaranteed return for cotton production.21 The strategy worked: by August 1863 there were twenty applicants growing cotton around Brisbane that during the Civil War exported 26 million pounds of ginned cotton worth £1,300,000.22

By 1868 Queensland's cotton industry appeared well-established, with peak production in 1871 of 8 million pounds (unginned) from 12,963 acres. While these domestic incentives and global forces provided a boost, they proved temporary, as post–Civil War production in America and the nation's reappearance on the European market fostered a decline in world prices. The Queensland government removed its guarantee, largely terminating Australia's cotton industry. Only small holdings in Ipswich continued, producing 269,000 pounds in 1895 and 187,000 pounds in 1911.23 Competition from imports forced the closure of the Ipswich Spinning Mills in 1912, while poor cotton prices lured farmers to other industries.24

Another global shortage in cotton supplies between 1900 and 1904 troubled British cotton mills. Although no longer a British colony (since the creation of the Commonwealth in 1901), Australia felt obliged to help the mother country, while also recognizing economic opportunity. As Ipswich cotton grower John Panton informed the Royal Geographical Society in 1903, just as Australia helped the empire in war it was duty-bound to assist in industry by growing cotton.25 Again the Australian government directly intervened to boost the local industry. In 1904 Queensland's minister for agriculture imported seed from America, to be distributed freely and grown in southern Queensland. In 1911 British cotton supplies reached the lowest levels since the American Civil War. Queensland again sniffed opportunity. The state government in 1913 reintroduced its offer to receive, gin, and sell cotton on the grower's behalf, and the Commonwealth government granted a bonus of 10 percent on all cotton grown and ginned in Queensland as further inducement.26

World War I provided Australia with further opportunity, as it reduced the world's cotton supply and increased demand and prices. Military needs stimulated production, as cotton waste from spinning mills provided 37 percent of the ingredients in cordite (a combination of gun-cotton, nitroglycerin, and petroleum jelly that created a smokeless propellant), which had replaced gunpowder in the 1890s.27 Australia's links with the UK remained strong, and Australia mobilized to defend Britain during the war. The Munitions Cotton League of Mount Morgan (near Rockhampton, central Queensland), formed in 1915, called on British loyalists to grow cotton, distributing circulars throughout the state warning “no cotton, no shells.” With fears about American supply, the league argued the “safety of the Empire” depended on Australian cotton.28 Government support was given, and seed and instruction booklets were distributed to three hundred growers, including farmers, schoolteachers, and other citizens who planted around eight hundred acres per grower. Any cotton produced would be purchased by the state at a guaranteed price of 1.75 pence per pound.29 In 1916 three hundred farmers planted eight hundred acres, a figure to be increased in 1917 by one thousand acres that was planted with the “best American cotton seed” imported by the Queensland Department of Agriculture.30 International links equipped a global war, and cotton would help defend the empire.

Australia's cotton depended on British imports and defense needs and was supported by Australian government subsidies. But Australia relied on America to provide the seed, science, and personnel. Government reports, newspapers, and agricultural journals make clear the extent of this dependency.

Importing American Seeds and Knowledge

Since the 1840s, Queensland's cotton had been dominated by American seed, and this international trade shaped the emergent environment in the colonial settlement. Some experimentation with other varieties took place, most notably by Dr. David Thomatis, who grew a hybrid of Mexican and Peruvian cotton in tropical Cairns in 1903 that he named Caravonica after his Italian hometown. This breed grew as a perennial tree (twelve to fourteen feet high), the boll similar to Sea Island cotton in firmness and length. Thomatis distributed his seed globally, and it thrived in southern Mexico, with a high yield, but it proved best suited to coastal and hot areas.31 Despite Thomatis's success, he recognized that his seed was best suited to the tropics, in the far north of Australia.32 Similarly, based on American successes, in 1910 Maj. A. J. Boyd, a recognized authority of cotton in Queensland, advised planting Sea Island cotton (Gossypium barbadense) on the Queensland coast, since it grew well in coastal South Carolina and Florida, but for other regions he advocated the long-staple variety of upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) grown around Alabama and Mississippi.33 Southern and central Queensland were subtropical, and the loamy soils were better suited to upland cotton, even in dry conditions.34 Cotton growers also advocated the bush height of the upland varieties, as women and children, the most “nimble” pickers, could stand over them to pick bolls.35 Cotton proved particularly prone to cross-breeding contamination, and Australian experts recommended limiting the number of breeds to ensure purity, which meant American upland cotton would dominate Australia's industry.36

Producing upland cotton made sound economic sense, reflecting America's monopoly of the Lancashire mills. In 1917 less than 1 percent of cotton grown in the United States was Sea Island cotton, the remainder predominantly upland, with a number of long-staple varieties.37 As Britain's imported cotton derived largely from the United States, the Lancashire spinning machinery was calibrated for long-staple American upland cotton rather than the shorter, coarser Indian or longer Egyptian fibers, and hence long-staple upland cotton was Australia's market. Australia thus looked to America to continue to provide upland seed. By 1906 upland cotton had produced over two thousand pounds of unginned seed cotton per acre in the southern and central districts of Queensland, reflecting the direct impact of America in Australian agriculture. But the availability of seed for Australia reflected America's cycles of agricultural success. Correspondence between the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock, the Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, and American companies reveals Australian negotiations to procure American seed in the 1910s.38 Unprecedented high prices for cottonseed oil had prompted American cotton farmers to sell all old seed to oil mills and acquire new seed, thereby diminishing available supply. Australia faced a seed shortage, which America was unwilling to fill, once again entwining the fortunes of Australian growers with their American counterparts.39

By the 1920s several breeds of American upland cotton seed had been established in Queensland. Lone Star was introduced in 1923 but indicated little suitability for most Queensland conditions.40 Durango, a long-staple upland cotton bred by the US Department of Agriculture from Mexican seed, was imported to Queensland and planted in 1922 by the Department of Agriculture and Stock and released to farmers in the 1922–23 season. It thrived in a wide range of climatic and soil conditions.41 These breeds were superseded in the 1930s as Australian scientists hybridized new American seed imports. New breeds of American cotton produced medium to large bolls that were easier to pick and reduced harvesting costs in a country where wages were high. Their high lint percentage and long staple fulfilled the needs of the Australian spinners and manufactures, an important domestic market for raw cotton that in 1932–33 consumed approximately 80 percent of production.42 Miller, a medium-staple variety with a large boll, reached Queensland in 1930 and replaced Lone Star because it proved ideal for alluvial flats, open forest slopes, and the loams and clay loams of softwood and brigalow scrubs where much of the state's cotton was grown. Triumph, known as Oklahoma Triumph in the United States, was imported in 1933. After breeding experimentation, scientists found it too suited wet, alluvial soils; matured late with a high yield; and had the capacity to recover from an initial pest or climatic setback. Both Miller and Triumph were recommended for central Queensland, an increasingly productive cotton region. New Mexican Acala came to Queensland in 1934 from the field station of the US Department of Agriculture at State College, New Mexico. It immediately distinguished itself for its early maturity, uniformity in standard, and high-quality fiber but was susceptible to Jassid insects and less drought resistant than Miller or Lone Star.43

Statistics indicate the extent of the seed transference from America to Australia. In 1932–33 the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock imported 3,600 pounds of seed from the United States, and 3,590 pounds the next year.44 Further experimentation found New Mexican Acala thrived under irrigated conditions, foreshadowing the future of industrial-scale cotton production in Australia with the introduction of irrigation in the 1950s. In a strategy designed to increase the quantity of big-boll cotton grown in Queensland in the 1930s, the Department of Agriculture and Stock imported 4 tons of Client Superior, 2 tons of Lone Star, 800 pounds of Ferguson 406, and 180 pounds of Improved New Boyjin imported directly from breeders in Texas.45 Although small in quantity, the importation was significant because America provided the sole source of seed, and the seed was hybridized to suit climatic conditions through breeding programs conducted by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock.46 Australia's cotton seed was derivative and dependent on American supplies.

While importing and modifying US seed, Queensland also drew on American science to foster the domestic industry. Issues of the Queensland Agricultural Journal and other publications and records of Queensland's Department of Agriculture and Stock reveal close observance of American activities. The sources promoted local cotton production, with effusive promises of rivaling American production levels. Major Boyd (fig. 2), inaugural editor of the Queensland Agricultural Journal (1897–1921), was a vociferous campaigner. A cotton devotee, he was enticed from England to Australia in 1860 to grow cotton, arrowroot, and rice at Oxley Creek, Brisbane, after hearing a lecture by Rev. John Dunmore Lang. Boyd used his editorial position to promote the cotton industry, predicting “a bright future before the cotton-grower in all British countries,” especially in Australia for those states “wise enough to seize the opportunity.”47

The journal's stated aim was the “publication and dissemination of articles of a popular educatory nature” through its monthly publication. Maximum distribution was key, and the journal was initially “posted gratis to members of agricultural, pastoral and kindred societies,” with a nominal annual postage fee of one shilling introduced in the 1920s. By 1924 the journal's monthly circulation reached 5,500 copies and by 1927 was regarded as an “accepted authority throughout Queensland, interstate and internationally.”48 Vaughan Wood and Eric Pawson have shown how, in New Zealand, agricultural journals contributed to a complex network (formal and informal) that disseminated agricultural knowledge globally.49 The Queensland Agricultural Journal played its part, publishing international science, production techniques and statistics, and disease and pest information regarding cotton. These journals were augmented by the 154 agricultural publications produced and circulated by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock from the mid-1920s. These too became part of the global web of knowledge. In 1927–28 the department recorded that these publications had been exchanged for 3,700 international publications that were then held in the departmental library, a facility that had recorded over 1,929 visitors, including staff, university students, and the public that year.50 In the context of knowledge dissemination, Australian cotton was abreast of international developments, and this information was available to farmers.

The Queensland Agricultural Journal regularly included information on American cotton, thereby making this knowledge accessible and readily at hand for cotton growers. For example, in 1900 Boyd produced an article titled “Cotton-Growing” and the following year published “The Cotton Industry of the United States: An Opening for Queensland.” Both placed Queensland's industry in its global context, especially in relation to America.51 Boyd also published separate authoritative publications on cotton, including Cotton Cultivation in Queensland, distributed in 1911, which became the guide to cotton cultivation in the state. This publication included advice on ideal soil type and instructions on planting. Here the influence of America was overt, as Boyd quotes George Washington Carver, head of the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station in Alabama. Carver himself produced twenty-nine bulletins between 1896 and 1916, all written in simple and less technical language than others of their type.52 Boyd not only adopted the bulletin's style but also extensively quoted verbatim Tuskegee Bulletin Number 7 on growing cotton on sandy upland soils, offering a direct comparison between Alabama and Queensland, with illustrations.53 Government correspondence provides evidence of the wide distribution of this publication to cotton farmers and school teachers to encourage cotton growing, thus representing broad dissemination of American science.54

Numerous Americans were cited as cotton authorities in Boyd's publications. For example, he explains the method of entomologist James Chamberlain Crawford, special agent in the US Bureau of Entomology, for calculating yield from plant bolls (the round seed capsule of the cotton). His publications include quotes from a US Department of Agriculture bulletin on Sea Island cotton, the reproduction of a leaflet on cotton fiber, and information on American seed analysis, picking machines, and cotton gins. Boyd was clearly looking to America as the authority on which to guide Queensland's cotton industry.55 With circulation to over five thousand farmers, Boyd's publication kept Australian cotton farmers well abreast of the American industry. Additionally, newspapers frequently included stories and statistics of American cotton, providing further evidence of the importance of the United States as a scientific source.56 The 1910s were formative years for Queensland cotton with the importation of US seed and scientific knowledge, government guarantees, and a British market. But it was a tiny weevil that invigorated the Australian cotton industry.

Opportunity Created by the Boll Weevil

The Mexican cotton boll weevil first entered Texas around 1892, advancing at a rate of 5,640 square miles annually. Accelerating quickly, between 1901 and 1911 the annual increase in infested land averaged 26,880 square miles. By the end of 1921 the weevil's range was over six hundred thousand square miles, or 85 percent of the cotton belt, reducing production in 1922 to between 8 and 9 million bales (down from an average annual yield of 12–15 million bales).57 By contrast, Australian cotton suffered from only two comparatively minor pests—rust and the bollworm (a species of cutworm). In 1916 the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock declared that in Australia the cotton worm, cotton stainers, and the “dreaded boll-weevil of the United States are unknown.”58 Rigorous examination of imported seed was imperative to prevent their transplantation. Seeds were treated before dispatch, fumigated again on arrival in Australia, then washed with sulfuric acid.59 Queenslanders detected an opening market, citing Texas Cotton and Cotton Oil News from 1916: “If the boll weevils destroy as much of this year's cotton as they did last year the remnant that escapes the weevil will not supply adequately the world's demand, even if the war should continue, and should the war cease this fall, the price of the staple would go sky-rocketing.”60 Australia's island isolation would work in its favor.

Cotton prices consequently escalated in the wake of a global cotton shortage. Again, the Australian government sensed opportunity, willing to capitalize on America's misfortune. Promoters of Queensland's industry worked hard to encourage cotton farming. In 1916 the Queensland Agricultural Journal declared that “a very large area in the northern parts of Australia has a climate suitable for the growth of cotton,” with “experts” recommending an area greater than the US cotton belt, “where at the present time two-thirds of the world's supply is procured.”61 In 1924 Donald Mackinnon, Australian commissioner in the United States, surveyed America's cotton belt and promoted Australia's potential to rival America. He noted that in 1923 Texas produced £150 million worth of cotton with a climate and rainfall more variable than Queensland or NSW and surmised cotton could be grown as successfully in Australia as in the United States.62 In response to his report, the editor of the Australian Cotton Grower proclaimed in March 1924, “What Texas can do, Australia can do.”63 Matching American output became the aspiration. In his 1924 history, Cotton in Australia, Richard Harding offered detailed comparisons of Queensland and Georgia, and NSW and Texas, identifying Australia's small population as the main deterrent to a successful industry.64 Others compared Queensland favorably with Oklahoma, focusing on the similar climatic conditions.65 As Texas and Oklahoma represented 47 percent of the total US cotton acreage, Australian cotton advocates saw opportunity.

Although the yield and quality of Australian and American cotton were roughly equal, costs were significantly higher in Australia. One male farmer could cultivate no more than forty acres without assistance, and labor was expensive.66 Ginning costs were double those in the United States.67 Australia had only two ginneries in 1922, and the costs of transporting raw cotton over large distances was substantial, with Queensland farmers collectively paying around £10,000 in railway freight charges in 1929.68 Without additional ginneries and oil mills, Australia's industry could not be globally competitive without injections of substantial capital. In the 1920s, this funding came from an external source—the British Cotton Growing Association (BCGA). When Britain faced shortages in cotton supply from America in 1902, representatives from the Lancashire cotton industry formed the BCGA with the objective of finding alternative sources in the colonies. The BCGA's early efforts focused on Africa, but they turned to Australia in the 1920s.69 England had found a boll weevil–free source of cotton and was willing to invest in it. Newspapers declared “Big Boom in Prospect: Lancashire Looking to Australia” and “America's loss, Australia's gain.”70 The boll weevil had reduced American cotton from a record 17 million bales in 1914 to 10 million in 1924; England had redoubled its efforts to stimulate alternative supplies in Australia and other places within the empire.71 The links between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States were clear.

Crawford Vaughan, former South Australian premier (1915–17), was appointed managing director of the British-Australian Cotton Growing Association (1921–24). After visiting American cotton fields, in 1920 Vaughan led a British delegation to Queensland to investigate cotton-growing opportunities. Together with local cotton grower Daniel Jones and W. H. Johnson, former director of agriculture in Nigeria, they toured several cotton-growing areas in Queensland. Johnson reported that, with thirteen hundred miles of coastal lands extending two hundred miles inland, Queensland was ideal cotton-growing country. After touring fourteen thousand miles of US cotton country, he claimed the soils were similar to the American cotton belt, and the climate, “if anything,” was more favorable with regular rainfall and without autumn frosts.72 Britain's interest was piqued.

The report built on a previous deal brokered by the Queensland government with the BCGA in January 1920 that provided a five-year guarantee of one shilling and six pence per pound for Queensland cotton lint bound for Liverpool. By September 1921, 124 tons of cotton had been exported to England. The BCGA also funded the importation of three new American-made cotton gins to Queensland and assisted with the procurement of American seed.73 Cotton grades were implemented based on the Universal Standards of American upland cotton. By August 1922, 1,025 tons had gone through the first of the BCGA gins at Rockhampton, with bales labeled BCGAL (for BCGA Limited) ready for export. The Australian Cotton Growing Association (ACGA) was formed in 1920 as a subsidiary to the London company.74 It too constructed ginneries, under the supervision of American J. F. Grant. Equipment was either imported from the United States or built from patented American designs. With a large injection of British funds, the ACGA became the British Australian Cotton Growing Association Limited (BACGAL) in 1924. Under an agreement between the Queensland government and the BCGA, the cotton would be ginned locally and the bulk shipped to England at the ongoing minimum price of one shilling and six pence a pound.75 By 1923 six ginning factories were operational or under construction in Queensland, along with one oil mill.76

With financing and ginneries provided and the English market more secure, Australia's cotton industry expanded quickly in the 1920s. The state's 1924 opening of 3 million acres for closer settlement in the Upper Burnett and Callide Valley region in central Queensland provided considerable impetus for growth. Large pastoral holdings were subdivided into farms ranging from 160 to 1,280 acres for agriculture, cotton production, dairying, and grazing.77 Cotton was regarded as the ideal crop for the small selector, able to be grown on smallholdings and requiring little initial capital. Queensland had the support of the Australian government and its Commonwealth Development and Migration Commission, as cotton production had clear economic, social, and defense advantages. The industry would employ hundreds of British migrants who in turn would populate “waste spaces” and defend the country.78 The scheme, outlined by Premier Theodore in his above-cited 1923 speech, reflected nation-building goals of economics, population growth, and defense. The land was destined to provide farms for up to thirty thousand people, in a region characterized by brigalow scrub, a range of loamy soils, maximum summer temperatures of 86°F and 45°F in winter, and an average rainfall of twenty-nine inches—conditions considered ideal for cotton. With minimal capital required by settlers, cotton was regarded as the ideal cash crop for settling the land.

The state had been promoting the settlement scheme even before the land opened. A 1923 government promotional brochure declared that “no more promising crop can be found for the extensive scrub lands, the alluvial deposits, and the more loamy classes of soil” found throughout the Upper Burnett and Callide Valley Districts than cotton. The authors stressed the vitality of the cotton plant and its adaptability to seasonal changes, including dry spells, indicating that the “crop is particularly fitted for the Australian climate.” Cotton would find “a congenial home in Queensland,” and the government was confident of its success: “While prices for raw cotton keep up—and there is every reason to anticipate they will do so—the incoming settler may regard the annual crop of upland cotton as one which can be successfully grown.”79 Overtly linking Queensland's fortunes with the misfortunes of the United States, Queensland minister for agriculture William Gillies informed agricultural show attendees in 1922 that “the collapse of cotton growing in America was due to the weevil,” and he believed Australia “was destined to become a great cotton growing industry.”80 But to do so, Queensland needed international expertise.

Importing American Expertise

The international exchange of knowledge occurred directly through the employment of American Walton Garret Wells as the Queensland cotton specialist in the Department of Agriculture and Stock (fig. 3). His appointment in November 1922 followed a tradition of American employment in Queensland's agricultural industry. For example, in 1890 E. M. Skelton was appointed instructor of agriculture, establishing the Gatton Agricultural College in southern Queensland along American lines. Americans Walter Maxwell, J. F. Illingworth, and A. A. Girault had all worked in the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations.81 This turn to American expertise reflects the heightened profile of scientific research in Australia since the 1880s, as leaders increasingly viewed research as a state asset with a utilitarian purpose. As Libby Robin notes, Australian scientific research has been “government” science, with science and state needs closely aligned.82 Increasingly, Australia turned to the United States for scientific advancement, a trend also reflected in water resource and biological control development.83

The “want of scientific men” had, according to Premier Theodore, forced the state government “to go to America for a man at an expensive salary” to teach settlers how to grow cotton.84 Walton Wells joined the US Department of Agriculture around 1917 at the Cotton Experiment Station in San Antonio, Texas, then the largest cotton-producing state, with responsibility for plant breeding and field demonstration work. Wells later worked as plant breeder of pima and upland cotton varieties at government stations in Arizona, then undertook growing-demonstration work in Texas, California, and Arizona. He left federal employment in 1920 to manage a ranch in Arizona for the South East Cotton Company, a subsidiary of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.85

Wells joined the Queensland public service in 1923 as a cotton agronomist with the title Cotton Specialist. He rose to the position of director of cotton culture by 1932, occupying an additional position as senior research officer from the mid-1940s until selected as the specialist adviser for experiment stations in 1946 and then director of the Division of Plant Industry in 1957.86 Until age limit provisions forced his retirement at the end of 1958, Wells played a crucial role in shaping the cotton industry.87 On appointment, Wells toured Queensland to assess its cotton conditions and quickly used his newly gained local knowledge and his American experiences to produce a booklet, Cotton Cultivation, published by the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock in 1923.88 This booklet offered farmers advice on soil preparation, planting times and methods, cotton growing, harvesting, and transportation methods. The instructions are detailed, including plowing depths, volume of seed per acre, and row spacing measurements, along with illustrations of undeveloped, matured, and diseased cotton bolls. Wells's American knowledge permeates the pages. For example, he advocated the American practice of tying heavy duck sacks around the waist, or supporting them at the waist by shoulder straps, to allow freedom of motion for picking, rather than the kerosene tubs and chaff sacks in use in Queensland.89

Wells was responsible for training staff and at the end of 1924 became manager of the newly established Department of Agriculture and Stock's Callide Cotton Research Station, an experimental station dedicated to developing varieties suitable for Queensland.90 He regularly published articles or was quoted in the Queensland Agricultural Journal, thereby ensuring the dissemination of his knowledge.91 Wells advised on varieties and species, advocating the limitation of varieties within a region to maintain the purity of the product and recommending upland cotton and the abandonment of Sea Island and Egyptian varieties, citing their comparative yields.92 Wells commented on government policy, for example, condemning the growing of ratoon cotton (grown from roots, not seed) during the drafting of the Cotton Industry Bill of 1923 and was cited in the Queensland parliamentary debates.93 He also continued to look to America for knowledge, as in 1937 when he visited the United States to investigate equipment, pesticides, and fertilizers, which would have shaped advice given to the Department of Agriculture and Stock and Queensland farmers.94

Australia's connections with American cotton expertise were not limited to Wells. The Queensland government's first cotton classer, L. L. Gudge, was employed in 1923 after years of importing cotton for the Liverpool cotton houses and three years as an independent buyer in Texas.95 News accounts of his public lectures reveal that Gudge spread his knowledge of American cotton to local growers, and the same may be said of his radio lectures and the training he gave to the department's cotton classers on his staff.96 When Gudge resigned in 1929 to enter business in England, Wells noted his contribution in establishing cotton grading in Queensland to a standard that the Liverpool cotton market highly regarded.97 Australia continued to import American knowledge via personnel; for example, the Queensland Cotton Board sent its manager, Robert Joseph Webster, to the United States to investigate mechanical cotton pickers, ginneries, and oil mills in 1930. On his return, Webster published a report on his findings and recommended suitable cotton varieties for Queensland.98 Well into the 1930s, the Queensland Agricultural Journal maintained its promotion of America's scientific and technological innovations, publishing articles on US experimentation with picking machines and cotton varieties.99

By the 1929–30 season there were thirteen thousand acres planted in cotton in the Callide Valley and seven thousand in the Upper Dawson, with ginneries receiving 13,349,945 pounds of seed cotton that year, a significant increase from 7,965,339 pounds in 1928–29.100 Cotton continued to expand in Queensland with sixty thousand acres under crop in 1936, yielding 20,766,000 pounds of seed cotton and 14,515 bales of lint.101 With the importation of American seed and expertise, and access to British markets and investment, the industry became well established, but it was not until the 1960s that it would achieve the potential promised in 1860.

Australia's cotton industry remained globally insignificant until the 1960s, hindered by the high costs of labor and processing and small-scale family-farm production. It would take the introduction of the mechanical harvester in 1939 to reduce labor costs and the importation of US farmers and capital in the 1960s to accelerate and modernize Australia's cotton production to make it globally competitive. American cotton farmers relocated to Australia, buying and consolidating land to create large holdings, establishing cotton cooperatives and ginneries on American models, and importing equipment and seed. Dryland cropping was dependent on rainfall, and cotton grew in regions prone to drought. This caused vast seasonal variations in production, making Australia an unreliable supplier. Irrigation after World War II changed this, replacing dryland cotton, and America led the way in Queensland and NSW with irrigated cotton.102 Today, Australian cotton is associated with large-scale irrigated and industrialized holdings (some as large as 222,395 acres) that contribute substantially to Australia's standing as the world's fourth largest cotton exporter, despite producing only 3–5 percent of the global commodity.103

Australian historians have noted American involvement in Australia's post-1960 cotton industry, but this article shows that this connection is not new.104 Since cotton's introduction to Queensland in the 1840s, the industry has been entwined with the United States, its fortunes waxing and waning in accordance with American domestic concerns; boosted by the American Civil War, droughts, and weevil plagues; and battered by agricultural booms. The United States provided the model and the benchmark against which Australian cotton would be measured, and it has supplied the seed, scientific knowledge, personnel, and equipment since its inception. But Australian cotton was also economically dependent on Britain. The Lancashire mills were the primary importers, and the BCGA provided essential funds to build mills and ginneries that allowed escalation of production and substantially reduced production costs. With these interconnected factors, Australian cotton became increasingly competitive with America's.

Politicians framed Australia's infant cotton industry with the rhetoric of nation building as they made large landholdings available for land settlement, invested in science, and offered financial guarantees and bonuses to farmers to provide financial surety to grow cotton. Journalists and agriculturalists boasted of ideal climatic conditions, promoting the country as the ideal home for cotton, a potential rival to America's cotton belt. But these domestic aspirations have always been shaped by events, processes, and relationships well beyond Australia's national borders, one more link in the global commodity chain of cotton. By placing the domestic market within its broader historiography, we gain insights into why Australia grows cotton today.

This research received financial support from the AHA-Copyright Agency Early Career Mentorship Scheme. Thanks to Professor Katie Holmes for her mentorship under this program and to the reviewers and editor, Albert Way, whose generous feedback greatly improved this article.

Notes

1.

“Labour's Objective,” Queensland Times, April 11, 1923.

2.

I acknowledge that the term empire of cotton comes from Beckert, Empire of Cotton.

15.

Experimental irrigation was not introduced in the Queensland cotton industry until 1939.

16.

Lang, Queensland, Australia, 119; A. McPherson, “History of the Queensland Cotton Board March 1933 to November 1977,” unpublished manuscript, ID 314021, 111, Queensland State Archives (hereafter QSA).

20.

“Cotton,” North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser, July 23, 1861.

21.

“An Act to Provide for the Alienation of Crownlands,” Moreton Bay Courier, September 27, 1860.

23.

Quodling, Cotton Cultivation, 1; McPherson, “History of the Queensland Cotton Board,” 111.

27.

“Cordite Manufacture,” Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, April 16, 1908, 4.

28.

“The Munitions Cotton League,” Mount Morgan (Mount Morgan: Argus Print, 1915), ID 902892, QSA; “No Cotton, No Shells,” Morning Bulletin, September 15, 1915, 5.

29.

“Cotton-Growing in Australia,” Sydney Mail, October 17, 1917, 28.

30.

“Cotton-Growing in Australia,” Western Mail, December 29, 1916, 20.

31.

Department of Commerce and Labour Bureau of the Census, E. Dana Durand, Director, Bulletin 107, “Cotton Production 1909” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1909), 49; Cole, “Cotton Growing in Australia,” 31; Bottomley, “Report by Mr. John Bottomley,” 59.

37.

Sam L. Rogers, “Cotton Production and Distribution Season of 1916–17,” Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Bulletin 135 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office 1918), 13.

38.

For example, Argyle McLachlan, President, Growers and Shippers of California Cottons to Department of Agriculture and Stock, Brisbane, Australia, November 1, 1916; Under Secretary, Department of Agriculture and Stock, Brisbane, Australia, to John Gorman, Waco, Texas, June 6, 1916; Department of Agriculture Washington to Under Secretary Department of Agriculture and Stock, Brisbane, Australia, April 27, 1916; all in ID 902893, QSA.

39.

Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry, “Cotton Growing in Australia,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, article proof, November 9, 1916, ID 902893, QSA.

40.

Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock, “Cotton Growing in Queensland,” (Brisbane: Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock Division of Plant Industry, June 1955), 20, 17, ID 902893, QSA.

42.

Queensland Cotton Board, Cotton Growing in Queensland: Increased Production Required, 9–10; McPherson, “History of the Queensland Cotton Board,” 161; and Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1932–1933, Queensland Parliamentary Papers (hereafter QPP), vol. 2, 1933, 562. These figures varied considerably depending on annual yield.

44.

Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1932–1933, QPP, vol. 2, 1933, 526; Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1933–1934, QPP, vol. 2, 1934, 464.

45.

Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1933–1934, QPP, vol. 2, 1934, 464.

47.

G. N. Logan, “William Alexander Boyd (1842–1928),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, published first in hardcopy 1979, adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boyd-william-alexander-5325 (accessed July 28, 2020); “Obituary,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, June 1, 1928, 395; Boyd, Cotton Cultivation in Queensland, 41, 19.

48.

“To Our Readers,” Queensland Agricultural Journal 1, pt. 1, July 1897, 1; Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1922–23, QPP, vol. 2, 1924, 9; Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1927, QPP, vol. 2, 1927, 375; and Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1928, QPP, vol. 2, 1928, 308.

50.

Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1922–1923, 1923, 9; Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1927; Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1928, 308.

51.

A. J. Boyd, “Cotton-Growing,”,Queensland Agricultural Journal, December 1, 1900, 539–44; A. J. Boyd, “The Cotton Industry of the United States: An Opening for Queensland,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, May 1, 1901, 375–77.

54.

For example, see William Keppen, Head Teacher Glenella State School to Under Secretary Department of Agriculture and Stock, August 30, 1916; Ernest Grimstove, Head Teacher Springsure State School to Under Secretary Department of Agriculture and Stock, October 18, 1915; and Under Secretary Department of Agriculture and Stock to W. Bauer Esq., Swanfells, April 18, 1916. All held in “Cotton: Correspondence Including Purchase of Cotton Seed from USA,” ID 902893, QSA.

55.

Cotton: Correspondence Including Purchase of Cotton Seed from USA.”

56.

For example, “Cotton Production in 1910,” Northern Miner, October 19, 1911; “American Cotton Prospects,” Telegraph, November 21, 1912; “American Cotton,” Queensland Times, August 24, 1926.

57.

“Pest of the Cotton Fields,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, June 1923, 493; “Cotton Culture,” Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, November 15, 1922.

58.

Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry, “Cotton Growing in Australia.” 

59.

Queensland Cotton Board General Manager's Annual Report, season 1932, 23, ID 313956, QSA.

61.

Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry, “Cotton Growing in Australia.” 

62.

“Money in Cotton,” Australian Cotton Grower, April 15, 1924, 41.

63.

“Editorial—Cotton Is King,” Australian Cotton Grower, March 15, 1924, 1.

65.

The case presented by the Queensland Cotton Board to the Hon. J. N. Lawson, Minister for Trade and Customs, reviewing the present position of the cotton growing industry in relation to the proposed raw cotton bounty bill, October 4, 1939, 7, ID 537857, QSA.

67.

“The Cotton Industry,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, January 1, 1930, 2.

68.

“The Upper Burnett and Callide Valley,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, July 1, 1929, 54; “Cotton Industry,” South Coast Bulletin, August 2, 1929.

69.

For example, “British Cotton-Growing Association,” Morning Bulletin, August 4, 1903; “Cotton Growing,” Telegraph, January 14, 1910; “Cotton Growing. More Areas Wanted,” Daily Mail, June 18, 1920.

70.

“Big Boom in Prospect: Lancashire Looking to Australia,” Queenslander, February 17, 1923, 38; “Lancashire Looking to Australia,” Townsville Daily Bulletin, February 16, 1923.

71.

“Boll Weevil. Ravages in America,” Queenslander, February 17, 1923, 38; “Lancashire Looking to Australia,” Townsville Daily Bulletin, February 16, 1923.

72.

“Australian Cotton,” Observer, January 7, 1922, 32; “Growing Cotton,” Warwick Daily, October 4, 1921.

74.

“Empire Cotton Growing,” Daily Mercury, January 13, 1923.

75.

“Parliament Opened,” Queenslander, July 8, 1922, 17.

76.

McPherson, “History of the Queensland Cotton Board,” 9.

77.

W. L. Payne and Queensland Land Administration Board, Report and Recommendations Following on an Economic Investigation by the Land Administration Board of the Upper Burnett and Callide Valley Lands (Brisbane: The Board, 1929), 5. Note that the Upper Burnett lands were farther south and were settled before the Callide Valley.

78.

“The Cotton Industry and Migration,” The Land, May 15, 1925, 3; “Cotton Culture,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 13, 1921.

79.

The Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau, The Upper Burnett and Callide Valley Districts Queensland (Brisbane: Government Printer, 1923), 41–42.

80.

“Agriculture,” The Week, April 7, 1922, 4.

84.

“A Field of Opportunity,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, December 1922, 415.

85.

Thomas Kearney, Segregation and Correlation of Characters in an Upland-Egyptian Cotton Hybrid, United States Department of Agriculture Department Bulletin No. 1164, August 10, 1923, 3; “New Staff Appointments,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, December 1922, 385; Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1922–1923, 19.

86.

“Major Appointments in Agriculture and Stock Dept. Reorganisation,” Telegraph, May 31, 1945; “Personal,” Brisbane Courier, November 5, 1932; “News from Central District,” Morning Bulletin, May 9, 1952.

87.

Wells's lengthy career is largely unsung. His contribution to the department was given only a paragraph on his departure in the Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1958–1959, QPP, vol. 2, 1959, 20. Issues of Queensland Agricultural Journal for 1957–59 are missing from the Queensland State Library, and Wells's death in Sydney on August 4, 1973, went unrecorded in both the Courier-Mail and Sydney Morning Herald.

90.

Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1924–1925, QPP, vol. 2, 1925, 295, 493.

91.

For example, Queensland Agricultural Journal, February 1923, 146; March 1924, 233–35; June 1929, 421–24; and June 1, 1931, 411.

93.

Gillies, The Queensland Cotton Industry (Brisbane: Government Printer, 1923), 10–14.

94.

Minutes of Deputation from the Cotton Board, May 7, 1937, letter 5554, ID 537857, QSA.

95.

“Government Cotton Classer,” Capricornian, September 25, 1925, 47; Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1922–1923, 19.

96.

“Cotton Grading,” Evening News (Rockhampton), September 19, 1924; “Cotton Industry,” Morning Bulletin, September 19, 1925; “On the Air,” Queensland Times, April 7, 1927; “Broadcasting,” Brisbane Courier, April 7, 1927; Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1925, QPP, vol. 2, 1925, 294.

97.

Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1928–1929, QPP, vol. 2, 1929, 626.

98.

“Cotton Varieties,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, June 1, 1931, 411; Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1929–1930, QPP, vol. 2, 1930, 786; and Webster, Investigations in the United States of America.

99.

Queensland Agricultural Journal, article proof, November 9, 1916; O. F Cook, “Cotton Improvement Laws in California,” Queensland Agricultural Journal, November 1, 1925, 432–34.

100.

Department of Agriculture and Stock Annual Report 1929–1930, 623.

103.

Australian Cotton, “About Aussie Cotton,” 2021, http://australiancotton.com.au/why-aussie-cotton/quality-products (accessed October 16, 2021).

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