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Premier McIlwraith: the Queensland caesar

By Denver Beanland - posted Thursday, 10 September 2020

A recent article in the Courier-Mail headlined ‘Slavery links set to get the chop’, related to a petition presented to the Queensland parliament. The article claimed Sir Thomas McIlwraith tried to annex New Guinea for Queensland to promote the easy flow of slave labour, which is wrong, when his reasons were for the defence and security of Queensland. 

Sir Thomas McIlwraith, thrice premier of colonial Queensland, was one of the two parliamentary giants of the colonial period. A classical laissez-faire liberal, he was a visionary, entrepreneur, civil engineer, statesman, businessman and pastoralist. On 4 April 1883, Premier McIlwraith’s Queensland Colonial Government attempted to annex in the name of the British Government that part of eastern New Guinea and the adjacent archipelago not under the control of The Netherlands.

It followed growing concern that the annexation of eastern New Guinea or its adjacent archipelago by a foreign power would have been disastrous for Queensland and the other Australian colonies security and trade. The eastern New Guinea and its archipelago    controlled the alternative and much safer shipping route from eastern Australia to Asia.


McIlwraith correctly believed that a foreign power in eastern New Guinea would have been strategically well placed to blockade the approach to Queensland from Europe and Asia as well as establishing effective control of the Torres Strait. At risk were also several industries in the Torres Strait including pearling and bêche-de-mer.

From 1874 proposals had been made for the annexation of eastern New Guinea. Communications had commenced with the Australian colonies, however, at that time they were against the proposal because of the cost involved in administration. The following year Liberal John Douglas, later Premier Douglas, moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly that had been unanimously passed for the annexation of eastern New Guinea. In 1879, it resulted in the Queensland and New Guinea border being moved hard up against the mainland of New Guinea to give Queensland sovereignty over all of the Torres Strait.

Significantly, in 1875 German companies established permanent stations on the adjacent eastern New Guinea archipelago. Alarmed, the Royal Colonial Institute in London advocated that the British Government annex eastern New Guinea to prevent Germany, a growing foreign power, from colonisation of the country. In December 1882, the institute forwarded a copy of an article that appeared in a leading German newspaper that advocated German colonisation.  Following receipt of the newspaper report and aware of a German corvette in Sydney, McIlwraith, on 15 March 1883, moved quickly to take formal possession of eastern New Guinea. McIlwraith was aware that the Queensland Government did not have the power to formally annex eastern New Guinea, but indicated that he believed it was perfectly legal for the government to annex the islands while waiting formal sanction.

McIlwraith was supported in his endeavours of annexation by the other mainland colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. It led, in late 1883, to the Federal Council being established, a precursor to federation of the Australian colonies, to take up the struggle with the British Government on security and defence issues, including annexation of eastern New Guinea. Meanwhile, the Colonial Office in London agreed that Queensland and British legislation prohibited recruitment of labour from eastern New Guinea should it become part of the British Empire.

By December 1884, the British Government had still refused to annexe eastern New Guinea when the Australian colonial governments received the startling news that Germany had annexed the north-east portion of New Guinea. It was not until the following year that Germany and Britain agreed on the division of eastern New Guinea in which the former received the slightly larger north-eastern portion and Britain annexed the south-eastern portion.

McIlwraith concerns were proven correct and more so when at the start of World War I, the first actions of the Australian Government were to remove the German administration from north-eastern New Guinea.       


Moreover, in the 1883 election one of the two issues on which McIlwraith was defeated was his support for recruitment of indentured Indian coolie labour to replace South Sea Island indentured labour. Had McIlwraith changed his policy and ceased advocating for the recruitment of coolie labour in place of South Sea Island labour he would have won the election. Tropical agriculture such as the sugar industry were dependant on South Sea Island labour and would remain so until central mills could be successfully established to enable sugar farms to replace sugar plantations in the tropics. Europeans would not work on sugar plantations.

As a classical laissez-faire liberal, McIlwraith was aware that both coolie labour and South Sea Island labour were unprofitable compared European free labour which was later employed on the small farms. In 1893, McIlwraith introduced the Sugar Works Guarantee Act 1893 which encouraged the small farmer to cultivate their own land employing European rather than non-white labour. This led over the next few years to the break-up of the plantations and eventually, following federation, Commonwealth legislation which outlawed the practice.     

McIlwraith played a major role both in the defence and security of Queensland and Australia and in the endurance of the sugar industry without which Queensland’s coastal sugar towns would not have survived.

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About the Author

Denver Beanland is a professional historian. He is a former Deputy Mayor of Brisbane City, and Queensland Attorney-General. He is the author of The Queensland Caesar - Sir Thomas McIlwraith.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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