The earliest recorded appearance of bananas in Australia was in the early to mid 1800s when Chinese migrants brought plants with them from their home provinces to begin life in Australia in Carnarvon, Western Australia.
In 1828, two plants growing on the island of Mauritius were taken to Lord Cavendish who grew them in what are now Kew Gardens in England. Some plants from his garden were given to missionaries who were traveling to the South Sea Islands in about 1840.
The bananas flourished in the tropical environment and a missionary named Williams took a few plants with him to Fiji. When sugarcane growers from Queensland went looking for cane cutters in the Pacific Islands they also brought banana plants back with them. These plants were used more as ornamentals and a special treat when fruit ripened than for commercial considerations. This was around the 1870s.
In Sydney, bananas were brought in bunches by ship from Fiji to supply the market there. Bananas taken to the Coffs Harbour region by Herman Reich in 1891 saw an industry begin to develop, later expanding to Yarrahappini and Woolgoolga and ultimately to the Tweed, Richmond and Brunswick areas of New South Wales.
While fruit was generally consumed locally, some adventurers began to send by ship to major cities.
Although bananas have been grown in Australia since the 1830s they were not commercially produced until the 1880s when crops from Queensland were transported south. Chinese played a dominant role in both the growing and importation of bananas across Australia until the 1930s and continue to be active in the area today.
The quick turn over of the banana crop which could be harvested continually once it reached maturity made it an ideal crop for many sojourning Chinese.
Queensland was the main supplier of bananas in Australia. The Cairns and Cardwell (Innisfail from 1909) districts were particularly suited to banana growing. Much of the land in these areas was cleared by Chinese banana growers due to the practice of clearing new land to plant new crops rather than replanting areas that had been already cleared. The early prosperity and survival of the Cairns and Innisfail area has been directly attributed to the success of the Chinese in the banana industry. Both Chinese and non-Chinese businesses in these towns developed to provide goods and services to Chinese banana growers. Chinese merchants in particular played in important role as commission agents and assisting growers with finance.
The move into banana wholesaling and distribution appears to have been a natural extension of the dominance of Chinese growers. It was common for commission agents to negotiate between the growers and city wholesale merchants. A number of large Chinese wholesale fruit merchants formed in both Sydney and Melbourne at the beginning of the century and profited from Chinese involvement in banana growing. A number were very successful. Chinese merchants held over half of the banana trade in both Sydney and Melbourne in the 1900s and also distributed fruit to country towns. Fruit merchants replaced storekeepers and grocers as the new merchant elite within the Chinese community.
Capital from fruit merchant firms was used in the establishment of a number of the largest department stores in Hong Kong, Canton and Shanghai and in the formation of the China-Australia Mail Steamship Line.
By the 1930s Chinese dominance in both growing and wholesaling of bananas had dissipated. In Queensland, the older banana growers were returning the China and the younger Chinese in the area found sugar cane to be a more reliable crop.
In the first decade of the 20th century the wholesale of Queensland bananas had been unfavourably affected by fruit fly contamination, severe cyclones, delays due to World War I, and in particular poor transportation as the shipping fleet was used on the war effort. There was also a limit placed on the amount of land that could be leased by Chinese to grow bananas and incentives for 'white' growers to enter the industry. This provided further impetus for the industry in northern NSW to grow.
When supplies of Queensland bananas were unreliable some Chinese merchants in Melbourne and Sydney survived this through diversification into other markets and fruits. Some began importing Fijian bananas and some even established their own plantations in Fiji. However the introduction of increasing tariff duties between 1911 and 1920 on Fijian bananas eventually made them unprofitable and there have been no banana imports since this time.
During World War I a number of Chinese merchants from Sydney also began purchasing land in the Tweed River area of northern NSW for banana growing. After the war, returned soldiers also began purchasing land there with the resulting competition leading to discontent and eventually racial tensions in 1919. Chinese merchants in Sydney and the Chinese Consul-General tried to dampen the tensions. A devastating outbreak of 'bunchy top' virus severely set back the fledgling banana industry in NSW quelling racial tensions.
In Melbourne in the 1880s the majority of Chinese banana merchants established their businesses and ripening rooms in Little Bourke Street. Bananas arrived at the wharfs where they were loaded onto horse-drawn open lorries and transported to ripening rooms in Little Bourke Street. Bananas were ripened in special rooms that were heated with a mix of raw gas and ethylene. From Little Bourke Street bananas were taken to the major wholesale or retail markets for sale. Other old ripening rooms still exist on Flinders Street, in a building called ‘Banana Alley’.
In the last few decades of the 20th century banana production gravitated towards tropical areas in Queensland, from the sub-tropical growing areas in NSW.
After 1930 Chinese banana merchant firms began to diversify into fruit and vegetable merchants or close their business. In Victoria the fruit and vegetable wholesale industry became centralised at the Queen Victoria Market and banana storage and ripening rooms moved to the new market and out of Melbourne's Chinatown. This market has since moved to premises on Footscray Road in West Melbourne.
Over the years, banana growing, wholesaling and retailing has broadened to embrace people fro many different backgrounds. While all the growing areas of the old days remain, the majority of Australian bananas now come from far north Queensland, where growing conditions are ideal and reliable for year-round production. The only impediment to continuous supply is the threat of cyclones which are prevalent in the area.
The latest was Cyclone Larry In 2006 which destroyed almost the entire banana crop in the Innisfail and Tully areas of far north Queensland. So concentrated was banana growing in this area that wiping out the crop meant that around 90 per cent of Australia’s banana supply dried up and prices as a result increased to record levels as consumers chased the available supply.
Cyclone Winifred in 1986 had a similar impact on the industry and banana supplies to the market, but while growing, picking, packing and retailing systems have become more sophisticated the Australian banana has remained the wholesome, nutritious snack it has always been.
For further information and current industry statistics visit abgc.org.au.