Tropical Cool with Frances Steel
The industrial innovation of chilling or freezing perishable produce transformed relationships between climates and the production and consumption of food across the globe. This talk considers how refrigeration was adapted to open up new trades, notably in meat, dairy and fruit, between Australia and the Pacific Islands from the late nineteenth century. Refrigeration also had profound effects on livelihoods, cultural practices and regional relations, creating legacies that continue to shape the Pacific to this day.
Dr Frances Steel is a senior lecturer in History at the University of Wollongong and specialises in histories of empire and mobility in the Pacific.
Dr Steel is the National Library Fellow supported by Deidre McCann and Kevin McCann AM and the Macquarie Group Foundation.
*Speakers: Martin Woods (W), Frances Steel (F)
*Audience: (A) – no microphone
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 5 December 2017
M: Good evening, everyone, great to see such a turnout for Frances’ talk. Do you say Frances or Frances? France. Very good. I should do that – I do that because I’m from South Australia originally so we dance there. Thanks Beth. Look, welcome to the National Library of Australia, I’m Martin Woods, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to what is the final fellowship presentation for 2017 and congratulations, Robyn and Beth and the team and Margy, it’s been a big year and congratulations.
M: Before we launch into tonight’s presentation I acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people past and present. As our Director General, Marie-Louise Ayres, recently said our fellowships are investment in curiosity. Curiosity is a word I think exemplifies our fellows, they come to the Library with a deep desire to learn about their topic, an inquisitiveness that may lead them and us in surprising directions.
I’m very grateful to the many private donors who’ve been willing to invest in the curiosity of Australia’s research community never quite knowing where the research will lead. I’m grateful to Deirdre McCann and Kevin McCann AM and the Macquarie Group Foundation for their support for 2017 Fellow, Dr Frances Steel, Senior Lecturer in History, School of Humanities and Social Enquiry, University of Wollongong.
And tonight is one for the curious. Early on I had the pleasure of reading Frances’ fellowship application as it was then titled Cool Cargoes, Australia Pacific Food Trades and Transformations in the Age of Refrigeration. It’s more pithy tonight. As a maps curator it appealed to me especially. As a custodian of collection materials steeped in the Pacific and in trade between Australia and the Pacific.
Frances is a leading academic in cultural, commercial and colonial history of the Pacific. Her first book, Oceania Under Steam, was shortlisted for the Ernest Scott Prize in 2012. She describes herself as an historian of the Pacific world and in reading her CV it was abundantly clear how many ways there are into the space. Research grants, articles, books and book chapters include study of transpacific passenger shipping in the steam age, history of domestic service in the Asia-Pacific, transoceanic ties, aspects of ship board travel and tourism, sea transport and mobility, even New Zealand and the sea. Go figure.
Frances also established and currently co-convenes the Colonial and Settler Studies Research Network at the University of Wollongong and it’s one of those personal investments that goes beyond the shores of personal research so congratulations on that. And as you will hear her fellowship has focused on industrial innovation, how freezing perishables spanned different climates and opened up new trades between Australia and the Pacific Islands. It promises to reveal a new and welcome dimension.
I’ve enjoyed a number of fleeting conversations with Frances about her research and I’m looking forward to hearing more about her work this evening. Please join me in welcoming Dr Frances Steel.
F: Thank you, Martin, for that very kind introduction and thanks, everyone, for being here this evening. Now my fellowship here at the Library represents the start-up stage as it were of a new research project for me and so what I’m attempting tonight is more in the nature of a preliminary presentation to discuss some of the early findings and interesting things I’ve come across over the last couple of months rather than any well-developed conclusions.
Now I would imagine that for many of us our conventional reference point for the history of refrigeration and food trades would likely be the development of the trade in frozen meat between Australasia and Britain. In the late 19th century as we fairly well know Britain struggled to satisfy its domestic demand for animal protein while Australia and New Zealand had an oversupply of sheep. Live shipment was of course not a practical option. While tinned meat found little favour with consumers in metropolitan markets refrigerated shipping hence promised a novel solution.
A key milestone in Australian economic history is the departure of the ship, Strathleven, in late 1879 from Sydney and Melbourne carrying about 400 carcasses of frozen mutton and beef. The cargo arrived in London in quality condition much to the delight, not least, of the agent for the stock owners, a Mr A Lamb. Seriously, you just can’t make this stuff up. So the Strathleven shipment was soon followed by the voyage of the Dunedin, named for my home town in New Zealand in 1882 carrying over 6,000 carcasses.
So the trade quickly expanded. Notwithstanding initial wariness in Britain about the consumption of frozen meat with over one million carcasses shipped every year from Australia by the mid-1890s and double that from New Zealand. Meat exports were soon followed by butter and cheese and later fruit. These expanding markets stimulated colonial productivity and in parallel lowered British metropolitan self-sufficiency. But what histories might emerge if we reorient the focus of enquiry away from this more familiar empire story and instead look out from Australia into the Pacific? What impact did refrigeration have on food trades and relations around food in the region? It is such questions that brought me here to the National Library and which raise some of the issues my project I hope will be able to address.
So I’d like to acknowledge the Library for taking a leap with what was perhaps a less immediately obvious project proposal and I’m particularly grateful to the sponsors of my fellowship, Deirdre McCann and Kevin McCann AM and the Macquarie Group Foundation whose generosity has made this research possible. And I’d especially like to thank them for supporting work on the Pacific.
I’ve been assisted in countless ways by staff across this institution and it really has been quite an incredible and immensely enjoyable few months. And as I said at the outset the fellowship marks the beginning of a new project for me and I’d like to say a little more now about my own pathway to this topic.
In my recent work I’ve studied colonial maritime connections in the Pacific, exploring the impact of the introduction of steamships and the shipping routes opened up by steam, and relations between New Zealand and Australia and with their immediate island neighbours and right across the ocean to the United States and Canada.
Now a large part of this work centred on the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand which grew from its Dunedin base to become the largest company in the Pacific, at its height operating a fleet of 75 ships. It dominated the coast of New Zealand, the trans-Tasman, the Tasmanian, the Tasmanian trades, trades to Fiji, to Tonga, to Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tahiti, and eventually the principal transpacific mail routes to both San Francisco and Vancouver stylised here in the red and blue lines on this map.
Now steam’s chief import lay in freeing up shipping from the environmental constraints of winds and waves. Sea travel became faster and more predictable and for the first time could be scheduled with some confidence. In the process it garnered new associations with comfort and pleasure which in turn promoted new images of the Pacific and its islands and new projects for Australasian commercial and political influence in the region.
Now my work up ‘til now has followed the people who moved through the Pacific along these networks of steam. But as I researched these networks and connections it became clear to me that shipping companies relied just as much on cargo. People and goods moved together in the same ships along the same paths. This seems an obvious point. Indeed there was such a close symbiosis between cargo and passenger traffic that it is surprising that histories of the modern Pacific reveal very little about the circulations of cargo, especially food.
Now steam actually came quite late to the Pacific. It was first applied to shipping in British coastal trades and on the north American lakes in the first decades of the 19th century then eventually in transatlantic trades and through the preeminent imperial P&O from Britain to India and Singapore and eventually Australia.
Now none of this was by any means a smooth history but the first timetabled steamship networks in the Pacific only date from the late 1870s through the operations of the Union Steamship Company but also the Sydney-based Burns Philp and its route map here, it’s obviously important also for trades into Asia, and the Australian United Steam Navigation Company. Now all three of these companies ran services into the islands by the mid-1880s.
Significantly by the time steam came to the Pacific marine refrigeration was already being developed and tested hence in the Pacific unlike elsewhere steam and refrigeration came together.
So let me now turn to this theme of cold. Simply put cold is the absence of heat. The innovation of mechanical cold is the process of removing heat from one place to another under controlled conditions. Obviously the efforts and ability to keep perishable foods cold predate the advent of mechanical or artificial refrigeration which is my particular interest in this project.
Sydney imported natural ice from north America in the first half of the 19th century harvested from frozen lakes and shipped out packed in sawdust. By the 1860s refrigeration machinery supported the development of a domestic manufactured ice industry with the technology applied to freeze the space for storing food but also to freeze water.
Ice would continue to be central for domestic cooling appliances such as ice boxes and this latest model ice refrigerator advertised in the late 1920s. Thus the very word refrigerator references the state of cold and not necessarily the mechanical equipment used to achieve it.
Now many different mechanical methods were applied to achieve refrigeration including the expansion of compressed air or the evaporation of a volatile liquid. And I haven’t really been able to delve much into the technological history of refrigeration yet and it seems very interesting given you know the various technologies that were used to achieve it but that study for me will be a bit later. I must admit when I see you know open books or files like this I have a bit of a brain freeze so it’s a bit beyond me, I must say.
But through the application of refrigeration perishable foods could be either chilled or frozen. Both effects were transformative because they arrested the natural processes of spoilage and decay. Refrigeration suspended as it were the last stage and time’s natural cycle but it did more than merely slow spoilage. Unlike other modes of food preservation such as drying or canning refrigeration kept foods fresh just as nature produced it and thus maintained the nutritive value of food.
Over time refrigeration also offered the means to overcome seasonality and enhance the year ‘round variety of available food. In fact it was regarded as an improvement on nature in that while nature rested human needs for nature’s bounty did not thus refrigeration in a sense seemed to offer a technological return to nature? It moreover opened up new trading routes and conceptualisations of markets stretching the distance between sites of production and sites of consumption.
Climate, seasons, plenty, scarcity, distance will all shake hands as the Australian pioneer of refrigeration, Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, predicted in 1875 and he plays an important part in my story today.
The Strathleven shipment which arrived in London in 1880 came too late for Mort who had passed away two years earlier. But he was very gung-ho about the prospects and impact of refrigeration. From it he argued there would come enough for all. By his own estimates Mort had invested over £80,000 which is the equivalent of around $10m today in an effort to prove the commercial viability of a trade in frozen meat to England. The investments included a slaughter house and chilling establishment in the Blue Mountains, a freezing depot at Darling Harbour, special chilled meat vans designed for the railways and a milk depot in the southern tablelands. Mort though would likely have baulked at the Strathleven experiment as he refused to consign small shipments on which special high rates would be charged, his sole object being to prove the potential for a continuous largescale trade.
In relation to this question of commercial viability that I came across what might be the first discussion of refrigeration and the Pacific. Following his 1875 speech before members of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales Mort was confronted by a prominent stockowner who’d turned up an expectation of an announcement of when the first consignments would be shipped. Frustrated at hearing nothing satisfactory he challenged Mort on why he simply didn’t send a small experimental shipment of frozen meat to New Caledonia. Mort retorted that he clearly knew nothing about freezing. He could send a shipment to New Caledonia but there would be no-one there to receive it and thus it would be no trial at all. The only proper test, he insisted, was to send a shipment on a long voyage.
So potential markets in the Pacific were not yet large enough to compete with established empire networks. The application of marine refrigeration in the Pacific would initially serve a more limited and contained purpose for the ship board provisioning of crew and passengers and small consignments for European residents in various island ports, a point to which I will return shortly.
So the key for opening up new markets as we’ve seen was the application of mechanical cold to long distance transportation and the biggest challenge was the duplication of the whole machinery on board ship hence the drawn-out efforts and frustrations of Mort and his colleagues.
In the earlier successful exports to England the meat was frozen on board but the prospects for any regular trade also depended on the expansion of cold storage facilities on land to ease the pressures in getting produce to port but most significantly to prevent alternate periods of glut and scarcity. So rather than sell on a crowded market produce from farms and soon orchards could be held back until the market was ready so cold storage acted as a kind of regulating influence.
Now cold stores were clearly vital at the port but they had to begin at the site of production or as close to it as possible as livestock shed weight during transit to distant abattoirs, an impact felt more in Australia than in New Zealand. It made evident sense to process meat as close as possible to the farm then transport carcasses on chilled trucks or train carriages to port.
As to fruit it could benefit from precooling immediately after harvest as a means to minimise the release of gases which caused its deterioration in transit. So if a measure of a progressive and modern orchard was its possession of a cold store it seemed that one measure of modern Australia was soon found and the number and capacity of such facilities dotted across the continent.
Still despite some evident progress it was all a bit too drawn out for some interested commentators. In 1911 one such commentator writing in the Sydney Morning Herald deplored Sydney’s feeble efforts to develop cold storage which according to him seemed little advanced since Mort’s days whereas other civilised countries had made remarkable strides and the commentator rounded off his denunciation by looking out to sea with I guess from our place in history reads as a rather matter of fact description.
But from the 1920s you start to see tables enumerating the cool stores in each state in box - with titles like the 1929 Australian text, Refrigeration, An Essential to National Health, Security and Progress.
We can thus speak of the beginnings of the development of a cold chain, an unbroken series of cold places in which chilled or frozen cargo could be stored and conveyed. And the term appears to have entered use around 1907. The development was also described as the successful handling of export perishables from the home store to the floating store and finally the overseas store.
Now food did not always enter cold storage in optimal condition but sometimes overripe or already deteriorating. Cold storage was too often seen as a last resort while poor handling or careless storage invariably compounded the damage caused by delays. Even if produce was placed in cold storage in a timely manner cross-contamination posed another threat. And this stimulated much research on the chemical and biological changes of food in storage and the best methods of storing and transporting different kinds of foods with different decaying properties and hence needing different temperatures and separate chambers so this all took quite a long time to understand and to perfect.
And guides prepared by the noted American expert on refrigeration, Mary Pennington, were well regarded also in Australia. Shippings also stood to avoid hefty claims by keeping problem cargo separate for gases released by fruit would taint eggs, butter and cheese. Apples and pears were best not stowed together. Early season lambs should not be stowed above mutton and rabbits kept best in the coolest part of the chamber and so on and so forth.
With this new ability to stockpile perishables cold storage also stimulated consumer concerns about transparency and food safety and quality. How are the consumers to be sure about the real age of produce? Furthermore while it was a regulating influence unscrupulous speculators, monopolists or profiteers might use cold storage to counter supplies and keep up prices. Thus as one editorial warned in 1917 cold storage has made the means of inflicting a grave injury to the public.
There were other hazards with reports of people inadvertently locking themselves in ships’ refrigerated chambers or in cool stores leading here to other quite practical suggestions on the successful and life-sustaining operation of the cold chain.
Okay. In the Pacific. While indigenous people had developed their own forms of preservation including fermentation, smoking and drying fledgling European settlements in coastal Australia depended on island trades and food for basic survival exemplified by the early 19th century salt pork trade between Tahiti and New South Wales. In the second half of the 19th century we see the growth of the plantation economy across the Pacific for cotton and cocoa but most significantly sugar and copra, the dried flesh of the coconut.
Now these crops weren’t reliant on a cold chain but it’s in the context of their production that we see the first significant importations of food into the Pacific with canned meat and rice stipulated as rations for the thousands of islanders indentured to work on plantations.
In turn cattle were imported to maintain the grass on plantations and supplied some European planters with fresh meat and milk. Canned meat is widely known in the Pacific as [Haloby] 25:49. [Haloby] is a transliteration of [Halobies], the New Zealand Meat Processing Company which enjoyed a well-established monopoly and sold under a range of brands, Crown, Pacific and Arrow. It’s also known in some places as [Peasoupo], a transliteration of pea soup, the first food that came into the Pacific in a can and – but soon became a generic word for all tinned foods. And there’s other native names there in the corner of that ad to describe tinned meat.
Even by 1900 New Zealand brands were so esteemed that Australian manufacturers tried to pass off their canned meats as of New Zealand origin however island consumers do not appear to have been easily foiled by the counterfeit claims. Tinned meats also sustained Europeans living in the islands. This advertisement for the Sydney Meat Preserving Company combines its twin markets for native trade and for European table, the former with far less variety and also sold in bulk.
A trade report in 1919 observed that people in Samoa and Tonga preferred tinned meat with a high fat percentage and meat was sometimes classified as a fat in these early 20th century sources rather than as a protein as we would readily understand it today. And there are arguably continuities here with the controversial export trade in fatty meats in the fatty meats in the present day, notably mutton flaps from New Zealand and turkey tails from the United States, popular cuts or perhaps off cuts on many islands, and implicated along with fatty tinned meat and the challenges of obesity and diabetes confronting the region.
But certainly canned meats came before refrigerated supplies and would soon alter local patterns of production and consumption. So this sculpture of pressed cans, one in a series by Michael [Tufry] 28:15, a New Zealand-born artist of Samoan, Cook Island and Tahitian heritage, speaks to the way this imported food has replaced local foods in feasts and in gift-giving but also to the problems that result from colonial economies, both dietary and ecological including the introduction of livestock to rather fragile island environments in some parts of the Pacific but also the waste from discarded cans.
Now the continued prevalence of canned food clearly attest to the ways in which tropical environments have presented natural challenges to the transport and storage and hence the wider commodification of perishable food. Securing the cold chain in the islands was slow and it remains highly uneven to this day. It’s also easily broken. A 1979 report on food distribution systems in Tonga for example noted that storekeepers in the main centres usually turned off their refrigerators and freezers at night and sometimes intermittently during the day to cut down on electricity.
Now when I commenced my research here at the Library I’d anticipated that the main hubs of refrigeration in the Pacific would coincide with the key ports of call along the steamship lines that I’ve been so preoccupied with. In fact as I soon discovered the ports hooked up to regular steamship services did not necessarily have cold storage facilities or not for a very long time. For much of the island Pacific the cold chain was the ship so as the Irish journalist and travel writer, Beatrice Grimshaw, put it in her 1907 travelogue, In the Strange South Seas, steamer day is feast day, beef day, ice day, day for enjoying all the edibles that cannot be had on the island itself. There is mutton in Rarotonga but not much at the best of times and of beef there is none at all so all the white folk order beef to come up monthly in the ship’s cold storage and for two happy days – the meat will keep no longer – they enjoy a feast that might perhaps more fairly be called a feed.
About noon on steamer day a savoury smell to which the island has long been a stranger begins to diffuse itself throughout Avarua. Everyone with true island hospitality is asking everyone else to lunch and dinner. The resident Commissioner was usually gifted a block of ice by the stream ship captain but he knew all too well that if he enjoyed it on his own he would in the island world be considered capable of any crime so he wrapped it up in blankets to give a dinner party in its honour the following day.
So ice and perishable produce took on a kind of talismanic quality for colonial communities, established in port. Occasionally enlivening what was otherwise a monotonous diet of tinned food, some of which, particularly vegetables, were described as invariably tasting like iron filings boiled in dish water. But well off the primary routes of transpacific and interisland trade ocean island or [Bunaba] 31:59 in the former Gilbert and Ellis Islands colony or present day [Ceribus] 31:59 and Pleasant Island or Nauru were [chilled] 32:06 to an extent unknown and other parts of the Pacific. So this is a busy map of various routes. I’ve just tried to zoom in a little bit, I don’t know if it’ll work but Nauru and [Bunaba] are off those lines, okay? They’re not connected routinely as many other islands in the Pacific are, up there in the equatorial region.
Both islands were extensively mined for phosphate by Britain, Australia and New Zealand to fertilise the farmlands that would yield the fat lambs and pure butter ultimately destined for Britain’s larders as well as the tinned meat and bags of flour sent back to the islands. The European phosphate employees of both [Bunaba] and Nauru could boast of a luxury life, enjoying modern domestic comforts, sewerage and freshwater systems, electrical light, telephones and refrigeration. On Nauru by the mid-1920s a diesel-powered refrigerating plant supplied staff daily with ice. Cattle and sheep were shipped from Sydney, slaughtered on arrival and placed in refrigerating chambers from where meat would be issued to British residents three or four times a week.
Ocean Island would also serve as a base from which to occasionally provision colonial administrators stationed elsewhere on the Gilbert and Ellis Islands colony with fresh meat and vegetables. So these developed facilities improved the lives of a select minority yet indigenous communities would be deprived of their traditional sources of sustenance. The literal consumption of Ocean Island through phosphate mining rendered it uninhabitable ultimately leading to the relocation of the [Bunaban] community, [Tarunby] 34:02, in the island in the Fiji group from 1945. So the history of ruin and revitalisation of these communities is at the heart of ANU scholar, Katerina Teaiwa’s work and forms the basis of her current exhibition at Carriageworks in Sydney.
So refrigeration plants were also established near goldfields, for instance in New Guinea and such facilities no doubt played a part in attracting more people to these extractive industries. Thus the geographies of refrigeration as I’m discovering start to map more closely to sites of intensive environmental exploitation and not simply those routine routes of traffic and trade indicating distinct pockets of cold, I think, rather than kind of linear chains of cold, at least after the first half of the 20th century.
But to return to the principal shipping routes cold storage facilities would appear in key ports, notably Honolulu which is probably the most important, boasting extensive storage capacity by the mid-1920s in buildings which were even promoted as a tourist attraction. By this time Australia and New Zealand were exporting quantities of frozen meat to the port destined largely to feed the 12,000 American troops stationed there.
Indeed in 1929 the Hawaiian Meat Company contracted with a number of Australian firms to supply annually nearly two-and-a-half million pounds of frozen meat to the military because imports from the US mainland were deemed too expensive. So again then this underlines the importance of cold storage for the provisioning of colonial officials, residents and troops and for marking distinctions I think between the food cultures of the colonised and the colonisers.
And this mirrors a broader pattern in that the military was already an assured market which both Australia and New Zealanders as early as the 1880s were hopeful of supplying either by contracting with the imperial army in India or forces in the Dutch East Indies. It also explains why South Africa was a significant export market in the early 20th century. And I could put up a range of these tallies from the newspapers but obviously Britain are Europe are dominating but South Africa’s pretty significant in that list. And I think a lot of those other places are also you know sites of colonial occupation.
Indeed Australian interests including Burns Philp established and supplied Singapore Cold Storage, an institution that’s still in operation today which opened in 1903 whose main clients would be the British army and navy.
So while settler colonial exports to Britain supported established imperial dietary preferences for meat and dairy so what people were already eating in the tropics refrigeration also stimulated entirely new tastes and norms of consumption. In some parts of the Pacific eating imported foods like butter became a cultural marker of the advanced islander and this was the impression of a US Consul in Fiji in the 1920s reporting on prospects for food imports from America.
And his comments echoed those expressed at the first food conference of the Pan Pacific Research Institution held in Honolulu in 1924, an organisation concerned with problems of food production, distribution, conservation and consumption. And here a speaker asserted that the best physically developed peoples of the world are those who consume large quantities of dairy products and yet, he noted, in the Pacific dairying is quite unknown.
Now this presenter didn’t mention Fiji which had invested in local dairying after world war one, an occupation regarded as highly suited to returned Anglo soldiers and sailors who would be trained up by dairy experts from Australia. And the first pound of creamery butter was produced in 1922. Fiji was soon exporting its surplus not only to Britain where it was graded as on par with the best quality New Zealand butter but also to Hawaii. So it’s the discovery of such exchanges that encourages me to think past easy distinctions between the more familiar products of settler colonial farms and the more exotic products of the tropical empire because it’s precisely refrigeration and refashioning climates that makes these sorts of entanglements possible, that makes a trade in butter between Fiji and Hawaii possible.
So in further research I really do hope to explore how the cold chain stimulated not only new tastes in the tropics but also new industries and transform the very possibilities of tropical production.
So most of my examples have positioned this new technology as something harnessed to benefit Europeans in the Pacific yet items prized in island diets, notably fruit, now began to compete in regional and imperial trades. The banana was the first globally traded fruit and certain banana varieties were indigenous to the Pacific but intensive monoculture production would favour the banana type best suited to ocean transport. This <inaudible> 40:36 the Cavendish on the left there which had been introduced to the Pacific by British missionaries in the middle of the 19th century, and the Gros Michel on the right, a slightly bigger and taller variety introduced from the West Indies via Kew Gardens and known in Fijian as the [gina billavu] 41:12 or the Tall China variety and the banana’s known generically in Fijian as China probably because of the prominent position of Chinese commercial interests from Australia in Fiji banana production and export from the mid-1880s.
So Fiji was the first island group to engage in banana export, trading the Gros Michel variety in Australia and New Zealand where the fruits quickly became an essential food item, referred to as a poor man’s food. In Australia’s southern states consumers were prepared to pay up to three times as much for Fiji bananas over those produced in Queensland where the smaller Cavendish variety flourished. And Fijian bananas were so popular it seems that about 90% of bananas in Australia were marketed as of Fijian origin regardless of where they were grown with the Cavendish invariably sold as the small Fiji.
But white producers in Queensland would soon protest at the perceived unfair advantages enjoyed by Fiji, decrying a market dominated by cheaply produced black-grown fruit notwithstanding the fact their own crop enjoyed a significant price advantage. Suva, unlike ports in northern Queensland, had a direct steam service with Melbourne and Sydney and thus Fiji bananas reached southern markets faster. Fiji producers were also assured of adequate ventilated cargo space whereas ships sent to Queensland invariably lacked such facilities.
If shipped green bananas might survive transit without refrigeration yet even chilled or ventilated storage could do nothing to reverse damage caused by rough handling, wharf workers frequently climbing over bananas or dropping bunches into the ships’ holds, treating bananas like railway iron rather than as carefully as eggs. And it’s not uncommon to see whole shipments condemned on arrival in Sydney with cold lumpers knee deep in rotten bananas, shovelling them into the ocean.
In 1921 Australia placed a prohibitive duty on Fiji bananas to support Queensland production which took off, assisted in turn by the use of Nauru phosphate-enriched fertilisers. This forced Fiji to look to new markets, in New Zealand where it competed with exports from Samoa and the Cook Islands as well as right across the Pacific to Vancouver, a trade made possible because of the established steamship service between Australia and Canada, that red line I showed you earlier that hooked up Fiji and Hawaii en route. Yet the Fiji product seldom stood up against the uniform central American fruit that monopolised the Canadian market so it was a brief window in the late 1930s.
Fiji bananas would soon trickle back into Australia, though, after the Ottawa Agreement in 1932 reduced duties in support of empire trade. Although Queensland producers protested loudly Fiji imports from this stage would only amount to about 3% of Australian production. Still Australia imposed a raft of other charges including primage, sales tax, quarantine, wharf charges, income and employment tax on profits, all charges that Australian-grown fruit didn’t attract. This left Fiji despondent about Australia’s level of commitment to empire trade and its aspirations to regional leadership with pleas that Australia play the game and drop Bodyline bowling as the Fijian war hero and statesman, Ratu Lala Sukuna, put it in 1934.
But the Australian market never reopened sufficiently to Fiji bananas. The Gros Michel would soon be ravaged globally by Panama disease while further diseases, viruses, cyclones and flooding would put an end to the Fiji export trade by around the mid-1970s. Monoculture banana production though remains vulnerable to disease even today, of course with some recent reports speaking of the imminent death of the Cavendish which is the one we’re buying at our supermarkets every day.
Elsewhere in the Pacific refrigeration couldn’t easily overcome geography in developing a profitable export trade in fruit. Poor local transport made it difficult to get produce to market such as in the Cook Islands while the lack of suitable harvest entailed excessive handling of fruit from shore to ship, getting it over the reef here in the bottom image. And again this would entail much loss to island producers in the first half of the 20th century who’d been encouraged to get involved in you know expanding their production of fruit but were facing all these other challenges in the process.
Now in keeping with my opening slide and the slide of the image for the advertisement of my talk, I should perhaps offer a few comments about the advent of domestic refrigeration in Australia and the islands.
Now a refrigerator in the home was the last link in the cold chain in that mechanical cold was first applied to industrial scale storage facilities and to shipping and only much later to smaller domestic appliances ‘cause this demanded a whole new kind of – new technological innovations to achieve this.
There were earlier methods for keeping perishable foods cold in the home so the meat safe and the ice box if you could afford it and had a ready supply of ice but by the 1920s the electric refrigerator was beginning to be marketed as a luxury unit for the home. Uptake in Australia was very small and in the mid-1930s industry commentators considered whether domestic refrigerators had sufficient sales appeal in their utilitarian appearance without colours and little shapely proportions. So the Australian housewife, as an industry journal put it, may obtain the guardian of the nation’s health but once its novelty fades she would likely lament that it does not quite harmonise in the decorative scheme of the home.
Now these considerations seem rather remote from the Pacific where potential consumers were presented with more functional options, both for external cold storage run on petrol engines, and smaller domestic models reliant not on electricity or gas or a proximity to an ice works but solely on our old and trusted friend, the primus stove and therefore within budget of everyone.
Advertising for the [Freezel] 49:14 also cautioned that hundreds of lives have been lost in the Pacific islands over the last half century, deaths put down to tropical fever when the real cause was food poisoning. Certainly similar models were also marketed across Australia for those in outback regions and otherwise off the beaten track and living for fresh meat as it’s put here, from kill to kill and thus completely independent of any cold chian.
World war 2 interrupted refrigerator production and some factories were turned to manufacturing munitions or like the Charles Hope factory in Brisbane, to service American military vehicles. Electrolux, which opened a refrigerator and vacuum cleaner factory in Melbourne in 1925, diverted its production to the needs of the war where kerosene-operated refrigerators would prove vital as blood banks and were also widely used by the Red Cross and the Australian Comforts Fund.
In 1949 80% of American homes and 25% of Australian homes possessed refrigerators so the speed of refrigeration received the attention of the Department of Post-war Reconstruction which was confident of reaching a target of a fridge in every home within a decade and indeed by 1964 an estimated 94% of Australian homes had one. But here we might consider the reverse influence of the Pacific on Australian domestic consumption. With the tropical theatre of war deployed here to attest to the robustness of the Charles Hope Cold Flame electrically-operated model which nevertheless was still an attractive piece of kitchen furniture despite its exploits in the tropical theatre and indeed the model held by the Museum of Victoria was still working at the time of its donation in 2001 and in recent days I heard more anecdotes even of – about 1930s models that are still working, some of which have been on rather epic journeys across the Pacific to end up in Australia.
Now other companies also seized on the war, not only to market their domestic appliances but to promote new nutritional norms. Werner Refrigerators, for example, lent its name to a post-war campaign to counter popular prejudices against meat consumption and hot weather, drawing on the experiences of millions of servicemen in the tropics during the war years which helped to show that a high-protein diet of up to a pound of meat a day contribute immeasurably towards keeping up stamina, vigour and readiness for action.
And finally the Pacific made an appearance in other more subtle if not oblique ways. Frigidaire for instance offered its new models in either white or Hawaiian cream. And I’ve not been able to find out anything else about this colour, how it originated but perhaps it reflects broader trends in the late 1950s for Polynesian-inspired domestic interiors, most marked certainly in California but perhaps finding its way to Australia through manufacturers here such as General Motors.
Okay just – so to pull all of this together, to study refrigeration history I think is to at once package as well as to connect a - new ways, histories of science and technology, histories of agriculture and environment, trade and logistics, politics and regulation and cultures of consumption and I hope my talk has conveyed something of my enjoyment of this early research process which has ranged across trade reports, colonial-era handbooks and travel narratives, refrigeration manuals, industry journals, newspapers, advertising and other ephemera and NLA has really been the ideal setting for commencing this research and I’d like to convey my thanks again to all staff. And as the project develops further I'm really hoping it will provide a deeper understanding of aspects of the connected pasts of Australia and its Pacific island neighbours for food is a crucial dimension of colonial relationships and certainly remains one of their enduring legacies so thank you very much.
M: We’ve got time for a few questions? I think we do. Would someone like to go first? Thank you.
A: <inaudible> 54:34.
F: What am I hoping to investigate next? Well because I come from New Zealand I do want to connect the dots in a way so I want to look at New Zealand’s role in the Pacific in relationship to Australia and I definitely want to get across to California and think about American influence as well. I didn’t really cover the ways America is part of this history in a big way. The minute you turn away from that empire trade the American influence in the Pacific is you know something that has to be accounted for and Australia was - frequently Australian industry representatives were going to the US to see how they were managing their cold chain, how they were coping you know with these new industries so certainly yeah, I want to tell a broader Pacific history but immediately I guess in Australia I’m going to have to start looking at some of the companies which is not you know what I’ve got to yet so Burns Philp, some of the meat companies. A lot of this material is actually at ANU in their business archives so yeah, there’s plenty, plenty to explore, yes.
A: <inaudible> 55:41.
F: What made me go down this path? Well as I sort of said earlier in the talk I’ve been following steamships around the Pacific looking at people’s stories, I’ve been you know reading travel diaries, thinking about you know new mobility but at the same time I'm very aware that these ships aren’t just carrying people, okay, they’re carrying food and the steamships have refrigeration from the get-go in the Pacific and I really thought well you know I'm a cultural historian but we don’t really talk about trade very often and I'm wanting to sort of think about that in new ways through refrigeration, yeah.
A: <inaudible> 56:31.
F: Where were the ships built? In Britain, in Scotland, yeah, in Scotland and northern England, yeah so the Union Steamship Company was contracting with Scottish shipyards, definitely, yeah.
A: <inaudible> 56:53.
F: Thank you, that’s a great question. I guess the stuff I’ve read around refrigeration in the Pacific is more about the present, yeah so about these meat flaps and the trades that are pretty problematic, I guess, for many parts of the region and I thought well yeah, maybe that is the endpoint. And there’s very little preceding that that I’ve been able to find so I guess I'm trying to provide a bit of a backstory. At the moment my research is only going up to world war 2 but it looks like I’ll probably have to think about post-war you know the changes especially that happened just to feed people during the war, I think you’re going to see quite a transformation as well so yes like my other projects this is probably going to be a century of work but that’s okay, that’s okay, we’ll get there.
M: Last question.
A: Yes, Frances, when you started you know that notion of where to begin I mean I think people here have a sense of – well the Library had a sense of you might find an incredible amount but you might find not very much and how you’ve begun to process some of that and pull it together in some sort of research <inaudible> 58:42?
F: I think it’s definitely more the latter, I’ve had to range widely and I’m often only finding you know a sentence here, a paragraph there, an image there. There’s not a particular go-to body of work yet that I'm – perhaps the company material will be a different sort of research process but yes, it’s been about stitching a lot of little pieces together. And I guess the first thing I kept confronting was tinned food. I came to do a project on refrigeration and I’m reading a lot about tinned food and I can’t ignore that so I think I’m going to have to think about mapping tinned and refrigerated food across the Pacific and trying to understand you know yeah how they sit together or not so I’m having to just shift the angle a bit from the work I’ve done here and I think I’m going to have to bring in Asia a lot more as well. I’m finding better sources for Asia and Australia’s interest in trading into Asia which is probably just you know market size and all of that but yeah, it’s morphing a little bit in my mind but we’ll see, yeah.
M: You’ve just broadened your topic there, Frances, well done. Thanks, Robyn. We’ll have to draw it to a close and join us outside for a drink and something to eat if you’ve got time. For me I was you know blown away by the breadth of the project and what you’re attempting to do and it is going to be fantastic to see the results. Also the concepts, pockets of cold chain, constant cold, so many colds. And of course you know how industrial production often imitates and then replaces indigenous modes and I mean if anyone has been to Hawaii and just getting back to your tinned meats story and the prevalence of spam there will attest you know it really is a fantastic topic, Frances, congratulations.
F: Thank you.
M: And I’d like you all please to join me in thanking Frances.
End of recording