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The Rise And Fall Of The Penang Mill

The sugar industry has come a long way since the late 1800s where it had strived to survive in areas thought to be suitable for the planting and milling of
15 May 2017 10:40
The Rise And Fall Of The Penang Mill

The sugar industry has come a long way since the late 1800s where it had strived to survive in areas thought to be suitable for the planting and milling of sugar cane.

The Penang Mill, built in 1878 and being the smallest and oldest mill of the four mills presently standing, operated until the end of crushing in December 2015.

The rest, as they say is history.

Across Fiji, Tropical Cyclone Winston on February 20 last year wrecked havoc and caused massive and irreparable damages to the Penang Mill.

An assessment was done and Government decided that to repair the mill would costs millions of dollars and operation was not viable considering the age of the mill and the fact that being the oldest, it probably would have surpassed its ‘use by date’.

For the mill, this is the second time it has closed down; only this time it will be dismantled to the ground and become part of history.

Following a drop in the production of sugar cane, the mill first closed its operations in 1922.

Perhaps a look at the history of the Penang Mill and the beginning of the sugar industry in Fiji would be the best way to start.

Indigenous cane grew wild in Fiji and was used as thatching by the iTaukei for their bures (houses) and most of their buildings.

The first attempt to produce sugar commercially in Fiji was on Wakaya Island by David Whippy in 1862 but this turned out to be a financial failure.

With the cotton boom of the 1860s there was little incentive to plant a crop that required high capital outlay but after a slump in cotton prices in 1870, the planters turned to sugar.

In an effort to promote the production of sugar in Fiji, the Cakobau government, in December 1871, worried about the decline in Fiji’s economy and because of internal strife and the cotton industry’s failure, offered a 500-pound reward for the first and best crop of 20 tonnes of sugar from canes planted before January 1873.

The first cane sugar mill in Fiji was built in 1872 by Brewster and Joske at the present site of the city of Suva with about 640 acres of sugar cane supplying the mill. By the end of 1874, there were four mills in operation, six by the end of 1875 and 10 by the end of 1878.

Most of these mills crushed for only a few years and only a few survived the crash in the sugar price of 1884.

The surviving mills were Navua Sugar Mill, Penang Mill (the only mill that was left operating until shut down this year), Holmshurst (Taveuni) and the Rewa Sugar Company (Koronivia).

The arrival of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company led to the establishment of commercially viable mills.

The Australian based CSR was coached into extending their operations to Fiji after Colonial Secretary John Bates Thurston in May 1880, went to Australia seeking investment for Fiji persuaded them to  come.

The Wilmer brothers founded the Penang Mill in 1881, transferred to Fraser and Company and later acquired by the Colonial Sugar Refinery, a Melbourne-based company in 1926.

CSR later formed a subsidiary in Fiji in 1961, South Pacific Sugar Mills Limited, which took over the running of the four mills until it was acquired by the Fiji Sugar Corporation.

The Penang Mill was enlarged (with machinery from Mago Island where a mill had closed in 1895) and the increased crushing capacity together with favourable weather condition allowed the mill to operate independently.

In 1879, the British government brought indentured labourers from India to work on cotton, sugar and other plantations. The hundreds of diligent workers chose to stay on after sugar became the main crop and more Indians followed until the indentured system ended in 1916.

The first mill built by the CSR was the Nausori Sugar Mill on the banks of the Rewa River and began crushing in the 1882 season.  In 1883, construction began for its second mill in Ba, the Rarawai Mill. Another mill was built at Viria, also along the Rewa River, and crushed from 1886 to 1895. It was closed because it was too small to be viable.

In 1890, the Labasa Mill was erected from a dismantled mill in Queensland while the Lautoka Mill was built in 1903.

By 1926 all other sugar mills had closed down and the CSR owned the five existing mills in Fiji after which the Nausori mill closed down in 1959.

In 1973, the Penang Mill, together with three other mills being operated by the CSR was sold to the Fiji Government-owned Fiji Sugar Corporation.

The Fijian Government is still the major shareholder in the FSC.

The Penang Mill is the smallest of the four sugar mills currently owned by the FSC, the other three being the mills in Rarawai (Ba), Labasa and Lautoka.

Sugarcane was supplied to all the mills by train and trucks. The Penang Mill had the distinction of having the highest proportion of cane delivered by trucks.

Sugar from this mill was exported via the Ellington Wharf in Rakiraki.

For the people of Rakiraki, the Penang Mill had been the mainstay of their economy as most of their revenue revolved around the mill, especially during the crushing season.

One of the major reasons in the fall of the supply of sugar cane to all mills occurred towards the closing of the last millennium, the latter part of the 1990s.

This was the period that most Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Act (ALTA) leases were expiring around the cane belt. This started to cause anxiety among cane farmers as most of the indigenous landowners were reportedly coerced into terminating the leases.

This saw a lot of Indo-Fijian cane farmers being forced off the farms, the place most had called home since their Girmitya forbears had settled there.

Some families were told to leave their homes and vacate the land within hours or a couple of days following the expiry of the ALTA leases, with the majority of them with a tenure of 30 years.

While some left the houses and structures they had extended as they were, others – under the cover of darkness – dismantled as much as they could of the structures and up and left leaving in their wake walls with no windows or roof structure.

These landowners were told they could take over their farms but were not advised nor oriented on the rudimentary skill and the complexities of the sugar industry.

A lot of farms which had been thriving for decades became abandoned, abruptly; which could be witnessed when driving along the Kings Highway today.

As a result, the supply of sugar cane dropped.

Because of its geographical position, Fiji is prone to the wrath of tropical cyclones; resulting in the mayhem and destruction of the sugarcane fields and the operation which add to misery of the industry, when the hurricane force winds struck.

Rakiraki was no different and TC Winston, while flattening the fields that supply the mill, literally destroyed the structure of the Penang Mill.

With the announcement of its permanent closure and the repercussions that followed for the cane farming community in Rakiraki, politicians saw the closure as an opening  to work on the emotions of the farmers.

Old politics reared it’s ugly head and farmers began to question the motive behind the closure, with one former politician and businessman offering to buy the mill, repair it and run it privately.

With the General Elections looming next year, this has become a hot topic and one which would surely carry on to the very day of the polls.

 

The facts of the matter are:

 The Penang Mill was damaged so badly that repairing it would have cost “millions and millions of dollars” as announced by Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama.

 Even if an attempt was made to repair it, most of the structure is outdated and trying to locate replacement parts would be difficult which conclusively lead to the fact that a new mill would be the better option.

 Mr Bainimarama told the people of Rakiraki last week that FSC’s chief executive Graham Clark and his team are looking into options available. Mr Clark later told the farmers that a feasibility study would be done on the construction of a new mill, taking into consideration it would be built at a location that would be economical for them.

 Also cane production, which had dropped from about 300,000 tonnes, before the problems of ALTA leases to around 175,000 tonnes. The damages by TC Winston led to a further drop of cane supply to around 92,000 tonnes.

 A new mill would now depend on the increase of cane supply to around 400,000 tonnes for its viability. Businessman George Shiu Raj has said in a talanoa session with Mr Bainimarama that they could increase the supply to around 500,000 tonnes.

The Penang Mill has sentimental value to the community in Rakiraki but for cane farmers to prosper and the economy of Rakiraki to rise, the hard yards must be taken.

In the end, once the new mill is built, one wonders what tune the politicians would then sing in their efforts, as Mr Bainimarama put it, “to get the ticks of the farmers on the ballot paper”.



Five Square diwali dhamaka 2021


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