Red – the colour of power

Red – the colour of power

By Susan Prior

The colony’s desire to have its military officers kitted out in bright red jackets, a symbol of power, dyed using cochineal, was one reason for one of the worst environmental disasters in Queensland’s history. Let me explain.

Dig (metaphorically, of course) beneath some of the new houses and developments along the river and you can find some fascinating history. For example, a residential development known as Arbour Reach is now near completion in the area of Magazine and Ferry Streets, Sherwood. This land was first farmed by Thomas Berry in the 1860s. The name Berry Street just near here acknowledges the family, who grew a variety of crops including maize, fruit and sugar. For a time there was a sugar mill on the site.

From 1881, the Queensland Defence Force stored ammunition in a magazine on high ground safe from floods. Again, the site’s use lives on in the street name – Magazine Street. After Federation, the Commonwealth Government took over the site. Plans for a naval wharf and storage of ordnance were rejected after pressure from local residents and the Sherwood Shire Council, and the land was leased for grazing for a period of several years.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Queensland, many settlers had been growing the prickly pear as a garden plant, because it had good fruit to eat and made a great hedging plant. The first settlers grew it for the cochineal insect that thrived on it, and from which red dye is made. Red is the colour of power, so red dye for the soldiers’ jackets was considered very necessary! Of course, we know what happened. The plant grew out of control. Mechanical and chemical efforts to eradicate the pest failed to contain it. Amazing bounties were offered for the destruction of emus and their eggs, as well as scrub crows and magpies. These birds loved the fruit and contributed to the spread of the invasive species. But nothing worked.

Prickly pear forest in 1930. Source: Queensland State Archives, Image ID3035

In 1921, the site became the national headquarters of the Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board. At the time the menace of the prickly pear cactus had crippled 26 million hectares of farmland in Queensland, to the extent that some farmers were forced to walk off their properties. The Board established a laboratory to investigate possible ways to eliminate the plant. This led to the discovery that the Argentinean cactoblastis moth caterpillar was effective, culminating with the first release of the insects in 1926 in a campaign that lasted until 1939. It was considered one of the most successful examples of biological weed control in the world. In Dalby, so significant was this development that locals refer to events as BC or AC – before cactoblastis, and after cactoblastis. Locals helped to spread the moth caterpillar and an area the size of Tasmania became viable farming land once more.

According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The Invasion of Australia‘ cartoon published in The Sydney Mail, 28 February 1923

Chinchilla was known as the town at the heart of the eradication of the dreaded prickly pear. In the early 1920s there was more than 25 million hectares of Australia covered with prickly pear. The cactus had been introduced into Australia in 1839 and by 1862 it had reached the Chinchilla area. By the turn of the century it was increasing at a rate of 400,000 hectares a year. Farmers tried to fight it by cutting and burning but they had little success. In 1925 the Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board, realising the scale of the problem, introduced the cactoblastis moth and larva from South America. Initially 3,000 eggs arrived from Argentina and from a population of 527 females a total of 100,605 eggs were hatched. Half these eggs were sent to the Chinchilla Prickly Pear Experimental Station and half were kept in Brisbane.

By Heritage branch staff - Queensland Heritage Register: Cactoblastis Memorial Hall (2006), CC BY 3.0

The moth was spectacularly productive. The second generation yielded 2,539,506 eggs. At the height of the operation Chinchilla was sending out as many as 14 million cactoblastis eggs a day. Locals decided to dedicate a hall to this small insect. Located 10 km east of Chinchilla on the Warrego Highway is the Boonargo Cactoblastis Hall which was built by the local farmers and dedicated to the redoubtable insect which had managed to eat its way through the jungles of prickly pear. (Information taken from: Sydney Morning Herald database, 2005, retrieved 17 January 2006) 

The biological section of the Queensland Department of Lands then assumed responsibility of the laboratories and conducted various important campaigns of weed control. When a new office and laboratory building opened in 1967 the complex was re-named The Alan Fletcher Research Station after the then Minister of Lands.

Since the research station closed in 2010, the work has continued at the State Government eco-sciences precinct at Boggo Road.

Many thanks to the Oxley–Chelmer History Group.

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