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John Ewen Davidson (1841–1923)

by J. A. Mills

This article was published:

John Ewen Davidson (1841-1923), sugar-planter and miller, was born on 2 March 1841 in London, son of Henry Davidson, merchant and cadet of the Davidsons of Tulloch Castle, Dingwall, Scotland, and his wife Caroline, née Blake. Educated at Harrow and Oxford (B.A., 1862), he visited the West Indies and British Guiana before coming to Australia in 1865. He began as a sugar-planter at Rockingham Bay near Cardwell, Queensland, in 1866; but after his partner's withdrawal and floods in December, he joined T. H. Fitzgerald at Mackay next year in a sugar and cotton plantation called Alexandria, which was soon devoted to sugar. Building the first iron mill in the district in 1868, they proved sugar commercially viable but, through Davidson's intense conservatism, did not introduce the important vacuum pan process for many years.

Davidson visited most of the world's sugar-producing areas in the next thirty years and became a district leader. His scientific training enabled him to breed new feasible varieties after the disastrous rust epidemic of 1875. Pursuing other interests, he collected Aboriginal artefacts for the British Museum, discovered a new species of plum tree and, with his own telescope, identified the first comet discovered by anyone in Queensland. As chairman of the Pioneer Shire Divisional Board for many years and of the Mackay Planters' Association in 1878-83, he helped improve shipping facilities in the port and river, and eventually became a member of the Mackay Harbour Board. He was also on the committee of the Agricultural Pastoral and Mining Association. From about 1881 he was a partner in the Melbourne firm, W. Sloane & Co. When it became the Melbourne Mackay Sugar Co. in 1882, he managed its six mills and estates, provided with modern and expensive equipment.

Considering Europeans incapable of the heavy work in cane-farming, Davidson was a staunch advocate of coloured labour, arguing that North Queensland would collapse without Pacific islanders. Increasing restrictions forced him eventually to use mainly Asian coolies. When the government threatened to repeal the Indian Immigration Act of 1882, Davidson and a neighbour, Sir John Lawes, went to London in 1885, seeking the ear of Lord Derby, the colonial secretary. Davidson's letter to Derby, expressing sympathy for the North Queensland separation movement, was sent to Queensland for comment and was published by Premier Sir Samuel Griffith to discredit the coloured-labour lobby by association with the separation movement. Davidson joined the latter but all subsequent efforts by him and others to disentangle the two issues failed.

Testifying in 1888 to the royal commission on the recession in sugar, Davidson reported four of his company's six estates lying idle; he sought protection to counter bounty-fed beet sugar. The approach of Federation, the impending collapse of the coloured-labour system and the introduction of government-sponsored central mills led to the breaking up of sugar estates. The system of which Davidson had been so much a part was dying. About 1900 he retired to England with his family and died at his Oxford home on 2 September 1923.

At St John's Church of England, Darlinghurst, New South Wales, on 1 August 1878, Davidson had married Amy Constance Ashdown; they had two sons and four daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • J. L. Parsons, The Sugar Industry in the Mackay District (Adel, 1883)
  • H. L. Roth, The Discovery and Settlement of Port Mackay, Queensland (Halifax, 1908)
  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • E. W. Docker, The Blackbirders (Syd, 1970)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1885, 1, 377, 1889, 4, 396
  • JRHSQ, 7 (1961-65), no 3
  • J. E. Davidson diaries, 1865-68 (copy, Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Library, Sydney).

Citation details

J. A. Mills, 'Davidson, John Ewen (1841–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 March, 1841
London, Middlesex, England


2 September, 1923 (aged 82)
Oxford, Oxfordshire, England

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