History - AustralianAustralian CultureCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


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Relations between Aborigines
and colonists

Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?

Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence

The Stolen Generations
Why paternalism ruled over conquest?

Jimmy Govenor
Not a good fence builder

Mary Anne Bugg
Female Bushranger

Justice or resistance?

Convicts and their legacy

Convict life
Regrets and floggings

Convict crimes
Power and morality

Convict punishments
What purpose?

Thinking different

Convict women
Moral diversity


Can Convict Creations be relied upon?

The White Australia Policy

" The anti-Chinese movements were caused by economic factors rather than racial factors, commencing in the opposition to further transportation of convicts in the 1830s and 1840s." Takao Fujikawa - Japanese researcher into the White Australia Policy

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (White Australia Policy) was one of the world's oddest race-based government policies in that much of the impetus for it came from white men who liked and respected non-white races to the point they felt inferior by comparison. In addition, many of the opponents of the policy said extremely racist things when arguing for its abolition.

Reflecting the nuanced psychological issues associated with it, the Act instructed migration officials to use a dictation test that allowed non-whites to be excluded without publicly acknowledging that they were being targeted for exclusion. In other words, it was widely understood to be an Act designed to exclude non-whites but officially it wasn’t because many Australians didn't want to be racist.

The reluctance to officially recognise the Immigration Restriction Act as a policy to exclude non-whites could be partly explained as flowing from the popularity of non-whites in Australia for much of the 19th century. Ironically, this could be seen as a legacy of Australia's penal foundations. Specifically, in 1820, nearly 80 per cent of the colonial population was a Convict, Emancipist or of Convict descent. As a consequence, the majority of the population were second class-citizens and the exclusive free settlers were the disliked minority. Race was insignificant compared to the stigma of criminality and the majority of the population shared that stigma together. An English newspaper of the time wrote:

"Historically, the greatest rift has been between the "exclusives" and the "emancipists". The first group believe that anyone who has come to the colony in penal servitude is never capable of complete redemption. These people, who tend to be among the wealthy landowners, thus see themselves as a superior class. For their part, the emancipists, who are all ex-convicts, are concerned with equality of human rights." 

The unique social dynamic allowed non-whites to be celebrated in Australia in a way that they could never be celebrated in America, Britain or South Africa. A good example came in the form of the black emancipist Billy Blue. In the early 19th century, Billy Blue became what could be defined as Australia's first celebrity. He was admired by the convict class and dined with the governors. Newspapers of the time didn't even refer to his colour. In tribute to Billy's legacy, many streets, landmarks, hotels and businesses in Nth Sydney were named in his honour. These include Blues Point, William Street, Blues Point Road, The Commodore Hotel, and the Billy Blue Design School.

Billy Blue

Arguably, Billy Blue was the first person in the colony who could be defined as a celebrity.

Likewise, Chartist William Cuffay was the son of a West Indian slave and started agitating for political change in Britain. In 1848, he was charged with “sedition” and “levying war” after organising a Chartist rally. He was subsequently sentenced to 21 years transportation. He arrived in Hobart in 1849 but was immediately granted a ticket-of-leave, which allowed him to work. He was pardoned three years later. Upon receiving his pardon, he started campaigning against the Master and Servant Act, which aimed to restrict trade unions. He died in 1870 and was honoured with obituaries in numerous Australian newspapers.

William Cuffay

The son of a slave, Charist William Cuffay was widely respected in Australia.

More examples of equality for all races came in the revolutionary ideals of the 1850s. At the 1854 Eureka rebellion, Raffaelo Carboni, an Italian migrant, called on the crowd,

"irrespective of nationality, religion and colour", to salute the Southern Cross as the "refuge of all the oppressed from all the countries on earth".

Later Carboni wrote:

"The maiden appearance of our standard, in the midst of armed men, sturdy, self-overworking diggers of all languages and colours, was a fascinating object to behold." (2)

Of the 13 men arrested and tried with treason after the rebellion, two were black. Carboni, a Jew and a large number of Irishmen were also arrested. Perhaps the government deliberately targeted non-Anglo races for prosecution in order to erode support for the stockade. If so, the plan backfired because a jury found all thirteen men not guilty and they became colonial heroes. One of the black men, John Joseph, was carried around the streets in triumph by over 10,000 people.

John Joseph
John Joseph; like other "ethnics" was singled out for prosecution but became a hero.

The egalitarian sentiments were again reflected when the colonies of NSW, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania and framed their constitutions in the later 1850s. The colonies gave the vote to every man over the age of 21, regardless of race, religion or class (Aborigines included.)

While the early days of the gold fields were defined by racial inclusiveness, over time, they saw a rise in race consciousness. Initially, some friction was caused by Chinese miners proving themselves to be somewhat superior at finding gold. The Chinese worked in groups with a high degree of industrialisation. The pooling of resources and use of technology often allowed them to go over the old diggings of the Europeans and find gold where the Europeans had found none.

Aside from having more success than many European miners, the Chinese had a number of cultural differences that caused some friction. Firstly, many smoked opium instead of drinking alcohol with the Europeans. The colony's wowsers therefore said the Chinese may introduce opium to Australia. (Ironically, the cultural trait originated from the British importing opium into China and going to war with the Qing dynasty that wanted to ban it. Some Australians helped the British in their war to sell opium.)

Secondly, the Chinese came from large extended families where there was a social obligation to contribute to the family wellbeing. This obligation to help the family motivated the Chinese to save their money and send it back to China. On the other hand, many of the white miners were orphans or from broken families and therefore they didn’t have the same need to be frugal when they struck it rich. Naturally, the industries servicing the miners were more likely to rejoice when white miners struck gold as they were more likely to see some of it.

Although cultural differences caused friction for some, it is quite likely they also garnered respect amongst others. After all, it is difficult to think people are inferior simply because they are talented, industrious, socially minded and have good family values. As for the opium smoking, it is likely that the concerned citizens that denounced opium smoking also denounced alcohol consumption. Since the majority of the population liked drinking, it is quite likely the denunciations fell on deaf eyes as most Australians just didn't care about drug use - be it alcohol or opium.

The real point of friction was caused when large mining companies started replacing small prospectors on the gold fields. As the miners became salary earners instead of prospectors, they started forming unions. In response to their strikes for higher salaries and safer work place conditions, the mining companies imported Chinese workers on contracts to break the union picket lines.

Aside from racial friction flowing from Victorian mining companies using Chinese contract labour, friction was caused by Queensland agricultural companies importing Pacific Islanders in a process known as “black birding.” This involved a combination of coercion and trickery to recruit islanders to work in virtual slavery. While the moral issues of blackbirding concerned the Queensland government (which tried to regulate the trade and even used patrol ships to stop it) unions were concerned about the loss of their bargaining power.

In response to the use of Chinese and Pacific Islander labour by private companies, unions started campaigning for a federated Australia with uniform immigration laws that could keep out the non-whites (or anyone that wouldn't join a union). In 1889, the platform of the Melbourne Trades and Labour Council in 1889 included a 'Bill to prevent the introduction of criminal, pauper or Asiatic labour'. Furthermore, a Federation poster appearing in Punch magazine contained an old man advising a youngster:

"Right, my boy, your worthy of your sire. In the old days I stopped the convicts in the bay. And now you must bar out the yellow plague with your arm."

Melbourne Punch, 3rd May1888 - Asians likened to Convicts

In 1901, the Federation of Australia became a reality and the Immigration Restriction Act was implemented. The act prohibited prostitutes, criminals, and anyone under a contract or agreement to perform manual labour within Australia. It also required migrants pass a test in a European language chosen by an immigration officer. This language test was used to exclude Asians or any individual that an immigration officer decided was dubious. Black Americans and New Zealand Maori were generally considered to be of a good character and were usually allowed to take the test in English.

Having a race-based migration policy driven by reasons other than notions of supremacy led to a variety of contradictory statements to justify the policy. For example, poet and unionist Henry Lawson stated that he hated Chinese despite liking every Chinese person he had ever met. In his own words:

“I am anti-Chinese as far as Australia is concerned; in fact I am all for a White Australia. But one may dislike, or even hate, a nation without hating or disliking an individual of the nation. One may be on friendly terms; even pals in a way. I had a good deal of experience with the Chinese in the old years, and I never knew or heard of a Chinaman who neglected to pay his debts, who did a dishonest action, or who forgot a kindness to him or his, or was not charitable when he had the opportunity.”(7)

Although some politicians said extremely racist things to justify the exclusion of non-whites, others argued that the claims were nothing but a distraction from the real intention. Bruce Smith of the Free Trade party said:

"The foundation of the bill is racial prejudice. The whole thing is a bogy, a scarecrow. I venture to say that a large part of the scare is founded upon a desire to make political capital by appealing to some of the worst instincts of the more credulous of the people." (3)

The Labour Party voiced its opposition to the racial overtones. James Fowler arguing:

"Many of these peoples are at least our equal in all that goes to make up morality, or even intellectual or physical qualities. We should not, therefore, argue this question upon such grounds." (3)

Even the chief architect of the policy, Alfred Deakin, conceded that non-whites might be superior, and it was belief in their superiority that necessitated that they be kept out:

"It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors."

Chinese White Australia Policy

Anti-Chinese campaigns often didn’t promote ideas of Chinese inferiority, rather, they promoted ideas that the Chinese would become the new masters. This would indicate that whites felt inferior.

One of the most ironic arguments in favour of abolishing the policy came from Viscount Laverhulme, a visiting British Lord, who asserted that coloured races were inferior. For this reason, Australians should not be seen as a threat. In words published by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1924,

"If Australia's wonderful resources are to be developed, the introduction of native labour to perform the donkey work is essential," said Lord Laverhulme, when interviewed at the Newcastle Club this afternoon. "The dangers following the inception of coloured labour are very much exaggerated, and if careful selection is made there need be no fear that the native would ever be more than a beast of burden."

Under the present system, Lord Laverhulme continued, intelligent Britons were brought 13,000 miles to do work on the land which had been performed with equal credit by our primeval ancestors some thousands of years ago. Despite many assertions to the contrary, it was upon negro labour that America had been largely dependent for her industrial development. Except in very isolated cases, the negro had never risen to anything but a hewer of wood and carrier of water. In the southern States, he was not allowed to become a planter, and, broadly speaking, offered the white man no competition in commerce what-ever."

In short, Laverhulme believed Australians gave non-whites too much credit and if they just accepted the inferiority of them, they would dismantle the White Australia Policy so the coloureds could be exploited.

Although the White Australia Policy restricted the ability of non-whites to migrate to Australia, because it was primarily designed for economic reasons and/or feelings of inferiority, it was unlikely that it was a reflection of a wider dislike of non-whites in Australian society. Reflecting this fact, from the years 1900 to 1950, there was plenty of evidence of Asian culture being respected. Firstly, the streets of Sydney and Melbourne were home to Chinese cookhouses which were popular amongst all sections of Australian society. Secondly, Australia's greatest race horse was named "Phar Lap" after Aubrey Ping, the son of a Chinese migrant, told a trainer that it meant "sky flash" in both Zhuang and Thai. Obviously the trainer didn't think that an Asian name would prevent the public from feeling a sense of ownership over him. That faith in the public proved to be well founded. During the 1930s depression, Australians ventured to the track to cheer on Phar Lap while Germans were turning to Hitler.

In World War 2, the fondness for black people again revealed itself in the Battle of Brisbane. The American army had a policy of segregation and restricted African American soldiers to the south side of the Brisbane River. The Australians were appalled by the segregation and refused to support it. Local dance halls allowed black Americans to enter, white Australian soldiers drank with black American soldiers and white Australian women appeared as attracted to black Americans as they were to white Americans.   These positive attitudes to black Americans inflamed tensions between white Americans and white Australians. It also inflamed tensions between black and white Americans. After being encouraged to see themselves as equals, black Americans tried to cross the Brisbane River and some were subsequently assaulted by white Americans for doing so. In the process, the white Americans further alienated themselves from the Australian population, which in turn sparked a brawl between 2,000 to 5,000 soldiers.

With the general population showing values that were not consistent with government policy, it was inevitable that government would change to meet community sentiment. The major change in immigration policy came under the rule of the Labor leader Ben Chiefly after World War II. In 1947, Chiefly relaxed the Immigration Restriction Act by allowing non-Europeans to settle permanently in Australia for business reasons. In addition, around 700 Australian soldiers who had married Japanese women were allowed to bring their brides back to Australia. It said a great deal about the soldiers' characters that they would marry a people that had been accused of terrible things, and subsequently risk community outrage by bringing the enemy people back to Australia. Likewise, the willingness of the Australian people to break an immigration policy to accept the women, and forgive the Japanese in general, also showed a strength of character worthy of admiration. Other nations in the eastern hemisphere have not been able to forgive the actions of the Japanese as readily as Australians. (Even today, many Chinese can't even stand to be in the same room as Japanese men or women.)

Because migrants and the wider Australian community really didn't have negative views of non-white migrants, the remaining aspects of the Immigration Restriction Act were progressively dismantled by the Liberal Menzies government. In 1958, a revised Migration Act introduced a simpler system of entry permits and abolished the controversial dictation test. Because the revised Act avoided references to questions of race, it allowed well-qualified Asians to migrate.

By 1964, almost all conditions blocking entry of people of non-European stock had been removed and non-traditional migration was being very well recieved by the Australian community. The Holt Government's Migration Act of 1966 established legal equality between British, European and non-European migrants to Australia. Under the legislation, all potential migrants were subject to the same rules and restrictions surrounding visas. Furthermore, they were eligible to become citizens of Australia after the same waiting period. In short, potential migrants were selected based on what they might offer Australian society, rather than their race or nationality.

Sir Keith Cameron Wilson MP, went on to state,

"From now on there will not be in any of our laws or in any of our regulations anything that discriminates against migrants on the grounds of colour or race."

Wilson’s claim was not strictly true. The constitution allowed the Federal government to make laws targeted at any race except Aborigines. In 1967, the Holt government held a referendum to expand the powers that were designed to discriminate against non-whites include Aborigines so that it could make race-specific laws aimed at the advancement of Aborigines. Referendum material was a bit dishonest about the section in question. Nevertheless, it seemed to be about equality which resulted in around 90 per cent of the population voting yes.

1967 Referendum Concerning Aborigines

Most Australians believed the 1967 referendum was about equality of rights, not extending the Federal government’s power to make race-specific laws.

It is widely believed that it was the Whitlam Government in 1972 that brought about an end to the White Australia Policy. It would be more honest to say that Whitlam signed a card for a present that was bought and wrapped by others. Nevertheless, the fact that Whitlam felt he could get such applause for signing the card reflected the good will within the Australian public.

Today it is common to hear white Australians denounce the White Australia Policy in order to demonstrate that they are personally not racist. For example, white historian David Day homogenised the diversity of viewpoints and ignored the economic motivations when he said:

“The law was passed with hardly a voice raised in protest, although there was discussion as to the best way of achieving its objective of racial purity.” (1)

While it was nice that there were white men like Day who wanted to show others that they were not racist, the historical interpretations advocated by Day have resulted in non-whites being portrayed in positions of disempowerment and disrespect. Unfortunately, this meant that the stories of Billy Blue, John Joseph, William Cuffay, Aubrey Ping etc have been ignored and/or devalued because the have not fit the victim narrative. Ironically, by trying to show that they were unlike their white predecessors, the likes of Day actually showed that they had racial supremacist attitudes that most of the architects of the policy did not have.

Primary sources for the White Australia Policy

NEW BLACKBIRDING DETERRENT Thursday, 5 December 1872
Two 120-ton, one-gun schooners HMS Beagle and HMS Sandly have been commissioned at Sydney by the NSW Navy. They are to be part of a fleet of five schooners whose job is to patrol the Pacific Islands on anti-blackbirding duties.
In June, the House of Commons passed the Pacific Islands Protection Act in an effort to control “blackbirding”, the trade in Pacific Islanders brought to Queensland and northern NSW to work on sugar and cotton plantations. Although the workers were technically indentured labourers, the conditions they worked under were similar to slavery and some workers were kidnapped and taken by force to Australia.

The Imperial Chinese Commissioners, currently in Australia to investigate the conditions of their countrymen, received a delegation from the Anti-Chinese League to hear their views on China migration. General Wong Yung Ho and Consul U.Tsing met the league members at Petty’s Hotel last Wednesday afternoon The deputation said they regarded the Chinese as unfair competition’ to the Europeans because the immigrants could afford to live more cheaply than Europeans.

WHITE AUSTRALIA. A BAD POLICY. Friday 11 January 1924 - The Sydney Morning Herald

That the White Australia policy cannot fail to retard immigration, and the subsequent progress and development of the Common-wealth, is the opinion of Viscount Laverhulme, who is at present on a visit to Australia.

"If Australia's wonderful resources are to be developed, the introduction of native labour to perform the donkey work is essential," said Lord Loverhulme, when interviewed at the Newcastle Club this afternoon. "The dangers following the inception of coloured labour are very much exaggerated, and if careful selection is made there need be no fear that the native would ever be more than a beast of burden."

Under the present system, Lord Laverhulme continued, intelligent Britons were brought13,000 miles to do work on the land which had been performed with equal credit by our primeval ancestors some thousands of years ago. Despite many assertions to the contrary, it was upon negro labour that America had been largely dependent for her industrial development. Except in very isolated cases, the negro had never risen to anything but a hewer of wood and carried of water. In the southern States, he was not allowed to become a planter, and, broadly speaking, offered the white man no competition in commerce what-ever.

Speaking of the calamitous result of the white man doing the work that in tropical
climates should be assigned to the native, Lord Leverhulme referred to the sugar industry in North Queensland. Here, in order to keep out Fijian sugar, he said, the Government had raised a tariff wall which cost the consumer approximately £3,000,000 a year.  Not a penny of this sum was ever seen in taxation, while it would be found that everyman engaged in the cane industry was costing the Commonwealth about £500 a year a part from wages. This was just one instance where the introduction of black labour would greatly lessen the cost of production, and would prove the means of opening up further stretches of country. No matter how laudable the motives underlying the White Australia policy, it would be impossible to develop the vast areas of land in the Northern Territory while such a policy was maintained.



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1)David Day, A political whitewash. 5 December, 2001 http://www.country-liberal-party.com/pages/David-Day.htm

2)Carboni Raffaello, The Eureka Stockade http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Eureka-Stockade2.html

3)Keith Windschuttle,The White Australia Policy http://www.sydneyline.com/WAP%20Sydney%20Institute.htm

4)Kay Schaffer Manne's Generation: White Nation Responses to the Stolen Generation Report Australian Humanities Review http://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/Issue-June-2001/schaffer.htm

l5)Richard Nile, First cohort for thought, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20459801-25132,00.html

5)HENRY LAWSON Autobiographical and Other Writings 1887-1922 ANGUS AND ROBERTSON, Sydney 1972

6)Pieces of the action Sydney Morning Herald, April 23, 2005 http://www.smh.com.au/news/Film/Pieces-of-the-action/2005/04/22/1114028529703.html

7)'Ah Soon', Lone Hand, 1 August 1912, p. 324; SHL, iii, 223.

8) The hot seat: Ben Quilty The Sydney Morning Herald March 17, 2007 http://www.smh.com.au/news/arts/the-hot-seat-ben-quilty/2007/03/16/1173722723863.html

9)Director slammed for 'white-out' of legendary Gallipoli sniper Billy Sing The Australian May 6 2010 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/director-slammed-for-white-out-of-legendary-gallipoli-sniper/story-e6frg6nf-1225862770626




John Caesare
The first

Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered

Eureka Massacre
Dying for liberty

Post Convicts

Why is it not celebrated?

White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese






"Let no-one say the past is dead, the past is all about us and within"(Oodgeroo)