Today, the majority of Australians take pride in being part of a multicultural, multiethnic society – but the nation has a brutally racist history.
Immigration to Australia was restricted almost exclusively to whites from the country’s founding in 1901 until the mid-1970s. The legislation was unofficially but universally known as The White Australia Policy, and it was established to give preferential treatment to the British.
But the whitewashing of Australia didn’t start with the country’s creation in 1901 as a British Commonwealth. In 1901, Australia’s population of 3.8 million people was already 97 per cent white. It would remain over 95 per cent white until the 1970s. The nation’s explicit goal, not unlike that of some American states and territories in the late 19th century, was to create a white utopia.
Who Are These “White People”?
Australia’s racist immigration policies raise one of the most perplexing questions of the 20th century: What exactly is “the white race”? After all, if you’re going to have an immigration policy that says whites-only, you first have to define what “white” means.
The island of Australia has an indigenous population that traces its history on the continent back some 50,000 years and is recognised as one of the oldest living cultures on the planet. British Captain James Cook arrived on Australia’s shores in 1770. His cohorts described the land as uninhabited, despite the fact that an estimated 700,000 people were already living there.
The absence of people on the continent is a lie that has woven itself through the tapestry of Australian history, popping up as recently as last year when former prime minister Tony Abbott described Australia as “unsettled” before British ships arrived.
The goals of white Australia began in earnest in 1788 as the 'First Fleet' of Europeans began white colonisation of the vast continent. Australia Day is tied to 1788 and a celebration of the First Fleet’s arrival. Soon after, the British would send more prisoners to Australia, as the United States was no longer a viable dumping ground for British convicts in the aftermath of the American Revolution.
The country would slowly evolve by the 19th century into a collection of six distinct colonies on the enormous continent of Australia: New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and the island of Tasmania. The Northern Territory would remain, as it does today, a territory.
Map of Australia in 1864 via David Rumsey
Even the most “progressive” of Australia’s new white settlers would see its Aboriginal population as an accidental remnant of pre-history: in the 19th century, some whites viewed Aboriginals as almost subhuman creatures who should give way to the land’s proper owners, the English. In fact, it wasn’t until 1967 that Aboriginal Australians were even counted as human in the official census.
Writing in 1848, British colonial booster J.C. Byrne described indigenous Australians as a primitive group of people who hadn’t been properly productive on its land. And that whites had every God-given right to conquer it:
Now, prepared by the hands of the lowest race in the scale of humanity that is known to exist, the soil of these extensive regions is ready to receive the virgin impressions of civilized man. No tombs, nor temples, nor palaces, nor shrines, exist to tell of the past; the history of the land remains to be written in the future, when nations of the Anglo-Saxon race people the woods and valleys of Australia, and with their enterprise and energy cover the land with evidences of their greatness.
To the colonisers, Australia was a land ready to be easily conquered. And in mirroring the frontier qualities of the United States, that meant both the eradication of its native peoples, and the enslavement of people brought from foreign lands. As Raymond Aitchison argues convincingly in his 1972 book Americans in Australia: “It could almost be said that if Britain is the mother of modern Australia then the United States is the accidental father.”
“Kanakas” on a sugar plantation in Cairns, Queensland circa 1890 via Britannica
The Duelling Gold Rushes
In the second half of the 19th century there were two Gold Rushes on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. One was quite literally for gold, as people from all over the world came to both Australia and California in search of it. But the other, less well known Gold Rush was in the trafficking of human beings on the numerous islands between the US and Australia.
If you ask most white Australians today whether their country ever had slavery, they’d likely answer with an emphatic “no”. The S-word was taboo among respected historians in Australia until the last decade or so. More often than not, historians preferred the term “indentured servitude”. But when you read the accounts of colonial Australian ships bouncing from island to island and bringing back tens of thousands of people to toil on sugar and cotton plantations, it sounds a lot like slavery.
Groups of people were taken from their homes against their will to work for little or no wages. And while some were released after three-year contracts, many went unpaid and could toil for decades. All this was a direct result of the end of mass slavery in the United States after the Civil War in 1865.
“Many countries, including the United States, find it difficult to deal with the tawdry, unpleasant aspects of their history,” University of Houston historian Dr. Gerald Horne told me by phone. “And Australians are not alone in that regard.”
The primary driver of slavery on the South Pacific Islands and in Australia from the 1860s onward was pretty straightforward. Britain wanted cheaper cotton. The world’s cotton market had been thrown into turmoil because it could no longer depend on the blood and sweat of free labour provided by the slaves of the American South. The British Empire’s textile industry was suffering, and even though the UK had abolished slavery in 1833, it was not above looking the other way when it came to getting cheaper cotton.
This explosion in cotton prices led entrepreneurial men of highly questionable ethics to go island hopping in the South Pacific. Starting in the 1860s, ships with names like the Marion Rennie, the Forest King, and the Krishna picked up native peoples by any means necessary and brought them to places like Fiji and Queensland, Australia to work on cotton and sugar plantations.
The most conservative estimates for how many people were taken to work in Australia during that time are around 60,000. But given the nature of record keeping in a region that was ostensibly free of slaves, it’s tough to say for sure. Some historians estimate that as many as 120,000 people of the South Pacific were brought to Australia under “indentured servitude” between the 1860s and early 1900s.
Blackbirding by Any Other Name
The preferred method of “recruitment” for these “indentured service” jobs was called blackbirding. This involved white ships arriving on an island during the daytime to discuss trade, leaving peacefully, then returning at night dressed in all black to take people by force.
Sometimes Australian ships would land on an island and entice trusting and curious people en masse into the ship’s cargo hold, only to close and lock it behind them. Other times, the blackbirders would pose as missionaries, flipping their collars around and bringing black books that looked like bibles on shore under the guise of bringing the word of God to the island. When the locals assembled to hear what the strange white men had to say, the blackbirders would reveal their guns and force people aboard their ships. Still other times, the leaders of a given island tribe would trade a few prisoners of rival tribes for guns, alcohol or other goods.
When people weren’t taken by force per se, the coercion was compounded by the language barrier. Some of the people who were blackbirded were taught to hold up three fingers, a signal that meant nothing to them, but identified to Australian authorities who might try to stop the slave trade in the region that these people knew they were coming for three years to work of their own free will.
“I think it’s fair to say that many of the people boarding these vessels to be transported to Fiji and Australia often times didn’t have proper understanding of the English language,” Dr. Horne says. “The ability to communicate to them what was about to befall them was sorely lacking.”
South Seas blackbirding ship named Fearless (John Oxley Library)
It wasn’t just people who identified as Australian who were trafficking in slavery during this period. Some of the most ruthless and successful enslavers were Americans who sold people (again under the guise of “indentured servitude”) to plantation owners who needed cheap or free labour in Fiji, Queensland, and New South Wales. Following the defeat of the South in the American Civil War there was a “Confederate diaspora” of Americans looking to further the goals of white supremacy in other parts of the world. Places like Australia, Cuba, Brazil, and the islands of the Pacific proved to be fertile territory for Americans on this mission.
One former Confederate in particular, William “Bully” Hayes, committed crimes in the Pacific islands far too numerous to describe here without going on some wild tangent. But I’d encourage you to pick up Gerald Horne’s book The White Pacific if you’re interested in learning about the extent of Bully’s atrocities, including murder and the rape of children. His crimes were largely tolerated by British and French authorities in the region, who would periodically arrest him for only brief periods of time.
Even before this period, Australians had been colluding with Americans to fight for white supremacy. When the Confederate ship Shenandoah docked in Melbourne in 1865, some 42 Australian men illegally boarded to go fight for the American South. By the time they arrived in the United States, the war was over, but the ship gained its place in the history books for firing the last shots of the American Civil War.
Chinese workers planting sugar cane near Cairns circa 1878 (Queensland State Archives)
Prelude to the White Australia Policy
Though many people of colour arrived in Australia to work against their will, many others came of their own volition. Predominantly from China, these new immigrants were often the target of discriminatory laws and anti-Asian bigotry, again mirroring what was happening in the United States (and especially California) at the time.
As author and economist N.B. Nairn explained quite bluntly in the September 1956 issue of The Australian Quarterly:
In general, between 1850 and 1900 the [White Australia] Policy developed in relation to two main factors: (a) the immediate problem of the influx of Chinese, and (b) the gradual emergence of Japan as a world power...
The comparatively simple opposition to the Chinese was translated into legislative and administrative action, until by the late 1880s, at the latest, the Chinese problem had been practically solved.
The “Chinese problem” had been “solved” in the sense that the Chinese were actively being deported and denied entry into Australia.
In 1888, socialist author William Lane published a science fiction novel, first serialised in the Australian magazine Boomerang, called White or Yellow? The Race-War of AD 1908. The book tells the story of a Chinese invasion of Australia, set in the futuristic world of 20 years hence. Of course, the brave white Australians narrowly vanquish the Asiatic hordes.
As David Walker describes in his paper, “Race Building and the Discipling of White Australia,” Lane’s racist novel told a story that would resonate and spread as fears grew about the so-called “Yellow Peril” and Australia’s numerous neighbors to the north:
‘White or Yellow’ was the first sustained account of an Asian invasion of Australia and it served as a precursor to a number of invasion narratives in which Asia, in one form or another, threatens Australia’s future as a homogenous white nation. There is, inevitably perhaps, a conspiratorial element in his writing, a belief that there are plots afoot to bring down White Australia.
Lane’s other works included The Workingman’s Paradise, first published in Australia in 1892. But by 1893, Lane had apparently given up on Australia as a workingman’s paradise, and left for Paraguay to establish a (white) utopian colony with about 200 other like-minded folk. They called it New Australia.
Unsurprisingly, Lane’s colony, which was comprised mostly of men, fell apart under his rather strict (some would argue fascist) leadership. Lane banned alcohol, as well as any cavorting with the local women, primarily on racist grounds. Many of the residents of New Australia returned to Old Australia, but some 2,000 people in that region of Paraguay currently count themselves as direct descendants of Lane’s failed utopian experiment.
Lane’s abandonment of Australia didn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of other white voices to fill the void at the end of the 19th century. One of the most virulently racist publications in Australia was known as The Bulletin. Its masthead, “Australia for the White Man” said it all.
The magazine ran cartoons depicting threats to the concept of a White Australia, playing off of fears surrounding the importation of cheap labour from blackbirders of the South Seas and the perceived threat of invasion by Asian immigrants.
Left: Cartoon from The Bulletin circa 1886; Right: ‘The Yellow Trash Question’ in The Bulletin, 1895. (Migration Heritage Centre)
Some of the loudest voices, like Lane, justified their racist arguments by claiming they merely wanted protection for the white working man. These arguments would become common with increasing globalisation in the 20th century, and unfortunately still resonate with many people here in the 21st century. One only needs to look at the racist populism of current American Presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who complains that Mexicans are taking American jobs.
Ousting the Blackbirders
On paper, the various local governments of Australia gradually made the importation of “indentured servants” illegal. But even the most vicious blackbirders rarely saw justice meted out fairly.
In the 1965 article “Slavery and Racism in South Pacific Annexations,” authors Merze Tate and Fidele Foy describe the injustices that occurred even after laws were passed:
Queensland’s Polynesian Labourers Act was nothing more than a hollow mockery. [...] Queensland slavers either ignored the law entirely or evaded it by sailing under foreign flags; moreover offenders who were captured by English commanders were often acquitted by friendly colonial courts and the arresting officer was compelled to pay heavy reparations for the detention and alleged damages inflicted upon slave vessels.
Some of the supposed remedies for blackbirding were nearly as horrifying as the crime itself. Ordered by the Queensland government to return abducted and enslaved islanders, many of the slavers simply dumped their charges at the nearest island, regardless of their island of origin. Sometimes, this was just indifference and laziness on the part of the blackbirders. Other times, they were afraid to return to the islands they’d plundered, worried that they would be attacked by enraged friends and families of the people they had kidnapped.
The Aborigines of Australia were faring little better than immigrants of colour and slaves during the latter half of the 19th century. Sometimes hunted like animals, and often taken prisoner for minor offences (both real and contrived), they were treated like chattel.
Aboriginal prisoners in Western Australia circa 1896 (Western Australia Museum)
The Formal Assembly of a White Utopia
Australia became its own country (part of the commonwealth of the British Empire, much like Canada and New Zealand) in 1901. And with that came the formalisation of racist immigration policies that would shape the country’s population for the next 70 years.
The first Act passed by Australia’s first parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. When the act was initially proposed it was very explicit in its exclusion of all people of colour from Australia. But some saw this outright racism as detrimental to Australia’s trade relations with its neighbours to the north – especially the Empire of Japan. Japan would repeatedly complain about the great indignity of being called an inferior race by the Australian government, and the Act did indeed harm relations between the two countries for generations to come.
As a compromise on the Immigration Restriction Act, the new Australian government instituted a 50-word dictation test to determine who would be allowed into Australia. The test was based largely on a method already being employed in South Africa. It could be given in any European language, which meant that if a Chinese immigrant passed the test in English, administrators could give it again in French, whereupon the potential immigrant would be denied entry to Australia.
One of the more interesting things about the implementation of the White Australia Policy in the first decade of the 20th century is that it actually angered Britain. Excluding subjects of the Crown such as Indians from emigrating to Australia on the basis of race was seen as an affront to the British Empire. But the dictation test allowed Britain to tolerate Australia’s racist immigration policies. After all, if Australia wanted only literate people to immigrate, that was up to them. It wasn’t as if they were excluding people based solely on race.
Sheet music for “March of the Great White Policy” circa 1910 via the National Library of Australia
One of the great ironies/tragedies of the White Australia Policy was that it twice displaced so many people who had been brought to Australia against their will. By some estimates, roughly 9,000 Pacific Islanders were deported from Australia by 1908, oftentimes splitting up families that had been built in Australia. Men who had not wished to come to Australia in the first place (or whose parents had come at the end of the barrel of a blackbirder’s gun) were now being shipped back to islands where they no longer had social or familial roots.
As they shipped people of colour away from Australia’s shores, the nation worked with England to ship more white people in. In the wake of World War I, there was a concerted effort to bring as many (white) British people to Australia as possible. The British government was even footing the bill, hoping to plant strong seeds in this relatively new outpost of the Empire.
Many Brits, accustomed to urban life in places like London, were sent to Australia and given their own plot of land. But what to do with it? They had no experience farming, and what few that did were largely unfamiliar with this foreign land and the crops that flourished there. Many British people stayed anyway, having come over on the government’s money. But the 1920s programme, which cost over half a million pounds (adjusted for inflation), was largely seen as a failure.
The White Australia board game via ABC Australia
The Great Depression brought a rapid decline in British migration to Australia. But still, in 1933 about 97 per cent of Australia’s population were of British descent. By the end of World War II in 1945, the country’s population had risen to 7.3 million. 99 per cent of that population was white. This, of course, was no accident. The White Australia Policy was working as intended.
The “Italian Peril” and the Definition of White
Are Italians “white”? Are Greeks “white? In both Australia and the United States at the turn of the 20th century, the answer was no.
As Matthew Frye Jacobson explains in his 1998 book Whiteness of a Different Color, the definition of “white” in American culture at the end of the 19th century led to geographical contradictions even within the country itself:
It is one of the compelling circumstances of American cultural history that an Irish immigrant in 1877 could be a despised Celt in Boston — a threat to the republic — and yet a solid member of The Order of Caucasians for the Extermination of the Chinaman in San Francisco, gallantly defending U.S. shores from an invasion of “Mongolians.”
The Australian government struggled with the same question as the White Australian Policy institutionalised the social construct of race and the relative “whiteness” of any given nationality.
Catherine Dewhirst of the University of Southern Queensland has studied the history of Italian immigration to Australia. In her 2008 paper “Collaborating on Whiteness: Representing Italians in early White Australia,” she explains that Italians fought for inclusion under the new White Australia Policy at the turn of the 20th century. But they also tried to maintain some semblance of Italian identity within their new home:
Convinced that Australians would benefit from Italian agricultural expertise and other skills, Italian community leaders nevertheless did not expect Italians to sacrifice their country of origin. But, the method of combining whiteness with Italianness simply would not gain momentum on a national level until well after 1945.
The bargaining over definitions of whiteness would continue with Australia’s entry into the second world war. But there was one thing that the Australian government knew for sure: African-Americans were not white.
Bishop John Andrew Gregg, serving as part of President Roosevelt’s envoy, shown with black soldiers in Australia in 1943 (National Archive)
World War II and the Arrival of Black American Sailors
Black American soldiers stationed in Australia during the war were treated as inferior to whites. Indeed, it wasn’t certain that African-Americans would be allowed to set foot in the country at all. The first American ships carrying black sailors were denied entry to Australia in December of 1941 and January of 1942.
It took a bit of negotiation before black soldiers were allowed into Australia and by January 25, 1942 Australia and the United States had reached an agreement about its black sailors in the Pacific. In the end, African-Americans were allowed to be stationed in Australia under nearly identical conditions of the Jim Crow South.
As Kay Saunders and Helen Taylor explain in their paper “The Reception of Black American Servicemen in Australia During World War II,” the arrival of black Americans fighting in the Pacific challenged Australia’s notions of racial purity. Echoing racist stereotypes from America, Australians worried openly about the sexual menace that could be unleashed when they invited black Americans onto their soil.
From Saunders and Taylor:
At one level, Australian and American men engaged in long and bitter dispute over access to Australian women who were thus cast as passive instruments of either virtue or pleasure in the male dominions of power. However, at another level, while [white] Australian men were in overseas theaters of war, the additional dimension of thousands of young, smartly dressed, affluent, resident Black troops exacerbated the general disquiet. Both the official and public alarm ensured that an attempt would be made to prevent Black servicemen associating with local women.
Attempts to keep black men away from white neighbourhoods (and in particular away from white Australian women) meant that the US military, in collusion with the will of the Australian government, kept black soldiers in geographically isolated areas.
This meant the discouragement of white Australia soldiers even coming in contact with black Americans. As one Australian director of security reported at a conference in May of 1942:
The only way to deal with them [black GIs], according to the Americans, is to keep them in their proper place. I think you should give consideration to making it an offence for any Australian member of the Forces to procure for or supply to any coloured member of the American forces any liquor. The Americans don’t want it and they have put the hotels out of bounds to the Negroes.
By August of 1942 there were over 7,000 black Americans stationed in Australia. But they were largely confined to rural areas whenever possible. When black soldiers were permitted in the major cities of Australia there were designated “white” and “colored” facilities like dance halls, mirroring the segregated American South.
As Saunders and Taylor explain, black Americans were only allowed to fraternise with Aboriginal Australians, sometimes forming close bonds over common struggles for racial equality.
James Currie, an Aborigine, organized a club at the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society hall in Red Hill, a working-class inner-city Brisbane suburb. It was patronized by Black Americans, Aborigines, and a small number of White women. Australian men were banned by order of the U.S. military authorities. Biweekly dances were strictly supervised inside and guarded outside by the shore patrol and the U.S. military police as well as by the local civilian police.
Black Americans fighting for the Allies were travelling halfway around the world only to be told that they would remain second class citizens wherever they went.
Populate or Perish
After World War II, Australia realised that it needed a larger population if it was to survive and thrive as a nation in the second half of the 20th century. But politicians didn’t abandon the idea of preserving a white Australia. The government simply sought to expand the definition of “white” to sometimes include eastern Europeans, allowing large numbers of Greek, Lebanese, and Italian immigrants to enter the country legally for the first time.
Politicians in Australia also redoubled their efforts to bring as many British people to the land down under as possible. Calling back to programmes in the 1920s, the Australian immigration office launched a campaign in 1957 called “Bring Out a Briton”.
Screenshot from a 1957 ‘Bring Out a Briton’ film featuring Chips Rafferty (NFSA Australia)
In the period between 1964-65, roughly 74,000 immigrants to Australia were from the UK and Ireland. The second largest group came from Greece (10,000 people). The next largest groups were coming from Malta and Yugoslavia at roughly 5,000 people each. As late as the 1960s, there were still concerted efforts to keep Australia as “white” as possible, even if it meant expanding the definition of whiteness.
Though the liberalisation of these immigration policies was intended to bring in new kinds of white people, it actually wound up diversifying Australia’s population at last. Sociologist Gavin W. Jones explains that the new policies opened the door for the generations of Asian immigrants who would come in the latter half of the 20th century:
Ironically, an important factor eroding support for White Australia was the success of post-war mass immigration programs designed to sustain White Australia by supplementing British migration. Many of these migrants were non-English speaking Europeans, culturally very different from the British, yet they appeared to fit into Australian society with little friction — and they certainly improved its cuisine — thus strengthening the case for widening the source areas to include Asian countries.
Vietnam and the Arrival of “Boat People”
The Vietnam War would finally deliver a death blow to White Australia Policy. At least on paper. In December 1972, Australia elected a new government under prime minister Gough Whitlam, the first Labour government in three decades of conservative rule. Whitlam’s Labour Party pledged to get the troops out of Vietnam, and did so in 1973.
The Whitlam government also liberalised immigration policies, taking in more Vietnamese refugees than any other country on Earth as a proportion of its population. Of course, the arrival of Vietnamese refugees would spark fears in certain corners of Australia. But as racist anxiety about the “Asian incursion” became less socially acceptable, prejudice focused on a new type of immigrant not based on race, but rather class and status.
People arriving with plenty of money and coming by plane were deemed fit to assimilate into Australian culture. Those arriving by boat were not only a menace to civilised society, but seen as unworthy of becoming Australian.
There’s a curious term used unflinchingly by most of the mainstream press in Australia today: Boat people. The term refers to asylum seekers and other migrants who arrive by boat on the shores of Australia rather than by plane. The term originates in 1976, when the very first “boat people” arrived in Darwin from Vietnam. After a two-month journey by boat, five Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Communist regime reached Australia.
“We kept the arrival of the boat — that first boat into Darwin — as low key as we could,” former Immigration official Wayne Gibbons told SBS in a 2010 documentary. “We didn’t want to spook Australians.”
The boat that carried the first Vietnamese refugees by sea to Australia in 1976 (SBS)
“Boat arrivals directly into Australian territory risked creating an atmosphere that things were out of control,” Gibbons added. “When the Australian public think things are out of control they generally turn against immigration.”
This influx of refugees in the late 1970s — still a controversial topic today as people seek asylum in Australia from countries like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria coming through Indonesia — threatened some Australians who had grown up believing that Australia should remain predominantly white. Other Australians, of course, welcomed the dismantling of the White Australia Policy once and for all. Between 1976 and 1981 the government estimates that 2,059 boats would arrive on Australian shores, filled with refugees looking for safe haven.
Screenshot from an Australian government video telling people arriving by boat that they will not be allowed into the country (2014)
Fierce debates would rage in the 1980s over Asian immigration into Australia. But by the early 1990s, roughly 50 per cent of immigrants to Australia were coming from Asia. This was a monumental leap from 1973 when just 12 per cent of immigrants were arriving from Asian countries.
“In many ways, I think Australia has confronted its history in a more effective way than the United States has,” Dr. Horne tells me. “There is a discourse among Australian historians about the nature of a settler colony. In the United States, the term ‘settler state’ doesn’t exist.”
Modern Australia is still majority “white,” and while the debates over immigration continue into the 21st century, most Australians are proud to live in a multicultural society. We are truly becoming one world in so many ways — the realization of Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth. And we are divided by borders sometimes real (like Australia’s existence as an island) and imagined.
Top illustration by Jim Cooke
Sources: The White Pacific: U.S. Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas After the Civil Warby Gerald Horne; Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson; The Implementation of the White Australia Policy in the Queensland Sugar Industry 1901-12 by Alan Birch; The Reception of Black American Servicemen in Australia During World War II by Kay Saunders and Helen Taylor; Slavery and Racism in South Pacific Annexations by Merze Tate and Fidele Foy; The White Australia Policy: Some Administrative Problems, 1901-1920by A. T. Yarwood; A Survey of the History of the White Australia Policy in the 19th Century by N.B. Nairn; Collaborating on Whiteness: Representing Italians in Early White Australia by Catherine Dewhirst; Indentured Labor in Australia by Brian Fitzpatrick; Blackbirding: A brief history of the South Sea Islands Labour Traffic and the vessels engaged in it by E.V. Stevens; People Movements between Australia and Asian-Pacific Nations: Trends, Issues and Prospects by Kee Pookang