Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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1. The White Australia Policy

1.1. Origins of Racism in 19th Century Australia

To start analysing the White Australia policy it is necessary to mention the original reasons for its introduction to the legal system of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The primary reason was to prevent non-European immigration to Australia. If the name ‘the White Australia policy’ is considered, it is apparent that the policy had to do a lot with ethnocentrism and racism. According to Broome, humans often feel superior to other humans. This is natural, since people coming from different cultural backgrounds often think of their culture and customs as the best. Such belief is commonly called ethnocentrism (Broome 87). During the first half of the 19th century, Australia’s population was still mainly of British descent; which means that the people were ‘white’, here the denotation is based on the colour of their skin. However, the British descendants, who had successfully colonised the continent and proclaimed it to be the property of the United Kingdom, were not the only group of people in Australia. There were relatively large numbers of Indigenous people who had to face attitudes of disrespect towards them. These were considered ethnocentric, as the Europeans claimed cultural and not racial superiority (Broome 88). As Hartwig comments on later attempts of keeping Australia “white”, it seemed that the Aborigines were not considered a threat to maintaining the white Australian society. So before the Gold Rush started in 1851, there was still no racism towards the non-European people (Hartwig 9). Instead, a new fear emerged at this time, the fear of other groups of foreigners, mainly from Asia, who had started to move to Australia in increasing numbers. Russel Ward comments on foreigners and Aboriginal people in his article “An Australian Legend” (1961):

Before the Gold Rush there were, after all, few foreigners of any one race in Australia – except for the Aborigines, if we may, sheepishly I hope, call them foreigners after a manner of speaking. And no one who knows anything of Australian history needs to be reminded of how our ancestors regarded them and treated them. (Ward 335)

As Hartwig suggests, large numbers of foreigners started to come to Australia’s goldfields after 1851(9). It was gold that attracted these adventurous people from all parts of the world to come and settle in Australia. The majority of these people were from Britain, however there were considerable numbers of American, French, Italian, German, Polish, Hungarian and Chinese emigrants. The Chinese, of whom about 40,000 came, were the largest foreign contingent and largely contributed to the fact that the number of non-Aboriginal population rose threefold from 430,000 in 1851 to 1,150,000 in 1861. It was predominantly them, who experienced ugly outbursts of racially motivated violence (Macintyre 87).



According to Broome, racism occurs where “two groups see themselves as being physically and racially (as opposed to just culturally) different and when one group claims the alleged inferiority of the other group is caused by the innate physical differences of its members” (Broome 87). This is what was happening between the “white” Australians (mainly of British descent who considered Australia to be “theirs”) and the Chinese, who differed greatly from the “British colonists in language, customs, and culture” (Hartwig 9). It was also the “science” of phrenology that influenced the Europeans’ views on other races in the 1840s and 1850s. Those practicing this “science” believed that the shape of the head influences the size of the brain and thus the intelligence itself (Broome 90). The feeling of superiority of the Europeans was now based on racial differences. Another popular theory of that time was the theory of the Great Chain of Being, “ranking all living creatures from God downwards in a so-called order of merit. Since it was a European theory, the Europeans were ranked highest among the races of mankind” (Broome 90) and Asians as well as the Aborigines were ranked as inferior races. So it seems, that “the development of racism depended on the presence of large numbers of foreigners leading a different way of life” (Hartwig 9). This also appears to have been the first time that Australia started to fear a massive influx of Asian people. The reason for Australia’s fear of Asian immigration, as Macintyre argues, was Australia’s involvement in overseas wars in China and the fact that Asia was overtaking Europe in being a military threat (140). Moreover, antagonist moves were revived “in 1888 with the arrival of a vessel from Hong Kong carrying Chinese immigrants who were turned away under a threat of mob action from both Melbourne and Sydney” (Macintyre 141). This and other incidents highly increased the feelings of nationalism and the slogan ‘Australia for the Australians’ became one of the symbols of the time (Macintyre 141). This happened during the last two decades of the 19th century, also when the famous claim of Charles Pearson appeared. To support the nationalistic feelings and justify the antagonism towards the Asians, he claimed that the “white” Europeans in Australia were “guarding the last part of the world in which the higher races can live and increase freely for the higher civilization” (qtd. in Macintyre 141). Chinese people already settled in Australia were seen as “cheap labour and a threat to wage standards, ... sweaters and debauchers of white women” (Macintyre 141) so they “were paid less than white adult male employees and ... even, the [Trade] unions refused to allow the Chinese community to participate in the march [for equal wages]” (Willoughby). At this point, the Chinese were seen as enemies to the social orders in the European Australia, however, no official measures could have been taken against them. This changed after the Commonwealth of Australia was formed in 1901.

1.2. Implementation of the White Australia Policy

After becoming a federated nation, certain legal acts were passed to make it impossible or much more difficult for Chinese and all non-European people to settle in Australia. The first act ever passed by the new Federal Government was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. With this act, the “concept of White Australia [was] an established part of Australian immigration policy from the beginning of the Commonwealth ...” (Albinski 161). The original purpose of the act, as stated in its opening statements, was “to place certain restrictions on Immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited Immigrants” (Government of the Commonwealth of Australia 1). The coinage prohibited immigrant was later used as the general denotation of anyone who did not meet the requirements of the act or anyone who did not abide by the regulations implied in the act.

One of the restrictions imposed by the Immigration Restriction Act was “when the dictation test was written into law as a means of excluding Asian migrants” (Albinski 161). As stated in the Immigration Restriction Act,

any person who is not a British subject either natural-born or naturalized under a law of the United Kingdom or of the Commonwealth or of a State, ... [is] required to write out at dictation and sign in the presence of an officer a passage of fifty words in length in an European language directed by the officer, and if he fails to do so shall be deemed to be a prohibited immigrant and shall be deported from the Commonwealth pursuant to any order of the Minister. (Government of the Commonwealth of Australia 4)

This restriction made any person not of British descent a prohibited immigrant. Setting a dictation test “in an European language” was clearly a tool to restrict Asian migration and as such it showed all the signs of a racist act. The officers in charge of administering the tests played an important role here. It was up to them to decide who to exclude and which “European language” to test. Those unwanted immigrants were given the test in a “European language” they surely were not familiar with, since a Transylvanian dialect of Romanian was also used, though only once (Palfreeman 345). This act was largely protested against by the governments of China, Japan and India. As Palfreeman suggests, the Japanese protested against the usage of a “European” language, being discriminatory against them. The Parliament amended the Immigration Restriction Act in 1904, exchanging the “European language” for “any prescribed language”, though no non-European languages were ever prescribed (Palfreeman 345). The inflow of new permanent Asian immigrants was thus ceased or severely limited. The dictation test as a limiting instrument on non-European immigration was very successful; it “was administered 805 times in 1902-1903 with 46 people passing and 554 times in 1904-09 with only six people successful. After 1909 no person passed the dictation test and people who failed were refused entry or deported” (National Archives of Australia, “Immigration Restriction Act 1901”). The dictation test thus fully met the expectations of it as a method of exclusion.

However, about 47,000 non-Europeans already lived in Australia in 1901. These could not all be made to leave the country and their families abroad could not be precluded from visiting them in Australia. Therefore a need for controlling the temporary entry of such non-Europeans emerged. This led to a policy of granting “certificates of exemption” from the dictation test. Immigrants granted this certificate were legally permitted to come to Australia for a period of up to seven years. Only specific purposes such as study, family or business were acceptable justification for granting these exemptions. However, if the immigrant later violated the conditions of their entry, the certificate could be immediately abrogated and the person submitted to a dictation test. In case of failing it, the individual would be pronounced a prohibited immigrant and deported from the country (Palfreeman 345-6). Such policy created a great number of prohibited immigrants and made it impossible for many people to settle permanently in Australia.

There were several more acts passed in the first years of the Commonwealth that aimed at the same target: to make the number of non-Europeans in Australia the lowest possible. The Pacific Island Labourers Act enacted in 1901 aimed at deporting most of the Pacific Islanders from Australia from the end of 1906. Under this Act, the Pacific Islanders were allowed to enter Australia only until the end of March 1904, and only as indentured servants (National Archives of Australia, “Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901”). Section 15 of the 1901 Post and Telegraph Act stated that ships subsidised by the Commonwealth, such as those carrying Australian mails, should only be staffed by “white labour” (National Archives of Australia, “Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901”). No less important was the Naturalisation Act passed in 1903 that made “non-Europeans ineligible for Australian citizenship” (Willoughby). All these acts were part of a legislation package passed by the new Federal Parliament and were the core of the White Australia policy.

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