The road to White Australia: Economics, politics and social control in the anti-Chinese laws of 1877-88

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The road to White Australia:
Economics, politics and social control in
the anti-Chinese laws of 1877-88


This draft was originally written in March 2002 for a proposed book on the history of the Chinese community in Australia which was never published. It was my first attempt to theorise the development of the White Australia policy, based on research begun at the Australian National University in 1999.

CENTRAL to the Chinese experience in Australia has been racism and political exclusion. The anti-Chinese laws of the late 1870s and 1880s, and the White Australia Policy of 1901, were declarations that Chinese people were a threat to mainstream Australia; that “No nigger, no Chinaman, no lascar, no kanaka, no purveyor of cheap coloured labour, is an Australian."1 For individual Chinese people, this could mean violence, wrongful arrest, commitment to a “lunatic asylum”, forced vaccination, eviction from the farms they’d built up, or being refused permission to re-enter Australia.

The explanation of Australia’s anti-Chinese history has long been largely uncontested:2 it was a creation of the working class. Miners, labourers, artisans and unionists all feared Chinese competition, in the gold rushes and later the labour market. In order to protect their wages and conditions from “cheap Chinese labour”, they rioted and murdered, went on strike, marched and protested and rioted some more and eventually forced an unwilling ruling class, dominated by pastoralists and merchants and represented by the Sydney Morning Herald, to legislate against Chinese immigration. In the course of this struggle the labour movement won over most of the other classes in society so that by 1901, the White Australia policy could be adopted with virtually unanimous support.3

This hegemonic view of White Australia has been subjected to two withering critiques by Verity Burgmann.4 The dominant thesis attributes to the working class of the 1880s, she argued, a degree of power and influence that was quite unrealistic;5 to which we can add that far more extensive working class mobilisations, in 1890 and 1891, were unable to win far more modest objectives than the legislation of 1888, which limited the labour force, excluded residents from citizenship, and impacted on British foreign policy. She ridiculed the idea that the middle class and capitalists of the 1880s would pass legislation to protect workers’ wages and conditions from competition;6 given again that within a few years they were prepared to send artillery and use repressive legislation to impose “freedom of contract” and wage cuts. She pointed out that historians had discussed the anti-Chinese movement entirely divorced from the prevailing racism of the British Empire; as if the gold rushes and Chinese immigration came first, and the racism resulted.7

I have always found this critique convincing. All the anti-Chinese laws passed in colonial Australia were passed by ruling class parliaments; not just in the ordinary sense, that it is the priorities of the largest capitalist enterprises which impose themselves most forcefully on lawmakers (as they do today), but in the narrow sense that to be a member of one of the colonial parliaments you almost inevitably had to be rich, or have wealthy backers, because members of parliament were unpaid (except in Victoria), and only the rich could afford to take the time for parliamentary duties. In all the colonial parliaments, from 1877 to 1888, there were only a handful of members of parliament with direct links to the organised labour movement. Despite this few historians have ever looked for a distinctively ruling class (or middle class) agenda behind the exclusion of Chinese immigrations, and later all non-Europeans.8

This chapter tentatively explore some of the reasons I believe the Australian ruling class had for excluding Chinese immigrants, and promoting anti-Chinese racism.9 Their first and most fundamental concern was strategic: that a significant Chinese immigration, especially into areas of low European population, could involve the risk of weakening or even loss of British/Australian control of that part of the continent, the possibility of future war with China, or the possibility that a large Chinese population could be a fifth column during a war with one of the major European powers.

These concerns were fuelled by the dilemma of northern Australia. If the British/Australian ruling class failed to develop and populate the north, it would stand as a constant invitation to any other powerful nation wanting colonies, or land for settlement. But how could the north be developed? One of the racist myths of British imperialism was that white men could not labour in the tropics, and this was widely accepted in the colonies.10 That left the plantation model as the only acceptable alternative, where a tiny population of whites supervised and ruled a large coloured labouring population who worked for low wages and with very few political rights. A century of anti-slavery agitation meant that such a model faced economic, social and political objections by those who wanted a society based on free-labour capitalism and parliamentary rule.

More significantly, if such a model was successful and large numbers of Chinese labourers introduced, the successful economic development of the north could involve importing a potential military danger. Having stolen a continent they were unable to fully use or develop, they feared other powers wanting a share, and they feared those who could develop the continent pushing them aside; and those fears grew as Australia’s isolation diminished.

Then there was the probability of Chinese labourers eventually moving south—how could they be stopped? This would pose a number of problems; not least of which was the problem of social control. Chinese people were not Christian, and could not be disciplined using the ideological methods used on people of British origin. Chinese camps were notorious for providing a space for larrikins and prostitutes. Chinese people were disciplined by their own secret societies; an enormously disquieting prospect. Finally, they could not possibly be admitted to Australian/British nationality given the entire discourse of British racial superiority. John Stuart Mill had warned that representative democracy required national homogeneity, and the recent American Civil War showed the consequences of a racially-stratified society.

The final concern was the emergence of the organised labour movement, and a wider political radicalisation during the 1880s, which challenged the way the Australian colonies were being run. Anti-Chinese racism could deflect working class anger away from employers and politicians, and unite the rulers and the ruled, the rich and poor, and give new impetus to British empire loyalism at a time when the imperial link was being questioned.

Australia’s newspapers played a vital role in promoting British empire racism. As the empire expanded, and tiny numbers of whites ruled over hundreds of millions of coloured people, there were daily reports of military action against indigenous rebels in New Zealand, Africa and Asia; all couched in the most horrific terms. The great Indian Mutiny of 1857 was revisited time and time again; in memoirs, political discussions and serialised romances in papers like Sydney’s popular Evening News. The “treachery” of the natives and their brutality, “savagery” and massacres, the heroism of the English, the need for exemplary punishment, were drummed into readers. Stereotyping was the norm: victims included the poor and the French, while Aborigines were cannibals and lecherous; and “humorous” items about drunk or stupid Irishmen abounded.

JM Graham’s useful survey of the Newcastle Morning Herald and its attitude towards the “Chinese question” draws similar conclusions.11 Long before the labour movement began mobilising over the issue of Chinese immigration, the Herald was describing Chinese people as “almond eyed Celestials” who were “odious pests (77/08/22); of “stony heart”, “thick hide”, “obtuse faculties”, “low sensuality” and “ignoble brutal lusts” (77/12/11). The paper insisted there was a permanent dissimilarity between the races: physical appearance made them “aliens”, “strangers” and intermingling “repugnant to the feelings and instincts of the British people” (75/06/08). In comments which foreshadowed Hitler, rather than Barton, the Herald branded the “Chinese incubus” a “plague” and “the greatest social evil that [had] stained the annals of civilisation” (78/08/15). In 1887, it declared that the Chinese had to go, “by legislation, agitation, a crusade or still more violent means” (87/10/25).

This chapter will focus on the period from 1877-1888, because that decade is decisive in the establishment of the politics of White Australia. Contrary to mythology, there was no continuous or rising movement against Chinese immigration from the gold rushes to federation. The anti-Chinese laws passed in 1855 in Victoria, 1857 in South Australia and 1861 in NSW had been soon repealed because the “danger” represented by large-scale Chinese immigration had passed. Ann Curthoys has illustrated for NSW how Chinese settlers became a vital and largely accepted part of the rural economy. But the second round of anti-Chinese laws, starting in Queensland in 1877, and then SA, NSW, and Victoria in 1881, were never repealed, but in all cases strengthened in the late 1880s as a result of the sense of crisis created in 1887-88.

This crisis was brought to a head by the arrival of the SS Afghan at Melbourne on 27 April 1888 carrying 268 Chinese passengers. The Victorian government forced the captain to leave without disembarking the 52 for Melbourne. Even before the time the ship reached Sydney, hysteria was at fever pitch. Tens of thousands of people marched to Parliament, led by the Mayor of Sydney, and there were attempts to rush the Legislative Council Chamber. The Parkes government promised to stop any of the Chinese from the Afghan, and the three other ships in the harbour, from landing; and rushed retrospective legislation into Parliament to legalise its actions and dramatically reduce the number of Chinese allowed to enter NSW.12 In Brisbane, the day after the Afghan arrived in Sydney, there was an anti-Chinese riot.13 Within six weeks, the colonies had met at an Intercolonial conference, held on 12-14 June, and agreed to common legislation to virtually prohibit Chinese immigration.

The anti-Chinese laws of 1888 were added to in the 1890s, and then transformed into the White Australia legislation in 1901, and this in turn survived in its “hard” form until the 1960s, because most of the ruling class concerns underlying White Australia turned out to be enduring. By 1896, Japan had emerged as a credible military force to make anxieties about Asian invasion a permanent part of the Australian political landscape.14 Racism proved a durable method for containing working class discontent. White Australia was only repealed when it became an international liability—in the era of decolonisation in South East Asia—and when its ability to contain working class unrest declined in the era of the anti-Vietnam movement.

The arguments in this chapter will necessarily be tentative; involving issues rarely researched. There are many crucial issues not addressed here. One is the centrality of gold in ruling class and middle class hopes for accelerated economic development and political liberalisation,15 and their concern that Chinese miners dug up the gold and took it home, rather than invest it in Australia. A range of small and medium capitalists complained about Chinese competition: furniture makers, tobacco growers, fruit growers and teamsters. Mobilisation by these groups did not make Australian policy, but contributed to the strength of the exclusionist position. So too, in a more significant way, did the trade union and labour movement anti-Chinese campaigns. My failure to discuss these is not intended to minimise either their size or significance; merely to argue that other forces were more important in the final outcome. There will be few Chinese people present in this chapter, except as unrecognisable and hysterical stereotypes, since it is a history of the people who feared and scapegoated them.

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