Australian Historical Association, Brisbane, 4 July 20021
IN JANUARY1888, in the midst of a growing Australian hysteria about Chinese immigration, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies sent a stiffly-worded “please-explain” to the Australian governors demanding a report outlining all “exceptional legislation affecting Chinese subjects” and the reasons for it.2 Perhaps the most interesting and complete reply came from Tasmania’s young Attorney-General, Andrew Inglis Clark, who argued that if significant numbers of Chinese people should come to the colonies they would either threaten the “the supremacy of the present legislative and administrative authorities”, or, if they accepted an inferior social or political status, they
…would create a combined political and industrial division of society upon the basis of a racial distinction. This would inevitably produce in the majority of the remainder of the population a degraded estimate of manual labour similar to that which has always existed in those communities where African slavery has been permitted, and thereby call into existence a class similar in habit and character to the “mean whites” of the Southern States of the American Union before the Civil War. Societies so divided produce particular vices in exaggerated proportions, and are doomed to certain deterioration.3
It is important to note that Clark was not arguing that Chinese immigrants would undercut established wage levels for European labourers; he was saying that in sufficient numbers, Chinese immigrants might produce a fundamental change in the economic, social and political structure of Australian colonial society.
Most other writers discussing the White Australia policy have failed to take this strategic concern seriously. Not so Keith Hancock. In his 1929 history, Australia, Hancock presents the question as one in which a mixed race society is a danger to everyone; threatening “demoralisation of the coolie over-driven by white capital, demoralisation of the poor white overwhelmed by coolie competition, demoralisation of the half-breed children of coolie and poor white who can find no firm place in either of the competing civilisations.” There is more than a whiff of the politics that led to the “stolen generations” in this. Politically it would be dangerous to “give a share of political power to aliens”, but dangerous too would be the alternative: “a successful tyranny over Orientals would destroy the character of [Australian] democracy”.4
What we are dealing with here are two separate, but related objections to allowing the Australian colonies to become some kind of mixed race society. The first is a concern to avoid the economic and social backwardness that would result from allowing any slave-style regime to arise. The second is a belief that parliamentary democracy was impossible in a mixed race society.
These fears were given shape by a structure of pre-existing British political and economic theory, in two distinct but related guises. The first influence is the mainstream bourgeois critique of slavery, which embodied both humanitarianism and laissez-faire economics. The second is the political theory of John Stuart Mill, and in particular in his enormously influential, Considerations on Representative Government. To read the speeches of Australia’s colonial politicians, and the editorials of our colonial newspapers, is to constantly encounter the ideas in Considerations.
Fears that Australia could spawn some kind of semi-slave society were focused on colonial ruling class dilemmas and debates over how to exploit and develop the tropical north. Failure to develop capitalist enterprise in the tropics was unthinkable. But Australia’s leading politicians were largely convinced of the racist myth, that legacy of British colonialism, that “white men” could not do manual labour in the tropics. They were left with the terrible thought that the only form of economic development that was possible involved plantation-based agricultural production using some form of indentured “coloured labour”. But this in turn raised the spectre of slavery, or at least, of economic backwardness. A “black north” also involved the possibility of importing a massive population of “coloured aliens” who would be a standing menace to the safety and economic and political structure of both the northern and the more conventional southern colonies.
All these fears and dilemmas were sharpened by the experience of Pacific island labour on the sugar plantations of Queensland, and in the late 1880s, by the refusal of the South Australian Parliament to close the door to Chinese immigration through Darwin.
Australia’s rulers had, of course, other reasons to exclude Chinese immigration. 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 aroused with the influx of Chinese miners during the Palmer River gold rush in Far North Queensland from 1874, and become intense in the wake of China’s resistance to French attack in 1883-5, and her subsequent purchases of modern warships and arms.
Finally, in the 1880s, Australia’s rulers were faced with the emergence of the organised labour movement, and a wider political radicalisation 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.
These and other agendas form the substance of my PhD thesis, which takes as its starting point a rejection of the hegemonic view of White Australia as primarily a labour movement creation and a labour movement victory; and then focuses on ruling class agendas for excluding Chinese immigrants and promoting anti-Chinese racism. I see the period 1875-1888 as decisive in shaping what became the White Australia policy.
In this paper I will focus on the developing ruling class hegemony against a mixed-race society, and the way it helped drive an agenda of anti-Chinese racism, and laws to restrict Chinese immigration, which culminated in practical exclusion in 1888.