Many Australians take pride in being part of a multicultural; however, Australia has another story. Immigration to Australia was restricted almost exclusively to whites until the mid-1970s. The legislation was known as The White Australia Policy, and it was established to give preferential treatment to the British. In 1901, Australia’s population of 3.8 million was already 97% white; it would remain over 95% white until the 1970s. The objective of the founding fathers of the Australian nation was to create a white utopia.
If you think about it Australia was the world’s only explicitly pro white country up until we abolished the White Australia Policy in 1973
While Australia has an Indigenous population that traces its history on the continent back over 50,000 years, on arrival in 1770 Captain Cook described the land as uninhabited. Terra Nullius was a legal myth that was supposedly rejected by the 1992 High Court’s ‘Mabo’ decision. Terra Nullius described the absence of people on the Australian continent before English conquest and settlement, but the mythology of Terra Nullius is strong and remains in Australia today, popping up again as recently as 2014 when the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott described Australia as “unsettled” before British ships arrived.
The goals of white Australia began in 1788 as the First Fleet began the white colonization of this vast land. Australia’s new white settlers would see its Aboriginal population as a remnant of pre-history: in the 19th century, some viewed Aboriginal people as almost sub-human creatures who should give way to the land’s rightful owners, the English. It wasn’t until a referendum in 1967 that Aboriginal Australians were counted as human in the official census.
To the colonizers, Australia was a land ready to be easily conquered. That meant both the genocide of its first peoples, and the enslavement of people brought from foreign lands.
Most white Australians today would not know their country ever had slavery. Slavery was an unspoken word among respected historians in Australia until very recently. Historians preferred the term “indentured servitude.” But when you read the accounts of colonial Australian ships going from island to island and bringing back tens of thousands of people to work on plantations, it sounds like slavery. Groups of people were taken from their homes against their will to work for little or no wages. 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 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, they looked the other way when it came to getting cheaper cotton.
Conservative estimates for how many people were brought to work in Australia in this way, during that period, are put at around 60,000. Some historians estimate that as many as 120,000 people from the South Pacific were brought to Australia under “indentured servitude” between the 1860s and early 1900s.
The preferred method of “recruitment” for these “indentured service” jobs was called blackbirding. This involved ships arriving on an island during the daytime to discuss trade, leaving peacefully, then returning at night to take people by force. It wasn’t just people who identified as Australian who were trafficking in slavery during this period. Some of the most ruthless and successful slave traders were Americans who sold people to plantation owners who needed cheap or free labour. 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.
Though many people of colour arrived in Australia to work against their will, others came of their own volition. Mainly from China, others from Syria and Afghanistan, these new immigrants were often the target of discriminatory laws and bigotry.
In 1888, socialist author William Lane published a science fiction novel, first serialized 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. But by 1893, Lane gave up on Australia as a workingman’s paradise, and left for Paraguay to establish a (white) utopian colony with about 200 other people. They called it New Australia.
One of the most virulently racist publications in Australia was known as The Bulletin. Its masthead was Australia for the White Man. Some of the loudest voices justified their racist arguments by claiming they only wanted protection for the white working man. These arguments became common with increasing globalization in the 20th century, and unfortunately still resonate in the 21st century.
Various governments of Australia gradually made the importation of “indentured servants” illegal. Nevertheless, 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 slavers simply dumped their charges at the nearest island, regardless of their island of origin.
The Aboriginal people 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 offenses (both real and contrived), they were treated like chattel. Their eradication was purposeful and i will not expand on that history in this piece, as I have written on it in various other blogs on this site and will continue to so do.
Australia successfully established the legal framework to build a racist nation as soon as the various independent (State) colonies in Australia joined together and became a commonwealth of the British Empire in 1901. With that came the formalization of racist immigration policies that would shape the country’s population for the next 70 years, in that the very 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. Japan would repeatedly complain about the great indignity of being called an inferior race by the Australian government, and the Act harmed relations between the two nations for generations.
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. The implementation of the White Australia Policy in the first decade of the 20th century angered the Brits. Excluding subjects of the Crown such as Indians from migrating 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. If Australia wanted only literate people to immigrate, that was okay; as they then weren’t excluding people based solely on race.
Australia wasn’t just preventing people of colour from coming to their country. They were also mass deportations of people of colour who had arrived in the 19th century. One of the great ironies/ of the White Australia Policy was that it twice displaced people who had been brought to Australia against their will. Some estimate 9,000 Pacific Islanders were deported from Australia by 1908. 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.
The Great Depression brought a rapid decline in British migration to Australia. But still, in 1933 around 97 % of Australia’s population were of British descent. By the end of World War Two in 1945, Australia’s population had risen to 7.3 million; 99 % of that population was white at that time. This was no accident, the White Australia Policy was working as intended.
Are Italians white? Are Greeks white? In Australia at the turn of the 20th century, the answer was no. The Australian government struggled with the question as the White Australian Policy institutionalized the social construct of race and the relative “whiteness” of any given nationality. Italians fought for inclusion under the new White Australia Policy at the turn of the 20th century.
Black American soldiers stationed in Australia during the war were treated as inferior to whites. The first American ships carrying black sailors were denied entry to Australia during the summer of 1941/42. It took a bit of negotiation before Australia and the United States had reached an agreement about its black sailors in the Pacific; eventually African-Americans were allowed to be stationed in Australia under nearly identical conditions of the Jim Crow South. The arrival of black Americans fighting in the Pacific challenged Australia’s notions of racial purity.
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 Australian government, kept black soldiers in geographically isolated areas. By August of 1942 there were over 7,000 black Americans stationed in Australia; but they were largely confined to rural areas. When black soldiers were permitted in the major cities of Australia there were designated “white” and “coloured” facilities like dance halls, mirroring the segregated American South. Black Americans were only allowed to fraternize with Aboriginal Australians, sometimes forming close bonds over common struggles for racial equality. Black Americans fighting for the Allies were traveling halfway around the world only to be told that they would remain second class citizens wherever they went.
After World War II, Australia realized that it needed a larger population if it was to survive and thrive as a nation. 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 here as possible. The Australian immigration office launched a campaign in 1957 called “Bring Out a Briton.” They were called ‘Ten Pound Poms’; and the author recalls seeing advertisements for this heavily subsidised migration in London as recently as 1971.
In 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 liberalization of these immigration policies was intended to bring in new kinds of white people, it actually wound up diversifying the Australian population.
The Vietnam War would finally deliver a death blow to White Australia Policy. In December 1972, the newly elected Whitlam government liberalized immigration policies, taking in more Vietnamese refugees than any other country on Earth as a proportion of its population. 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 civilized society, but seen as unworthy of becoming Australian. This kind of prejudice remains today.
Boat people is a term used by the mainstream press in Australia today. 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 from Vietnam. After a two-month journey by boat, five Vietnamese refugees reached Australia. Boat arrivals directly into Australian territory risked creating an atmosphere that things were out of control.
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.
Fierce debates raged in the 1980s over Asian immigration into Australia. But by the early 1990s, roughly 50% of immigrants to Australia were coming from Asia. This was a monumental leap from 1973 when just 12% of immigrants were arriving from Asia.
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.
Racism is not simply a problem of the heart, it’s not an act or an attitude, it’s an issue that has deeply infected Australian society since the foundations of this nation and one that will take much more drastic measures than simply acknowledging that it exists and demanding reconciliation.
Previously published in 2015