8. The Defence of the Nation: The White Australia Policy

Between Federation and the outbreak of WW1, Australia’s ongoing fear of invasion was tied inextricably to its fear that White Australia could be either undermined or overwhelmed by Asia. The stereotypical bogeyman of Asia was China; but for those most closely associated with defence policy the real threat was the new power of Japan. Therefore, defence policy was tied not simply to the creation of a navy and military forces to protect the territorial integrity of Australia, but also to the establishment of ‘statutory armour’ (Kendall p.33) to safeguard the racial integrity of White Australia. The concurrency of these two policy streams was to cause tension in relations with the Mother Country. From Australia’s perspective, Britain simply did not understand how crucial the White Australia Policy was to its very existence. For Britain, Australia’s preoccupation with race was a distraction that could compromise its foreign policy.

The White Australia Policy had near universal support in the new Federal parliament, just as it had had in the colonial governments. One of the key drivers for Federation had been the wish to introduce central immigration practices that could not be undermined or circumvented via inconsistencies and exceptions across the various colonies. Some of the first Commonwealth legislation – Immigration Restriction Act 1901, Pacific Islanders Labourers Act 1901, Naturalisation Act 1903 – was designed to limit ‘colored’ or ‘alien’ immigration, repatriate such immigrants and generally limit the legal rights and influence of ‘non-White’ or ‘non-European’ people resident in Australia. There was a complex battery of forces driving the White Australia Policy: the conviction that non-Europeans threatened Australian democracy because democracy itself was a uniquely European political system; fear of cheap labour; fear of moral degradation, disease, vice; fear of race contamination and the dilution of racial purity; fear of the development of a quasi slave-economy and state in northern Australia and so on. However, whatever the forces and whatever the relative breakdown of each in terms of driving the policy, there is little doubt that the White Australia Policy was a distinguishing feature of Australian society and politics at the time. It was within everyone’s consciousness and it was accepted as an everyday reality. Consider, for example, the remarks of Edmund Barton – the then Prime Minister – in September 1901, during the debate on the Immigration Restriction Bill. He had just finished noting the effectiveness of various colonial Restriction Acts on curbing Japanese immigration.

I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races – I think no one wants convincing of this fact – unequal; and inferior. The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman. There is deep-set difference, and we see no prospect and no promise of its ever being effaced. Nothing in this world can put these two races upon an equality. Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else will make some races equal to others.

Barton was also to become one of the first judges of the High Court (1903). The White Australia Policy was not some passing or fringe theory but, rather, a deeply-held conviction right across the political spectrum and across all classes and sections of the Australian community. Moreover, it was also held that Australia, as a white country within the British Empire, represented the equivalent of the highest development of the English people or ‘race’. It was Australia that had set new standards in egalitarianism, limited the influence of class and privilege, promoted individual effort and principles of liberalism and so on. Australia had achieved all this while retaining its (White) racial integrity. It was hardly going to compromise the social policy that went to the core of its very identity, even if the Mother Country disapproved.

However, for Britain the strength of the Empire came from the range and diversity of the peoples that came under its power. It was a multi-state, multi-racial and multi-cultural empire and, apart, of course, from vested interest and political machination, it was held together by notions of shared loyalties and racial and cultural tolerance which did not line up with the White Australia Policy. The following article from the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative of 20 November 1914 provides an insight into how values that were held to define the Empire did not warrant much, if any, attention in Australia. The story was taken directly from the Shepparton Advertiser where it appeared on 2 November 1914. It described a religious festival performed by a group of Indian Muslims working in the Shepparton district at the time. In the course of the ceremony, the following political statement was made by the ‘Moslem priest’, who was said to speak English ‘well and fluently’:

“Why do Australians call us black fellows when we belong to the same Empire, are fellow subjects, and are fighting under the same flag for the King and our united Empire? We are in this war giving up our lives the same as Australians, and fighting with equal courage and loyalty. Why, then do they forbid us to come to Australia? … We are a loyal and law-abiding people.”

In the Shepparton Advertiser on the same day there was another very detailed article which covered proceedings in the House of Commons when declarations of loyalty to the British Crown, and promises of military assistance, were made by the ‘Rulers of the Native States of India’. There was much cheering and acknowledging by the Commons of the Imperial loyalty on display. However, as the Muslim community of Shepparton realised, such commitment to the Empire was not going to cut it in White Australia: not only were members of the Empire not equal, but the races needed to kept apart. It was an Imperial tension the Mother Country had had to manage for some time. In fact, Britain had had to intervene in 1901 to ‘soften’ the Immigration Restriction Act, not that Britain in any way reduced the effectiveness of the legislation but it did persuade Australia to ‘disguise’ the intention more effectively, via the infamous European language dictation test.

Then there was the tension over naval defence. Britain, in 1902, had formed a strategic relationship with Japan. It was renewed in 1911. By the end of the nineteenth century Britain needed Japanese help to balance the threat of the Russian navy in the Far East. After Japan defeated Russia in 1905 the accord between Britain and Japan became more important. Britain by this point simply could not match German naval growth by herself and needed such treaties to free up its own ships for European waters. Strachan (2001 p.443) claims that between 1901 and 1910 the number of British battleships and cruisers in Far Eastern waters halved. This dramatic decline throws more light on the statements of Kitchener (1910 p.5) that while the Royal Navy would, ultimately, always be able to defend Australia, there could well be a tricky hiatus before the fleet finally arrived. But while the naval relationship with Japan made perfect strategic sense for Britain it was viewed with alarm and suspicion in Australia. In fact, Japan was perceived by Australia as its greatest military threat. Such an invasion was a popular theme in fiction at the time, for example The Australian Crisis, 1909. Japan was the Asian power with the naval and military might to invade Australia, and relations between the two countries were difficult because of the White Australia Policy. The issue of Japanese immigration to British Columbia and California, and the fear of its extension to Australia, was a case in point. The British, according to Strachan, were keen to promote Japanese emigration to China and away from the Pacific. But Australia was far from convinced that Japan, even as an ally of Britain, posed no threat. Britain could not accept that Japan, because of the very logic of the White Australia Policy, had to pose a threat. Faced with the realisation that British naval resources were being deployed closer to England itself and that the gap was being covered by Japan, Australia was keen to develop its own navy as expeditiously as possible.

The tension between Australia and Japan over the White Australia Policy, with Britain caught in the middle, could flare up very easily. For example, in 1914 Sir Ian Hamilton, Inspector-General of the Overseas Forces, visited Australia to review the military. He left Australia and proceeded to New Zealand where in early May he gave a speech at a civic reception. The speech was a fairly lively defence of the White Australia Policy. The Argus reported the speech on 14 May 1914 under the headline: Menace Of The Pacific. Danger From Alien Races. Sir Ian Hamilton’s Speech and the Weekly Times reported it on 23 May 1914 under the headline: White and Part-Colored. Hamilton touched on many issues: the damage done to the Malay States by the influx of coolies; a China in turmoil, where tradition had broken down and society was becoming restless and dangerous; the danger of introducing cheap alien labor to Australia; and a South Africa where prosperous European shopkeepers had been replaced by ‘bunnias’ (money lenders) and ‘coolies’. He believed that … the Pacific was the meeting ground, not of nations, but of continents, and here it might be decided whether Asiatics or Europeans were going to guide their destinies. He finished by noting:

If people with high ideals and high standards are forced to live cheek by jowl with people of low standards and low ideals, they must either become slave-drivers or sink to the level of those by whom they are surrounded, and be beaten.

As the speech was reported, Hamilton made no specific reference to Japan; and perhaps Hamilton thought that because he was in New Zealand the speech would pass unnoticed. However the speech was picked up and it must have caused the British Foreign Office considerable discomfort. Once again, the White Australia Policy was straining Anglo-Japanese relations, and this time the very policy was being championed by one of Britain’s top military officers.

The response from Japan was swift. The Argus on 20 May 1914 under the headline – Pacific As Battleground. Sir Ian Hamilton’s Prediction. Resented by Japanese. Asiatics Urged to Combine. – reported that Hamilton’s comments had renewed … Japanese doubts concerning British enthusiasm for the Anglo-Japanese alliance. It quoted the Japanese newspaper the Nichi Nichi – a major Tokyo daily – declaring that:

Japan must prepare to stand alone and face the white races in battle. We must also warn other Asiatics of the fearful consequences of the white man’s prejudice and unrighteous attitude. Asia must be prepared to cooperate with Japan for the common defence. Japan has no warlike designs, but is striving for an equal footing with whites.

Interestingly, there seemed to be a trend round this time for Imperialists who came to Australia and studied its society closely to go back to Britain convinced of the value and desirability of the White Australia Policy. Lord Denman, who finished his term as Governor General in May 1914, endorsed the White Australia Policy at a function put on by the Federal Ministry. The speech was reported in the Weekly Times 16 May 1914.

The motives underlying Australia’s White Australia Policy he had been long enough here to sympathise with and to understand – long enough to realise that if the security of the Empire depended today and must depend for many years on the power of Britain, Australia herself would never be content to rely upon a treaty with any Foreign Power [Japan] – (loud applause) – however friendly and well disposed that Foreign Power might be, for the defence of her interests in the Pacific.

Arguably, at least in the context of Australia’s involvement in WW1, the most significant commentary on the White Australia Policy appeared in a letter to the English publication, The Spectator in July 1907. It was a long and sometimes rambling letter that articulated ‘six propositions’. A brief summary of these held that the Western and Oriental races could not live together in Australia; Australia faced the real and urgent threat of an Oriental invasion, peaceful or otherwise; Britain did not understand the strength of Australia’s determination to keep the Nation white; while Britain did not approve of the White Australia Policy it would, in the end, side with Australia in the inevitable race war; but because Britain would delay its support for Australia, its standing would be compromised; and it was therefore in Britain’s interests to declare forthwith that it sympathised with Australia’s position and that it would support her in the battle of race.

The writer also claimed that Britain’s own dealings with ‘Orientals’ were characterised by hypocrisy:

May there not be something after all in the fact that while the Briton who never meets the Oriental declares that East and West can live side by side, his own race wherever in the world it meets an Oriental people refuses to live side by side with it? … The Englishman in India is the strongest case in point. A narrow Western aristocracy, of splendid intellect and character, rules, for its great good, a race which you do not believe capable of ruling itself. The rulers live absolutely apart. They would be highly shocked if their womenfolk had any intimacy with natives, and hold it the gravest danger to more than the health of their children that they should be brought up in India.

Probably the most significant claim made in the letter is that Australia, at the start of the twentieth century, represented some sort of last-chance utopia for the British people and the white race:

Remember, this is the last land open to the white man – the only one that can be purely British. South Africa cannot be a white man’s land, simply because you cannot spirit away millions of blacks. The United States – even our magnificent Canada – will be less purely Anglo-Saxon as time goes on. And Australia, of all countries in the world, is an ideal one for the white man to live in. That is what a white Australia means to Australia and to England. But the dream is threatened: There are some three million odd whites in Australia inhabiting three million square miles. To the North, at its very gates, up to within a day’s sail, are eight hundred million Orientals.

Therefore a moral commitment was required to keep Australia white, not just for the present people but … for the forty million white men to come after, and for the perpetuation of our race and the ideals we believe in, and, above all, for our children.

The letter ends with a veiled threat on mutual understanding and responsibility:

What is the use of a [British] navy if the only war which concerns me is the one it will not fight? Why am I to risk another’s war, say, with Germany, if the Empire will not risk my war with the East? That doubt is doing every day perhaps irremediable harm.

Overall, the letter is a spirited defence of the White Australia Policy and an urgent appeal to Britain to drop its hypocritical opposition and support Australia in its attempt to fulfill its destiny as the last but finest land for the flowering of the British race. However the true significance of the letter is that its writer, C E W Bean, was to become the official historian of Australia’s involvement in WW1. Bean was never the detached observer. He was a key character in the narrative itself.

In fact, Bean’s views on race were still resonating when he wrote the official history. For example, in Chapter 1 of Volume 1 – first published in 1921 – Bean identified just how closely the White Australia Policy bound the Nation together at the start of the War: Only in one point was the Australian people palpably united – in a determination to keep its continent a white man’s land. (p. 7) And the same chapter is replete with claims that by the outbreak of WW1, the more pure British ‘stock’ in Australia had been transformed to a national type who represented the highest, evolved form of the Briton. Australia was the last, great frontier of the British race.

All of this points to the complexity surrounding the idea of Imperial loyalty. For Bean, and for Australians generally, the Empire was the undoubted source of National background, success and security; and the responsibility to defend it was a given. But the White Australia Policy was a critical qualification; and Australia was not prepared to compromise on the policy’s integral place in its very identity. The Australia within the British Empire was most decidedly a White Australia. Australia went into WW1 fighting both the Empire and a White Australia.

Finally, for a simple illustration of the extent to which the White Australia Policy had been so absorbed into Australian life that it shaped everyday reality even at the most ordinary and uncontested levels, consider the concert that was held in the hall at North Devon, in the Shire of Alberton, on Friday 3 July 1914. It was a primary school concert and there was a full house. The report published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 8 July 1914 was full of praise for the teachers for putting on such a fine show. There were many items. In one, twelve little girls appeared in night attire and lullabied their dolls to sleep. There was another item announced as ‘Our Farm’ in which eight boys and eight girls, dressed to represent farm lads and lassies performed a humorous ditty. There was the usual tableau-type item, this time on the theme of ‘Australian Naval Cadets’. And there was the usual range of individual and group songs and recitations. There were also two other acts that night that would have seemed perfectly apposite. One involved 24 boys who romped on to the stage dressed as ‘chinkies’. They then proceeded ‘in rollicking fashion’ to sing a Chinese song. The other act involved 16 boys whose faces had been blackened. They were introduced as the ‘Devon Darkies at Coleville’. Presumably this was a take-off of the then popular ‘The Coleville Coon Cadets: A Red Hot Nigger March Song’ by the English entertainer Harry Freeman. After their act the boys ‘kangarood off’ the stage. The acts were obviously meant to be humorous and, presumably, they were fillers to involve as may children as possible, probably those who were reluctant to perform. The unsubtle affirmation of the White Australia Policy at the concert that night would not have attracted any attention or rated any mention.


Barton E, Hansard, Parliament of Australia, House of Representatives, 26 September 1901, p. 5233

Kendall, T 2008, Within China’s Orbit?: China through the eyes of the Australian Parliament, Australian Parliamentary Library

Strachan, H 2001, The First World War. Vol 1. To Arms, Oxford University Press

Kitchener, Field Marshal Viscount 1910, Defence of Australia: Memorandum, The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia

Kirmess, C H 1909, The Australian Crisis, Thomas C Lothian, Melbourne

Bean, CEW 1941, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, Volume 1 – The Story of ANZAC from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, May 4, 1915, 11th Edition 1941

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
‘Unique Celebration’ 20 November 1914, p.4
‘Concert At North Devon’ 8 July 1914, p.2

Shepparton Advertiser
‘Unique Celebration. Near The River Bank. Moslems And The “Sacrifice” Of Isaac. The Priest’s Exhortating For King George And The Empire. A Pungent Word For Australians’ 2 November 1914, p.2
‘A Full Report. India And The Empire. 700 Native Rulers Offer Support In The War…’ 2 November 1914, p.3

The Argus
‘Menace Of The Pacific. Danger From Alien Race. Sir Ian Hamilton’s Speech’ 14 May 1914, p.10
‘Pacific As Battleground. Sir Ian Hamilton’s Prediction. Resented by Japanese. Asiatics Urged To Combine’ 20 May 1914, p.15

Weekly Times
Lord Denman’s Departure. Farewell Luncheon. Cheers Of The Citizens’ 16 May 1914, p.1
‘White and Part-Colored’ 23 May 1914, p.31

The Spectator
‘The Real Significance Of The “White Australia” Question’ 13 July 1907, pp.13-14





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