209. The White Australia Policy: always in the background

Before returning to Rev G Cox and his quest to uncover and present the history of Gippsland, immediately prior to, and in the first few years of, WW1, it is important to consider the reach and strength of the White Australia Policy. At that time, belief in and commitment to this national policy were essential, taken-for-granted realities.

Much has been made of Cox’s commitment to Empire and his determination that Australia had to fight for and with Britain to defend the Empire. Defence of the Empire was the defence of Australia. But within this simple formula, defence of Australia more specifically meant defence of White Australia.

At the time, White Australia was very much a work-in-progress. Much had been achieved and more was promised; but there was always the existential threat that the protective shield of the Empire – or, more specifically, the Royal Navy – could disappear and, left to itself, Australia and its dream of White Australia would fail.

By the outbreak of WW1, it was possible to see signifcant elements of the White Australia Policy in place. To begin, the dispossession and subjugation of the Indigenous population – most commonly simply referred to as the ‘blacks’ – had been achieved. Australia had been made white by eliminating the original inhabitants. As we will see later with Cox, this was a particularly violent process on the frontier in Gippsland. However, at the time, no one was keen to dwell on the violence. It was more a case of simply accepting the end result as an inevitable and desirable outcome. A ‘natural’ process had taken place. What had happened in Australia was not unique, merely another expression of Imperial policy, the economics of colonisation, European theories on race, superior technology and any number of beliefs – many of them religious – to do with manifest destiny and the ‘white man’s burden’. What was unique about Australia was that by the start of the 20C the subjugation, marginalisation and effective removal of the Indigenous population had been so complete and so effective that (white) Australians conceived of their land as one that had been, effectively, unoccupied. In comparison to other nations, Australia was a ‘new’ nation – still in its infancy –  with the promise of true greatness ahead of it.

By the time of federation, the focus of the White Australia Policy had settled on the issue of immigration. The universal political drive was to keep Australia white, even at a time when Imperial support for such a singular focus on race was becoming increasingly problematic, particularly given the rise of Japan. The theories that underpinned the highly selective immigration policy – the natural intellectual and moral superiority of the white (British) race, the inherent advantages of a homogeneous or mono-cultural society, the grave dangers of miscegenation, the industrial threat of cheap, non-white labour … – were reflected across all aspects of society, and Australia entered WW1 fully committed to its White Australia Policy. Moreover, it emerged from the War still committed to the policy. PM Hughes was feted for saving the White Australia Policy.

The critical point is that at the start of WW1, and the time that Cox was writing his history of Gippsland, the ideal of White Australia was uncontested. It was a reality that had been created by the settlers and pioneers and it now needed to be protected and enhanced, principally via a highly selective immigration policy . The dream that Australia could come to represent the ultimate flowering of the British race – in the style of C E W Bean’s writing on national character – was tangible. As a consequence, the defining attitudes to race that were integral to the White Australia Policy were commonplace and accepted as everyday realities. They were as common as people’s identification with, commitment to and belief in the Empire.

The following is a simple exercise intended to highlight such attitudes and world views. It takes short pieces from the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – over the period of WW1 and uses them to reveal just how common the attitudes to race that underpinned the White Australia Policy were. The reporting at the time gave no sense that the attitudes revealed were remarkable, controversial or in any way contested or disputed.

The first is a short article that appeared in mid 1914 (29/5/14). It featured a brief note on the number of “black fellows’ tomahawks” (stone axes) that people had been finding on burned-out ridges in the district (Bulga). The writer noted that the number of such artefacts found were so numerous that virtually every local household had them. They then raised the question of why that particular area had had so many ‘blacks’ and even suggested that the local historical society – this was, of course, the newly established group that Cox had set up – could investigate:

Possibly the local branch of the Historical Society could throw some light on the matter. Information regarding a tribe that has so completely passed away, and left such a number of relics behind, would prove highly interesting.

The Indigenous population – the ‘tribe’ – had ‘completely passed away’. That part of the district’s history had vanished, to the extent that it was just a passing curiosity.

There was another apparently unremarkable reference to former ‘blacks’ in the district in April 1917 (25/4/17). It was as short account about a very tall – 100 ft – tree which had recently been felled on Turton’s Track. People had noted that about 30 ft from its base, ’tomahawk incisions used for climbing’ had been cut in the tree. The question was who had made them: the ‘blacks’ or ‘white settlers’. The writer concluded that the marks were most likely the work of early settlers because they were said to be 20-30 years old whereas the ‘blacks’ had been gone some ‘fifty years’. By this reasoning the Indigenous population had ‘disappeared’ by the end of the 1860s. Again, there is this sense that even though the historical period is relatively short – some ‘fifty years’ – an entire population has simply ‘disappeared’ and virtually nothing is known about them.

Often, an ‘in memoriam’ for an old pioneer would touch on the issue of ‘disappearance’. For example, there was one on 16/6/15 for Mrs Peter Hunter who had died at 95 yo. She had been born in Scotland and arrived in Port Albert in 1858. The detail makes it perfectly clear that the settlers took over ‘occupied’ land. The Indigenous population was dispossessed. The ’success’ of ‘settlement’ saw the ‘blacks’ disappear.

They (the Hunter family) acquired property on the Sale road, where they lived to the end of their days. When first settling on their homestead they lived in a tent, and it was no unusual occurrence to have a visit from the notorious aboriginal King Morgan and members of his tribe. These blacks would come in and make themselves quite at home. The swamp on the property was the common camping ground of the blacks. These hardy pioneers successfully passed through the difficulties of early settlement, and lived to see more peaceful times.

There was another tribute to an old pioneer in the paper on 27/2/18. The deceased was Charles Thomas Lucas who died at Stradbroke in February 1918. The family had had strong connections with Yarram. The headline for the tribute described Lucas as ‘The Oldest Australian Native’ :

He was, at the time of his death, the oldest Australian native, having been born at Launceston, Tasmania, in 1822, and died in his 96th year.

The use of the term ‘native’ was employed to describe a long-standing association with the ‘new’ land of Australia and with the first colonists or early arrivals. At the time, the term was increasingly being employed to denote a sense of ‘national authenticity’, as in the Australian Natives’ Association (1871) whose membership was originally restricted to white men born in Australia. In a real sense, it was a term being re-interpreted.

Charles Lucas was described as the grandson of a public figure who came in the First Fleet. His father – one of 15 children – had moved to Tasmania where Charles was born in 1822. The family moved back to NSW in 1834 and subsequently moved into Gippsland from Omeo as ‘overlanders’. They eventually settled on 300 acres on opposite sides of Tarra Creek at Yarram. Charles Lucas married in 1856 and by that stage he was living at Bruthen. He subsequently moved to Stadbroke.

The article suggests Lucas was important because of his family’s rich history as original pioneers in so many locations and, obviously, because of the distinction of being, supposedly, the longest surviving link right back to the First Fleet.

Interestingly, in the detailed account of the family’s pioneering history, there is a reference to the dangerous sea voyage from Tasmania to Sydney in 1834. The boat had to be abandoned at Twofold Bay and the survivors had to … travel over 300 miles of wild country, infested with blacks to reach Sydney. Further, they nearly perished at the hands of the same ‘blacks’ who captured them and had … agreed upon a feast, and decided the whites should be killed at break of day. They were saved thanks to the intervention by one the ‘blacks’ … who had had dealings with early colonists, and had picked up a little broken English. The brief commentary serves as a reminder of the dangers faced by early settlers at the hands of the ‘blacks’. Before they ‘disappeared’ the ‘blacks’ had ‘infested’ the bush and posed great risk.

There were other pieces that focused on the ‘natural’ inferiority of the ‘black race’. For example, on 29/5/14 there was a piece which appears to have been taken from one of the metropolitan dailies under the headline, Life in Rhodesia. Victorian Woman’s Views. Black Servants. It detailed the opinions of a certain Mrs W E Dick who had .. . spent years in Southern Rhodesia before coming to live in Melbourne. In the piece the interviewer asks, Do you think the Kaffir makes a good servant?

Her reply was characterised by attitudes that were clearly unremarkable for the time:

Certainly; that is if you train him yourself. The first boy I had was an awful stupid, and could not do anything correctly. One morning, instead of filling the water jug with fresh water, as I told him, he pored the water into the milk jug and spoilt the day’s supply. Soon afterwards another boy presented himself, looking for work, so I engaged him, and dismissed the other one.

Similar attitudes appeared in soldier’s letters during the War. The long voyage to Great Britain served to confirm the sense of racial superiority. One such letter was from Gunner Percy Rendell. It appeared in the paper on 28/2/17. Of the transport’s stay in Durban, he wrote of some entertainment the troops had at the expense of the ’natives’:

The natives were very funny and we used to throw pennies to them and they would fight like bulldogs for them.

His impressions of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, were not favourable. It was certainly not a place for white people:

The streets are not formed, and the natives squat down in the street and sell their wares, fruit, etc., while the picaninnies crowd round a fellow and ask for pennies. The population is practically all natives, and you could count the white population on the fingers of one hand. The climate is very unhealthy, which is the reason so few white people live here. After a long and tiring time of 15 days in this undesirable place the troopship got orders to put to sea…

There was also the issue of non-white labour in Australia itself and the role of the trade union movement in protecting the interests of white workers. The issues could be complex and loyalties divided. For example, in the edition of 5/2/15, there was commentary on labour disputes on the wharves in Fremantle. The issue was that some of the workers in the union there were ‘full-blooded negroes’ and, as unionists they were being given preference over white non unionists. Obviously, the implication of this arrangement was that it undermined the White Australia policy. The piece noted:

Now, it would seem that the negro can be and is in the union; and that if a married white man does not belong to a union the ‘nigger’, who does, ought to have preference.

There were also views on Australian ‘blacks’ as workers. The edition of 7/8/14 featured a description of tin mining at Bamboo Creek, 40 miles north of Marble Bar in WA. The article claimed that the ‘gins’ were employed to clean the ore while the ‘bucks’ were working on the local stations as ‘outriders, shepherds, bullock-drivers etc.’ It also noted that they … take to it fairly well, being in physique a better class than most aboriginals. There was further patronising commentary:

When left to themselves the bucks make the gins do all the work outside of hunting and fighting. They imitate the whites in dress and sport, and in many cases have acquired the art of dressing neatly.

It is also worth pointing to the number of times a direct relationship was drawn between the White Australia Policy and the protection and support of the Empire. In a piece (26/5/15) on the local celebration of Empire Day, the Rev Walklate, another key Imperial Loyalist in the local community, made the direct link between the White Australia Policy and the strategic importance of Great Britain:

People sometimes ask the question, what is the use of Empire Day? I want you to think what would Australia have been today without the help of Great Britain. Without British prestige behind us our White Australian (sic) Policy would have been impossible.

Walklate even alluded to Australia’s great fortune in this endeavour, as other jurisdictions that had attempted the same policy had failed because of the intricacies of international relationships. He cited the case of California as one example:

California could not carry out a White California policy; there would have been war with Japan.

Similar claims had been made by Senator McColl at Yarram at very start of war. The local paper (7/8/14) quoted him telling a local audience, at the same time as he announced Australia was to send an expeditionary force of 20,000 men, that Australia’s White Australia Policy was under threat:

The nations of the earth would object to our holding Australia unless we could fill it, and the Government proposed to meet this problem by bringing suitable white people here who could assist in developing the country, opening it up and defending it. The only thing that kept this country for us was the British fleet and if anything happened to it, then good-bye to a White Australia.

The preoccupation with the need to increase the population to protect the White Australia Policy was a constant. For example, this piece was from just a week earlier (31/7/14). It was on the celebration of Australia reaching a population of five million:

We reached our first million in 1858, soon after the discovery of gold showed itself an influential factor in bringing about the rapid settlement of the country. The second million arrived in 1877, the third in 1889, and the fourth in 1905. Droughts delayed the fourth; there is always a close relationship between plentitude of food and plentitude of life: prosperity means more Australian babies, more adult Australians for the future. A period of unexampled prosperity has hastened the five millionth, and he should be here in the record time of nine years from the fourth.

The five millionth baby was expected later in 1914. The need for population increase both to hold Australia and to keep it white was emphasised through the War and used as a means of recruiting. But, equally, there was a counter argument pushed by anti-conscriptionists: white Australians were being killed at an unsustainable rate and this shocking loss of life represented some sort of race catastrophe that threatened the very basis of White Australia.

As an example of the appeal – from all sides – to protect the White Australia Policy consider comments written in the paper at the time of the unveiling of the honor roll at Devon North State School (25/5/17). The claim was that people were prepared to talk ‘White Australia’ but they were not prepared to defend it. Presumably, the ‘coloured nations’ is a reference to, primarily, the Indian troops fighting as part of the British Army:

There were fit men at home talking White Australia, yet they would not fight for it: they let the blacks fight for them. The time would come when the coloured races – those who had fought for our nation – would become the inhabitants of our fair land.

There were related claims about one month later (27/6/17). This time a letter from the Creswick Advertiser – was reproduced. It was from an Australian soldier who attacked those back in Australia using the White Australia Policy to justify the No vote in the 1917 conscription referendum. The use of abusive racial stereotypes to drive home the message is taken as a given:

… we are being butchered by the people for whom we are fighting. I saw a vote ’No’ card over here, and it was ‘Keep Australia White’. Oh, my God, they ought to; if Australia was filled with men like the Ghurkas it would be a lot better off than it is at present – overrun, as it is, with such a lot of ‘Dirty Skulking Curs’. … The lowest breed of nigger is better than the majority of Australia’s present population. They don’t mind staying at home and letting us fight for them, yet the won’t come and give us a hand. What would happen if we gave up fighting?

The last example is taken from an editorial in August 1919 (27/8/19) at the time PM Hughes had returned to Australia. The editorial gave a brief account of the tumultuous welcome Hughes was given in Perth. It was taken from a longer piece in The Age (25/8/19).

When he returned to Perth, Hughes was feted. Two hundred soldiers literally pulled his car through the streets of Perth. He was the returned troops’ hero and protector. In the speech reported in The Age , Hughes acknowledged that the returning soldiers would take a while to settle back into civilian life and would almost certainly create trouble. But he declared that he was inclined to look at such transgressions with a ‘very lenient eye’. The War was over but Hughes was still attacking those who had not volunteered. He declared that it was really only the returning men who truly knew what war was like and they were the only ones who had saved the nation and kept it white.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) was enthusiastically welcomed to Perth last Saturday. Soldiers dragged the car in which Mr. and Mrs. Hughes were seated through the streets. In the course of his speech he said, vide “Age”: – The great bulk of the people of Australia know nothing of war, and very many of the people of Australia have done nothing towards bringing the victory about. (Cheers.) But for the men who went out from this country to fight, Australia would have been in chains. (Cheers.) Australia is free to-day, and is white to-day. (Renewed cheers.) It owes nothing to to those who being able to fight remained behind, but it owes everything it has to those who being able to fight went out and fought. (Cheers.)

All the above are only the briefest, local examples of the extent to which all the elements of the White Australia Policy, and all the associated attitudes, were integral to any sense of national identity, national debate and national interest at the time. By the conventional standards of our time, 100 years later, the policies and perspectives appear crude, dangerous and, of course, inherently racist. However, that was the history; and any understanding of Australia’s involvement in WW1 that does not acknowledge the influence of the White Australia Policy is manifestly deficient. Equally, for present purposes, the White Australia Policy was a significant lens through which Cox, writing at the time of the War, researched and wrote his version of the history of Gippsland.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

For Bean’s writing on national charcater, see:

First World War Official Histories
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)
Chapter 1 Australia’s position At The Outbreak

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