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Vol 37 No 3



John Leary

John Wilcken SJ

Tony Paganoni CS

Andrew Murray SM

Michael Trainor


Kevin Mark


Racism in Australian history: Two episodes


EPISODE ONE: Lambing Flat, 1861

In 1851 gold was discovered in Australia, first at Bathurst, west of Sydney and then in Ballarat, northwest of Melbourne. Among the many diggers who flocked to the goldfields in the succeeding years were large numbers of Chinese immigrants. For various reasons, resentment against them grew, culminating in riots on the goldfields, especially at Buckland River in Victoria on 4 July 1857, and at Lambing Flat in New South Wales on 30 June 1861.

As an example of one popular response to the situation, here is what the editor of the Bathurst Times wrote on 29 June 1861, i.e. the day before the violent episode at Lambing Flat:

It is nothing to them [i.e. the Chinese], and the fact is apparently little regarded by their advocates, that we, the British people, first discovered the country, and afterwards colonised it. Nor does it appear to be taken into account that the vast mass of our countrymen who have emigrated hither to improve their fortunes, calculated only upon competition and fellowship with Christian men, and could not possibly dream of contact, much less antagonism, with an alien, degraded and heathen race. The country is ours by the best of all possible rights—discovery and colonisation; and we have made it what it is. Are we, then, tamely to submit to an invasion which, although at present peaceful, will at some future period become troublesome, if not bloody and turbulent, and which certainly seeks to possess itself of our wealth and the good things which ought to be reserved for our own kith and kindred whenever they choose to settle among us? (Crowley 1980, 417).

Here is a strong affirmation of the right of the British people to possess Australia and its wealth, a right based on British discovery and colonisation. The Chinese are regarded as ‘an alien, degraded and heathen race’. There are fears of a future violent invasion. The wealth of the British settlers should be reserved for their ‘own kith and kindred’, i.e. future immigrants from Britain.

On 20th July 1861, the Sydney Morning Herald published a vivid report of the riot at Lambing Flat, which had taken place some three weeks earlier. The correspondent was shocked by the violence of the white diggers against the Chinese, and at one stage commented: ‘Here ensued a scene such as, thank heaven! it seldom falls to the lot of a British journalist to record’. (Yarwood, 1968, 31).

A leading article in the same newspaper presented this view:

The long silence of the Government respecting the proceedings at Lambing Flat will be there interpreted one way—assent. The spirit which shrinks from any unpopular duty is one of the characteristic results of democratic ascendancy. It is in vain to appeal to the principles of justice—to the rights of humanity—the claims of law—the sanctity of public faith. These are powerless before that cowardly spirit which cringes to the lowest of the people. Could any civilised Government be found that would not vindicate itself by declaring at the outset, and in decided terms, its determination to protect to the utmost of its means defenceless strangers, who have on their side right, humanity and law…The Lambing Flat was discovered as a goldfield by the Chinese themselves. They were entitled by law to settle there; they obtained and paid for the miner’s right; they were put in possession by the Government. No one pretends they have forfeited that protection which any man who lives under the English flag has a right to expect. The intruders, if any deserve the name where all have a defined and equal right, are the white men, for we will not disgrace our country by calling them Englishmen. (Yarwood 1968, 36).

Here is a strong call for justice and the protection of the weak. There is also an expectation that justice will always be done to those who live ‘under the English flag’, and a reluctance to concede the name of ‘Englishman’ to anyone who grossly violates justice. The admirable views expressed in this passage are a little marred by the underlying conviction of English moral superiority. The writer is also aware that the principle of ‘democratic ascendancy’ can sometimes result in the violation of justice, i.e. when the majority of the voters are swayed by powerful prejudices. A government may then sacrifice principle to expediency.

While there were, no doubt, complex issues involved in this whole situation on the gold fields, nevertheless it is clear that racial prejudice was an important factor: in the actions of the diggers; in the comments by the editor of the Bathurst Times; and in the hint of moral superiority in the leading article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

EPISODE TWO: Alfred Deakin and White Australia

When the six colonies joined together to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, they expressed their belief in the concept of an Australian nation. Fundamental to this concept was insistence on a White Australia; and all three major political parties were in agreement on this issue. In the first year of the new Parliament Prime Minister Barton declared that it gave him pleasure ‘to place before this House a measure of definite and high policy such as this’. The measure was the Immigration Restriction Bill, the Bill which would establish nationally a White Australia policy.

The debate on the bill was not about its substance and purpose, but on the method of excluding Africans, Asians and Islanders from this country. The British government made it clear that it would have objections to a bill which discriminated against immigrants simply on the basis of race or colour. But Britain would not have problems with an indirect means of refusing unwanted immigrants, such as imposing a dictation test – this method had been used effectively in Natal. Such a procedure was attacked by some and declared to be hypocritical. But the Australian government was determined to comply with British wishes in the matter.

An extract from a leading article in The Bulletin, 22 June 1901, gives some idea of the way the issues were being discussed outside Parliament (Joseph Chamberlain was the British Secretary of the State for the Colonies):

What Australia values is the fact that the white man leads the world in almost everything. If Chamberlain can show a black or brown race with higher civilisation, and higher mental capacity, and a greater ability to lead the world, than the white, then Australia wants to import 10 millions of that race as soon as possible. But there is no such race. The Japanese is probably the nearest approach to it, but even he doesn’t fill the bill. If Britain is shocked at Australia’s desire to maintain its pure European descent, then Britain doesn’t know the value of its own white status, and is only fit to be a nigger, and a very poor kind of nigger at that. (Yarwood 1968, 99)

The argument is that non-Europeans are inferior human beings—even the Japanese—and that is why Australia wishes to exclude them, not because of their race or colour. It is said to be a fact ‘that the white man leads the world in almost everything’. Contempt for inferior races is shown by the use of the word ‘nigger’ in the last sentence. Significant phrases in that sentence are also: ‘pure European descent’, and ‘value of its own white status’. The writer is quite certain of white European superiority.

But this is simply an extract from a leading article in The Bulletin. Let us look at what an outstanding statesman of the day had to say on the issue. On 12 September 1901, Alfred Deakin spoke in Parliament, with eloquence and dignity, in favour of the Immigration Restriction Bill. He regarded the issue being debated as of the highest significance for Australia:

We here find ourselves touching the profoundest instinct of individual or nation—the instinct of self-preservation—for it is nothing less than the national manhood, the national character, and the national future that are at stake (Parliamentary Debates 1V, 4804).

He declared that this issue had brought the colonies together into one nation:

No motive power operated more universally on this continent or in the beautiful island of Tasmania, and certainly no motive operated more powerfully in dissolving the technical and arbitrary political divisions which previously separated us than the desire that we should be one people and remain one people without the admixture of other races.

He expressed no contempt for these other races, but simply said with courtesy:

It is not necessary to reflect upon them even by implication. It is only necessary to say that they do not and cannot blend with us; that we do not, cannot, and ought not to blend with them.

He thus affirmed that the purity of the white race in Australia had to be preserved. Regarding the Aboriginal people of Australia he had this rather extraordinary comment to make:

We [i.e. the Commonwealth Parliament] have power to deal with people of any and every race within our borders, except the Aboriginal inhabitants of the continent, who remain under the custody of the States. There is that single exception of a dying race; and if they be a dying race, let us hope that in their last hours they will be able to recognise not simply the justice, but the generosity of the treatment which the white race, who are dispossessing them and entering into their heritage, are according them (Parliamentary Debates IV, 4805).

It seems almost unbelievable to us today that an honourable and high-minded man of that time could make such a statement. How completely the obvious truth of a situation can be hidden even from intelligent and sincere people!

Deakin affirmed an unbreakable link between Australian nationality and unity of race:

This note of nationality is that which gives dignity and importance to this debate. The unity of Australia is nothing, if that does not imply a united race. (Parliamentary Debates IV, 4805)

Deakin’s words make it clear that one cannot underestimate the importance of the White Australia policy at the beginnings of Australian national life. It was understood to be a fundamental principle of the Australian nation.

With regard to the method of exclusion, Deakin defended the Australian Government’s decision to comply with Britain’s request. After quoting from Joseph Chamberlain, he proceeded:

That was a plain, frank, and quite friendly request on behalf of the British government to the Australian colonies, that in excluding those whom they wished to exclude they should adopt a certain course. It was put as plainly as possible that our object was entirely sympathised with, and that what we asked would be done, but, in return, the counter request is made that we shall do what we desire in the way of exclusion without casting any slur upon subjects of the Empire, and without offence to other peoples whom we wish to keep at a distance from our shores. That was a perfectly reasonable request… (Parliamentary Debates IV, 4809).

It was important to Deakin, and to the Australian government of the time, that good relations with Britain be preserved. Deakin concluded his speech with these words:

We are united in the resolve that this Commonwealth shall be established on the firm foundation of unity of race, so as to enable it to fulfil the promise of its founders, and enjoy to the fullest extent the charter of liberty under the Crown which we now cherish (Parliamentary Debates IV, 4817).

Deakin was expressing the belief of himself, and of so many others of the time, that the ‘firm foundation’ of the Australian nation is ‘unity of race’. Thus the notion of ‘racial purity’ was built into Australian nationalism from its very beginnings. Moreover, ‘racial purity’ implied a belief in white superiority—indeed, even of British superiority. This belief has had a lasting effect on the attitudes of Australians since the foundation of the Commonwealth.


Vatican II rejected as ‘foreign to the mind of Christ’ any discrimination against people because of their ‘race, colour, condition of life, or religion’ (Non-Christian Religions, no. 5). The task of overcoming racial prejudice in this country is a long and difficult one. But the Church remains committed to this task.

John Wilcken lectures on theology in the United Faculty of Theology, Parkville, Vic. He has studied and written extensively on the challenge of reconciliation with the original inhabitants of this land.


Frank Crowley (1980), Colonial Australia 1841-1874, Nelson, Melbourne.

A.T. Yarwood (1968), Attitudes to non-European Immigration, Cassell Australia, Sydney and Melbourne.

Commonwealth of Australia Parliamentary Debates, IV, Session 1901-2.