Between the World Wars

An obsession with the peopling of the empire with the white race dominated discussion of migration in the period after the Great War. Emerging even before the Great War had ended, this obsession was obviously serving a political and economic purpose for ‘the Motherland’. Sir Rider Haggard, author of the immensely popular novels “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Allan Quartermain” visited Australia in 1916 on behalf of the Royal Colonial Institute to study the question of the emigration from Britain of soldiers and their families at war’s end. It was understood in Britain that when the troops returned “there would be a great industrial disturbance”. The men might not wish to return to their old jobs, many of which had been taken by women anyway. That meant they would emigrate, probably to the United States. As they would be lost to the British Empire if this happened, Britain was seeking possible opportunities in the dominions. South Africa and Rhodesia had already offered support for the settlement of British soldiers and Haggard was seeking similar support in Australia. The scheme was openly racist. According to him; “The Empire is not over-populated with white folk. In fact, it is greatly under-populated. That being so, it is surely highly desirable that at any sacrifice…the Empire should attempt to retain the sons who have fought for her.”

Italians, who had fought on the side of the British, did not count as ‘sons’. The Protestant Federation assembly eleven years later was echoing the Anglo-chauvinism of Haggard. Mr Linton MLA, who delivered the main address to the gathering, advocated scientific migration rather than mass migration and spoke approvingly of the Big Brother movement with its slogan “Britons for Australia and Australia for Britons.” The retiring president said that it was wrong to think that the Protestant Federation opposed southern Italian migration because of difference in religion. It was rather that they always retained their nationality and although an Italian had to have forty pounds when he came, “the one forty pounds went back to Italy again and again.”

Indians apparently did not count as Haggards’s ‘sons’ either, despite their sacrifice for the British Empire. Ghulam Gana, a farm labourer of Lismore NSW who had worked in that district for fifteen years, had to offer to put up the huge sum of one hundred pounds to guarantee the good behaviour of his 23 year old son for whom he wanted permission to visit Australia for three years. Mr Brewer, who wrote to “The Chief Customs House Official, Melbourne” on Ghulam’s behalf, mentioned that the son, Shar Mahomet, was also a farm labourer used to the cotton industry, which was to be started in Lismore that same year. On 19 September 1922 permission for three years visit was granted.

Relations with India troubled Australia throughout the inter-war period. Sir Archibald Strong warned of the weakening effect the prevailing immigration restriction policy could have upon relations with India at a 1928 meeting of the Victoria League of Victoria. He argued that Australians must explain to Indians that they are not despised but that the policy has been introduced “because we desire to avoid the creation of conditions under which we might eventually do so.” It is the wish to avoid racial strife that this policy is upheld. “Yet the belief is strong in India that Australia as a country, and Australians as individuals are inspired by a blind and unreasoning hatred of the Indian.”

By the 1930s the racially exclusive policy was showing signs of success. The number of non-Europeans was in decline. As Lyng was able to show, (Table 3) Australia was moving towards racial homogeneity.

Racial classification was a difficult matter and there were some uncertainties. Did Turks classify as white or ‘coloured’? Inspector Brown of Melbourne had been asked by the German Consulate to ascertain whether Turkish nationals were regarded as of Asiatic race and therefore banned or as Southern Europeans. He also wanted to know whether Turkish nationals were permitted to settle in Australia and to acquire property as other European nationals. It was unofficially known that this query originated with the Turkish Government which had asked the German Consulate in London to find out. The reply came from the Director of the Investigation Branch of the Attorney General’s Department on 26 May 1928. “Asiatic Turks are not permitted to settle in Australia.” A Certificate of Exemption allowing a temporary visit might be granted upon payment of a bond. However “European Turks may, subject to application in each case, be permitted to enter and settle in Australia. The acquisition or otherwise by these aliens of land is a State matter.” In a gazetted notice dated 23 January 1930 it was declared by the Governor-General that the section of the Immigration Act forbidding the immigration of “Turks of the Ottoman race” should no longer apply.

Other Muslims further to the west of Istanbul, were a little more acceptable. Adventurous young Albanian men, some only 18, were coming into Australia, seeking earnings sufficient to allow them to return home and buy a farm. Travelling up to seven weeks in ships they came to Fremantle in Western Australia looking for casual work. Their travel documents and personal declarations are still held in the National Archives of Australia and reveal that they were mainly under 30 years of age, and from unskilled jobs, such as ploughman and farmer. Like the Afghans, they left their women at home because they were only coming for a few years. Although they could enter Australia, for they were ‘white’ and therefore racially acceptable, they were not really the type of migrant the government wanted. British migrants safely Christian, were preferred. In 1928, to make it harder for them, a quota for non-British migrants was established. They were also required to either have a letter from a sponsor or forty pounds as insurance. “British settlers entering Australia under the United Kingdom Assisted Passage Scheme…were only expected to pay three pounds.”

Most Albanians found work in the sugar areas of Queensland. Cane cutting was extremely hard work but even this was subjected to racial tests in the Depression of the 1930s. British Preference Leagues demanded that all sugar industry employees should be Anglo-Celtic Australians. The Albanian Mosque in Shepparton, one of the original members of the Australian Federation of Islamic Societies, is based upon the men who moved into the area in the mid-1920s, leaving behind the cane-fields and tobacco farms of Queensland. Many of them became orchardists and market-gardeners, building a prosperous community in the countryside. The area around Shepparton also attracted Turkish migrants interested in farming in the 1970s and in the 1990s became home for a significant Iraqi refugee population.

It should be understood that the general level of racism within Australian society was at a high level during the pre-war period. The relations between the dominant community and indigenous Australians illustrates the atmosphere of the time. As late as 1929 there were reports of the murders of indigenous Australians in the outback by white pastoralists and their henchmen. The Federal Board of Inquiry constituted to inquire into several such shootings in 1929, consisted of a police magistrate, a police inspector and the Government resident of the district. No independent person was appointed despite demands from some churches. No lawyer was allowed to appear on behalf of the indigenous people. The Board relied heavily upon the word of “reputable settlers” who were present at the shootings and had apparently take part, one admitting he had fired eight or nine times at the Aborigines. The Australian Board of Missions, a church body, in a resolution sent to the Prime Minister Mr Bruce, expressed its dissatisfaction with both the composition of the Board and its findings. “Among the causes given for the dissatisfaction of the aborigines there had been no reference to injustice and wrongdoing on the part of any whites.” Indeed one of the causes of dissatisfaction, according to the Board of Inquiry was “unattached missionaries wandering from place to place, having no knowledge of blacks and their customs and teaching a doctrine of equality.” This was the only wrongdoing of whites that came up.

Some of the churches were not all that sympathetic to the indigenous people either. During the course of its investigations the Federal Board had interviewed the acting superintendent of the Hermannsburg Mission Station. Amongst the causes for dissatisfaction amongst the blacks, according to him, was the work of a white woman missionary Miss Annie Lock, who “had said she would be quite willing to marry a black man.” This was reported as evidence of shocking religious and social deviance. The acting superintendent also added his view that a white woman, moving amongst unclothed blacks, “lowered her in their eyes to their own standards.” This spiritual leader also said “He believed in legalised corporal punishment for blacks who misbehaved.”

The Thinking behind Racial Classifications

A well respected scholar of the between wars period, J. Lyng, who enjoyed the title of 1927 Harbison-Higinbotham Scholar of the University of Melbourne, wrote in 1935″Non-Britishers in Australia: Influence on Population and Progress”. It carried a foreword by Ernest Scott, one of the outstanding Australian scholars at the time. Scott’s ideas can be regarded as mainstream ideas for that period of history. In his foreword, he wrote “Mr Lyng …wishes to analyse and indicate those elements in the racial mixture of Australia which are likely to conduce most effectually to the successful development of the country.” Scott appears to have been a little dismayed by the emphasis placed upon non-Britishers as he went on: “…the discerning reader must apply a corrective to the facts here presented. Otherwise the impression will be acquired that the distinctively English, Scottish and Irish strains in the Australian amalgam have been less important than has, in fact, been the case.”

The ideological basis of the “modern emphasis upon race”, commented Scott, is due largely to the writings of the French Count Gobineau. That philosopher contended: “The history of mankind proves that the destinies of people are governed by a racial law. Neither irreligion, no immorality, no luxurious living, nor weakness of government causes the decadence of civilisations. If a nation goes down, the reason is that its blood, the race itself is deteriorating.”

All of humanity is, Lyng believed, divided into different races and sub-classifications of races, each of which has particular inherent characteristics. The main classifications are white, yellow, black and brown. The whites are subdivided into the Nordics or Aryans, the Alpines and the Mediterranean.

The main mental characteristic of the Nordics, in which he apparently classified himself, was “restless creative energy.” “In this peculiar quality they surpass not only the other European stocks, but also all other branches of mankind.” They were natural rulers of course. “Extremely race-conscious and politically efficient, they settled down as a ruling aristocracy in many lands.” Less aristocratic but more suited to rural pursuits and soldiering were the Alpines, a “sturdy tenacious race, very stable but apt to be stolid and unimaginative.” Further south from the Nordics were those of Mediterranean temperament. Flighty and emotional “They are inclined to lack stability and tenacity, and neither in politics nor in war do they possess a high sense of discipline…They are quick-witted but prove to be superficial.”

Lyng attributed the progress of the Australian people towards racial homogeneity to “the decline of the aboriginals”, the fact that the Chinese who came in such large numbers between 1854 and 1891 did not bring their women with them and to the White Australia Policy. So significant were the racial characteristics of the population, he argued, that they could explain political history. “The higher percentage of Mediterraneans in Queensland and the correspondingly lower percentage of Nordics may explain the fact that politically Queensland for long has been the most turbulent and unstable State in Australia, while in South Australia and Tasmania, where the racial composition is the opposite, political disturbances of a serious nature have practically been unknown.”

Table 3 Non-Britishers in Australia.

The Census taken on June 10, 1933

Europeans Coloured races

exclusive of Aborigines

Italians 26,693

Germans 16,829 Chinese 10,846

Scandinavians 11,042 Syrians 2,879

Greeks 8,293 Indians and Cingalese 2,679

Russians 4,873 Japanese 2,241

Yugoslavs 3,928 Polynesians 1,364

Poles 3,231 Malays 969

Maltese 2,782 Philipinos 292

French 2,587 Papuans 239

Swiss 1,938 Asiatic Jews 199

Finns 1,272 Afghans 153

Dutch 1,141 Arabs 124

Spanish 1,141 Negroes 122

Austrians 1,097 Maoris 75

Estonians 996 Others 639

Czechoslovakians 606

Belgians 580 Total 22,821

Letts 427

Rumanians 302

Turks 281

Bulgarians 274

Hungarians 271

Lithuanians 235

Other Europeans 947

Total 92,448

There were concerns at that time about new groups which had been entering the country, groups which were not British. They included such groups as the Maltese, the Albanians and the Yugoslavs. He allayed fears about the Albanians who were he said “very few”. The greatest number who landed in any one year was in 1924 and they totalled only 176. However they were, with the Yugoslavs, not dangerous to the well-being of the nation. “The Jugo-slavs and Albanians, being in the main Alpines, should prove a valuable addition to Australia’s rural population.” Hewers of wood and drawers of water for the Nordics no doubt.

The brown race offered something of a puzzle to those who shared the world view of J. Lyng. Geographically stretching from Polynesian and Micronesian islands in the Pacific through Asia to Persia and Turkey, these ‘brown people’ were really a series of types clearly distinguished from one another. “Some of these types, like the Persians and Ottoman Turks, are largely white; others like the southern Indians and Yemenite Arabs, are largely black; while still others, like the Himalayan and Central Asian peoples, have much yellow blood. Again, there is no generalised brown race culture like those possessed by yellow and whites.” “The great spiritual bond” Lyng recognised, “is Islamism.” However there were exceptions such as the majority of Hindus in ‘brown race’ India and the Syrian and Armenian peoples in Asia Minor. “The principal bond between them is a feeling of being ‘Asiatics’ and that, as such, they have a common grievance against domination by Europeans.” In Australia this segment of humanity, making up only about 10,000 people, was represented by “Indians, Afghans, Syrians and Malays.” This ‘brown race’ profile reflected the racial composition of the Australian Muslim population at that time.

The brown races were clearly on the decline in Australia. In 1901 there were 4383 “Hindus and other races of British India” in the Commonwealth of Australia. By 1921 there were only 3,150 and of them only 176 were female. Syrians were a slightly different case. They were treated differently by immigration authorities as there “is a large element of pure whites in Syria of the Mediterranean strain.” They had the added advantage that they did not club together and did not set up Syrian Societies very frequently. They also did not make any great effort to preserve their Arabic language. “It is lost with the second generation”. That was clearly interpreted by Lyng as an advantage. Of the 1921 total of 2892 Syrians, more than half were born in Australia and they had only increased by about 500 since 1911. The 1933 census showed a slight decline. Afghans had continued to fall and there were only 147 in Australia in 1921. The number of Malays fell from 2191 in 1911 to 1860 in 1921. By the 1933 census there were less than one thousand. The future domination of European strains in the Australian population seemed assured.

Racism and the associated notions of selective breeding and the sterilisation of the unfit were still socially acceptable in the 1930s. Serious press coverage was given to the views of Professor Agar of Melbourne University who, in 1936 at the University Public Questions Society, openly advocated the sterilisation of the insane. “The trouble caused by insanity and its hereditary dangers was due not so much to the mentally unfit as to the prolification of low grade normals.” He was elected chairman of the provisional committee of the Racial Hygiene Society of Victoria in October 1936. In the following June he was again reported as addressing the inaugural meeting of the Eugenics Society at Scots Hall, Melbourne. In his speech he emphasised that the most serious problem the Society might address was “the extreme disparity between the fertility rate of the two classes of society-those of superior natural endowments, intellectual and physical, and those of inferior qualities of mind and body.” He wanted some scheme to encourage the better type of persons to have large families but did not go so far as to advocate family allowances or child endowment, “which might be an inducement to the unskilled labourer but not to the man in the higher occupational groups.” It is significant that his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography carries no mention of his absorbing interest in eugenics or his rabid support for racially discriminatory immigration policy. Such views are now unmentionable.

The Approach of the Second World War, Refugees and Australia

In September 1939, the Prime Minister of Australia declared war upon Germany as a consequence of the British declaration of war. Loyal member of the Empire, now called the British Commonwealth of Nations, Australia sent troops off to the Middle East. The Australian Navy was placed under British orders. At first the focus of the war was in Europe and the Mediterranean, similar to 1914-1918. The entry of Japan into the war in December 1941 forced the Australian government to develop a clearly independent policy. Churchill was prepared to allow the countries of the Pacific, including Australia, to be invaded and to rescue them later, but that was not a policy Australia could accept. Prime Minister John Curtin, insisted that the Australian 9th Division should come home immediately instead of being sent to Burma to defend India. He did not sleep as he waited for those troops, fourteen days on the sea without any naval escort, to get to Fremantle. They took up the battle to defend Australia from the Japanese, who attempted to enter via Papua New Guinea.

There were very few Muslims in Australia during these years. In 1933 the total was 1,877 and by 1947 had only increased to 2,704. The most recent group consisted of Albanians. Indians and Malays were apparently the other main groups (Table 3). The Albanians were ostracised during the war as ‘enemy aliens’ and they had few voices to defend them. One lonely letter to the editor in Melbourne asked that they be given justice and not be confused with Italians. That did not save them from internment. “Albanians, whose country was annexed by Italy, a member of the Axis powers, were among those interned as enemy aliens….Among the Albanians interned in the surveillance camp at Monte in Queensland, were boys as young as 16 as well as some individuals who had already been naturalised.”

The spread of Nazism and Fascism in Europe created thousands of refugees, desperate to find a safe haven. There were very few Muslims amongst them as the new form oppression, as distinct from the old imperialism, was concentrated in Europe. This did not mean that racist prejudice was ameliorated. Even fellow Europeans, mainly Christian, were regarded with suspicion. The Commonwealth of Australia, in December 1938, approved the admission of 15,000 refugees over the next three years. This was a large number of non-Britishers for that time. It caused considerable uneasiness.

In 1939 the Minister for the Interior announced that the assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior was to be sent to Australia House London, to supervise arrangements for the migration of these aliens. The suspicions of the time were reflected in the statement by the Minister, Mr McEwen, that “Inquiries were made by Australia House to ascertain if applicants were Jews or Aryans, or non-Aryan Christians.” Reflecting a substantial section of public opinion, the Australian Natives Association in its 1939 Congress in Warrnambool, while condemning the spread of fascism, also carried a motion calling for tight restrictions on the number of aliens who could be permitted to enter the country. It demanded that they should not be permitted to concentrate together in communities, should not be permitted to have their own schools or teach in their own languages, not have foreign language newspapers and that they should be subjected to an English language test after three years. Failure to “be a ground for expatriation.” This extreme position on the acquisition of English was not exceptional. Only a few days before the Victorian Minister for Education had stated that a working knowledge of English should be made a condition of entry for refugees and other aliens. He considered it would be too difficult to make adult aliens attend English classes as the state had no power to compel attendance at school beyond the age of 14 years.

There was great concern that Australia, which was not attracting British migrants, was becoming too reliant upon southern and central European states for its intake. Over the 12 month period ending 31 March 1939, there had been a loss of 85 British persons and a net gain of 9,502 Europeans by migration. Of them some 3,101 were Germans, mainly refugees, 2,671 Italians, as well as 565 Yugoslavs and 289 Albanians. The President of the Victorian Legislative Council was reported in the same edition of the Argus, objecting to the type of southern European migrants entering the country and alleging “They were working under ‘sweating’ conditions to the detriment of Australian industrial standards.” “Colonies of Aliens” were a particular fear and Mr McEwen had been defending the regulated admission of aliens against Labor Party criticism in Federal Parliament a week before. “Investigation had been made into the aggregation of aliens into colonies, and in the sugar-growing areas of Queensland, for example, it had been found necessary to refuse any further permits to migrants desiring to go there.” He continued “Investigations at the Leeton (NSW) irrigation area had not disclosed an alarming aggregation of aliens, but at Shepparton and Werribee permits for further settlement had been refused.” Reflecting awareness of the changing international situation, he said “In these unsettled days no country could take action more calculated to cause bad international feeling than to discriminate between the nationals whom it would permit to come to its shores. Unwarranted stress had been placed on the fact that many of the aliens were southern Europeans.”

Avoidance of ‘aggregation of aliens’ appears to have been part of the thinking behind refusal by the Commonwealth Government to permit the settlement of large groups of Jewish refugees in the Northern Territory, a proposal which had been raised several times in the past. The Minister of the Interior said that the government was determined “that no minority problems shall arise in Australia.” “A plan for the settlement of a few families, or of 20 or 30 families, at some suitable spot might not involve the risks against which the Government is determined to guard; but in general our policy is to select carefully from individual applicants for admittance, thus ensuring that the migrants admitted are of a type that can be readily assimilated into the Australian community.”

The fact that some churches were also attacking the ‘alien’ intake indicates the depth of public feeling at the time. In its annual assembly that year the Congregational Union called for world peace and demanded that action should be taken to eradicate slums but it was most deeply concerned with other matters. Under a newspaper headline “Migration Policy: Church Attack” the article commenced: “Protest against the indiscriminate and unrestrained admittance into Australia of foreigners is made in a report submitted by the public questions committee to the annual assembly…. It was a scandal, the report stated, that unemployed Australian working men should be emigrating to New Zealand while the Commonwealth Government permitted the country to be filled with cheap foreign labour.”

Even during the war such hostile attitudes persisted. When Prime Minister Curtin was passing through Kalgoorlie in January 1942 he was met by a deputation of miners who expressed fears that there would be race riots on the gold fields unless action was taken “to conscript all aliens into labour battalions”. They complained that the aliens had taken all the good jobs of Australians who had enlisted and that they were earning 15 to 20 pounds a week in mines and wood cutting. “Evidence that high feeling exists is the fact that Australians are demanding that all foreigners must speak English in public….Many aliens are ignoring the request to speak English in public and several incidents have already occurred.” Australia had already set about making use of the labour of the refugees, internees and prisoners of war who were available. In January the War Cabinet decided that aliens and refugees would be allowed to enlist or would be called up for military or labour service. Later that month the Commonwealth advised Victoria that 300 war internees and 150 war prisoners would be made available for fruit picking.

> After the Second World War