The Exclusion of Asiatic Immigrants in Australia

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The Exclusion of Asiatic Immigrants in Australia

Journal article

By: Philip S. Eldershaw

Date: September 1909

Source: Eldershaw, Philip S. "The Exclusion of Asiatic Immigrants in Australia." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 34 (September 1909): 190-203.

About the Author: Philip S. Eldershaw was a political science professor in the early twentieth century.


In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, Australia rejected immigrants from non-European nations for permanent residence. This policy of White Australia reflected the idea that Asians and Africans were inferior to Europeans. For the young nation of Australia to succeed, it needed immigrants from the advanced nations of Europe. White Australia became a severe national embarrassment in latter twentieth century and came to an official end in 1966.

A trickle of Indian and Chinese laborers who entered the Australian colonies in the late 1830s and in the 1840s constituted the first nonwhite immigrants to set foot on the continent. There were too few of them to scare white Australians. This situation changed in the 1850s when the discovery of gold in Victoria and New South Wales brought shipload after shipload of Chinese into Australia. The Asians were deeply resented by the white gold miners. In response, the state governments passed laws that restricted Chinese immigration.

Australia moved from a British colony to a commonwealth in 1901. In that same year, the government passed the Immigration Restriction Act. This legislation, which officially established the White Australia policy, prevented the immigration of any nonwhites. Asians who were British subjects were also specifically banned. The law immediately caused great diplomatic embarrassment for Australia as the Japanese particularly objected to its racial bias. The vast majority of Australians, however, welcomed it. In 1966, a revision of immigration restriction laws permitted persons with appropriate qualifications and their family members to enter Australia.


In the history of the Australian colonies, now forming the Australian Commonwealth, the frequent recurrence of legislation directed against Asiatic immigrants is impressive. To quote one example, no sooner did the colony of Victoria obtain responsible government in 1855 than a restriction act was passed, imposing duties on the masters of vessels bringing Chinese to Victorian ports. This is typical of the attitude of all six colonies on the subject. Intermittently restrictive legislation continued till 1890, when public opinion seems to have subsided, to awaken again, with renewed apprehension, in the twentieth century—chiefly owing, be it said, to Japan's prominence in the East, dating from her entry into the family of nations in 1899. It is by no means difficult to realize the cause of this uneasiness.

Within a few days' steam of the northern shores lie the densely populated eastern countries, which demand expansion as a result of economic and other social forces. There are three whose inhabitants are represented in our alien population (which does not, however, exceed 5 per cent of the total). These are India, China, and Japan, which together have a population of 715,000,000 people….

It is only of recent years that the true position of affairs has been apprehended by the mass of the people; this tardy recognition being mainly due to the isolation of Australia from world politics.

But even from the first, hidden under economic and other reasons, there has been an instinctive idea that to allow Asiatics to obtain a footing on the continent would be fatal. Twelve thousand miles from the parent and, at present, protecting state, the full recognition of the problem or rather the crisis has been seen in late years in the feverish desire for the desirable immigrant,—the white who is quickly naturalized under laws suitable to the situation in which we find ourselves….

Reasons for Legislation

The reasons for such drastic legislation fall naturally into three groups. (1) Physiological, (2) Economic, (3) Political, chiefly from the aspect of defence.

1. Physiological. With the examples of the two Americas before our eyes no other object lesson is needed to impress the Australian mind with the undesirable result of a land inhabited by people of two different colors. The mixture of one European nation with another may have a tendency for good, the faults of one species may be corrected by the infusion of foreign blood, and the result of such alliances may be virile and progressive. But in every case the outcome of the union between European and Asiatic or European and African has been a generation with the faults of both and the virtues of neither. If ever a great body of aliens become domiciled in Australia, either to the north or south, two conceivable results might happen. The two elements might coalesce, as in the case of the hybrid communities in South America with fatal results to the individuality and energy which is the birthright of the pure white race. Or they would not coalesce as in the case of the negro and white population of the United States of America. In this case the problem of reconciling two antagonistic races to live in peace and fellowship is one which strains the best statesmanship. Even under the best rule occasional outbreaks would and do occur. Neither of these alternatives commends itself to a community whose alien population does not exceed at present 5 per cent of the total. Hence it is that every effort is made backed up by public opinion to administer the restriction acts as strictly as possible.

In all great cities the miserable mongrel springing from white and yellow seen, and even now in the slums of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane he can be found, though but one in fifty of the small Asiatic population has a white mate. It is in the south, however, that there is cause for alarm. The north of Queensland, and the whole of the northern territory of South Australia have but a very sparse population of whites, a vast and for the most part fertile territory, and a dangerous proximity to Asiatic neighbors. There the physiological problem has manifested itself. There also to some extent the aboriginal native of Australia enters as a factor. Elsewhere, however, he may be ignored as an element in the nation's problems owing to his fast diminishing numbers. Every healthy community has the power of absorbing a certain number of these undesirable crosses, and apparently that is what is happening to the few half-breed children in the segregated aboriginal camps.

But the beginning of a hybrid race with all the vices and physical infirmities of the eastern coolie race is visible in the far northern corner of the continent, having its origin in the time before the immigration restriction acts. The Malay, Filipino and Japanese have crossed with Australian aboriginals. White half-castes have bred with Chinese, Malays and Manilamen, until the low type of humanity which results is dignified by the name of mongrel. But all these considerations have been rather instinctive and innate, than explicit in prompting anti-Asiatic legislation. Those most emphasized have been reasons of economic and of political expediency.

2. Economic. This phase of the question of Asiatic immigration is viewed with peculiar interest by Australian statesmen. Their fear of the lowering of the standard of living is perhaps more acute than that of the statesmen of other countries by reason of peculiar natural circumstances.

In the first place with an area of 2,975,000 square miles the density of Australian population is only 1.46 persons per square mile, in comparison with Japan with a density of population of 266.84, British India with a density of 2213.27 and China with a density of 101.36. Such figures show that an unrestricted inflow of Asiatic labor would be fatal to Australian industrial interests. Secondly, not only the rate of remuneration of labor in Australia is high—as it should be in any new country, but the prosperity of the wage-earners has been increased by legislative experiments of a socialistic tendency in some of the states at least. Under systems of compulsory arbitration in industrial disputes, and of wages boards where employers and employees confer together under the impartial presidents to regulate powers and conditions of work, strikes of any length or importance have almost ceased, and the interests of the wage-earning class are being carefully safeguarded.

Thus an inflow of cheap labor must be most carefully guarded against. A good deal has been said, however, in favor of colored labor being utilized in the tropical parts of Australia, which include more than two-fifths of the continent. But it is particularly for the cane-growing districts of Queensland and the northern territory of South Australia that colored labor has been advocated. It would seem, however, that labor of this description is not indispensable. By the Pacific Islanders laborers' act, 1901, the gradual deportation of Polynesians was ordered. At the same time a bonus was paid on white-grown sugar. As a result the production of sugar in the commonwealth has grown and white labor is replacing the colored with no disastrous effect to the farmer.

It would seem that in tropical Australia there is no absolute need of colored labor—save in the pearl fisheries on the northern coasts, which only produce about 3,000,000 worth of shell annually. Thus the general policy of the commonwealth seems justified. The careful regard paid to the retention of a high standard of living is seen in the contract immigrants act, 1905, which applies even to white labor. This act, in substance, provides that where immigrants enter Australia under contract, this contract must be in writing, and its terms approved by the minister for external affairs. The contract must not be made with intention to affect any industrial dispute; and remuneration of the contract immigrant is to be as high as the current wage. The penalty for abrogation of provisions of the act is 5 [dollars] to the contract immigrant and 20 [dollars] for the employer.

3. Defence. This aspect of the question is a vital one. The need of an adequate system of defence was a principal factor in the movements which led to the foundation of the commonwealth. Australia, by reasons of her geographical position, has in the past been outside the center of world politics. But there is every reason to believe that in the future the Pacific Ocean will be an important sphere of international activity and rivalry….

Northern Australia lies within a few days' journey from the East. Asiatic nations must expand, and Australia, little developed, scantily populated, presents a natural field.

From the nation most in need of new territory for growth, of new fields for commercial development and which can best support its claims by arms—Japan—Australia is secured by the Anglo-Japanese treaty of 1906. But when this expires, when Manchuria ceases to satisfy her, the crisis of the commonwealth will come. At present Australia has a land force, including permanent, militia and volunteer arms of 26,000 only, although in a few years a general cadet system supported by the proposed conscription scheme will multiply this force many times. Lines of communication overland between the East and West, North and South do not yet exist, and the isolation of outposts of local defence would be fatal should a struggle occur in the next decade. When these circumstances are considered the policy of excluding Asiatics is justified by Australia's extreme needs. Any immigration that would tend to weaken the unity of a nation small in numbers, holding a territory of vast extent must be prevented….

No expense is grudged to keep unsullied the policy, and more than a policy, the ideal of a "White Australia." This, as has been shown, is not a passing ebullition of feeling. It may be not inaptly described as the Monroe doctrine of Australia, only it should be borne in mind that we are acting with reference to Eastern Asiatic peoples only. The Australian continent is not a subject for future colonization and further than that not even for present immigration on the part of eastern races. Any attempt in derogation of this doctrine would be viewed with grave apprehension by Australia, under the aegis of the British empire, and resented as an unfriendly act. This is true even though at present a great part of the continent is far from adequately occupied.


The White Australia policy not only stopped virtually all migration from China but also severely limited new immigration from other non-European countries. Places such as Lebanon were just beginning to send emigrants to Australia and this migration came to a virtual halt. However, communities of non-whites had already been established in Australia. These communities remained in existence and were reinforced by migration later in the twentieth century. Additionally, White Australia permitted special entry to a small number of non-Europeans to set up import-export businesses. The flow of non-Europeans into Australia never completely stopped.

By the 1990s, there were significant numbers of settlers from Lebanon, Taiwan, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, India, and Korea in the large cities of Australia. Conservatives such as Pauline Hanson from the One Nation political party charged that such people did not assimilate and posed a significant threat to Australia's national culture. One Nation had some success in the state of Queensland, but never became a wide force. By 2000, the idea of a multicultural Australia had gained broad acceptance throughout the nation.



Burnley, Ian H. The Impact of Immigration on Australia: A Demographic Approach. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Jayasuriya, Laksiri, and Kee Pookong. The Asianisation of Australia?: Some Facts about the Myths. Carlton South, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1999.

London, H. I. Non-White Immigration and the "White Australia" Policy. New York: New York University Policy, 1970.

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The Exclusion of Asiatic Immigrants in Australia

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