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The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth), was the result of the widely accepted view that the Australian population should remain a 'white society.' These views, however, stretched back to British settlement in 1788 where the white-settlers formed racist beliefs about the Aboriginal people. Support for the Act increased during the latter half of the 19th century when non-white labour was being used to work in the goldfields, on sugarcane plantations and in deep sea diving. Feelings of British superiority were spread through literature which was read to children at school.

British settlers and the Aboriginal people

In 1770 when Captain James Cook claimed the eastern portion of the Australian continent in the King's name, he was also aware of the land's Aboriginal inhabitants. The British, however, did not perceive the several hundred tribes of Aboriginal people who lived there as owners of the land. They believed that it was a 'terra nullius' (territory belonging to nobody) and therefore it was free for them to use for themselves.

It has been suggested that when Captain Arthur Phillip and his British fleet settled at Port Jackson on 26 January 1788, relationships between the Aboriginal people and the British were amicable. It was not long, however, before cultural misunderstandings began to arise. Since the Aboriginal people had not undertaken conventional British practices such as establishing fences or farming the land, white settlers perceived the Aboriginal culture to be primitive and inferior to their own. See image 1

Up until the middle of the 20th century, these types of racist beliefs restricted the Aboriginal peoples from achieving the same rights as white Australians. In the 1950s, many Aboriginal people were placed in missions where they had to adhere to strict conditions and rely on food handouts. Some were even forced to assimilate into white- Australian society after being removed from their family homes as children.

Even when Australia federated in 1901, the Constitution did not classify Aboriginal people as Australian citizens. Because Aboriginal people were unable to own a house or land, or vote in elections, this reinforced the popular belief amongst white-Australians that they were superior. It was not until 1965 that all Aboriginal people around Australia were able to vote in State and federal elections.  This was more than a century after the colony of South Australia became the first to achieve universal suffrage.

Working immigrants

Australia has always been a country of migrants. The British, themselves, began migrating to Australia in 1788 on the First Fleet. They were not, however, hospitable to the numbers of non-white immigrants such as the Chinese, Pacific Islanders and Japanese who arrived in Australia during the 19th century.

In the 1850s, around 40 000 Chinese arrived to capitalise on the gold rush. Despite the fact that immigrants from Italy, France, Germany and America also arrived to find gold, it was the Asian miners who became the target of a racist campaign to drive them out of the goldfields. Pacific Islanders were also faced with discrimination when they began to migrate from 1863 to work on the sugarcane plantations in Queensland. White-Australians were further angered when Japanese divers immigrated to northern Australia in the 1890s to work in the pearl diving industry. The Japanese arrived at a time when the country was going through the 1890s Depression and white-Australians were greatly concerned about their job security. See image 2

For many white-Australians, there was a fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar. The Chinese were among the first non-white immigrants to come to the colonies of Australia. People were not accustomed to the different way that the Chinese, Japanese or the Pacific Islanders looked. White-Australians did not understand Asian cultures and religions, which contrasted with their own.

Many miners felt threatened by the Chinese, who were known to be hard workers and to be accustomed to working long hours. The Japanese divers also created resentment, because of their expertise in deep sea diving. There were suspicions that this cheap labour, which was provided by foreign immigrants, would take the jobs of the white-Australian workers. Trade unions were also concerned that these immigrants, who accepted lower pay and harsh working conditions, would lower the working standards for white-Australian workers. It was these racist beliefs which formed the basis of a growing notion to keep non-whites out of Australia.

British patriotism

By the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Australia had reached 3 874 365. At the time, the ethnic composition of the Australian population was mostly from the British Isles. While only 17.2 percent were from Great Britain, around 75 percent of the non-Indigenous population were Australian-born and a vast number of those had British-born parents or grandparents.

At the turn of the previous century, the ethnic composition was almost entirely British-born. This was reflected in the fact that the vast majority of fictional literature in Australia up until the end of the 19th century was British. Written and published in Britain, the stories usually reflected British life. The few children's books that were set in the colonies were often written by authors who had never even been to that country.

Those living in Australia at the time still considered Britain to be 'home.' They believed that their children should learn British culture to encourage a sense of patriotism towards their 'home country.' Whether children were being taught at home by a governess or a mother, or at school, British books were heavily relied upon to provide students with that sense of British patriotism. Children often heard stories which emphasised the heroic attributes of British men who had to endure the harsh elements of the Australian landscape. These books, such as in George Henty's A Final Reckoning (1886) usually portrayed the villains as black natives. It was through stories such as these that many children were made to think that Indigenous people were inferior and even dangerous. See image 3

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1. Where did the majority of immigrants come from during the gold rush of the 1850s in Australia?






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