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Charles Brunsdon Fletcher, the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, Asia and the Pacific.

Australia's dichotomous relationship with its eastern and northern neighbours has been examined extensively by historians focusing on political, social and economic questions. Such histories have identified a late nineteenth-century transition in settler Australians' concept of identity from British subjects to white citizens (Anderson, 2005; Lake and Reynolds, 2008), characterised in the interwar years as a national psychosis focused on internal anxiety and external threat (Macintyre, 1999). W.K. Hancock's 1930 assumption that Australians had come to fear the 'decomposition and degradation of their own civilisation' (Hancock, 1930: 80-1) is representative of what Walker has described as an intensified nationalism founded in the perceived threat from an awakening Asia (Walker, 1999). However, this dominant discourse was not without alternate voices: those of a nascent movement that sought greater awareness of and interaction with Asia and the Pacific (Walker, 2002).

One of those voices was that of Charles Brunsdon Fletcher (1859-1946), an author of eight books, including four on the Pacific and three on Australian population and resources. Fletcher was also editor of the Brisbane Courier from 1898 to 1903 and the Sydney Morning Herald from 1918 to 1937. This article examines his thought, expressed in three books relating to Australia, Asia and the Pacific region, and lead editorials published during both editorships. While editorials that detail a newspaper's stance on an issue do not carry an author 'by-line', it was usual practice for the editor to write the main editorial of the day or, on occasion, commission an editorial that accorded with their opinion. The similarity of thought between Fletcher's books and the editorials is further confirmation of his involvement. In considering a body of editorial work, this article offers testimony to arguments for greater focus on journalism as 'a cultural text that says something to someone' (Carey, 1974: 93) and, in Australia, the need to expand histories of political thought to include newspaper writing (Stokes, 1994). In her study of The Bulletin, Lawson (1983) argues that a reading of the publication as a text allows for complexities of thought to emerge as opposed to less thorough readings that merely reveal binary oppositions. In addition to its consideration of newspaper editorials as texts, this article similarly responds to calls to increase recognition of the role played by newspaper editors in Australian intellectual life (Moran, 1988). Buckridge (1999) explicitly makes this argument in a chapter-length study, 'Editors as Intellectuals', finding that Australian newspapers have rarely been considered as having intellectual input from their editors and journalists. As demonstrated in this article, a reappraisal of Australian journalism from an intellectual history approach can unearth a line of thought that not only differs from the better-known contemporary dominant discourse but, significantly, reveals the nature of thought as presented to large numbers of Australians through newspaper readership.

Although positioned within critical debates on Australian population and regional relations, the origin of many of the arguments expressed in the Brisbane Courier, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Pacific books can be traced to Fletcher's personal history. Born in England in 1859, Fletcher arrived in Australia at the age of twelve, via a Wesleyan missionary in New Zealand, exposing him to a Pacific country beyond Australia. After schooling in Sydney he trained as a surveyor, moving to Brisbane at the age of 25 (Semmler, 1981). Enriched with knowledge of Australian demography and landscape, Fletcher turned his part-time hobby of journalism into a career following the land boom crash of 1893. His keen interest in Australian geography and population were to feature prominently in both papers during his editorships, and paralleled arguments in many of his works external to journalism, including the four books on the Pacific as well as numerous published lectures and pamphlets. Fletcher was also a strong supporter of the Institute of Pacific Relations (Walker, 1999), established in the mid-1920s as a regional iteration of the post-World War I ideals of internationalisation, typified by the League of Nations.

As will be seen, Fletcher's opinion as revealed in the books becomes a conduit between sentiments of his Brisbane Courier editorials and the Sydney Morning Herald editorials. Fletcher's Brisbane Courier editorship, from 1898 to 1903, not only coincided with federation of the Australian states in 1901 but, significantly, with the passing of the Pacific Island Labourers Act, colloquially titled the Kanaka Bill, and, six days later, the Immigration Restriction Act, known as the White Australia policy. Together, these pieces of legislation demanded a consideration of Australia's regional role and relationships.

The Pacific Island Labourers Act, White Australia and the Brisbane Courier

The history of Pacific Island labour in North Queensland is as extensive as it is contested (Munro, 1995). While it is not the intent of this article to detail that history, or to engage in the historiographical debate, a short summary shows that by 1863, sugar cane farmers in northern Queensland recruited Pacific Islanders, mainly Melanesians, to work as indentured labourers on the cane fields. Despite some pressure for a 'White Queensland' from the 1880s, the belief that white people were physically unable to perform manual work in the tropics led to the practice's continuation and tacit acceptance in Queensland. Hence, when the Australian federal government introduced the Pacific Island Labourers Bill, requiring the deportation of Islander workers from 1906, there was significant resistance in Queensland based on a fear that the sugar industry would collapse without Islander labour. As a result, claims of southern ignorance dictating northern practice pitted Queensland against southern states, creating the first major rift in the new federation (Megarrity, 2006; Anderson, 2005).

The Brisbane Courier, with Fletcher at the helm, was strident in its opposition to the Bill, which it attacked on several fronts. Typical of other opinion expressed in Queensland at the time (Megarrity, 2006), the Courier also saw the proposed legislation as an economic threat to the sugar industry due to the commonly held belief that nonwhites were essential for work in tropical conditions (Brisbane Courier, 15 January 1901: 4). It too framed the issue as one of state versus federal rights (Brisbane Courier, 18 February: 4), arguing that the use of Pacific Island labour was only applicable to Queensland and the federal government had no right to 'meddle with the settled policy' of a state (Brisbane Courier, 16 March 1901: 4). However, as the following editorial excerpts demonstrate, there was also acknowledgement of the racial implications of the legislation:

If there is any part of Australia in which the coloured races are better fitted to cultivate the land than are the whites (which by the way is not our assertion but the hypothesis on which we are now proceeding), we have simply no right to exclude the coloured races from the country, and we ruin ourselves at the same time we commit a racial injustice. (Brisbane Courier, 16 January 1901: 4)

This backhanded acknowledgement of the legislation's inherent racism is again evident in a similarly qualified argument presented a month later:

[T]he Pacific Islanders are our neighbours. Not only so, but a large part of Australia is tropical; and its aborigines are black. It is not meant that these things should block our aspirations for a white Australia; but they certainly demand a practicable basis of action, and impose serious limitations. (Brisbane Courier, 4 February 1901: 4)

By November 1901, when the Bill was passed in the House of Representatives, the somewhat apologetic approach of earlier months had become a much more forthright appeal on behalf of the Islander workers, albeit at the expense of 'coloured aliens':

There has been no attempt to prove by facts the assertion that the Pacific Islander is a menace to the purity of the race. Morally he is on a higher level than any of the coloured aliens whose quarters are the disgrace of Melbourne and Sydney, and he is at least on as high a level as any class of the white population. (Brisbane Courier, 8 November 1901: 4)

Concurrent with the passage of Pacific Islander legislation was the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act, which targeted Asiatic peoples. As the following excerpts demonstrate, a similar pattern of early 'fence-sitting' argument, later replaced by forthright statement, is evident:

Putting aside our own aborigines, a white Australia does not mean an exclusively white population. It means, in the first place, a white population so overwhelmingly preponderant in numbers that there is no danger of interference with our political institutions ... For instance, the Chinese at present in Queensland are under nine thousand; they are our most numerous coloured population, yet they are only one to fifty of the whites. They have, of course been kept down by legislation, which this journal has supported and we would not be sorry to see them fewer; but the fact they are here does not prevent this being a 'white Australia'. (Brisbane Courier, 12 February 1901: 4)

Six months later, the equivocation of argument had disappeared, just as it did in the Pacific Islander debate, and the Courier is explicit in its assessment of the White Australia policy:

No one who looks below the surface can fail to see that in the disdainful attitudes assumed by many Australians towards other races, and on which for the most part the cry of a white Australia is built, we are lowering rather than raising the life and character of the nation. (Brisbane Courier, 14 August 1901: 4)

Just over a year later, referring to ties between Australia, Britain and Japan, the Courier argued for greater cooperation with Japan. It described the White Australia policy as unfortunate and unfriendly, since Japanese assistance was crucial for development of what the paper termed 'a new Pacific'. 'While honeyed words were used by ministers with regard to the Japanese, their speeches bore the mark of a determination to get rid of the 'little yellow man' (Brisbane Courier, 8 January 1902: 4).

These Brisbane Courier editorials give an early indication of Fletcher's view of the White Australia policy, which lay somewhere between Fletcher as an Anglophile and champion of the Empire and a just as deeply held commitment to Australian development, which required a pragmatic recognition of the role and contribution of Asian and Pacific peoples. Fletcher's period as Brisbane Courier editor had also accentuated his awareness of Australia's regional role. This was to become the central focus of his later literary work, and feature journalistically in the editorial stance taken by the Sydney Morning Herald during his editorship.

Fletcher in literature

Having joined the Sydney Morning Herald in 1903 as associate editor, it was during the transition from associate editor to editor and in the first years after taking up the editorship in 1918 that Fletcher published three of his four books on the Pacific region: The New Pacific: British Policy and German Aims (1917); The Problem of the Pacific (1919); and Stevenson's Germany: The Case Against Germany in the Pacific (1920). While all three books deal extensively with German expansion in the Pacific, The Problem of the Pacific in particular reveals Fletcher's thought on Australia's role and future. What is revealed is the later, more forthright opinion in regard to Pacific Islanders and White Australia, as opposed to the more tempered comment of the earlier Courier editorials.

Fletcher argued that Australia had become too provincial and insular, and that the labour movement and Labor in politics had concentrated on domestic issues at the expense of developing policy and regional engagement. Frequent strikes had so often disrupted island trade that Pacific countries had come to think of the whole Commonwealth in terms of Australian instability and restlessness:

Instead of finding Australia a friend in need, or a present help in the ordinary emergencies of life upon the greatest ocean in the world, they have been moved to denounce Australia as a nuisance, if not as an enemy. (Fletcher, 1919: 179)

According to Fletcher, Australian statesmanship in the region had been lacking as a result of uninspiring leadership, and there was no evidence of successful policy, either in dealing with Asia or with the island groups of the Pacific, 'upon which,' he prophetically added, 'so much may depend in the near future' (Fletcher, 1919: 177).

Fletcher still held the view, formed in Brisbane two decades before, that the white man could not work in tropical heat, the native population was 'insufficient' and the answer, he believed, was workers from India, who were capable of working in such a climate and had empire ties to Australia. As the following excerpt argues, Fletcher sought an appreciation of Asian peoples beyond their value as a labour source for northern Australia:

It is useless to talk of the labour needs of the Pacific, with the Indian as a convenient solution of a difficult problem, unless the great land of his birth is given some serious consideration; and thoughtful minds are already pondering the best way of bringing India into the foreground, not merely as a reservoir of labour, but as the home of highly civilized peoples, with their own matured outlook upon life. China and Japan no doubt represent the same need for better knowledge and for a more sympathetic understanding. (Fletcher, 1919: 217)

In so saying, Fletcher continued an argument he had first advanced two years earlier in The New Pacific: British Policy and German Aims:

[M]eanwhile students of the situation are asking again whether Asia or Southern Europe cannot be taken into partnership. The policy of a white Australia stands in the way, of course, and its general argument is unanswerable. But sooner or later the Commonwealth will have to show cause. (Fletcher, 1917: 295)

In 1920, in Stevenson's Germany, which predominantly explored Robert Louis Stevenson's writings on Germany and the Pacific, Fletcher concluded that greater integration between Asia and the Pacific was needed, with Australia performing the role of conduit just as America had done in the Philippines and the Netherlands in Java:

[B]ut in Java, Chinese and Arabs are not treated as aliens and immiscible but as friends and finally as good citizens. In other ways also the Dutch have undoubtedly set an excellent example in their treatment of Javanese, and success may well follow British enterprise in the same direction. (Fletcher, 1920: 200)

Here we come to the crux of Fletcher's thought on Australia's regional role as expressed in the 1917-20 series of books. Fletcher fervently believed in the empire, in Britain and in the need for white settlers in Australia to develop a predominantly white continent, but he equally saw that Australia's geographical position meant it had a duty to understand, respect and cooperate with its neighbours. This thought underpins a number of concurrent and later editorials of the Sydney Morning Herald during his editorship.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Fletcher took over the editorship of the Sydney Morning Herald in the final year of World War I, positioning him at the forefront of Australia's oldest newspaper in Australia's most populous city. Fletcher was Courier editor for just five years and Herald editor for nineteen, yet there were significantly fewer editorials concerning Asia and the Pacific in this second period than the first. This can be understood for several reasons: first, the lack of a stimulus such as the Pacific Islander and White Australia legislation; second, geography and trading ties meant the Asia and Pacific were not as immediately relevant to the Sydney readership; and lastly, domestic and global post-war reconstruction, followed by economic depression and mounting international tension leading to the outbreak of World War II, dominated news of the period. However, as the following discussion demonstrates, the ideologies--first expressed tentatively in the Brisbane Courier and then more overtly in the Pacific books--were to become a recurrent, although not as frequent, theme in Herald editorials.

Four days after the end of World War I, the Sydney Morning Herald argued for Australia to use the post-war territorial realignment as an opportunity to increase its administrative role in the Pacific, not just for Australian security and peace in the region, as argued by the federal government, but to build on its pre-war work in regional development:

It is not for the sake of any exclusive rights that Australians desire the retention of the islands, but for their own protection and for the fulfilment of the trust which they have undertaken towards the white and coloured races. (Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November 1918: 6)

Six months later, as discussions continued over the administrative fate of former colonial territories in the Pacific, including German New Guinea, a further editorial argued that Australia could no longer ignore and neglect the Pacific. It was time the nation took greater responsibility beyond that of a 'trading post and clearing house':

Australia is an island continent, and in some respects extraordinarily parochial; its horizon is sometimes bounded by the low-water mark on its own shores, and it realises too late that a virile, wealthy people should not, and cannot escape wider responsibilities. The Pacific is now in the melting pot. (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May 1919: 6)

Through such editorials, Fletcher was part of a small but growing movement arguing for genuine engagement with the Pacific through increased understanding and cooperation (Walker, 1999). Like-minded contemporaries included the journalist George Ernest 'Peking' Morrison and Thomas Griffith Taylor, a Professor of Geography at Sydney University. Morrison, who spent many years in China after initially travelling there as a reporter, believed knowledge would overcome suspicion (Morrison, 1897). Whether Fletcher knew Morrison is unknown, but he would have been aware of his reports on Islander labour published in the weekly Leader newspaper in Victoria in the 1880s (Pearl, 1967). (1) Fletcher would certainly have known Griffith Taylor, as he had close ties with Sydney University and served on its academic senate from 1923 to 1939 (Semmler, 1981). In early 1927, the Sydney Morning Herald published a series of articles by Griffith Taylor, following his trip to the third Pan-Pacific Science Congress in Tokyo (Walker, 1999). Through such organisations and the Institute of Pacific Relations, mentioned earlier, discussion of 'the Pacific' drew in countries on the shore of the northern Pacific Ocean, including China and Japan. The Pacific was no longer just the islands to the east of Australia, but also a part of Asia, invoking renewed debate over population and security. Fletcher, via the Sydney Morning Herald editorial column, was a keen participant.

On at least two occasions in the 1920s, the Herald returned to a question Fletcher had first raised at the Brisbane Courier and later in the Problem of the Pacific: whether Australian foreign policy had been an impediment to the country's development. In 1921 it published a map of Australia, predominantly coloured black except for pockets of white along the east coast, southern coast, Tasmania and a small white area on the west coast, around Perth. The accompanying editorial argued that white Australia was not a fact but only a policy, as so little of the country--as seen in the white sections of the map--had been settled. 'Australia is not white,' said the Herald, 'she is empty.' If Australia did not develop the remainder of the country, 'there is only one alternative. We shall not retain the continent which we falsely call White Australia' (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 October 1921: 10).

Two years later, a further editorial argued that the unpopulated north was one of the most serious national problems, yet Australia was unique in the world in attempting to rely solely on white labour for tropical development:

In pursuance of our ideal of 'a white Australia' we refuse to admit coloured labour, and depend solely upon our own efforts. It is a laudable ambition, but is its fulfilment beyond our power? (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August 1923: 12)

Similar to the Courier editorials, opinion in these editorials regarding the racial and moral issues raised by the policy is blurred. However, by 1925 a more explicit question, typical of the forthrightness seen in Fletcher's Pacific books, is asked: 'But can we keep Australia white? Have we the right to do so, even if we can? These are the questions that Australia must answer' (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1925: 16).

As in the Courier, Fletcher encouraged greater engagement with Asia and recognition of its developed and culturally advanced societies. In a 1923 editorial, headlined 'Lost Opportunities', the Herald commentated that an arrogant failure to understand Asian cultures had had a negative impact on trade. The editorial went on to outline examples where marketing to China, in particular, could be improved:

So too, regard must be had for Oriental customs and superstitions. According to the Trade Commissioner of New South Wales in the East, a commodity in the trade mark of which a horse appears is not likely to find a buyer in China. The use of yellow in wrappers or containers is to be avoided, as it is a colour of ill omen. Red, on the other hand, is an auspicious hue. (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August 1923: 10)

In a similar vein, an editorial in 1933, titled 'a Pacific Neighbour', was devoted to an argument for greater understanding of the Philippines. It described that country's development, remarked that the University of the Philippines was twice the size of Sydney University and suggested that understanding of the Philippines was critical: 'It thus behoves us to have some knowledge of the history and character of the people of the Philippines and the idiosyncrasies of their culture' (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 1933: 14).

The following year, the Sydney Morning Herald was one of only two papers (the other being the Sun) that sent a journalist to accompany Deputy Prime Minister John Latham on the first ever goodwill mission to Asia. An editorial hailed the trip as the beginning of a new era, and regretted that until now diplomatic relations throughout Asia had either been neglected or seen as the responsibility of the British Foreign Office. It argued that conditions in China, Japan and South-East Asia were of highest importance to Australia because of proximity:

Those purposes are to reveal the Commonwealth as a friendly neighbour to the East Asian peoples, despite the Immigration Restriction Act, and to create a better understanding in Australia of those countries, their conditions, and their working aims and objects. Friendship is a misnomer without acquaintance. (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 1934: 8)

As seen again in this excerpt, Fletcher's thought can be described as having a distinctive liberal overtone, particularly when considered against the greater swell of contemporary opinion, which was marked by a fear of Asia and a reluctance to be involved in international affairs (Meaney, 1985). It is within this divergence that the value of a detailed examination of newspaper opinion is found.


Due to space limitations, the above discussion focuses on a selection from a greater corpus of material on Australia, Asia and the Pacific contained in editorials of Fletcher's editorships and his three Pacific books. Despite this, it is possible from the evidence cited to argue in support of greater consideration of journalism as a text as a means of broadening historical understanding of political thought and opinion in Australia. Where non-journalism-based histories ply newspapers and other media for anecdotal and evidential material to support other sources, histories focusing on journalism--or, in this instance, the journalistic and literary thought of a particular journalist/editor--can reveal a sustained theme of thought as disseminated to the general public.

As this article demonstrates, the consequences of this broadened approach are significant. Typically, Australian histories on the nation's relationship with its eastern and northern neighbours use the overtly racist Bulletin or Worker as illuminating sources (Reynolds, 2003; Saunders, 1982), even if there is a diversity of opinion across these publications (Fitzgerald, 2007; Lawson, 1983). Sustained examination of journalism as a text, as seen in this study, allows more nuanced viewpoints to emerge. In fact, there were many occasions during the period in question when Sydney Morning Herald editorials were blatantly pro-White Australia. For example, in 1930 an editorial argued that Australia's 'salvation depends upon the retention of the barrier' (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 1930: 10). Yet, without knowledge of other arguments as presented in this article, the true diversity of opinion as expressed to readers of the period is not known. The identification of such diversity attests to the need for more holistic consideration of journalism as opposed to 'cherry picking' of isolated examples.

Given that only two critiques of the White Australia policy have been identified from 1901 to 1962 (Jayasuriya et al., 2003), the emergence through research of any additional contrary opinion to the dominant discourse makes a valuable contribution to knowledge of Australian political thought. Through this study, it has been seen how Fletcher's knowledge of the region, honed in New Zealand and Brisbane and deepened through his book authorship, was to bring to the Brisbane Courier and the Sydney Morning Herald a more liberal and progressive view of the Asia-Pacific region and its peoples. As discussed, Fletcher was not alone, and was part of a nascent movement advocating greater regional engagement; however, the publication of such thought in high-circulation newspapers reveals a broader dissemination of thought than previously identified, and advances knowledge of Fletcher as a fellow traveller with those proffering similar opinions. This article has illustrated the role that can be played by journalism as a key, rather than incidental, source when subjected to sustained examination as a text.


(1) Morrison was a controversial figure in the Islander labour debate. After initially authoring mildly critical articles of the trade, he later became a vehement critic, and the veracity of these later reports was questioned (see Pearl, 1967: 35-40).


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--1919, The Problem of the Pacific, William Heinemann, London.

--1920, Stevenson's Germany, William Heinemann, London.

Hancock, W.K. 1930, Australia, Ernest Benn, London.

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Saunders, K. 1982, Workers in Bondage: The Origins and Bases of Unfree Labour in Queensland, 1824-1916, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.

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Walker, D. 1999, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.

--2002, 'Survivalist Anxieties: Australian Responses to Asia, 1890s to the Present', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 33, pp. 319-30.

Margaret Van Heekeren is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Charles Sturt University and a member of the management committee of the Centre for Media History, based at Macquarie University.
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Author:Van Heekeren, Margaret
Publication:Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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