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The origins of a white Australia: the coolie question 1837-43.

"As we have pre-historic events, the Reformers before the Reformation,' John Inglis wrote in 1887, 'so we have a prehistoric as well as a historic labour traffic.' (1) He was referring to the 192 Pacific Islanders recruited in 1847 to work for Ben Boyd. Historians have since extended the 'prehistory' of white Australia to include the 244 Indians, 205 Eurasians and 3606 Chinese brought to Australia from 1835 and 1854. The numbers were small but opposition to non-European immigration from colonists and the Colonial Office laid the foundations for development of the White Australia Policy late in the 19th century.

Myra Willard's History of the White Australia Policy to 1920 (1923) characterised it as a reasoned, progressive and democratic attempt by white colonists to promote social cohesion, material prosperity and cultural enrichment. The 'validity and morality' of the policy, she concluded, rested on 'the validity and morality of the principle of nationalism'. (2) Willard's 'nationalist' interpretation went unchallenged for 30 years. Bruce Mansfield, drawing on his research into the origins of the labour movement, argued in 1954 that the 'nationalistic and racialist myths' underlying the White Australia Policy were rooted into 'the prejudices and passions of the majority of Australians'. (3)

Since then, several historians have defended the 'nationalist' interpretation. Russell Ward wrote that 'feelings of racial superiority were largely absent in Australia before the gold rushes. (4) Andrew Markus argued that 'a broad form of racism was in the making' by the 1850s 'but racism had yet to mature in the colonies'. (5) Keith Windschuttle's recent The White Australia Policy (2004) described opposition to coolie labour before 1854 as rooted in the campaigns against transportation and slavery; characterising coolies as 'inferior and servile' rested on 'a clear legal and economic basis' rather than on racial prejudice. (6)

The lingering influence of the 'nationalist' interpretation of the White Australia Policy is evident on the website of the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship and Wikipedia. Both trace its origins to legislation passed by Victoria in 1855 restricting Chinese immigration. This article attempts to explain why white colonists in New South Wales opposed the replacement of convicts or assisted British emigrants with Indian and Chinese coolies from 1837 to 1843. A second article (yet to be placed) will deal with the Colonial Office policy of 'reserving' the Australian colonies for emigrants from the United Kingdom over the same period.

The origins of a white Australia can be traced to the growth of a British population in New Holland during the first half of the 19th century. Private plans for colonising New South Wales proposed bringing labour from China or India to establish plantations on its tropical north coast. The British Government decided on a penal colony in New Holland's temperate latitudes. By 1840 over 100,000 convicts had been transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land.

Free emigration by the British labouring classes to Australia scarcely existed before the first assisted emigrants arrived from the United Kingdom in 1832. With a steerage passage to America costing a fifth of the fare to Sydney, shipowners never thought of offering a 'lower class of passage' to poor emigrants. Most settlers were unable or unwilling to pay 30 [pounds sterling] to bring a free servant from Britain or Europe, and even less from India, China, or the Pacific Islands. Importing labour at private expense could not be justified, they explained, because the law gave them little protection against servants who absconded to take a better-paid job. By 1836 the four Australian colonies had a population just over of 200,000--Aborigines were rarely counted--of whom less than 1 per cent was not of European birth or descent. (7)

John Mackay arrived in Sydney from Bengal with his family and five Bengali servants in August 1836. He bought a share in a farm in the Hunter Valley and a distillery in Sydney. (8) When he found that labour shortages were impeding colonial enterprise, he sent the governor two memoranda on Hill Coolies. While they were not equal in strength to stout Europeans, Mackay explained, 'their patient disposition and tractable habits' would make them excellent shepherds, and they required only a third of the wages paid to Europeans. (9) J. R. Mayo, formerly a planter in the West Indies, sent the governor a memorandum in April 1837 explaining how Indian labour was benefiting sugar planters on Mauritius. (10) G. F. Davidson, who had spent 20 years in the East, circulated a plan in June 1837 to bring Chinese mechanics, gardeners and labourers from Singapore. Sixty settlers subscribed for 355 men for 5 [pounds sterling] a head landed at Sydney. (11)

The Sydney Herald observed in March 1837 that Bengalese labourers being recruited for Mauritius would make excellent shepherds in New South Wales but, if their superstitions proved 'invincible', Chinese could be procured. (12) The Sydney Monitor claimed that the 'thought, care, expense and trouble' of importing Bengalese or Chinese would be greater than for British emigrants. In June, the Monitor asked if English law should interfere with agreements 'entered into between the simple and uninformed people of India, and our adroit and politic colonists'. The Legislative Council should determine the proportion of the sexes to be imported; stipulate the food, clothing and lodgings provided; regulate hours of work and punishments; and what security should be given for their return to India. Importing Chinese might be 'the beginning of a most outrageous evil; it is the seed of a moral pestilence ... a poisoning of the very fountains of physical and moral health'. (13)

The Australian attributed Davidson's long list of subscribers to settlers having been too long accustomed to 'slave labour' to look favourably on emigration from the mother country. (14) The Sydney Gazette could not accept the introduction of Mahomedans into the community. (15) The Colonist did not presume to suggest whether men of different religion, customs and manner of living would benefit the colony but questioned the propriety of bringing immigrants from a foreign country while the British Isles was oppressed by a superabundant population, poverty and unemployment. (16)

Thirty-eight flock owners in southern New South Wales petitioned the governor in May 1837 to import shepherds and labourers from Bengal as an urgent necessity. (17) The governor referred their petition, together with Mackay and Mayo's memoranda on Indian labour, to an immigration committee. Witnesses who had lived in India testified that Indians were physically and morally inferior to Europeans. Shepherding was well within their capabilities but they should not work alongside Europeans lest they be ill-treated, tempted to drink and become discontented with their wages. The committee recommended a bounty of 6 [pounds sterling] per head on up to 500 male coolies, adding that the Legislative Council would have to legislate to ensure their health and safety during the voyage and amend the Master and Servant Act to make their contracts enforceable. (18)

Thirty-nine male Hill Coolies, a Mahomedan, an overseer and a six-year-old child landed in Sydney on Christmas Eve 1837. Mackay's agent in Calcutta recruited 60 Hill Coolies but only 43 embarked. One died from dysentery during the voyage. The adult Hill Coolies signed an indenture to serve Mackay for five years at five rupees a month (6 [pounds sterling] a year), with rations and clothes, and a free return passage home at the end of their contracts. Mackay sent 20 to his farm in the Hunter Valley and 13 to the Sydney distillery; the rest worked as domestic servants and gardeners. (19)

When the Hill Coolies at the distillery and two of the domestic servants absconded in February 1838, Mackay offered a reward of 1 [pounds sterling] each for their apprehension. The police found them five days later sleeping in a hut 50 miles west of Parramatta. Through an interpreter they told the Sydney Police Office that they had not been given enough to eat or been paid since they arrived. They agreed to return to work if they were better fed and paid monthly. The press described them as 'unhappy, mal-treated Heathen British subjects, without a friend in the colony'. Dressed in tattered, dirty canvas, they were even shabbier than blacks clothed in charitable handouts. If coolies were to be imported in any number, using the coercive powers and revenues of the state to enforce their indentures would place an intolerable burden on the administration of justice. (20)

On 18 November 1837 the Government Gazette announced that convict assignment would be discontinued at an early date, and advised settlers to look to free emigrants for labour. (21) Prospects for free emigration were not promising. The 20,419 male convicts transported to New South Wales from 1831 to 1837 had fallen short of the demand for labour. Only 1163 adult male assisted emigrants arrived from the United Kingdom from 1832 to 1837.

Growing wool required shepherds willing to work for 'modest' wages and able to endure the hard, monotonous and often dangerous life on remote runs. Assigned convicts were cheap to employ, had no families to feed, and could be flogged if they refused to work or absconded. Assisted emigrants were reluctant to work as shepherds; most found jobs as mechanics or domestic servants in the towns. The colonists did not begin to consider the alternatives to convict labour until the first reports of the evidence given to the House of Commons committee on transportation reached Sydney early in 1838. Soon after Sir George Gipps, the new Governor of New South Wales, arrived in February he assured settlers that London was determined to replace convicts with assisted emigrants as early as possible. (22)

The two factions dominating New South Wales politics split over alternatives to convict labour. James Macarthur and Dr John Dunmore Lang urged that 'numerous, industrious and virtuous' emigrants from the United Kingdom should replace convict labour. Indian or Chinese coolies would be too expensive, and interest in them would collapse once the transition to free labour had been accomplished. (23)

The Sydney Herald, dubbed the 'organ' of the Hunter River Tories, accepted that convicts could no longer supply settlers with labour but argued that they should not be replaced by assisted emigrants. 'It is absurd to suppose that any colony can advance without forced labour,' the Herald argued. 'In every country in the world, newly peopled, forced labour of the black or white skin has been employed, wherever progress has been rapidly made.' Settlers should employ 'an honest, docile, and industrious population of Indian shepherds, and labourers, instead of a band of ungovernable cut throats'. Indians would free settlers from the turbulence, drunkenness and viciousness of the convicts without manifesting the independence and dislike of shepherding shown by assisted emigrants. (24)

Whig landowners met in May 1838 to petition the imperial government to rescind or defer the decision to end assignment. A clause in their petition condemned 'the anti-national introduction of Indian labourers, strangers alike to our religious and moral habits, still further increasing the disproportion of sexes in the colony'. Charles Campbell, classical scholar and pastoralist, told the meeting that he wished 'to see the peculiarly British character of the Colony preserved'. (25) W. C. Wentworth persuaded a poorly attended meeting in February 1839 to drop a clause on Indian labour: they might have to import coolies if they could not have convicts and the land fund did not supply enough free emigrants. Wentworth had told the 1837 immigration committee that he did not approve of the introduction of Indians because it would be impossible to prevent 'an intermixture of races'. The Australian chastised him for broaching doctrines so 'thoroughly condemned and exposed'. (26)

The coolie question exacerbated sectarian divisions in New South Wales. Roman Catholics comprised more than a quarter of the population by 1841. Tories feared that the high proportion of Catholics emigrating from Ireland, added to the Irish convicts transported earlier, might swamp Protestant interests in the colony. The Sydney Herald protested that the land fund was being prostituted by bringing out swarms of Popish labourers without skills or intelligence. (27) Dr Lang railed against the recruitment of emigrants from Irish strongholds of 'popery, bigotry, superstition, and immorality'. If the colony received universal suffrage, Catholics would form a party that would seek to place its government in the hands of the Romish priesthood. (28)

In 1839 five wealthy emancipists put up 5000 [pounds sterling] to start the Australasian Chronicle to defend and advance Roman Catholic interests in New South Wales. The Catholic hierarchy appointed as editor William Augustine Duncan, a Catholic convert who had worked as a journalist in England before being recruited in 1838 to teach in a Catholic school at Maitland. Duncan's editorials supported the separation of church and state, opposed the 'unjust and impolitic distinction of castes in the colony', and argued for 'a perfect equality of rights among all classes of Christians' .29 Duncan led the opposition to coolie labour in New South Wales from 1840 to February 1843.

Mackay intended to set up an agency to import Hill Coolies for the settlers but decided not to open a subscription list until the government agreed to pay an immigration bounty. The Sydney Herald reported in June 1838 that Mackay was about to import 800 coolies. Later that year news reached Sydney that the Colonial Office had refused to allow a bounty on Indian coolies, and the Indian government had suspended coolie emigration. (30) Mackay abandoned his plans for an Indian labour agency. In May 1839 the Herald published a letter from Davidson in Singapore explaining that he had not recruited any Chinese because freights were too high and a suitable vessel was not available. Davidson later wrote that Chinese labour would be affordable only if recruited in China. (31) The outbreak of the Opium War in 1839 ended any prospect of recruiting in China.

The assignment of convicts newly transported to New South Wales ceased in October 1839. (32) The following June, the Sydney Herald called for a committee on Indian immigration. (33) The immigration committee in 1840 heard no evidence on Indians but reported that, if all other resources failed, the prohibition on Indian emigration should be revoked for a limited time to allow the colonists to import coolies at private expense. (34) Transportation to New South Wales ceased on 1 August 1840. Landowners met in September to establish the Australian Immigration Association. Richard Jones declared that immigration 'was not a matter of politics or party, but of urgent necessity'. Two speakers suggested that Indian immigration be investigated but most were more interested in improving the quantity and quality of British emigration.

The Australasian Chronicle claimed that the association's main purpose was to promote emigration from England at the expense of the Irish. (35) Hubert Plunkett, the Attorney-General and the only Roman Catholic member, told the Legislative Council that importing 'Mahometans and pagans' would keep Irishmen away; calling Irishmen 'vagabonds and prostitutes' went against the spirit of Christian liberality and encouraged anti-Irish feeling among colonists. (36) News arrived from London in November that a bill to lift the prohibition on emigration from India was before Parliament. (37) Forty-four employers sent a memorial to the governor asking for a committee on Indian labour. Gipps refused. (38)

A rumour spread through Sydney early in 1841 that employers were planning to petition the imperial government to lift the prohibition on coolie emigration. The Australasian Chronicle responded that Indians were a 'feeble and degenerate race' whose descendants would bring discredit on the colony. Their 'physical and mental inferiority' would make them subservient to a degree inconsistent with civil liberty. If they married Europeans, their descendants would form a caste similar to those in America. They would deter British operatives from immigrating by depreciating the value of labour. They would bring unchristian ideas and immoral practices. Their presence would destroy the civil and political rights of British colonists. (39)

By the winter of 1841 employers were blaming rising labour costs and declining profits on the 'abrupt' termination of transportation and deficiencies in assisted emigration. More than 300 settlers signed two petitions seeking a committee on Indian labour, arguing that coolies would lower wages, increase profits and conserve capital. Some settlers conceded that coolie labour was 'objectionable' but, as one put it, 'by agitating the Coolie question we might at least show to what extremities we are reduced'. James Macarthur and Wentworth 'reluctantly' supported a lifting of the prohibition on Indian emigration. (40)

The terms of reference for the 1841 immigration committee were the funding of British emigration and the employment of Aborigines as shepherds. A few months earlier, the Colonial Office had instructed the Governor to appropriate 15 per cent of land revenues for native welfare. (41) Gipps tried to placate settlers incensed by the diversion of the land fund to pay for Aboriginal 'protectors' by suggesting that 'the real children of the soil' might be persuaded to forsake their nomadic wanderings to become shepherds.

Speakers in Legislative Council debates on the two petitions stated the case against coolie labour. What would English labourers say, Bishop Broughton asked, when told they were coming to a country to compete with blacks able to live on half the wages that they could? Plunkett declared that coolies were slaves: to describe them as 'indentured' was 'a mere shuffle'. And would it be fair to British emigrants to introduce millions of pagans into the colony? Gipps warned that 'the colony would probably have to support a Coolie government, a Coolie magistracy, a Coolie protectorate, and perhaps be obliged to impose upon themselves a Coolie tax'. (42)

With the coolie question threatening to become a rallying point for rising dissatisfaction with the imperial government's native, land and immigration policies, Gipps could not ignore it. He packed an immigration committee, chaired by Bishop Broughton, with opponents of Indian labour. (43) The committee questioned all but two witnesses on Indian labour. Mackay, Robert Scott and John Lord testified that Indians could be introduced 'only through the intervention of the Governments of India and New South Wales'. Strict supervision would be needed to prevent fraud and abuse, to ensure that recruits were healthy, and prevent crimps at Calcutta hiring vagabonds from the slums or men of higher caste not used to labouring. Employers would pay all the costs; the only charge on the government would be for administering 'special laws' to protect the coolies from oppression. Coolies should be bound by laws similar to the provisions in the New South Wales Act for indentured emigrants from the United Kingdom.

The committee reported that Indians could not be brought to the colony without depriving them of the rights and liberties of free servants and that their presence would discourage the British labouring classes from immigrating. Indians would damage the 'well-understood and permanent interests' of New South Wales by establishing 'in perpetuity a race of different origin, colour, and habits from the European, and necessarily doomed to occupy a station of inferiority, and would introduce into our social system a new element which it could not fail to deteriorate, or it even may be said, to deprave its constitution'. (44)

Was it possible, the Sydney Herald asked after one Legislative Council debate, 'to conceive of anything more insulting to the Colonists than the vapouring, prosing twaddle with which the petition for Coolie inquiry was mouthed and trifled with on Tuesday last?' Interests in England, driven by prejudice, misrepresentation and calumny, were forcing the colony to accept Irish Catholics when Indian coolies would make better shepherds. To the accusation that coolies 'would deteriorate our species, effeminating our British veins by an infusion of Asiatic blood', the Herald responded that the 'instinctive repugnance' between the two races would stop them from intermarrying. The objections to coolies on the grounds of religion could also be made against Catholics. Whereas 'the Romish Church is essentially and unchangeably adverse to public freedom', no coolie priesthood would undermine Protestant institutions, a coolie pope would not demand homage, and no coolie anathemas would thunder across a heretic world. Coolie superstitions might be deplored but there was no fear of them paganising the colony. (45)

The Australasian Chronicle responded that importing coolies to keep out Catholics violated the rights of the Irish. As natives of the United Kingdom and subjects of the Crown, the Irish were entitled to benefit from the land fund equally with the English and Scotch. Landowners might complain about the lack of immigrants but 'the diminishing number of bond slaves' better explained their call for the introduction of 'uncivilised Indians'. Coolies would reduce the wages of the entire working population and divide the colony into two classes, white masters and coloured slaves. The state of the coloured population in America indicated what might be expected if coolies were allowed into Australia. (46)

In May 1842, with the colonial treasury empty, Gipps suspended assisted emigration. Prospects for relieving labour shortages in pastoral districts were bleak. Wool and stock prices continued to fall with no compensating decline in wages. When the imperial government increased the minimum price of crown land to 1 [pounds sterling] an acre from January 1843, many were left doubting whether the colony would ever again raise a land fund.47 The only shaft of light to penetrate these gathering clouds was the news that the imperial government had decided to allow Indian emigration for Mauritius.

The Sydney Herald compared the sufferings of sugar planters, deprived first of their slaves and then of free labour from India, to that of employers in New South Wales who had lost their convicts and then assisted emigrants. Coolies did not share the 'almost universal repugnance of English labourers to become shepherds'; indeed, they would welcome the ease and quiet of a shepherd's life. John Mackay, Robert Scott and Edward Blaxland formed a provisional committee to petition the imperial government to lift the prohibition on Indian emigration to New South Wales. (48)

The press described many of the 50 persons attending the inaugural meeting of the Coolie Association at Sydney in September 1842 as spectators, idlers and opponents of coolie labour. Richard Windeyer told the meeting that 'they should have their own countrymen, men of the same colour with themselves, who spoke the same language and worshipped the same Deity' but, if they could not be obtained and labour was not to be found elsewhere, the colony would go to ruin. Wentworth saw no reason why the imperial government, after lifting the prohibition on Indian emigration for Mauritius, should not favour New South Wales likewise. While he preferred British labour, he saw no prospect of transportation being revived or any hope of selling 'the miserable wilds of this country' for 1 [pounds sterling] an acre to pay for assisted emigration. He proposed a memorial to the Governor asking that the Legislative Council enact legislation embodying the regulations governing Indian emigration for Mauritius. If Gipps refused, a memorial should be sent to London. (49)

The Australasian Chronicle dissected the Coolie Association's memorial point by point. Settlers given land grants and squatters had contributed nothing to the land fund but protested loudest about the lack of labour. They paid assisted emigrants such low wages that most preferred to starve in Sydney than work as shepherds. When the land fund was exhausted, they advocated mortgaging the colony to English and foreign Jews to purchase Indian heathens, thugs and Mohamedans. (50) Masters long accustomed to having convicts work for nothing, Henry Parkes wrote to his sister in England in January 1842, 'cannot bring their minds to paying for a free man. Hence they would fain to have poor coolie from India, bound to them for a number of years--a slave in everything but name.' (51)

Letters to the press expressed popular opposition to coolie labour. 'A Bounty Immigrant' wrote that he had never seen a coolie and knew nothing about them. Few would object to coolies working as shepherds but, if they were as cheap as their advocates claimed, they would soon supersede the existing labouring class. Many would leave the colony and British immigration would cease. (52) 'Cit' explained that coolies were physically and mentally inferior to Europeans, did not have the aptitude or inclination to learn new ways, and did not speak English. The absence of Indian women would result in 'disgusting crimes'. The ordinary amenities of European society would disappear to allow a few dozen selfish men to acquire fortunes. (53) 'The Hermit' warned that importing thousands of coolies would burden the colony with debt; bringing men without women would 'violate all natural and social rights'; and competition from coolies would see British emigrants reduced to wages of 20 rupees a year or 'trampled into beggary and ruin'. (54)

Settlers were reluctant to attend Coolie Association meetings and refused to pay subscriptions. The Australian complained of the 'disgusting and dispiriting apathy' shown by the upper classes on the coolie question. (55) The Port Phillip Herald advised employers to sign, but few were interested. When Neil Black inquired about coolies early in 1842, he concluded they would be of little benefit even if he could hire them for half the 24 [pounds sterling] a year he was paying Europeans. (56) Gipps dismissed a Coolie Association deputation late in 1842 with a question: 'Gentlemen, are you sure that the great body of Colonists is with you?' (57)

'Poseidon' published eight letters on immigration and coolie labour in the Australian. He stressed the need to preserve the native customs of Indians brought to the colony. Native overseers should accompany coolies to supervise them at work because their white masters would not be familiar with their language and religious beliefs. Travelling superintendents would dispense justice according to their native law; punishment by Europeans would be less effective and cause lingering resentment. A European conversant with Indian languages and customs would administer a coolie protectorate and serve as a court of appeal. Coolies regarded the lash as less degrading than a treadmill but Poseidon did not advocate using the lash in New South Wales. (58)

Two weeks after the founding of the Coolie Association, a copy of An Act for the Government of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land arrived from England. The Legislative Council was to be increased to 36 members, two-thirds elected. The franchise was limited to adult male British subjects, including emancipists, owning freehold property valued at 200 [pounds sterling] or paying rent of 20 [pounds sterling] a year. Artisans who rented a house for 8s a week would be eligible to vote. (59)

Friends of Wentworth and Dr William Bland called a meeting soon after Christmas to launch their campaign for the two Sydney seats. Wentworth denied using the expression 'low Irish Catholic mob' or that he was ever an enemy of Catholics or Irishmen. He had supported coolie labour as a temporary measure for the salvation of the country, he explained. With no prospect of raising a land fund there could be no assisted emigration. High wages in pastoral districts were absorbing most of the profits from wool and threatening squatters with bankruptcy. Earlier Wentworth had told an immigration committee that coolies were a 'degraded class' but to say now that he preferred them to 'Englishmen, Scotchmen, Irishmen, or Germans was to do him a gross injustice'. When labour was obtainable from a better source, he would advocate coolies no longer. (60)

Other candidates used the coolie question to attract popular support and as a weapon against Wentworth. Robert Cooper, transported in 1812 and now a wealthy brewer, styled himself 'the friend of the people'. 'No Coolies' placards decorated his public houses. William Hustler, a barrister recently arrived in the colony, had 'Vote for Hustler and No Coolies' placards posted on Sydney's streets. 'Agitators' on street corners in the Rocks denounced supporters of coolie labour. (61) Cooper and Hustler--probably with Duncan's help--drafted an address to the Queen stating the arguments against coolie labour. The embarrassed state of the colony's capitalists was the result of their extravagance, speculation and attempts to monopolise the lands; 'the vices peculiar to the natives of India' would hinder the growth of virtue and morality in the colony; coolie labour would soon degenerate into a form of slavery; attempting to lower wages by importing coolies would be unjust to emigrants who had left the United Kingdom to better their condition; and the introduction of coolies would be a great injustice to the distressed and starving British population.

The largest public meeting in New South Wales to that date assembled at the racecourse--now Hyde Park--on 16 January 1843 to adopt the anti-coolie address. Hustler said that if labour was needed, the sympathy of the colonists should be directed towards the hundreds of thousands of their starving brethren in England before introducing 'black slave labour'. The colony should remain a purely British and Christian community rather than one blended with heathenism. Henry Macdermott, a member of the Sydney Municipal Council, claimed that coolies would lower morals in the colony. 'It was well known that the position of these Coolies was nearly the lowest in the moral scale of human nature.' If males only came, crimes too awful to contemplate would be committed; if women came, white workers would father a race of half-castes. Robert Nichols, the colony's first native-born solicitor, declared that coolies 'would introduce crimes, which among Christians and civilised men, were not even named'. John Lynch, an Irish Catholic stonemason transported in the 1820s, argued that former employers of convicts would relapse into the condition of slave masters if they had coolies. (62)

The racecourse meeting split 'liberal' opinion on the coolie question. The Australasian Chronicle asserted that 'the people of Sydney are hardly fools enough to elect a citizen to represent them simply because he is a "No-Coolie" man. The people of Sydney have the sense to know that other things are needed in a legislator than the cunning to chime in, at a late hour, with a popular cry.' (63)

Duncan's recantation on the coolie question came too late to save him. A month after the meeting, the Roman Catholic vicar-general dismissed him as editor of the Chronicle. Archdeacon John McEnroe, the new editor, published a letter explaining that the paper 'was established to defend Catholic principles, to refute calumny and misrepresentation, and to promote good understanding among all classes in the community'. Duncan's zeal had led him beyond that 'sobriety' of opinion recommended in holy writ, injuring the cause he had undertaken to defend. The Catholic Church did not wish to involve the Chronicle in partisan politics. (64)

Duncan's darkest sin had been to stir unrest among the labouring classes. His editorials on the franchise, sectarianism and the coolie question inflamed poor Catholics and unenfranchised Protestants alike. Critics of Cooper and Hustler described their 'No Coolies' campaign as a 'miserable stratagem' pandering to the prejudices of the labouring classes and misleading the ignorant. The Sydney Morning Herald claimed that Cooper, 'this self-deified god of the people', had plied his 'unwashed votaries' with gin and tobacco in low pot-houses and ranted against Wentworth for wanting to swamp the colony with coolies. (65)

The prospect of drunken 'Irish' mobs rampaging through the streets, assaulting candidates and destroying property worried the Catholic clergy, the Chronicle's proprietors, and property owners of all denominations. Duncan published his letter to the Catholic archbishop of Sydney claiming that his support for liberal causes had annoyed wealthy Catholics, and his reluctance to trumpet Irish nationalism made him unpopular with Catholic immigrants. (66)

The Coolie Association drafted a memorial claiming that only cheap Indian labour could save woolgrowers from ruin and that they should be allowed to share the advantages of coolies with Mauritius. An appendix rebutted the arguments against Indian immigration. Opponents of coolie labour had asked: why import coloured labour from Asia when Aborigines could work as shepherds? All attempts to employ and civilise the Aborigines had failed; the only things that the blacks had learned in their 50 years of contact with Europeans were the white man's vices. Fears of Europeans and Indians producing a race of half-castes had been exaggerated: the number of Indians imported would be too small and the disadvantages of blending races had yet to be demonstrated. Written agreements and their readiness to seek redress for any wrong done to them would prevent the coolies from being 'enslaved'. Justice and humanity demanded that Indians, as British subjects, be allowed to bring their labour to the best market. (67)

Campaigning for the Legislative Council election proceeded until polling between 16 June and 3 July 1843. In the Hunter Valley, the Scott brothers, Robert and Helenus, employed some of Mackay's Hill Coolies at their property, Glendon. Three sons of Helenus contested different Hunter Valley seats and his son-in-law, Dr James Mitchell, stood for a fourth. 'The Hermit' accused the Scott family of wanting to deluge the colony with Indian coolies. He warned against the election of 'men with "yellow liver and jaundiced" eye--forlorn in health, and nationised in all the beau ideals of Indian life to represent us'. The colony did not 'want men nurtured in an Indian hot bed of despotism and corruption, to form and fashion this little sprig of liberty that has at last been granted to us'. (68) The Maitland Mercury castigated Dr Mitchell for introducing the cholera morbus of the coolie question into his election campaign. (69)

Two of the younger Scott brothers and Dr Mitchell withdrew before polling. Alexander Scott, who owned an iron foundry in Newcastle, contested Northumberland Boroughs (the towns of East Maitland, West Maitland and Newcastle). He did not mention coolies when he launched his campaign. D'Arcy Wentworth, younger brother of William Charles, stood against Scott. 'So far from being an advocate for the introduction of Coolies,' D'Arcy told an election meeting, 'he considered them very unfit and improper persons to be brought to this Colony, and he came to this conclusion from the experience he had acquired from living amongst them.' D'Arcy Wentworth won by 120 votes to 107. (70)

Henry Dangar contested the district of Hunter, Brisbane and Bligh in the upper Hunter Valley. 'No Coolies' was 'an old woman's cry', he told a meeting in April 1843. If the government would not pay for immigration, they must obtain labour from other parts of the world. Ten days later, Dangar declared his reluctance to advocate coolie labour if funds could be raised 'to bring out from the Mother Country a rural, moral and good population'. He would not 'quarrel with a man for the colour of his skin' but would not introduce coolies at public expense. Peter McIntyre, one of Dangar's opponents, said he was 'hostile to the introduction of Coolies, they are an ignorant and disreputable people, only fit to be servants of despots ... They are in every respect inferior, as a tribe in the human family, and could never be fitted to act the part of a free people.' William Dumaresq won with 58 of the 111 votes cast. (71)

W. Lane launched his campaign for Bathurst with a declaration against coolies. With thousands unemployed and starving in Great Britain, 'let us have men of our own colour and religion' in preference to 'the Indians, the Heathen, or Mahomedan'. Francis Lord, a grazier supported by Wentworth, stood against Lane. Gilbert Wright, speaking in support of Lord at a campaign meeting, accused Lane of claiming merit for his opposition to coolies when, just two years before, he had signed a petition in favour of coolie labour. Lane, who was present, denied signing any such petition. Wright said he would not argue the point. Lord then confessed to signing the Coolie Association's memorial as a necessity but added that there was now no shortage of labour in the district. He won the seat comfortably. (72)

Voters in country districts were satisfied if candidates declared that employers should be free to import coolies as long as they received no public funding. William Foster, standing unopposed for Northumberland, told a meeting at East Maitland that 'designing parties' had made a 'handle' of coolie labour. Coolies would not answer the expectations of their advocates. He would not vote for them if shepherds could be obtained elsewhere. He would never agree to coolies being imported at public expense. (73)

William Ogilvie told a meeting at Muswellbrook that every man must make his own decision on coolies but he would not support their introduction at public expense. (74) William Bradley, standing unopposed for Argyle, declared that not a single shilling of public money should be spent on coolies. (75) James Macarthur told a meeting that he had not joined in 'the popular cry against coolies'; he saw no harm in importing them at private expense but he much preferred emigrants from the mother country. (76)

The nomination for the two Sydney seats was held in Macquarie Place on 13 June. Candidates had difficulty making themselves heard above the sustained cheering, hooting and hissing. Hustler, speaking first, declared his opposition to coolies: he did 'not wish to see a race differing in colour, religion, and customs, mixed with us'. When Wentworth rose to speak, the tumult drowned him out. Sir Maurice O'Connell appealed to the crowd to give him a fair hearing. Wentworth spoke for over an hour but much of what he said was inaudible. When a voice came from the crowd, 'Not a word about the Coolies, that's a blackspot,' Wentworth said that the matter had been settled but he would still explain his position. He had never advocated the introduction of coolies at public expense but saw no reason why individuals should not import them privately, as proposed by the Coolie Association. Cooper never mentioned coolies. (77)

By mid-morning on polling day voting was running in favour of Wentworth and Bland, with O'Connell in third place. A mob of about 500, described by The Sydney Morning Herald as infuriated Irishmen, gathered at the Rocks. Armed with staves and fence palings, they marched on Macquarie Place. The superintendent of police confronted them on Church Hill, read the Riot Act, and ordered them to disperse. They brushed his outnumbered constables aside. At Macquarie Place and Hyde Park they pulled down the flags of Wentworth and Bland. Mounted police tried to stop them in George Street but had to retreat before a hail of clubs and palings. Voting was suspended. The police and imperial troops restored order after dark. Polling was completed next day without incident. (78)

Gathering signatures for the Coolie Association's memorial proceeded so slowly in country districts that it was not handed to Gipps until May 1843. A dispatch rejecting the memorial reached Sydney in February 1844. The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out that the Coolie Association had not asked for coolie labour to be supported from public revenues, only that the prohibition on their emigration from India be lifted. The Herald responded that the Coolie Association was planning a remonstrance to the imperial government. No remonstrance had been forthcoming, the Weekly Register--edited by Duncan--claimed, because the Colonial Office had probably anticipated the Coolie Association's intention to procure a vote of public money as soon as restrictions were lifted, and because its members were insolvent or short of money. (79) Dr Nicholson moved in the Legislative Council in June 1844 that the correspondence on coolie immigration be tabled. Charles Windeyer, in seconding the motion, explained that the Governor had promised a deputation that he would give their views all the weight to which they were entitled when he laid them before the secretary of state. (80) On that ironic note ended the first chapter in the history of white Australia.

By 1843 colonists in New South Wales had developed some of the arguments for a white Australia used later in the 19th century. First, Indians and Chinese were races of 'inferior blood' and 'deteriorated intellect'. The Anglo-Saxon race would be contaminated if oriental pagans and Britons pure in lineage and national identity propagated 'a mongrel and degenerate progeny' in Australia. Second, Asiatic coolies were slaves in all but name. A few 'white lords of creation' ruling over 'a dark and degraded caste' would create a slave society similar to that in America. Third, importing males only from countries whose inhabitants were prone to an offence 'not be mentioned among Christians' would perpetuate the vices that had polluted convict society. Fourth, British colonists in Australia would never consent to introducing a race that would undersell 'their fellow subjects of the same blood in the labour market'. Fifth, competition from coolie labour would discourage British emigrants; even starving Irishmen would not emigrate to compete with blacks able to live on half the wages of a white man. Sixth, introducing inferior and degraded races would destroy the civil liberties and political rights of British colonists in Australia. Caste and heathenism were not consistent with colonial aspirations for material progress, social improvement and constitutional reform. The coexistence of superior and inferior races would nourish despotism in the former and servility in the latter.


(1) John Inglis, In the New Hebrides, London, 1887, p. 198.

(2) Myra Willard, History of the White Australia Policy to 1920 (rpt), Melbourne, 1967, pp. 188-213.

(3) Bruce Mansfield, 'The origins of "White Australia"', Australian Quarterly, no. 36 (December 1954), pp. 61-68.

(4) Russell Ward, 'An Australian legend', Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 47 pt 6, 1961, pp. 339-48.

(5) Andrew Markus, Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California, Sydney, 1979, pp. 237-40.

(6) Keith Windschuttle, The White Australia Policy, Sydney, 2004, pp. 11-25,152-64,327-40.

(7) Wray Vamplew (ed), Australians: Historical Statistics, Sydney, 1987, pp. 4-5, 26.

(8) Australian, 23 August 1836.

(9) John Mackay, 'Memorandum on the introduction of Indian labourers', October 1836; additional memoranda, 22 May 1837, 'Indian immigration, New South Wales Legislative Council', Votes & Proceedings (NSW LC V&P), 1837.

(10) Mayo to Colonial Secretary, 29 April 1837, 37/4056 in 4/2363.2, State Records NSW (SRNSW); J. R. Mayo, 'Remarks on the employment of Indian Laborers, out of their own Country, 1 May 1837, Indian immigration', NSW LC V&P, 1837.

(11) Australian, 26 April 1836, 6 June 1837, 22 June 1837, 28 June 1838. Chinese Repository, VI, October 1837, pp. 299-300.

(12) Sydney Herald (SH), 9 March 1837.

(13) Sydney Monitor (SM), 13 March, 14, 19 June 1837.

(14) Australian, 13, 16, 20 June 1837.

(15) Sydney Gazette (SG), 10 June 1837.

(16) Colonist, 22 June, 20 July 1837.

(17) 'Flock-owners in New South Wales to the Colonial Secretary, 24 May 1837, Indian immigration', NSW LC V&P, 1837; Australian, 13 June 1837.

(18) Final report, 'Evidence of Mackay, Mayo, Biscoe, Collins, Mackellar, Scott and Bury, Committee on Immigration Indian and British, into New South Wales', NSW LC V&P 1837.

(19) Australian, 29 December 1837; SH, 27 July 1838; 'Mackay to Colonial Secretary, 31 August 1838', 38/9132 in 4/2406.1, SRNSW.

(20) SM, 21,28 February, 1838; Australian, 2, 6 March 1838; SH, 8 March 1838.

(21) New South Wales Government Gazette, 18 November 1837.

(22) SM, 5 January, 23 April 1838; Colonist, 10 January 1838; Australian, 12 January 1838; SG, 13 January, 17 March 1838.

(23) Colonist, 29 December 1836, 22 June, 21 September 1837; John Dunmore Lang, Transportation and Colonisation, London, 1837, p. 75; James Macarthur, New South Wales, London, 1837, pp. 156-60.

(24) SH, 26 December 1836; 27 February, 9, 16 March, 19 June 1837; 9, 23 April, 17 May, 27 July, 1 October 1838; 4, 7, 14 January 1839.

(25) SG, 29 May 1838.

(26) 'Wentworth's evidence, 24 June 1837, Committee on Immigration, Indian and British, into New South Wales', NSW LC V&P 1837; Australian, 12 February 1839.

(27) SH, 19 June 1837; 1 August 1838; 15 July 1839; 14, 18 September 1840.

(28) John Dunmore Lang, The Question of Questions, Sydney, 1841, pp. 3-16.

(29) Australasian Chronicle (AC), 29 November 1839; 28 January, 3 March, 1, 19 September 1840; 2 January 1841; Australian, 16 September 1841.

(30) Mackay to Glenelg, 4 April 1838; Gipps to Glenelg, 22 August 1838; Stephen's minute, 23 April 1838, CO 201/275, 126-8; Secretary, Governor of India to the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales, 11 July 1838, 38/13813 (39/3823) in 4/2448, SRNSW; Australian, 24 November 1838, 23 April 1839; Normanby to Gipps, 13 March 1839, CO 202/40, pp. 51-52.

(31) Extract, Singapore Chronicle, 16 September 1837; SH, 30 April 1838; SH, 28 June, 4 July 1838; 3 May 1839; G. F. Davidson, Trade and Travel in the Far East, London, 1846, pp. 203-4.

(32) AC, 11 October 1839.

(33) SH, 29 June 1840.

(34) Report, SC immigration, NSW LC V&P, 1840.

(35) SH, 8 July, 21 September, 17, 26 November 1840; AC, 19 September, 5, 29 November 1840.

(36) SH, 23, 25 (sup) September 1840.

(37) SH, 14 November 1840.

(38) SH, 29 December 1840.

(39) AC, 23 February, 2 March 1841.

(40) SH, 26 June, 10 July 1841.

(41) Russell to Gipps, 25 October 1840, HRA 1/XX, pp. 774-76.

(42) AC, 22, 29 July 1841; Australian, 23 July 1841; SH, 11,26 August 1841.

(43) AC, 8, 22, 29 July 1841; SH, 11,26 August 1841.

(44) Report, evidence of Mackay, Lord, Scott, SC immigration, NSW LC V&P 1841.

(45) SH, 14 April, 2, 3, 7, 29 June, 1, 10, 24 July 1841.

(46) AC, 2 March, 19 June, 1,22, 27 July 1841.

(47) Australian, 12 May, 3 August 1842; Stanley to Gipps, 15 September 1842, HRA 1/XXII, pp. 279-84.

(48) SH, 28 June, 12 July 1842; The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 9, 20, 25 August 1842.

(49) AC, 27 September 1842; Colonial Observer (CO), 28 September 1842.

(50) AC, 15, 20, 27 October, 19, 26 November 1842.

(51) Henry Parkes, An Emigrant's Home Letters, Sydney, 1896, p. 123.

(52) 'A Bounty Emigrant', Australian, 14 December 1842, 6 March 1843.

(53) 'Cit', AC, 22 November, 23 December 1842.

(54) 'The Hermit', AC, 13 December 1842.

(55) O'Brien, SMH, 24 November 1842; Australian, 28, 30 December 1842.

(56) Black to Gillanders Arburthnott & Co, Calcutta, 7 May 1842, Neil Black papers, box 40/2, MS 8996, State Library of Victoria; Port Phillip Herald (PPH), 18 November 1842.

(57) Australian, 5 December 1842.

(58) 'Poseidon', Australian, 5 December 1842, 30 January 1843.

(59) M. M. H. Thompson, The First Election, Goulburn, 1996, pp. 14-15, 94-95, 140-42.

(60) AC, 29 December 1842.

(61) AC, 24, 31 December 1842; Australian, 30 December 1842, 23 January 1843; 'Rusticus', SMH, 16 January 1843; 'A constant reader', SMH, 18 January 1843.

(62) AC, 17 January 1843.

(63) AC, 19 January 1843.

(64) John McEnroe, AC, 23 February 1843.

(65) 'Brutus', 'A looker on', Australian, 4 January 1843; SMH, 18, 27 January 1843.

(66) W. A. Duncan, An Appeal from the Unjust Decision of the Very Rev. Vicar General Murphy to His Grace the Archbishop of Sydney, Sydney, 1843, passim.

(67) SMH, 23 October 1842; 'The memorial of the undersigned members of the Association for Obtaining Permission to Import Coolies, or other Labourers from India', HRA 1/XXII, pp. 702-6.

(68) 'The Hermit in New South Wales', AC, 4 January, 9 March 1843.

(69) Maitland Mercury (MM), 25 February 1843.

(70) MM, 14 January 1843.

(71) MM, 15 April 1843; Australian, 21 April 1843.

(72) SMH, 3 March, 11 April 1843.

(73) MM, 25 February, 8, 11 March, 1843.

(74) SMH, 27 March 1843.

(75) SMH, 18 March 1843.

(76) AC, 12 January 1843; Australian, 8 March 1843.

(77) AC, 15 June 1843.

(78) SMH, 17 June 1843; Wentworth, SMH, 20 June 1843.

(79) Stanley to Gipps, 29 September 1843, HRA 1/XXIII, p. 166; SMH, 13, 20 March 1844; Weekly Register, 16, 23 March 1844.

(80) SMH, 6 June 1844.
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