Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939

David Walker’s new book is particularly timely. In recent years religious and racial bigotry has come to loom large in this country’s political vocabulary. The book encompasses nearly 90 years of Australian growth and development taking us up to 1939 and the outbreak of World War II. It establishes that in the 19 th and 20 th centuries and indeed right up to the present time, the question of race dominated private and public discourse alike. And in the political arena, bigotry and myth making shaped these racial debates.

In a series of fascinating case studies, David Walker shows how racial discrimination emerged as a tool for the empires of the day. It was Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany who invented the term ‘Yellow Peril’ and exploited it to foster racial intolerance. The British Empire followed suit with equally poisonous rhetoric. Walker’s point is an important one: the threat of invasion was a tool whereby the British maintained its grip on the ‘white outpost’ of Australia.

There was no apology for talking of preserving the racial hegemony for people who were sometimes called ‘Anglo-Saxons’ or ‘British’ and on some occasions, described as ‘Nordic’. These terms were used to indicate the master race that was to be not only preserved but obeyed and it was a political tool for the whole of the 90 years summed up by David Walker. The mentality is captured in a well chosen quotation from the British Governor of NSW in 1888, Lord Carrington. It summarises the case against the continued Chinese immigration into Australia in overtly racial terms:

Firstly, the Australian ports are within easy sail of the ports of China: secondly, the climate as well as the branches of trade and industry … are peculiarly attractive to the Chinese; thirdly, the working classes of the British people in all the affinities of race are directly opposed to their Chinese competitors; fourthly, there can be no peace between the races; fifthly, the enormous number of Chinese intensifies every consideration … sixthly, the … determination … to preserve the British type in the population; seventhly, there can be no interchange of ideas of religion or citizenship, nor can there be intermarriage or social communion between the British and the Chinese (p. 40).

In this and every other instance, the Empire decided who was to be categorised as the principal enemy of White Australia then developed a theme, day by day, month by month and year by year. And the problem with the Chinese, Carrington added, was that they were also very clever!
With evocative and compelling prose, Walker recaptures the nineteenth century view of Asia: a part of the world brimming with population and teaming with a terrible energy. Asia was a force about to engulf the world’s under populated zones. Among the great and powerful stereotypes was the caricature of a malignant oriental intelligence patiently manoeuvering for advantage: the imaginary Dr Fu Man Chu an evil genius whose aim was to subordinate the world to his will. But racism is also a source of curious paradox. These familiar themes were sometimes contradicted by representations of the Chinese as diseased, immoral, superstitious, badly governed or childlike.

It is not surprising that the Chinese were chosen as a focus for racial intolerance. They had began to arrive in Australia in recorded numbers in 1830 when a group of Queensland pastoralists brought in Chinese workers to work on their properties. The largest numbers came with the Gold Rushes in the 1850s and in some places, the Chinese became the second largest ethnic group after the English. They were here, they could be seen, they could be identified and they could be utilised to frighten voters who might have been restless under colonial rule.

The demonisation of the Chinese was not extended to the same degree to other Asians. Indeed colonial Australians view of India was coloured by great stories of British heroism forging a new corner of Empire. Moreover, Walker argues, there was a certain affection for India amongst Australian colonists. From the earliest days of the British settlement of Australia, India and the crown colony of Ceylon were a familiar part of the colonists world.

As David Walker notes, the first links made by the new colony were with India which provided grain, foodstuffs, clothing and livestock when supplies in the new colony ran low. India, he explains, was a lifeline for early NSW. Robert Campbell is but one example. The first independent merchant operating in Sydney, Campbell was born in Scotland in 1769 and went to India at the age of 27 to join his elder brother. By the 1790s, the family export business (based in India) had become a regular supplier to the new colony.

And the interest in India wasn’t just an economic one; Australia’s experience of India was both extensive and varied. Caroline Chisholm lived for six years in India before moving to Australia. Alfred Deakin, one of our first Prime Ministers, recorded his admiration of India and things Indian on many occasions. Indeed, Deakin’s views hoped to modify pejorative racial stereotypes, reminding white migrants to Australia that they were making their homes neither in Europe nor America but in Southern Asia. Walker argues that the choice of the term ‘southern Asia’ encouraged Deakin’s contemporaries to accept and value their proximity to India. Deakin even predicted that Australia’s future was tied up with Asia’s, India could shape the cultural, spiritual and economic development of twentieth century Australia. But as Walker notes, events proved him wrong.

Similar contradictions emerge in popular depictions of China and Japan. Japan was seen as another Britain in the East, a society of good order, good government, politeness with traditions that seemed to parallel those of the heart of the Empire. This positive view of the Japanese often had a deeply gendered dimension: in popular English literature (so ably explored by Walker) Japanese women are invariably portrayed as cultivated, refined and accomplished.

The culmination of this admiration for Japan in Australia came with the arrival of the Japanese naval squadron in Sydney in the early days of the Commonwealth. Indeed the arrival of the Japanese Squadron all but eclipsed an earlier visit by the United States’ navy. Indeed, the American consul was very much miffed to find that the USA squadron attracted less applause, less attention and less interest. Of course, all of this was to change when the shadows of war gathered over the South Pacific.

Part of the ongoing debate on racism was an interminable discussion of the ‘tragedy’ of misegenation. A ‘mixed race’ was thought to spell the end of civilisation itself. There could be no room for accommodation or compromise according to the racial purity group. Any intermingling of the races would result in collapse, decline, decay, degeneration, and ‘mongrel chaos’. These extreme views may be recalled with some amusement when it is known today that 75 per cent of Australians have more than one ethnicity in their background.

Despite all the racism which he describes, Walker ends this fascinating book on a positive note. As long as ago as the 1850s men like Robert Gibbon Wakefield were urging Australians to look to Asia and by the 1930s many Australians had become alert to the prospects of closer economic, cultural and political ties with what was still quaintly called the Far East. Robert Garran, one of the founders of the Commonwealth, argued the case for a national school of Oriental studies and an increasingly articulate group mainly associated with the Institute of Pacific Relations began to push for a recognition of Australia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region. It is in recovering these alternative traditions, and sometimes rescuing a fragile voice of conscience, that Walker does most to extend our understanding of Australian perceptions of Asia.

The creation and exploitation of the same kind of ‘insecurity’ is addressed in a graphic way in Anthony Burke’s latest publication. Burke’s thesis is neatly summarised by Dr McKenzie Wark’s thoughtful preface:

for a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism, the disgraceful treatment metered out to ‘boat people’ who arrive on Australian shores speaks to an underlying problem in the constitution of the Australian state. Whatever the virtues of a tolerant policy within the space of the nation, it rests on a troubled relation to the ‘outside’ world (p. xvii).

Burke argues that security is one of the fundamental human needs and has been used in Australia in bitter political conflicts too often resolved in violent and anti-democratic ways. His examples range right across Australian history, from the colonial quest to establish and maintain a white Australia to Philip Ruddock recent claim that countless thousands of illegal immigrants are planning to breach our boundaries.
One such colonial example was a speech by Henry Parkes in 1888 calling for all classes to preserve the colonies for the British alone. Burke wonders if this kind of quest for security is just another Orwellian touch to impose a form of slavery. He describes the British view of Australian settlement as based on the ruling class’s ‘natural’ fear of a challenge from below: be it from convicts or the working classes. Get rid of them and send them to the colonies was the solution. Once Australia was settled, wars against Indigenous Australians were fuelled by the same kind of intolerance. In the quest for white security, Aboriginal people were depicted as ‘devils and beasts of prey’.

The White Australia Policy was aimed at building a unity of colonial classes and interests particularly against inferior, threatening and barbarous Chinese. While there may have been conflict in later times between the views of those loyal to Britain and the Empire and those seeking a republican Australia, the concept of White Australia dominated all.

Like Walker, Burke is keen to rescue a sense of historical alternatives and to show how attitudes towards what constituted security changed over time. It was James Scullin, a Labor Prime Minister in depression days, who blew the whistle on the secret treaties of the various national combatants in World War I describing the Treaty of Versailles as the worst ‘huxtering, haggling, sordid pieces of bargaining ever made in the history of the world’. In 1941, Burke notes John Curtin, another labor leader, struck a blow for independence when he said Australia would join with the USA to fight the Pacific War while the UK ‘fights for its own survival in Europe’.

During the Cold War Australia refused to commit troops at the behest of Britain except in Korea and at the behest of the USA in Vietnam. Against this background, the advent of the Whitlam Government with its new emphasis on Australia’s independence led US sources to categorise Australia as the third most serious threat to the CIA. Ironically, Burke reserves his strongest criticism of the Whitlam government for its failure to criticise Soeharto and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Hawke and Keating have also failed to understand the true nature of regional ‘security’.

In the Howard era, Burke focuses on the deliberate fostering of perceived insecurities: the loss of home, the loss of an (imaginary) homogeneity, the increasingly visible diversity of Australian society and the enhanced power of Asian powers. Howard’s answer was to create a ‘mainstream’ of one identity alone.

Burke’s answer to all the problems of so-called ‘security’ is to ‘empower communities against a sovereignty which claims their allegiance but rejects their participation and the coding of empowerment into the fabric of aid and diplomacy’. He advocates a form of security which recognises diversity and difference spurred by a recognition of past injustices rather than imperial hubris.

In a moving finale to a challenging book, Burke describes the Tampa incident as the resurgence of Western fantasies of white racial supremacy. What Australia needs, he concludes, is a new kind of identity and a foreign policy alert to the profound unending distress of the homeless. This is a project of some courage and great compassion. Like Walker’s book, it is a thought provoking and relevant study of Australia’s attitude towards Asia.



By: David Walker



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