Monday 5 May 2014

Passing the dictation test with watercolours: Cossack, Western Australia, 1909

In March 1909 Atlee Hunt, permanent secretary of Australia’s Department of External Affairs, embarked on a fact finding visit to Western Australia to examine the operation of the Commonwealth’s Immigration Restriction Act. After a ten day trip he reached the general conclusion that the state’s ‘administration was formerly lax, has lately considerably improved, but is still far from perfect’. 

Little did Hunt realise that just weeks before his arrival a ‘coloured’ Filipino man in the remote Pilbara town of Cossack had, under most unusual circumstances, passed the dictation test prescribed under Section 3 of the Act. Once the facts of this case had come to light, they would test the patience and credulity of the bureaucrats in charge of administering Australia’s immigration restriction policy for well over a year. As one ‘mystified’ customs official noted later, he could not ‘quite fathom’ the manner in which Lorenco De Garra had been granted a ‘free admission’ into the Commonwealth.

De Garra, a twenty-nine year old native of Manila, had first arrived in Western Australia from Singapore in 1903 and for six years worked as an indentured labourer in the Broome and Pilbara pearling industries. However, rather than repatriating to Singapore in 1909 after his final indenture, he approached the Customs office in Cossack ‘to have the education test applied to me’ so he could migrate to Australia permanently. The local officer in charge of administering the Act, H.H. Trigwell, initially followed standard procedure by dictating a passage in English, which De Garra successfully transcribed. 

Official instructions decreed that Trigwell should then have failed De Garra by administering another test in a language he could not understand; however, as the customs officer’s own linguistic abilities were limited he felt ‘unable to apply any other language’. Trigwell’s solution was novel: he asked De Garra to paint a picture entitled ‘Advance Australia’ using watercolours, after which the Filipino was deemed to have passed the test and permitted to enter the Commonwealth. As a free and legal immigrant, De Garra promptly took up employment as a crewman on the police cutter servicing Cossack.

If Hunt was correct in his assessment that in 1909 Western Australia’s administration of the Immigration Restriction Act was ‘much improved’, the De Garra case would seem to suggest that its operation in remote regions of the state was, at the very least, inconsistent. In reality, the application of the Commonwealth’s racially restrictive immigration policies during the first decade of federation is a story of steadily improving efficiency, especially in the vast, underpopulated and poorly policed hinterland of Western Australia. Whereas in 1902 thirty-three applicants passed the dictation test, just seven years later this number had dropped to just one; in fact, Lorenco De Garra would be the last person ever to pass the test in Australia. 

The same cannot be said of the administration of the education test contained in Section 3 (a) of Western Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act of 1897, which operated until the Commonwealth's Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 superseded it. In September 1901 Prime Minister Edmund Barton wrote to Western Australian Premier George Leake explaining that a senator had requested specific information relating to his state’s immigration policies, in particular:
1. How many Asiatics were examined and successfully passed the educational test clause of the West Australian … Act during quarter ending June 1901.
2. How many Asiatics were examined and failed to pass the educational test … during quarter ending June 1901.
3. How many Asiatics have failed to pass the educational test … since the Act came into operation.
The Western Australian government’s response to this request is illuminating. Fremantle’s inspector of police, John McKenna, was tasked with compiling the data and reported that until recently ‘no record had been kept of persons arriving in the state under the Immigration Restriction Act’; he could not therefore ‘give any information respecting the third question’. 

McKenna himself did not think the 1897 Act ‘efficient in keeping coloured persons out of the state, as many of them could pass the education test, especially the Indians’; and this opinion was amply borne out by the figures he provided to answer the senator’s first two questions:
I beg to state that from the 1st of January this year [1901] till the 8th of September last, 20 Asiatics have passed the Education test, and 16 have failed. 
This data clearly shows that as a method of exclusion, Western Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act was a failure, with well over 50 per cent of applicants passing the education test. By way of contrast, in the seven years following the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act’s enactment, the pass rate never exceeded 9.5 per cent, and after the Lorenco De Garra case, not a single person passed the dictation test.

Why so many applicants passed the Western Australian education test is a question that cannot be answered with certainty, owing to the poor records kept by the colonial government. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that inefficient administration was partly to blame. Section 3 (a) of the 1897 Act was badly drafted and difficult to interpret; and the port officials tasked with carrying out the Act’s provisions were provided with only the most obscure and vague instructions. 

Western Australia itself was an enormous territory with a small population of 200,000 settlers at the turn of the twentieth century; it is likely that many officers enforcing the Act, especially those in remote coastal settlements, were inadequately trained and unsupervised. It was only once the Commonwealth took over administration of immigration policy in Western Australia that bureaucratic efficiency improved markedly. 

However, perhaps there is another possibility that might help to explain the high pass rate, especially in the remote northern regions of the colony. In his study of tropical Australia in the nineteenth century, Henry Reynolds demonstrated that thriving multicultural, multiethnic communities were the norm in the continent’s northern settlements prior to federation. While racism certainly existed in these places, the rigid form of white supremacy that characterised White Australia after 1901 was largely absent; and interactions across the colour line were far more common than in the south. 

The De Garra case provides evidence that similar conditions prevailed in Cossack as late as 1909. In a statement sent to his superiors, Constable T. Rogers explained why he had employed De Garra to work on the police cutter after he had passed the dictation test:
Lorenco De Garra is a superior class of man. Educated, Honest, and thrifty, a splendid penman. And I am certain [he] would never become a burden on the State. He does not associate with the coloured men, he rents a house in the town pays his rates and spends his spare time in study and painting.
De Garra was clearly regarded as ‘civilised’, a cultivated man who chose to associate with white people rather than other ‘coloured’ workers in Cossack. If in 1909 white officials in northern Western Australia were prepared to flout the conventions of White Australia and allow an educated non-white immigrant to pass the dictation test, it is quite possible that similar instances took place under the colonial Immigration Restriction Act.



Cossack from Nanny Goat Hill 1910State Library of Western Australia, Ref: 025591PD


This material is sourced from J. Martens, ‘Pioneering the Dictation Test? The Creation and Administration of Western Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act, 1897-1901’ in Ruth Morgan, Cecilia Leong-Salobir and Jeremy Martens (eds), Western Australia in the Indian Ocean World: Studies in Western Australian History 28 (2013), pp. 47-67. Please consult this article for a full list of citations.

See also : 

A.T. Yarwood, Asian Migration to Australia: The Background to Exclusion 1896-1923 (Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1967), p. 49.

H. Reynolds, North of Capricorn: The Untold Story of Australia’s North (Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, 2003).

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Race, citizenship and the franchise in South Africa, 1926-1936

As we mark twenty years of democracy and the end of apartheid in South Africa this week, it might be worth reconsidering the process by which the franchise was increasingly racialised in the 1920s and 1930s.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

The execution of Midgegooroo in Perth, 1833

By 1832 economic conditions in the infant colony of Western Australia had stagnated. Captain Irwin, appointed lieutenant governor in James Stirling's absence, frequently resorted to military methods of social control; even minor breaches of the peace stemming from privation, such as the theft of food, were met with an iron fist. 

Monday 14 April 2014

‘Black Peril’ and its legacies in South Africa

Oscar Pistorius claims he killed Reeva Steenkamp after mistaking her for an intruder and that he fired his pistol four times through a closed toilet door ‘out of fear’ for his and Steenkamp’s safety. 

There is no doubt that South Africa is a dangerous place, with rates of homicide and violent and sexual assault, especially against women, among the worst in the world. Even so, twenty years after the end of apartheid it is also true that in many cases this fear of violent attack remains racialised, which perhaps is not surprising, given the long genealogy of ‘black peril’  and its legacies in South Africa:

Friday 11 April 2014

‘Terribly sordid & dull & slow & primitive’: The 1920 Royal Tour to Australia

What do royal tourists really think about the people and places they visit? 

With William, Kate and baby George sure to be greeted with star-struck adulation in Sydney next week, it might be worth reconsidering a different royal tour to Australia. In 1920 thousands of loyal subjects greeted Edward, Prince of Wales, with pride; and in response 'the Digger Prince' was consistently polite in public. Yet his private correspondence reveals a different side to the heir to the throne: