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: 

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Gandhi and white violence in colonial Natal

In 1896, as part of a rising anti-Indian agitation, white settlers in the colony of Natal formed two populist organisations to pressure the government. Both the European Protection Association and Colonial Patriotic Union garnered widespread support and within a few months the Union had collected 5514 signatures to a petition requesting the government ‘to adopt measures which will prevent the influx of Asiatic races into this colony’.

At much the same time, and after three years of activism in the Transvaal and Natal, Mohandas Gandhi returned to India to ‘represent the grievances the Indians are labouring under in South Africa’. While he was overseas, colonial newspapers reported that Gandhi had published a pamphlet declaring ‘Indians in Natal are robbed and assaulted and treated like beasts, and are unable to obtain redress’. Even though these reports were false and were later retracted, settlers were incensed that Gandhi had dared ‘to come to the Colony of Natal, to take everything that was fair and good in it, and then to go out of it and blackguard those whose hospitality he had been enjoying’.

The organised agitation against Indian immigration was already well advanced when it became known in December 1896 that two steamers, the S.S. Courland and S.S. Naderi were en route to Durban from Bombay with more than 600 Indian passengers on board. Gandhi was among them, for he and his family had boarded the Courland and were returning to Natal. The ships had left India at the end of November and arrived at Durban after almost three weeks at sea on 18 December 1896; but in spite of the fact that both steamers ‘had absolutely clean bills of health on arrival and during the whole of their respective voyages’ they were immediately placed under quarantine. Meanwhile, at packed demonstrations in Durban there were calls to ‘sink the ships’, to send all the passengers back to India and ‘to take a coolie by the neck and throw him overboard’. At one meeting a speaker was applauded when he announced that ‘Gandhi was on board one of the boats and the greatest service they could do him would be to do him an injury. He believed Gandhi was very anxious to become a hero and martyr to his cause.’

After 25 days in the humid summer heat, the steamers were finally granted pratique. Wary of the agitation, the ships’ agents delayed bringing the ships into port until 13 January, when bugles were sounded in Durban, shopkeepers put up their shutters and crowds streamed to the Point. It was estimated that five thousand men were assembled when the vessels made their way into the harbour. Prime minister John Robinson hurriedly despatched the attorney general, Harry Escombe, to Durban to contain the crisis and broker a deal with the demonstrators, for the cabinet worried that the situation had the potential to spiral out of control.

As the crowd gathered at the Point, Escombe visited the vessels to assure the passengers that it was safe to land and no harm would come to them. He then came ashore and addressed the white protesters. He appealed to their sense of justice and called on them to ratify the pledge he had given to the passengers. He asked that the crowd ‘trust the Government, as we have trusted you’ and ‘expressed sympathy with their desire that Natal should remain a white Colony, governed in accordance with Anglo-Saxon traditions’. He gave assurances that the ministry was doing all it could to negotiate with the imperial and Indian governments to stop immigration pending the passage of new legislation.  The regular parliamentary session would open in early March, two months earlier than usual, to deal with the immigration question.  He congratulated the leaders of the demonstration on ‘having made the Government more keenly alive’ to the urgency of supplying a remedy to the ‘Asiatic question’ and implored the crowd ‘to leave the matter in the hands of the Government and not to hamper it by unconstitutional action’.

Escombe also appealed to the demonstrators not to harm Gandhi, ‘as by doing so they would only strengthen the hand of the Indians’. Seconded by the leaders, he persuaded the crowd to disperse and by early afternoon the Point ‘had resumed its normal appearance’ and all but one of the Indian passengers were ‘quietly landed, and without resistance’.
By late afternoon on 13 January, only Gandhi remained on board the Courland. Escombe had advised that he leave the steamer quietly at night so as to avoid attention, but a local lawyer and friend, F.A. Laughton, boarded the ship and suggested they land together before dark and make their way to the residence of Rustomjee Sheth, one of Gandhi’s friends. At 5pm he disembarked with Laughton and was almost immediately recognised by a group of boys who began to shout ‘“Gandhi,” “Gandhi,” “thrash him”, “surround him”’. Before long a large mob had gathered and proceeded to follow the pair along West street. Laughton was pulled away and Gandhi ‘was kicked, whipped, stale fish and other missiles were thrown at him, which hurt his eye and cut his ear’. At one point he almost lost consciousness and was forced to cling on to the railings of a nearby house.

While he was suffering the wrath of the mob, Gandhi was approached by the wife of Durban’s superintendent of police. She opened her umbrella for his protection and began to walk at his side. Unwilling to strike or ‘insult a lady, especially the wife of the old and popular Superintendent of Police’, the attackers tried to aim their blows at Gandhi without assaulting her and consequently the injuries he received after she joined him were not serious. By this time the police had been informed of the attack and a number of constables surrounded Gandhi and escorted him to Sheth’s residence.

However, his travails were not yet over. Soon a huge crowd blockaded the building and threatened to burn it and everyone in it unless Gandhi was handed over to them. The superintendent of police, concerned that the mob would force their way through the door, sent a constable into the house dressed up as an Indian trader. While the superintendent amused the crowd by singing popular songs and talking to them, Gandhi was instructed to disguise himself as a police constable. He was able to leave undetected and was taken to the safety of the police station. The mob, which had been chanting ‘We’ll hang old Gandhi from the sour apple tree’, dispersed quietly once a search of Sheth’s house revealed that Gandhi was no longer present.

In his recent biography Ramachandra Guha characterises this attack as ‘far more important’ than the well-known incident three years earlier when Gandhi was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg station; for while in Pietermaritzburg he had been ‘the victim of one person’s racism, expressed at one time alone’, in Durban Gandhi ‘was the target of the collective anger of (virtually) all the whites in Natal’. The violence he experienced in Durban was therefore ‘more revealing of the racial politics of South Africa and of the challenges faced by Mohandas Gandhi himself’.

This event is also directly linked to restrictive immigration laws in both South Africa and Australia. The Natal parliament responded to the agitation by enacting an immigration restriction act in 1897. This law, along with its ‘non-racial’ education test, would provide the model for Australia’s own Immigration Restriction Act of 1901.


Most of this material is sourced from J. Martens, ‘A Transnational History of Immigration Restriction: Natal and New South Wales 1896- 1897’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 34 No. 3, 2006, pp. 323- 344. Refer to this article for a comprehensive list of references.

See also R. Guha, Gandhi before India (London, 2013), Chapter 5.

Monday 31 March 2014

The republican debate in late nineteenth century Australia

Tony Abbott’s anachronistic reintroduction of the imperial honours system last week has reignited the republican debate in Australia. David Morris, national director of the Australian Republican Movement, has gone so far as to declare that the prime minister's announcement has ‘given us a big shot in the arm’. While Morris admits ‘we won't get a republic while Tony Abbott is prime minister… he may help us get there’; and points out that ARM membership has grown steadily since Abbott swore allegiance to the Queen when he became Prime Minister in 2013.

One of the biggest challenges facing the republican movement is the consistently strong support for Queen Elizabeth and the continuing fascination with the ‘celebrity monarchy’ appeal of William, Kate and baby George. Nevertheless, Malcolm Turnbull and other republicans are confident that there are far more Elizabethans than monarchists in Australia and that once the Queen dies the republic will become a reality.

Yet regardless of one’s position on the republican debate, it would be foolhardy to underestimate the tenacious persistence of the monarchy in Australia. There is nothing inevitable about the path leading towards a republic, as this excerpt from the Goulburn Evening Penny Post makes clear. Although this opinion piece was written in 1888, its arguments in favour of a republic are remarkably similar to those used today, over 125 years later. Perhaps most sobering for contemporary opponents of constitutional monarchy is the Post’s belief in the persuasive power of these arguments as well as its optimism in 1888 that an Australian republic was just around the corner.

Goulburn Evening Penny Post 26 May 1888

‘…[T]he mysterious influence, the occult restraining power, designated in euphonious phrase by Lord Carrington as loyalty to her gracious Majesty's throne and person, is waning rapidly. As it dies away the oppressing influence of republicanism grows….

Quite recently it was perilous to mention the British throne in any other terms than those of unqualified adoration…. We ourselves have been roundly condemned for hinting that the Queen was only a woman and subject to all the infirmities and disabilities of fallible mortals. Times have changed, and any criticism, so long as it did not trench on coarseness, would pass muster to-day. This is not mere carelessness, though even that would prove that the general sentiment was undergoing an alteration, but may be traced to the development of a fixed idea that we have outgrown the time of colonial office apron strings and that our course lies in an altogether different direction.

Her Majesty may be all that she is said to be, may be anxious to concede all that a democratic people really requires, may be the soul of honour and the quintessence of charity, may, in short, have no thought or care apart from the welfare of the millions in many lands over whom an accident has called her to exercise the rights of sovereignty…but whether she is a paragon of excellence or not matters very little to Australians. The increasing objection is not to the person but to the system  - not to Victoria but to Monarchy….

[A]nd when we reckon up the changed utterances in the press, and note the obvious reversal in public thought generally, we are quite justified in believing that loyalty is waning very rapidly in this colony. It is not so much a strong antagonism to the present system of government as a belief that there is a better system. So freedom grows. The Australian national spirit cannot develop healthily so long as we are subject to Downing-street. In peaceful times the cramping process is not readily apparent; but when a crisis arrives and serious questions involving vast issues come to the front the hampering influences of the Colonial Office are very perceptible….

These matters, apart from their immediate influence, naturally tend to make Australians ask themselves whether, all things considered, they would not gain rather than lose by politely and in a friendly manner substituting the national flag for the British standard on Government House. No ill will against England or English interests actuates them in propounding this and similar questions. As children grow towards maturity they unconsciously withdraw from the go-carts of maternal care. Their respect and affection undergo no organic change; but circumstances alter cases, and independence both of thought and action is inherent in true manhood….

In the nonchalant attitude displayed by the masses here towards the English throne is the germ of the true Australian national party, and it must grow into form and power. We are not yet a republic, but a very slight ruffling of our feelings would precipitate the crisis and transform us into one. All the elements, in a crude state, are with us, and the rest will follow in due time.’

The Goulburn Penny Post was accessed via Trove (

Tuesday 25 March 2014

Amahashi: African rickshaw pullers in early twentieth century Durban

African rickshaw pullers, or amahashi (horses), were an indispensible part of Durban’s transport system in the early twentieth century; and by the time this postcard was produced by Sallo Epstein & Co in about 1907 their distinctive and elaborate costumes had already become a tourist attraction.

Rickshaws were first imported into Natal in 1892 and from the outset were hired out to African pullers. Their popularity as a means of transport is reflected in the dramatic rise in the numbers of new vehicles and pullers on Durban’s streets: in 1899 about 740 rickshaws were in daily use, and 11 445 pullers were registered; by 1902 there were 2170 rickshaws and over 24 000 pullers. At the turn of the twentieth century it was estimated that some 3400 people spent an average of 9d daily on rickshaw travel in Durban alone.

As Ros Posel points out, African rickshawmen occupied an anomalous position within Durban’s African labour market for they were ‘freelance’ operators who hired their vehicles from rickshaw-owning businesses. While it was a flexible occupation and could be remunerative, it was also hazardous; in 1904 Durban’s superintendent of police Richard Alexander testified to the South African Native Affairs Commission that most rickshawmen only worked for between two and three months either because of ill health (especially pneumonia) brought on by the gruelling nature of the job, or because they quickly tired of pulling.

Although vulnerable to exploitation, the dependence of Durban’s transport system on rickshaws meant that collective action by pullers could help to protect employment conditions. When in 1918 the city’s largest rickshaw company, Durban Rickshas Ltd, raised its hiring fees from 10s to 12s per week, pullers successfully went on strike. However, subsequent industrial action and protests, such as those in 1930, were less effective.

Shortly after rickshaws were introduced, Superintendent Alexander proposed that pullers should wear a distinctive uniform to facilitate their identification by police. This uniform was originally an unbleached calico ‘kitchen suit’ trimmed with a single row of red braid; rickshawmen, however, soon modified it by adding other rows and allowing the braids to hang down on each side. They also patterned their legs with whitewash, wore reed bangles, and tied boxes of seeds around their ankles that rattled as they moved. They also adopted decorative headdresses, which usually consisted of ox horns, through which it was believed the ox’s strength would be imparted to the puller.

The rise of motorized transport throughout the twentieth century meant that there were only ten operating rickshaws left in Durban by the early 1980s. Six of the rickshawmen interviewed by Ros Posel around this time had been pulling for over thirty years. Five were members of the Mandlakazi clan from Nongoma, which by tradition supplied pullers; and four of these men had followed their fathers into the business, including Shampiyise Nxumalo, whose grandfather ‘began that tradition’.


Sallo Epstein & Co. ‘A Riksha boy’, circa 1907. Postcard in JM’s possession.

Ros Posel, ‘The Durban Ricksha Pullers’ “Strikes” of 1918 and 1930’ in Journal of Natal and Zulu History VIII, 1985, pp. 85-106; ‘Amahashi: Durban’s Ricksha Pullers’ in Journal of Natal and Zulu History XIII, 1990-91, pp. 51-70.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Drunkenness and disorder in early nineteenth century Sydney

Sydney's binge-drinking culture and its implications for public order and safety have been making headline news since the beginning of the year; and the O'Farrell government's new alcohol lockout laws are the just the latest in a long line of state-led initiatives to curb public drunkenness and alcohol-related violence.

And yet excessive alcohol consumption has been a feature of Sydney's night life since the beginnings of European settlement, and the law has long been used to punish the drunk and disorderly, as the following police reports from the early 1830s make clear:

POLICE INCIDENTS (The Sydney Herald, 9 August 1832)

Ann Smith, found on Sunday evening rather queer in the Market-place, dancing a Dutch horn-pipe in the middle of a score of men, who were whistling in concert, as she jigged, was placed at the bar. By way of defence, she said she merely went in there out of the rain, and to keep her blood in circulation, she certainly did trip it on the light fantastic toe. The Bench ordered her to pay five shillings. "No, no," said Ann, " I know a trick worth two of that." In consequence, she was escorted by one of the politest Charleys to the stocks.

POLICE INCIDENTS (The Sydney Herald, 1 October 1832)

Maria Sparkes, puffing and blowing from obesity, was placed at the bar, after some slight show of resistance, charged with being over valorous the previous night, under the influence of a good draft of Dutch courage, and threatening, while in that state, to decimate the charleys at the very least, and brandishing a cudgel, told them to come on, she did not care a fig for them; this request was complied with, and after a little skirmishing, they were obliged to carry her to the lock-up, as she refused to walk.
Bench. - What defence have you to make ?
Maria. - Defence, eh ! what apology are those fellows going to make, who sculldragged me through the streets last night; was that the way to treat a decent woman like me.
Bench. - You should not have got drunk. You must go to the stocks for two hours.
Maria. - Ah, well, that's the way of the world. I don't much like the stocks, but I'll put up with it, rather than dump up; good bye.

POLICE INCIDENTS (The Sydney Herald, 17 October 1833)

Two seamen belonging to a vessel in the harbour, were amusing themselves on Sunday night last, about the hour of eleven, in George-street, by roaring out in unison, at the top of their lungs, "Tom Starboard's a lad you'd delight in;" when an officer of Police interrupted their harmony, by his interrogatories. They stated they were clerks in the Secretary's Office, and begged to be allowed to withdraw; their tarry hands, and beard bedizened muzzles, however, were too conspicuous to allow them to pass for clerks in so respectable an office, and they were lodged in the watch-house, to allow them time to give a better account of themselves.

These newspaper reports were accessed via Trove (

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Snapshot: vignettes from the Australian and South African past

Welcome to Snapshot!

This blog is devoted to publicising short historical snippets from 19th and 20th C Australia and South Africa. In the coming months I'll be posting and commenting on a wide range of old newspaper stories, photographs, archival documents and associated ephemera. As a novice blogger I'd appreciate any comments, questions and suggestions you may have. Enjoy!