a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: Colonial Queensland »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

The first recorded contact by Europeans with Queensland was by the Dutch ship Duyfken in 1606 near Weipa on the Gulf of Carpenteria. In 1770 Captain Cook's ship Endeavour was holed off the North Queensland coast and put up for repairs near what is now Cooktown. By the time Mathew Flinders came across Indonesian trepang (sea cucumber) gatherers in northern Australia in 1803, the northern part of the country was already well known in Asia, with many established trading and familial links with the Indigenous peoples of Australia and the Torres Strait.

British Queensland was originally established in 1824 at Moreton Bay, as an outpost punishment centre from the colonial headquarters in Sydney. Later in the century, in the wake of the Irish potato famine, many thousands of Irish emigrants went to Queensland, which became the 'most Irish' of the colonies. They were followed by survivors of the European uprisings of 1848. When Queensland was created as a separate colony in 1859 it was already a thriving agricultural society. British, Scandanavian and German farmers and pastoralists often employed lowly-paid Chinese, Indian and other non-European labourers.

The first governor, George Bowen, whose wife was Italian from Greece, saw the north of Queensland being opened up through the employment of bonded Asian workers, and through trade with Asia. Yet it would be gold rather then trade that would trigger development, and draw a population from every part of the globe.

The Palmer River gold rush in northern Queensland was an overwhelmingly Asian affair. By 1877 Chinese outnumbered Europeans 17000 to 1400 on the Palmer, working under indentures or carrying heavy loans they had to repay. The colonial government responded quickly to their numbers and successes– restricting Chinese access to new fields. Within a decade widespread anti-Chinese legislation was developed, and anti-Chinese leagues established; these were to be the precursor to Australia-wide legislation.

Japanese workers became an important part of the Torres Strait pearl-shell industry after 1868. They were also widely employed in the sugar industry. Both these industries also drew in migrant workers from the South Pacific. Known as Kanakas or South Sea Islanders, they were indentured to work on sugar plantations in quasi-slave-like conditions, until their banning in 1902 under the White Australia laws.

Assisted migration flourished up until the economic downturn of the late 1880s, with some 100,000 migrants entering the colony from 1879 to 1888. Assistance was given to British, Irish, Scandanavian and German immigrants. At Federation Queensland was the most culturally diverse colony in the new nation, though its public policies were Anglo-conformist.

All across northern Australia, central Asians – people from what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan – piloted camel trains loaded with construction gear, merchandise and foodstuffs to isolated communities that the railways had yet to reach. Travelling merchants from the Levant (Syria and Lebanon, then part of the Ottoman Empire) took goods to newly emerging communities, and established (along with Chinese and Jewish traders) many of the rural stores that would exist for generations.

The Torres Strait, its Indigenous population located amidst the sea 'highway' connecting the Pacific with the Indian Oceans, soon became an extraordinarily diverse community. Besides the Melanesian links of the Indigenous peoples, there were shell divers from the South Pacific, from Japan, and from Malaya. Ambonese, Macassans, and many other groups from what is now Indonesia also settled in the Straits.

Queensland also attempted to be a colonial power in its own right – pushing its borders far into the Torres Strait. Queensland sought to force the British claim to New Guinea as a means to protect the north of the colony from the encroachments of the German Empire, with its colony in northern New Guinea. As well the island could provide more resources and opportunities for plantations.

Queensland within a generation of its foundation was both colony and coloniser, with a multicultural population but a fiercely White British political culture. This contradiction would not be addressed for another five generations, in the new millennium.