a multicultural History of Australia

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Commentary on: The diverse sources of population in settled Australia »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

People came from all over...

1800s - British convict population diversified as free immigration begins

Although the dominant ethnic components of Australia's immigration during the nineteenth century were British and Irish, significant non-British/Irish groups, such as these Afghanis and Chinese, also played a crucial part in building the non-Aboriginal population, often undertaking work that Europeans would be unable or unwilling to do - such as leading supply-carrying camel-caravans across the inland during the building of the Overland telegraph in the 1880s.

So, while the British government was the source of political legitimacy for the European settlement of Australia, the population that came to the Southern Continent from across the globe was drawn from many other societies. Even in the early days of establishing the colony, there were convicts and immigrants from many non-British communities or from the Black communities in Britain. Early convicts included Jamaicans and other West Indians, Blacks from Britain, and North Americans.

By the 1840s hundreds of Indian coolie labourers had been imported to work as shepherds and in other parts of the growing pastoral sector. By the middle of the nineteenth century thousands of indentured Chinese labourers were arriving to work in rural industries, paid almost starvation wages, and effectively enslaved to the owners of their indentures.

There is clear evidence that employers wanted Asian labour because of its cheapness and the control they felt they could exert over workers whose legal status was so limited.

However the major differences within European society in Australia in fact reflected the ethnic and political structures of Britain and other parts of Europe. For instance, in the period 1817 - 1840, about one third of all convicts transported to New South Wales came from Ireland. Many were convicted for nationalist resistance to British rule, or as social rebels protesting against unjust land laws - similar laws to those which would be used to justify British seizure of Indigenous lands in Australia.

The first major upsurge in free immigration occurred in the 1850s, when gold was discovered near Bathurst in New South Wales. Immigration leapt to an average of over 50,000 a year in that decade, up from 12,000 in the 1840s. This influx included about half a million British, 60,000 people from other parts of Europe, over 40,000 Chinese, and others from the Americas and the Pacific.

With gold fever came the first widespread experience of overt race hostility between immigrants, with attempts to control and limit Chinese immigration to all the colonies. However over the thirty years or so from 1853 the Chinese were to work on diggings in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland (after about 1865).

Other European immigration began to drop back as the gold petered out, though significant German immigration continued. By 1881 one person in twenty in Queensland was German born, and in South Australia the figure may have been as high as one in ten by 1914. German immigration to the Adelaide region began soon after the colony was established, with the flow being stimulated by Protestants fleeing the pressure to conformity in Prussia. Many of them founded self-enclosed communities, working initially as labourers on British owned properties before moving on to their own farms. The German community sought to retain their religion, language and culture, and were somewhat successful until the anti-German sentiments during the Great War (1914-1918) led to the closure of schools and newspapers and the renaming of many German sounding towns.

Other significant groups during the nineteenth century included "Afghani" camel drivers, brought in with their animals to support the movement of Europeans into desert areas of the interior. These Afghanis were mainly Baluchis and Pathans from British India, who were employed on explorations such as those by Bourke and Wills, or to provide supplies to distant stations.

Japanese pearl fishers came to the port towns of northern Australia, establishing communities in places such as Broome, and working the luggers, as crew and divers.

Italians started to immigrate in the 1850s as part of the gold rush. Similar factors influenced other European communities, including religious communities such as the Jews - from Britain but also from continental Europe - who had been amongst the earliest arrivals.

Further reference:
Jupp, James (ed) The Australian People: an Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and their Origins, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1988.

Rolls, Eric Sojourners - the epic story of China's centuries old relationship with Australia, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1992.