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Drawing the local colour line: white Australia and the tropical north

15 Oct 2012-Journal of Pacific History (Routledge)-Vol. 47, Iss: 3, pp 329-346

Abstract: My title paraphrases that of Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds's recent book, Drawing the Global Colour Line (Melbourne 2008). As those historians explain, the distinction between white and non-white races was drawn with increasing rigour in the three decades or so on either side of 1900. Locally drawn lines, however, could be more substantive, inscribing boundaries across land and sea which confined white and non-white to one side or the other. The white Australia policy provides a perfect example, attempting to cordon off the continent as the exclusive preserve of the white race. However, the actual location of the colour line around white Australia was disputed in the early decades of the 20th century. While the dominant version of the white Australia policy drew the colour line somewhere north of Thursday Island, a significant body of critics insisted that it be drawn somewhere near the Tropic of Capricorn. This paper explores the arguments and assumptions of those critics.
Topics: White (horse) (61%), White Australia policy (55%)

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Drawing the Local Colour Line
White Australia and the Tropical North
School of Arts and Social Sciences
James Cook University
Townsville 4811
White Australia Policy; northern Australia; tropical Australia; Australian nationalism -
Acknowledgements: I thank Claire Brennan for her comments on an earlier draft of this paper and
Matt Richards and Jacqui Stockdale for drawing my attention to passages in, respectively, the Cairns
Morning Post and the Northern Territory Times.
* This is the Accepted Version of a paper published in The Journal of Pacific History:
McGregor, Russell (2012) Drawing the local colour line: white Australia and the tropical north.
Journal of Pacific History, 47 (3). pp. 329-346.

Drawing the Local Colour Line
White Australia and the Tropical North
My title paraphrases that of Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’s recent book, Drawing the Global
Colour Line (Melbourne 2008). As those historians explain, the distinction between white and non-
white races was drawn with increasing rigour in the three decades or so on either side of 1900.
Locally drawn lines, however, could be more substantive, inscribing boundaries across land and sea
which confined white and non-white to one side or the other. The white Australia policy provides a
perfect example, attempting to cordon off the continent as the exclusive preserve of the white race.
However, the actual location of the colour line around white Australia was disputed in the early
decades of the 20th century. While the dominant version of the white Australia policy drew the colour
line somewhere north of Thursday Island, a significant body of critics insisted that it be drawn
somewhere near the Tropic of Capricorn. This paper explores the arguments and assumptions of those
From the moment of Federation in 1901, White Australia was entrenched as the most sacrosanct of
the nation’s ideals, ‘the indispensable condition of every other Australian policy’ as the eminent
Australian historian, W.K. Hancock, later claimed.
Yet, from the outset, there were critics
admittedly a minority who insisted that the white Australia policy was not in Australia’s best
interests and should be abandoned or relaxed. Some critics a minority within a minority based
their opposition on the principle of human equality.
Most, however, opposed it on more pragmatic
grounds, the most prominent of which was that the prohibition on non-white immigrants would stifle
the development of the northern third of the continent, thereby jeopardising Australia’s economic
prospects, subverting the legitimacy of its territorial claims and leaving the country open to foreign
condemnation, even invasion. The white Australia policy, these critics argued, was out of place in the
tropics since the white race itself was out of place in the torrid zone.
Minority though they were, the critics had science on their side. When the federal government
instituted the white Australia policy, it leapfrogged scientific opinion. Scientific and medical
orthodoxy of the day, not only in Australia but internationally, held the white race to be congenitally
unfitted to the tropics.
The federal leaders, however, were dedicated to securing an all-white nation in
an all-white continent. Some politicians, such as Charles McDonald, member for Kennedy in north
Queensland, went so far as to state that ‘it would be far better, in the interests of Australia, that the
tropical lands of Australia should revert to their virgin state than that we should continue to cultivate
them with the aid of coloured aliens’.
Perhaps such effusions of white Australia enthusiasm should
not be taken literally; rhetorical grandstanding was as common among politicians then as now.
Nonetheless, the fact that such statements were made and McDonald was not the only one to make
them testifies to both the intensity of white Australia zealotry and the extent of misgivings about the
prospects of success in developing the north.
The ‘empty north’ gnawed at Australian sensitivities for decades. Outside the thin coastal strip of
north Queensland, the vast expanse of tropical Australia not only failed to advance economically or
demographically but in many instances regressed, despite massive injections of public funds,
especially into the Northern Territory after the Commonwealth assumed control in 1911. White
Australia enthusiasts conjured up myriad schemes to remedy the deficiency, to turn tropical
wilderness into fertile farmland, all predicated on the conviction that only people of their own
complexion should be entrusted to fill the empty spaces.
Others, however, equally committed to
redeeming the emptiness of the north, equally convinced of its potential for agricultural exploitation
and equally devoted to the developmentalist ideal, maintained that the task could never by
accomplished by whites alone and that developing the north demanded the involvement of coloured
races. It is on the latter that this paper focuses.

In their own times, the subjects of this paper were commonly designated by themselves as well as
by others ‘critics of the white Australia policy’. The designation is apt insofar as they denied that an
all-white continent was desirable or achievable. But they might equally be considered advocates of an
alternative white Australia ideal in which the principle of exclusive white occupancy of the continent
had to give way to the reality of tropical distinctiveness, though without sacrificing the core value of
white ascendancy. These critics agreed with exponents of the white Australia policy that a colour line
should be drawn, cordoning off white from non-white races. But, they argued, official policy drew the
line at the wrong place, around the entire Australian land-mass, whereas it should be drawn along the
Tropic of Capricorn or some contiguous degree of latitude. North of the line, coloured labour should
be permitted, though on terms and conditions laid down by whites. Focusing on this strand of critique
of the white Australia policy, I have little to say about the handful of contemporary critics who based
their opposition to the policy on an ideal of racial equality other than to note that those who advanced
the former critique sometimes buttressed their arguments with appeals to the latter principle.
I also have little to say about how Aboriginal people featured in contemporary discourses on white
Australia. Commentators of the day were well aware not only of the Aboriginal presence but also of
the fact that they still constituted a majority of the population over much of the north. Aborigines,
however, were regarded as a passing problem since, according to the prevailing orthodoxy, they were
destined soon to die out.
In the meantime, the trend in the early twentieth century was to draw a
colour line around the Aboriginal population, confining them to a distinctive legal status and,
increasingly, sequestering them in reserves and missions. In the debates over the development of the
north on which this paper focuses, Aboriginal people featured only marginally. I shall begin my
exposition of those debates with a sketch of northern Australia around the time of federation.
The Piebald North
At the first sitting of the House of Representatives in May 1901, the leader of the federal Labor Party,
John Watson, painted a lurid picture of ‘the piebald north’ of Australia, with its ‘multifarious peoples’
making it a ‘cancer spot’ on the nation.
Other mouthpieces for white Australia enthusiasm, such as
the Sydney Bulletin and the Worker, regularly carried pieces about the appalling state of affairs in the
north, where white men ‘dined with the Chows and slept with the Japs’. Henry Reynolds vividly
describes the northern towns and settlements on the eve of federation, with their numerous Pacific
Islanders and diverse Asian peoples, which in some places such as Palmerston (Darwin) and Broome
constituted a majority of the population. He suggests that the northern communities were tolerant,
reasonably prosperous and successful enterprises in inter-racial cooperation.
While accurate insofar
as it documents the racial diversity of the north, Reynolds’s account is misleading in two important
For one thing, inter-racial harmony was far more fragile than Reynolds intimates. In fact, these
multiracial communities were riven with inter-racial tensions. A quick scan of the pages of
newspapers such as the Northern Territory Times will uncover numerous instances of racial
Even those more positively disposed toward ‘coloured aliens’, such as the Cairns
Morning Post, repeatedly depicted them in a derogatory and demeaning manner.
Insofar as white
northerners were tolerant of non-whites, it was primarily for pragmatic reasons, in recognition of their
mutual dependence rather than any ideal of the brotherhood of man. Under normal circumstances,
inter-racial tensions were held in check, allowing the various racial groups to interact relatively
peaceably and productively, but this depended on the other factor minimised in Reynolds’s account:
the structuring principle of racial hierarchy.
Racial harmony in these northern communities depended on racial stratification. Whites stood at the
apex, certain Asians (often Japanese, sometimes Chinese) on the next rung down, other Asians such
as Malays and Javanese below them, Pacific Islanders on the next level down, Torres Strait Islanders
below them, and Aborigines at the bottom of the scale. Provided members of each group
acknowledged their place in the hierarchy, a pragmatic tolerance prevailed, but this was liable to

break down if any group acted in ways above its designated station, particularly if it challenged white
supremacy. Some movement between strata was possible, but these multiracial northern communities
were far from egalitarian. They were structured along the lines that the American historian William
McNeill has called ‘polyethnic hierarchy’, an arrangement more typical of pre-modern, pre-national
polities than of modern nation-states.
It was from these stratified northern societies that many of the
earliest critics of the white Australia policy came, and their intention was not to institute racial
equality but to maintain a structure of white supremacy.
From this perspective, Queensland Premier Robert Philp condemned the Pacific Island Labourers Bill
(one of the two items of legislation which instantiated the white Australia policy in 1901) as ‘a
criminal act’.
Other prominent Queenslanders, too, attacked the white Australia legislation for
undercutting the foundations of northern prosperity.
So did many northern newspapers. In 1901, the
Cairns Morning Post railed against ‘the platform fetish of ‘‘White Australia’’’, particularly for
threatening to deport the north’s most valuable workers, Pacific Islanders. This newspaper claimed
that, as ‘far back as human history has been recorded’, it had been shown that the white race ‘could
not permanently thrive in the tropics’. The best that could be expected was that ‘the tropics may be
made more habitable on the basis of sanitary science towards the suppression of tropical diseases well
known to affect the white man more severely than those of other races’. Its editor doubted that the
Cairns Morning Post would ever be published in a land which was theexclusive home of the white
race’. Yet he professed devotion to white Australia. ‘We all want a White Australia we are all bent
on promoting the advancement of Australia for Britishers’, he declared, though adding that ‘the
presence of the kanaka in the cane field is in no way a menace to white Australia’.
From this
northern perspective, coloured races, kept in their place as a servile workforce, were an essential
adjunct to white success in the tropics.
In the polyglot pearling port of Thursday Island, Alexander Corran, editor of the Torres Strait Pilot,
took a different line of attack on the white Australia legislation. He emphasised ‘the geographical
propinquity of North Australia, where the land is almost entirely uninhabited, to Asia with its
overcrowded population of hundreds of millions’ and predicted that, in the near future, the rising
powers of Asia would take exception to their exclusion and force Australia to open its doors. Rather
than blanket exclusions which could not be maintained in the longer term, he recommended
compromise. ‘Far better it would be’, Corran declared, ‘for us now to so act that while the white man
remains the dominant factor in the country, the coloured man’s place and right to live is recognised; to
so act that, instead of having the coloured man thrust upon us on distasteful conditions, the evils of his
presence amongst us would be mitigated.’
Corran saw that global and regional population pressures
must eventually and probably soon overwhelm the demand for an exclusively white Australia but
argued that, if compromise were made now, the crucial kernel of white ascendancy might be
maintained. It was an argument repeated many times over subsequent decades.
According to J. Langdon Parsons, former Government Resident in Darwin, any attempt to impose
white Australia on the north was ‘utterly unscientific, and . . . weird foolishness’. ‘From the outset’,
he declared, ‘the Northern Territory has been legislated for as a pastoral, a mineral, and a tropical
agricultural country which required coloured labour’, and by losing sight of that reality the federal
government courted disaster. Parsons specified, however, that coloured labour should come only
under stringent terms of indenture and repatriation. ‘This is not high-class humanitarianism’, he
but it is probably necessary for race preservation, and it will maintain a ‘White Australia’
in the only sense compatible with the development of its agricultural resources . . . The
alternative is the retention of a vast area of arable land, which Australians cannot
cultivate themselves, and will not allow others to cultivate. Utilization of land is the
strongest and best title to rightful ownership.
Not only would it validate white sovereignty over the continent, coloured labour would also prove a
boon to white Australians since it would create ‘wide openings for the investment of capital, and for
the employment of a very large number of Europeans as overseers, engineers, foremen, artisans,
clerks, and sailors to export the produce’.
Parsons’s son, Herbert Angas Parsons, later wrote in

support of his father’s views, claiming in 1907 that there was ‘a very considerable body of opinion . . .
that only by means of cheap coloured labour can the agricultural potentialities of the tropical parts of
North Australia be developed’.
Like both J. Langdon and Herbert Parsons, the Queensland agricultural expert A.C. MacDonald
believed that northern Australia held vast tracts suited to tropical cultivation, which would remain
unused without proper tropical labour. As the deportation of Pacific Islanders loomed nearer,
MacDonald protested ‘to members of our Federal parliament, and to others who favor a White
Australia policy, that such a policy is diametrically opposed to the future progress and prosperity of
the Australian Commonwealth’. ‘Tropical Australia can only be made a white man’s country by the
introduction of colored labor’, he insisted.
The logic of this was lost on white Australia zealots who
conceived inter-racial competition in zero-sum terms: any benefit to coloured races was necessarily a
detriment to the white and vice versa. MacDonald and his fellow critics perceived a degree of
mutuality, though benefiting the white race was their prime concern. In a similar vein, North
Queensland cotton-grower David Thomatis explained that
‘White Australia’ does not truly mean expelling colored races and starving white
workers, but encouraging prosperity to white settlers by every legitimate means; and if
the work of colored people, especially British subjects, can enrich and benefit white
people, ‘White Australia’ expects not to disregard this means while it can be operative.
We wish for a ‘prosperous’ White Australia, not a starving Australia or an Australia fed
by fads!
Without coloured labour, the north was being ‘kept backward, the land unoccupied, untilled, unsought
for’; it was ‘simply withering away and returning to wilderness’ to the benefit of no one.
Both MacDonald and Thomatis approved the white Australia policy for temperate parts of the
continent. The tropics, however, required their own distinctive social order. Thomatis recommended
the creation of a ‘tropical territory’ above latitude 18 degrees south, where a ‘special labor
concession’ would be in force, allowing ‘the employment of indented [sic] colored laborers’ on the
Pacific Islander model.
MacDonald, similarly, stipulated that coloured labour be confined ‘to the
north of the latitude of Mackay’.
Such views were commonly voiced by northern settlers in the first
decade of the 20th century but petered out thereafter. North Queensland sugar-growers, who had
initially been among the sharpest critics of the white Australia legislation, were mollified by the
system of protective tariffs and bounties instituted by the federal government. Yet this left
unanswered the larger question of the viability of the white Australia policy in the tropics. And while
local criticisms of the policy, based on first-hand experience of a multiracial north, subsided, a line of
critique was maintained particularly by southern journalists and intellectuals.
The Recalcitrant Tropics
Well into the 20th century, widespread credibility still attached to the idea that each race was uniquely
adapted to a specific climate zone.
Advocate of tropical agriculture Matthew MacFie, in a 1907
address to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, stated that ‘the world is
divided into color-zones, and that each climate is exactly suited by natural law to the particular
human racial type evolved under its influence, but cannot be adjusted to any other’.
In another
antiwhite-Australia diatribe, he proclaimed that the ‘immutable laws of nature dictated that ‘white
men are constitutionally adapted to live and work only in the temperate zone’.
The same idea
underpinned the 1922 book A White Australia: is it possible? by the medical scientist and educator D.
Hastings Young. He maintained that ‘the vigour and health of the various races of mankind white,
yellow and black can only be maintained by residence in the zone apportioned to them by nature’;
whites who lived for extended periods in the tropics would ‘degenerate physically, mentally and
The climatic-zone argument featured prominently, but critics of white Australia such as Young and
MacFie were prepared to use any available ammunition against the policy. In an exceptionally
colourful turn of invective, MacFie lambasted the ‘dilettante class’ who promoted the white Australia

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