new one

A federation of white anxiety

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s attempt this year to tighten the conditions for Australian citizenship demonstrated that the appetite, in certain circles, for a ‘White Australia’, has not abated. The quiet death of the bill in the Senate meant that for the time being, immigrants will not need university-level English to become citizens. This was a victory, but a small one – that the policy even made it as far as the Senate, given its striking similarities to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, is indicative of the strength of white Australian anxiety.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was designed to keep Australia white via the administration of a dictation test in any European language. Because no prior notice of the chosen language was given, the test was impossible to pass. Dutton’s test was not quite so blatant in its discriminatory intent, but the level of English it required (IELTS level 6) would nevertheless have excluded almost everyone other than native speakers. In 2017, university-level English is certainly not the sole preserve of any one race, but Dutton’s test was based on a similar attempt to preserve Australian ‘values’ by excluding those from the non-English-speaking world who do not meet arbitrary standards. The particular brand of fear upon which the 1901 and the 2017 bills are based – along with countless others – can be traced to Charles H. Pearson’s international bestseller, National Life and Character (1894).

Charles Pearson was a progressive liberal member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly from 1878–1891. He advocated for ‘state socialism’, equality of access to education, the extension of suffrage, workers’ rights, and for socialised medicine. But that is not what National Life and Character is about. Instead, Pearson put forward a passionate case for ‘guarding the last part of the world, in which the higher races can live and increase freely’ – for preserving the Australian way of life, by keeping Australia white.

As the first to argue convincingly that world domination was not the inevitable preserve of the so-called ‘Aryan races’, Pearson used fear, rather than his obvious prejudice, as justification for his argument for a white Australia. Like Pauline Hanson in her infamous 1996 maiden speech in the House of Representatives, he stated that Australia was in danger of being ‘swamped’ by Asia; that ‘China can swamp us with a single year’s surplus of population’. Google ‘swamped by Asia’ now and you would be forgiven for thinking that Hanson invented the phrase, but her anxiety has a long history, as does its justification. In her 2016 maiden senate speech, Hanson’s focus had shifted – we are now ‘in danger of being swamped by Muslims’ – but the fear of what could be lost remains the same. Muslims, like the ‘Asians’ of twenty years ago, and like Pearson’s ‘Chinese’, ‘Hindoo’ and ‘Negro’, ‘bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own’, and as such, threaten ‘our’ way of life.

Pearson’s fear was that the world’s ‘higher’ races would one day ‘wake’ to find themselves ‘elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside by peoples whom [they] looked down upon as servile, and thought of as bound always to minister to [their] needs’. He warned that white supremacy required an active defence of white Australia. White men were only equipped to labour in a temperate climate, they did not multiply quickly enough, and they could not, and should not, tolerate a lower standard of living. Unlike ‘Chinese’, ‘Hindoo’ and ‘Negro’ men (who were Pearson’s primary concern), the white man could not be asked to work harder for less. To be white was to be more ‘civilised’, and it was to have a way of life that everyone else wanted. But it was a way of life that could be taken away.

Until the last decade of the nineteenth century, Australia’s engagement with Asia was troubled, but Asia was not considered homogeneous and policy was more responsive than ideological. A Chinese presence on the goldfields had triggered resentment, as well as racist violence and legislation, but the comfortable assumption of inevitable white supremacy afforded room for debate. Thus, Alfred Deakin could write, in Irrigated India (1893), that India is Australia’s ‘nearest great country’, not only because of its status as a nearby British colony, but also because the possible outcomes of a ‘spiritual marriage between the Anglo-Saxon and the Hindu’ were boundless and exciting.

In Irrigated India, Deakin argued that Australians should not ‘forget that they have made their homes neither in Europe, nor America, but in Austral-Asia’. Prior to the publication of National Life and Character, Deakin was an advocate for engagement with Asia, and even for racial mixing, albeit at some unspecified point in the future. After coming under Pearson’s influence, his approach shifted radically. In his Second Reading Speech of the Immigration Restriction Bill of 1901, Deakin argued forcefully that racial ‘contamination’ threatened ‘national manhood, the national character and the national future’.

Pearson’s contention that the ‘Chinese’, the ‘Negro’ and the ‘Hindoo’ were not weak – that they were in many ways stronger than white men – instituted an anxiety that informed the development of the ‘national character’, just as Pearson intended it to. Of course Australians did not invent racism or white supremacy. Australia’s particular brand of racism does not, now, even seem particularly unique. But Pearson’s blueprint for a ‘civilised’ society, based upon who to let in – as opposed to how to manage the ‘lower races’ who are already in – was an Australian export with impressive reach.

Lothrop Stoddard, American author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1921), describes National Life and Character as ‘epoch-making’. Theodore Roosevelt reviewed it in Sewanee Review, and wrote to Pearson to praise his work. National Life and Character contributed to the development of immigration policy elsewhere in the world, even as what was being defended was uniquely Australian.

Pearson described Australia as an ‘unexampled instance of a great continent that has been left for the first civilised people that found it to take and occupy’. As well as showcasing Pearson’s attitude towards Indigenous Australians (whom he deemed too ‘weak’ to be relevant to his argument), this statement illustrates how unusual racial homogeneity was in ‘white man’s countries’ by the late 1890s. Federation, and the development of national immigration policy, occurred at the same time as the expansion of access to a particular standard of living. In this emergent nation, social policy served to frame the Australian ‘way of life’ as exceptional, and as inextricably tied to white cultural values.

Pearson was an Englishman who believed that true equality of opportunity could only exist in a nation where the ‘English race’ had been ‘freed from the limitations of English tradition’. He was a patriotic Australian for the same reason. Patriotism, he argued, inspires people to ‘preserve the body politic as it exists … or acquire what seems naturally to belong to it’. For many on the conservative side of Australian politics, the ideological underpinnings of what – or who – might be reasonably ‘acquired’, without altering the ‘body politic’, has remained remarkably static for over a century.


Image: Children celebrating federation, Melbourne 1901 / Parliamentary Education Office


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Sashi Nair is a literary critic and cultural historian who has published on early ‘Austral-Asia’, queer modernism and medievalism. Her book, Secrecy and Sapphic Modernism was published by Palgrave in 2012. She teaches at Trinity College at the University of Melbourne.

More by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>