No.49. Report of a Conference – 1897

Colonial Office, Report of a conference between the Rt. Hon Joseph Chamberlain, M.P. (Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the colonies) and the premiers of the self governing colonies of the empire at the Colonial Office, Downing Street London, in June and July, 1897; with appendices. (Colonial Office, September 1897).

In the NSW State Archives can be found the minutes of a meeting held in 1897, a meeting that laid the groundwork for Australia’s White Australia policy over the next two generations. Assembled in London for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the then colonial Premiers of the soon to be federated Australia took the opportunity to discuss immigration with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain. At issue was a clash between how the British Empire and the white settler colonies of Australia saw themselves. The result was the laying of the foundations of Australia’s great white walls including the Dictation Test. (See No.1 & No.40)

In June-July 1897 the premiers of the self-governing colonies of the empire met with the Rt. Hon Joseph Chamberlain, M.P. (Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for the colonies) at the Colonial Office, Downing Street London to discuss such empire-wide matters as postal communications, naval defence, the Pacific cable, treaties with Japan and Tunis, the forthcoming Paris Exhibition of 1900, and alien immigration. This last topic was on the agenda after colonial efforts to extend their existing anti-Chinese immigration restrictions to a much wider range of (coloured) people had been knocked back by the British Government. 

Those who gathered to decide who could go where around the empire.

Joseph Chamberlain felt the colonial efforts ran the danger of being “unnecessarily offensive” to “our Indian fellow subjects” and proposed a solution that he thought would “avoid stigmatising them by name as unfit for civilised life.” Chamberlain’s proposal was the “Natal Test” already adopted in that British colony in Africa to test a person’s ability to write in English, that he argued would “exclude the class of immigrants you think would be undesirable in Australia”.

The arguments given at this meeting by the Australian colonial Premiers against this British proposal provides some of the most explicit statements of White Australia ideology. George Reid of NSW declared: “We cannot veil the issue in that way. We really feel in this legislation, situated as we are so near these hundreds of millions of coloured people, that we must set up at once a clear barrier against the invasion of coloured labour …”. “… we are sternly resolved that there shall be a white Australia”.

Premier Reid continued, “we are right next door to China” and “we wish to preserve unmistakeably the character of Australian colonisation as that of the British race.” This Reid felt was better done by exclusion than by having numbers of people enter who then might be “treated brutally” and result in consequent greater embarrassment for the Imperial Government. (Presumably embarrassment that the nature of that British race would be thus exposed).

For the NSW Premier having such a hypocritical test was an evasion that was “beneath our intention”, an intention Chamberlain did not disagree with as long as it was sufficiently obscured. In the end the Natal or Educational Test was adopted and three colonies (NSW, WA and Tasmania) passed immigration restrictions based on various supposed “Education Tests” before all immigration matters became the responsibility of the new Commonwealth. Its Immigration Restriction Act, 1901 and what soon became its Dictation Test was the direct result of this conference of (white) heads of empire.

For more detail on the conference see: Adding to the Great White Walls.

For an alternative debate see: Debating White Australia

For more examples of the resulting Dictation Test see No.31 and No.35.