A tale of two Australias


North of Capricorn: The untold story of Australia's north
By Henry Reynolds
Allen & Unwin, 2003
220 pages, $50 (hb).


Bustling multiculturalism is today associated with the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne, while the common perception of northern Australia is of an insular, red neck-infested haven of racism.

But Henry Reynolds' new salvo in the "history wars", North of Capricorn, tells of a different Top End around the turn of the century.

The book's jacket explains: "These [northern] towns, from Mackay to Broome, were successful, dynamic, multi-racial societies peopled by Melanesian caneworkers, Chinese entrepreneurs, Japanese deep-sea divers and adventurers from as far away as Polynesia and Ceylon. Darwin did more business with Hong Kong than with most Australian cities. The prosperous pearling masters of Broome went shopping in Singapore, placed orders there for their white tailored suits and sent their washing to the island colony's laundries. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders mixed freely with the multi-racial populations of the north, and faced less discrimination than in the whiter south."

Federation was class-driven: a political framework for capitalist rule that, along with the unification of market and economy, sought to unite classes.

What Reynolds focuses on is the deeply racial twist to the Australian nation-building project at the turn of the century. As Reynolds points out, "[T]here were two Australias in 1901, not one".

Federation was approved and celebrated by the overwhelmingly white south, while the large non-white communities in the north were denied any say or vote. Southern politicians and journalists, far removed from the cosmopolitan centres in the north, drummed up a hysterical fear of the "mongrel north".

Reynolds quotes Australia's first prime minister, Edmund Barton: "I do not think...that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality.... These races are, in comparison with white races — I think no one wants convincing of this fact — unequal and inferior."

Isaac Isaacs, whose appointment as governor-general in 1930-31 aroused anti-Jewish chauvinism, wanted to ensure Australia's freedom "for all time from the contaminating and degrading influence of inferior races".

Race and class were enmeshed in the Australian bourgeoisie's nation-building project. Reynolds quotes Alfred Deakin in the debate on the Immigration Restriction Bill: "Unity of race is an absolute essential to the unity of Australia. It is more, actually more in the last resort, than any other unity."

Isaac Isaacs stated in the debate, "The Constitution says that this is to be an indissoluble union under the Crown and we are determined that indissoluble union shall be a union of white people."

Reynolds also makes some reference to the competition between white and Asian capitalists in the north. While many were engaged in mutually beneficial commercial relations — prompting some white businesspeople to oppose the White Australia Policy — many others felt acutely threatened by the competition.

Therefore, racial-national unity harmonised a cosy cross-class alliance between: 1) southern big capitalists with their imperial vision of a single nation-state of racially superior "British stock"; 2) a section of the north's small capitalists locked in competition with Asian rivals; and 3) nationalist labour leaders wanting to use the new federal state to protect the labour market. Racial unity was essential for overcoming class division.

The chief ideological tool for building this racial-national unity was the populist Bulletin magazine — the "Bushmen's Bible". It regularly featured dark, scathing commentary on the "mongrel north" where "the festering human offal of a Piebald Australia lives and breeds with impunity".

Tropical northern Australia was generally considered unsuited for white people. At the turn of the century, "there weren't many more white people in the whole vast area than lived in some of Britain's tropical colonies — the 4373 in Fiji in 1897... or the 3000 or so in Singapore". Non-European settlers made up an average of 20-25% of the total population. Asians made up half the settler population in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and more than half in Darwin, Broome and Thursday Island. A third of the population in Cairns was non-European, a fifth in Cooktown and a tenth in Townsville. The number of Aborigines was difficult to calculate at the time, but it is estimated to have been 40-45% of the total northern population.

Against this backdrop, Reynolds dismantles the racist myth of the heroic white pioneer. Thousands of Aboriginal workers undertook gruelling work in the northern settlements and pastoral industry. Paid in kind (equivalent to about a quarter of white workers' wages), Aboriginal workers produced enormous super-profits for the white-owned pastoral industry. As early as 1886, Aborigines were estimated to make up 55% of the pastoral workforce.

Reynolds quotes from contemporary commentators who acknowledged that the dense tropical forests of northern Queensland were cleared for agriculture by the Chinese. Chinese miners also dominated gold mining in the Northern Territory. Pacific Island workers who had served out their indenture contracts took up independent sugar cultivation, skilled trades and small businesses in Queensland. Japanese pearl divers and fishers built thriving industries.

In separate chapters, Reynolds examines the varied circumstances of Indigenous people, Pacific Islanders and the Chinese, and the particular situations in Darwin, Broome, Thursday Island, Mackay and far northern Queensland. He doesn't idealise northern society. The near-slave conditions facing indentured Pacific Island workers and Aboriginal pastoral workers are not glossed over in any way.

Instead, the picture that emerges is of a complex set of race relations, offsetting the white supremacism prevailing throughout the burgeoning imperialist West.

Australia's north produced elements of a multicultural society far ahead of its time. Aborigines faced less discrimination than in the south. Reynolds points to the general preference of Aboriginal workers to work for Chinese bosses. Upward mobility was possible for many post-indenture Pacific Islanders. Both the Chinese and Islander communities were politically well-organised, although ultimately unsuccessful in resisting the racist attacks of the new federal state. There were also white bourgeois who opposed the White Australia Policy.

The racist agitation came mainly from the southern ruling class. Reynolds presents federation as internal colonisation. The white south took over the north and racially "cleansed" it through mass deportations of Pacific Islanders, herding Aborigines into reserves, stealing Aboriginal children from their parents, and strangling the Asian communities through immigration restrictions (most Chinese were single men who eventually died alone). By the post-war period, the north became what it is known as today: an isolated, mono-cultural backwater.

Despite recent progress, Reynolds argues the north is still a shadow of what it was a century ago: "During the last quarter of the 19th century, north Australia more clearly and closely reflected its geographical milieu than has been the case at any time since."

In fact, he wonders how much has really changed in racial attitudes. North of Capricorn concludes with an observation of the Tampa affair: "Widespread public support for such drastic action indicated that ancestral unease about an empty and vulnerable north continues to reside just below the surface of the Australian psyche, ready to re-emerge when conditions are propitious."

Of course, much has changed. The sort of thriving opposition to the Coalition government's "border protection" paranoia was unthinkable in 1901. The white supremacist brand of racism is now confined to the extreme right of the political spectrum.

This is chiefly a result of the great social and political upheavals of the 20th century: anti-colonial revolutions in the Third World; and mass movements of Indigenous, black and immigrant communities in the imperialist West.

But at a time when neoliberal politicians are, once more, appealing to racial unity — this time in the coded language of national security and border protection — North of Capricorn is a powerful and valuable weapon for arguing that a different Australia was, and is, possible.

From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.