Labour History

“This is a British Colony”: The Ruling-Class Politics of the Seafarers’ Strike, 1878–79

Labour History (2013), 105, (1), 131–151.


The seafarers’ strike of 1878–79 has occupied a special place in the history of White Australia, symbolising the idea that militant working class action led to the racial exclusion of Chinese and other non-white people. This article demonstrates that the strike was, remarkably, supported by a significant proportion of the colonial ruling class, including the conservative politicians and newspapers of Queensland, primarily because they were concerned at the impact of Chinese immigration on British colonisation, especially in the north. Historians have wrongly seen the opposition of theSydney Morning Heraldto the strike as reflecting support for Chinese immigration and “cheap labour.” The article suggests that, far from initiating the campaign for racial exclusion, the union movement embraced the anti-Chinese politics of a major section of the ruling class. It concludes by discussing the ways in which our histories have masked the role of the ruling class in anti-Chinese politics.

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*The author would like to thank the two anonymous referees ofLabour Historyfor their comments and suggestions. Google Scholar

1.Ann Curthoys, “Conflict and Consensus: The Seamen’s Strike of 1878,”inWho are Our Enemies? Racism and the Australian Working Class, ed.Ann Curthoys and Andrew Markus(:Hale and Iremonger, 1978), 48–65(this was a special issue ofLabour History, no. 35, November1978);Andrew Markus, Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California 1850–1901(:Hale and Iremonger, 1979), 81–91, 102–5;Raymond Markey, “Race and Organized Labor in Australia, 1850–1901,” Historian 58, no. 2(December1996):347–51;Luke Trainor, British Imperialism and Australian Nationalism: Manipulation, Conflict, and Compromise in the Late Nineteenth Century(:Cambridge University Press, 1984), 85. Google Scholar

2.Curthoys, “Conflict and Consensus,” 65. Google Scholar

3.Ibid. Google Scholar

4.Ray Markey, “Populist Politics,”inCurthoys and Markus, Who are Our Enemies, 67. Google Scholar

5.Verity Burgmann, “Capital and Labour,”inCurthoys and Markus, Who are Our Enemies, 20–34;Verity Burgmann, “Writing Racism out of History,” Arena(first series), no. 67 (1984):78–92. Google Scholar

6.Rupert Lockwood, “British Imperial Influences in the Foundation of the White Australia Policy,” Labour History, no. 7 (November1964):23–33. See alsoMichael Quinlan and Constance Lever-Tracy, “From Labour Market Exclusion to Industrial Solidarity: Australian Trade Union Responses to Asian Workers, 1830–1988,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 14, no. 2(1980):166. Google Scholar

7.Phil Griffiths, “The Strategic Fears of the Ruling Class: The Construction of Queensland’s Chinese Immigrants Regulation Act of 1877,” Australian Journal of Politics and History 58, no. 1(March2012):1–19;Peter Corris, “Racialism: The Australian Experience,” Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand 15, no. 61(October1973):754;Ann Curthoys, “Racism and Class in the Nineteenth Century Immigration Debate,”inSurrender Australia? Essays and Studies in the Uses of History: Geoffrey Blainey and Asian Immigration, ed.Andrew Markus and M. C. Ricklefs(:George Allen and Unwin, 1985), 98. Google Scholar

9.The strike has been mentioned in every major book treatment of the development of the White Australia policy. Substantial accounts of the strike not already mentioned includeMyra Willard, The History of the White Australia Policy to 1920(:Melbourne University Press, 1967), 51–58;Mother Pauline Kneipp, “The Seamen’s Strike 1878–1879: Its Relation to the White Australia Policy,” ANU Historical Journal 1, no. 2(1965–66):14–18;Charles Jonathon McNeill Hayes, “The Seamen’s Strike 1878–79”(BA Hons diss., History,Macquarie University, 1970);Richard Fletcher, “The Role of the Immigration Question in Gaining for the Labour Movement Recognition by Society in the Period 1877 to 1890 in New South Wales”(MA diss.,University of Sydney, 1964), 106–66. Google Scholar

10.Ann Curthoys, “Race and Ethnicity: A Study of the Response of British Colonists to Aborigines, Chinese and non-British Europeans in New South Wales, 1856–1881”(PhD diss.,Macquarie University, 1973), 413–30. Google Scholar

11.Phil Griffiths, “Containing Discontent: Anti-Chinese Racism in the Reinvention of Angus Cameron,” Labour History, no. 94 (May2008):78–80. Google Scholar

12. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July1878, 3. Google Scholar

13. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August1878, 4. Parkes was then a backbench MLA, neither in government nor part of the official opposition. See also theHerald’sattack on British writers,Sir Walter Medhurst and W. R. Greg, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November, 1878, 4–5. Google Scholar

14. Sydney Morning Herald, 21 November1878, 4. Google Scholar

15.Ibid., 27 November1878, 4. Google Scholar

16.Ibid., 30 November1878, 4. Google Scholar

17.Ibid., 3 December1878, 4. Google Scholar

18.Ibid., 30 December1878, 4;Sydney Morning Herald, 25 September1877, 4. Google Scholar

19.Ibid., 10 January1879, 4. Google Scholar

20.TheSydney Morning Heraldhad been alarmed for some time about the growth of communism in Europe and America. During 1878, it reported the congresses and personalities of French and German socialism and, in late July 1878, devoted three columns and thousands of words to a summary of “The Literature of German socialism.” This report attributed the alarming growth of socialism in Germany to the shift from charity to “approbation of all the wildest schemes brought forward in the interest of the poor.” See, for instance, item on German socialists, 20 July 1878, 7; article on the alleged socialist, Dr Nobiling, 22 July 1878, 3; report on American communism, 13 August 1878, 7; reports on the Socialist Congress in Paris and Germany’s Anti-Socialist Bill, 29 October 1878, 8–9; for “The Literature of German Socialism,” 31 July1878, 7, reprinted fromThe Times(London). Google Scholar

21. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April1879, 5. Google Scholar

22.Ibid. Google Scholar

23.R. B. Walker, The Newspaper Press in New South Wales, 1803–1920(:Sydney University Press, 1976), 76–78, 82–83. Google Scholar

24.Fletcher, “The Role of the Immigration Question,” 63, describes theEvening Newsas “very conservative in outlook,” saying it “criticized trade union activities on most matters apart from those concerned with immigration,” and he concluded, “its appeal was directed to the urban middle class.” My discussion of the politics of theEvening Newsis based on a specific project in which I closely read each edition of the paper published in March of 1870, 1872, 1874, 1876 and 1878, as well as its coverage of the ASN dispute. Google Scholar

25.The paper attacked trade union arguments against assisted immigration in February 1878 as “fictitious” and “alarmist,” according to Fletcher, “The Role of the Immigration Question,” 64 (citingEvening News, 12 February 1878); onBerry, Evening News, 13 March1878, 2. Google Scholar

27. Evening News, 19 November1878, 2. Google Scholar

28.Ibid., 30 November1878, 4. Google Scholar

29.Ibid. Google Scholar

30.See in particular the paper’s New Year’s message for 1879 which was the platform for a restatement of its broad approach to politics:Evening News, 1 Jan 1879, 2. Google Scholar

31.Evening News, 18 December1878, 2. Google Scholar

32.For example, inThomas Carlyle, Past and Present, 2nd edn(:Chapman and Hall, 1845), which was widely read by colonial liberals and radicals. Google Scholar

33. Evening News, 19 November1878, 2. Google Scholar

34.Ibid. Google Scholar

35.Evening News, 26 December1878, 2. This was the position of Sir Henry Parkes, himself a disciple of Carlyle’s:“By a little comprehensive consideration of the whole question, of what is due to our race, as well as what is due to immediate dividends, the matter might have been settled long ago,” Evening News, 30 December1878, 2. Parkes’ relationship with Thomas Carlyle is one of the great, unresearched elements of his life and politics. Parkes sent Carlyle letters and information about NSW politics, and his own career, visited him in London, and frequently cited Carlyle’s views in his speeches. Google Scholar

36. Evening News, 28 December1878, 4. Google Scholar

37.See eg, Evening News, 11 March1870, 3, which reprints an article by Wendell Phillips in which he says this: “[W]e must have the Vanderbilts. We cannot do without the money kings, and we cannot do without individual independence”; and “the statesmanship of today is to marry and reconcile these two indispensable elements of the future,” ie labour and capital. Google Scholar

38.Walter Phillips, “Jefferis, James (1833–1917),” Australian Dictionary of Biography,National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed September 2013, His salary was around eight times that of an average tradesperson. Google Scholar

39.Rev Jas Jefferis, The Enfranchisement of Labour: A Lecture Delivered Under the Auspices of the Young Men’s Christian Association of New South Wales, on Tuesday, June 18th, 1878(:Foster and Fairfax, 1878), 17–22. Google Scholar

40.Rev J. Jefferis, The Chinese and the Seamen’s Strike: A Lecture(:Foster and Fairfax, 1878). Google Scholar

41.Ibid., 4. Google Scholar

42.Ibid., 9. Google Scholar

43.Ibid., 11. Google Scholar

44.Michael Quinlan, “The Low Rumble of Informal Dissent: Shipboard Protests Over Health and Safety in Australian Waters, 1790–1900,” Labour History, no. 102 (May2012):131–56, esp. 139–40. Google Scholar

45.Burgmann, “Writing Racism out of History,” 78–92. Google Scholar

46. Evening News, 25 April1879, 2. Google Scholar

47. Brisbane Courier, 20 November1878, 2. Google Scholar

48. Ibid., 25 November1878, 2. Google Scholar

49. Ibid., 26 November1878, 2. Google Scholar

50.Ibid., 7 December1878, 4. Google Scholar

51.Ibid., 11 December1878, 2. This was a serious consideration; see Trainor, British Imperialism, 85. Google Scholar

52.Week, 23 November1878, 724. Google Scholar

53.Ibid., 7 December 1878, 787, 792, 788; 14 December1878, 818–9. Google Scholar

54.Ibid., 7 December1878, 788. Google Scholar

55.Ibid., 28 December1878, 884. Google Scholar

56.Maryborough Chronicle, 30 November1878. TheChronicle‘s conservatism is demonstrated by its support for squatters and sugar planters against Liberals, and its support of candidates opposed to the Liberal Premier, John Douglas in the1878election. Google Scholar

57.Petition inMaryborough Chronicle, 5 December1878. Google Scholar

58.Ibid., 5 December1878. Google Scholar

59.Ibid., 7 December1878. Google Scholar

61.Maryborough Chronicle, 12 December1878. Google Scholar

62.The crowd was led by a local publican, James Manly, who was charged with attempting to incite a riot. Manly was clearly present in a leading role, reflecting again that, where there was plebeian agitation against Chinese people, it was so often led by storekeepers and publicans. Manly was acquitted. SeeRockhampton Morning Bulletin, 28 November1878. Google Scholar

63.Ibid., 27 November1878. Google Scholar

64.Ibid., 29 November1878. For Feez and Palmer, seeBill Thorpe, Colonial Queensland: Perspectives on a Frontier Society(:University of Queensland Press, 1996), 156–63. Google Scholar

65. Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, 12 December1878. Google Scholar

66. Townsville Herald, 27 November1878; this was the day of the election. Google Scholar

67.The paper explicitly identified itself with the politics of John Murtagh Macrossan, for a period the leading representative of North Queensland business interests and a leading figure in the McIlwraith party. SeeTownsville Herald, 23 October1878. Google Scholar

68.Ibid., 30 November1878. Google Scholar

69.Ibid., 11 December1878. Google Scholar

70.Ibid., 4 January1879. Google Scholar

71.SeeDenis Cryle, The Press in Colonial Queensland: A Social and Political History 1845–1875(:University of Queensland Press, 1989), esp. 122–24. On 127, Cryle describes the paper in 1871 as a “rabid” supporter of the Conservative Palmer. Google Scholar

72.Queensland Agriculturalist and Family Journal(Toowoomba), 4 October 1879, 1; Letter, C. H. Buzacott to Thomas McIlwraith, 21 May 1880, in Palmer-McIlwraith Papers, John Oxley Library, OM64–19/5.A. A. Morrison, “Hill, Charles Lumley (1840–1909),” Australian Dictionary of Biography,National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed September2013, Google Scholar

73. Queensland Times, 26 November1878. Google Scholar

74.Ibid. Google Scholar

75.Ibid., 3 December1878. Google Scholar

76. Queensland Times, 19 December1878. Google Scholar

77.Ibid. Google Scholar

78.Editorial, Queensland Times, 17 December1878. Google Scholar

79.Ibid. Google Scholar

80.Queensland Times, 19 December1878. Google Scholar

81.Thompson’s position was not mentioned in the paper, presumably because he was one of very few parliamentarians to oppose the scaremongering in 1877; seeQueensland, Official Report of the Debates of the Legislative Assembly, 23(Brisbane, 1877), 355. Google Scholar

82. Queensland Times, 21 December1878. Google Scholar

83.Report inibid. Google Scholar

84. Queensland Times, 24 December1878. Google Scholar

85.Bradley Bowden, “‘Some Mysterious Terror’: The Relationship between Capital and Labour in Ipswich, 1861–96,” Labour History, no. 72 (May1997):77–100. Google Scholar

86.Age, 1 January1879, 2. Google Scholar

87.Argus, 29 November1878, 4. Google Scholar

88.Ibid., 6 January1879, 4. Google Scholar

89.Ibid., 11 December1878, 4–5. Google Scholar

90.Ibid., 6 January1879, 4. Google Scholar

91.South Australian Register, 10 December1878, 4. See also Griffiths, “Strategic Fears” for Queensland’s first anti-Chinese legislation. Google Scholar

92.Hobart Mercury, 30 December1878. Google Scholar

93.West Australian Times, 22 November 1878, reported that 50 indentured Chinese labourers would be introduced, and this was supported by a letter to the editor, 31 December1878. There was no editorialising on the ASN dispute, nor the “Chinese question” in general. Google Scholar

94.Luke Trainor (British Imperialism, 85) writes: “By 1882 the eastern Australian colonies had, despite some opposition from the Legislative Councils, specific restrictions on Chinese immigration.” The fact that the legislation passed means that it enjoyed majority support in the Legislative Councils, which suggests an entirely different class logic. Google Scholar

95.Kathryn Cronin, “‘The Yellow Agony’: Racial Attitudes and Responses towards the Chinese in Colonial Queensland,”inRace Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination, byRaymond Evans, Kay Saunders, Kathryn Cronin(:University of Queensland Press, 1988), 312. Google Scholar

96.Markus, Fear and Hatred, 84. Google Scholar

97.See alsoWillard, The History of the White Australia Policy, 56: “the strength of the feeling aroused in all the self-governing Colonies … ensured the indirect success of the strikers.” The role of the mass media is again hidden by the use of the passive voice. Google Scholar

98.Markus, Fear and Hatred, 102–3. Google Scholar

99.Curthoys, “Conflict and Consensus,” 53. Google Scholar

100.Bede Nairn, “Davies, John (1839–1896),” Australian Dictionary of Biography,National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed September2013, Google Scholar

101.Martha Rutledge, “Macintosh, John (1821–1911),” Australian Dictionary of Biography,National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed September2013, Google Scholar

102.He left his family £42,000 on his death;Martha Rutledge, “McElhone, John (1833–1898),” Australian Dictionary of Biography,National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed September2013, Google Scholar

103.“With his own butchering business by 1871 he had amassed fourteen houses and £7000 which he lost in five months’ speculation in gold-mining shares in 1871–72, but he rehabilitated himself within seven years”; seeMark Lyons, “O’Connor, Daniel (1844–1914),” Australian Dictionary of Biography,National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed September2013, Google Scholar

104.Ian Ellis, “Hungerford, Thomas (1823–1904),” Australian Dictionary of Biography,National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed September 2013, Hungerford is not included in “Conflict and Consensus,” but as MLA for Northumberland, was discussed in the same context in Curthoys, “Race and Ethnicity,” 443. Hungerford was present on the platform of the first public meeting against Chinese immigration after the start of the strike, called by the Political Reform Union; seeSydney Morning Herald, 19 November 1878, 6. Curthoys’ description best fits Angus Cameron MLA, who she described as “one of the more distinctly working class MLAs,” due to his origins as a trade unionist and trade union sponsored member. For a different perspective on Cameron, see Griffiths, “Containing Discontent,” 73–74, 83. After a meticulous examination of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly for the period 1872–87, A. W. Martin concluded that it was dominated by one class, and pointed to the need for an independent income for anyone contemplating election;A. W. Martin, “Political Groupings in New South Wales, 1872–1889: A Study in the Working of Responsible Government”(PhD diss.,Australian National University, 1955), esp. 290, 59–60, 46–48. Google Scholar

105.Curthoys, “Conflict and Consensus,” 63; this is her paraphrase of Angus Cameron’s position, which she describes as “correct.” Google Scholar

106.Sydney Morning Herald, 29 November 1878, 7. The first motion read: “That the withdrawal of the A.S.N. Co.’s fleet of steamers from their trade is calculated to cause permanent injury to the commerce of this port unless active measures are taken to resume operations.” Coverage of that meeting inAustralian Town and Country Journalfocused on the speech of the mover, S. A. Joseph, who talked at length about the damage the strike would do to shipping, the port and the commerce of the city, and completely failed to report Nichol’s comments on “cheap labour”;Australian Town and Country Journal, 30 November1878, 1022. Google Scholar

107.Markey, “Populist Politics,” 67. Google Scholar

108. Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April1879, 3. SeeRobertson, Dalley, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April1879, 2–3;Foster, Samuel, Macleay, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April1879, 2, all of whom supported the bill. See also speeches by Charles Campbell (against bill), de Salis (didn’t vote), Innes (didn’t vote), Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April1878, 2. Other speakers against the bill took the strategic argument seriously by replying to it. See also Curthoys, “Race and Ethnicity,” 583–84. Google Scholar

109.Curthoys, “Conflict and Consensus,” 65. Google Scholar

110.Charles Price wrongly argues that the strike “brought to a head much working class unrest with the whole Chinese question”; seeCharles Price, The Great White Walls are Built: Restrictive Immigration to North America and Australasia(:Australian Institute of International Affairs, 1974), 163–64. In fact, despite repeated editorialising on the issue in theSydney Morning Herald, there was no mention of Chinese immigration as an issue at the founding of the Working Mens Defence Association, which had been set up to fight assisted immigration (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June1877) nor in the speeches of WMDA candidates in the 1877 election. As late as January 1878, the five points of the manifesto of the Political Reform League, a partial successor to the WMDA, included no mention of Chinese immigration; seeSydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1878, 3. Price relies on Peter Loveday andA. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties: The First Thirty Years of Responsible Government in New South Wales, 1856–1889(:Melbourne University Press, 1966), 104. They citeSydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1879, but this has no mention of Chinese immigration as an issue for the PRL. It only becomes an issue for the Trades and Labour Council and the wider populist movement in NSW once the Seamens Union is faced with ASN recruiting Chinese seafarers. Google Scholar

111.Charles Price was the only major historian of white Australia who insisted on the importance of the parliaments: “many leading professionals, pastoralists and business men were ardent supporters of restriction. They may not have argued their case with as much invective as representatives of the working classes, but they were the persons who in the end drafted the legislation and passed it through both Houses”; Price, The Great White Walls, 118; see also 229–30. However, he wrote a history dominated by situations of mobilisation and conflict over racial exclusion that gave the impression of labour leadership. Google Scholar

112.Curthoys, “Conflict and Consensus,” 48. Google Scholar

113.Denis Cryle, inThe Press in Colonial Queensland, has written on the way Queensland’s squatters fought to control local newspapers to leverage their economic power into maintenance of political dominance, and how rival ruling-class interests used their newspapers to mobilise against them. Google Scholar

114.J. M. Graham, “‘A Danger that No Language could Magnify’: TheNewcastle Morning Heraldand the Chinese Question,” Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 69, no. 4(March1984), 239–50. Google Scholar

115.Andrew Markus, Australian Race Relations(:Allen & Unwin, 1994), 81. Google Scholar

116.See, for instance, the following speeches from debate on theChinese Immigrants Regulation Billin the NSW Legislative Council;Dalley, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April1879, 2–3;Foster, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April1879, 2. Google Scholar

117.See, for instance, the following speeches from debate on theChinese Immigrants Regulation Billin the NSW Legislative Council;Charles Campbell, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April1879, 2;Darley, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April1879, 3. There are hints of such a response in speeches byHolt, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April1879, 2; Innes, ibid, 2. Google Scholar

118.Trainor, British Imperialism. Google Scholar

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Author details

Griffiths, Phil