01 December 2018

The Chinese in Camooweal (1892)

Camooweal is a small town (population 187 during 2011) on the far north-western border of Queensland/Northern Territory. It was established during 1884/85 and - because of its position - soon found itself the scene

Years of anti-Chinese racism in colonial Queensland had resulted in Chinese immigrants - once welcomed as a source of cheap labour - being subjected to various pieces of discriminatory legislation in the areas of health, immigration, quarantine, mining and customs duties. Entry into Queensland was strictly restricted, but the road through Camooweal from the Northern Territory (which at the time was part of the colony of South Australia) soon became a back-door entry point for ‘unauthorised arrivals’. This prompted extra policing measures in the local area, including the opening of a police gaol at various times during 1897-1902.

The issue subsided after the introduction of the Commonwealth’s Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, which curtailed Chinese immigration across Australia.

Anti-Chinese cartoon in the Queensland Figaro and Punch, 14 July 1888.

The article below features a lot of opinion and finger-pointing at the government over in South Australia, and features language and a tone that are sadly all too familiar to 21st-century Australians.

Maryborough Chronicle, 23 June 1892

'The first reports from Camooweal. a small settlement near the border line between Queensland and the Northern Territory of South Australia, of an influx of Chinese in large numbers into this colony created some apprehension and a desire that every effort should be made to keep them out: but the latest reports, assuming them to he reliable, of the terribly destitute and pitiable condition of these Asiatic outcasts and the apparent certainty of starvation and death if forced back into the inhospitable colony which tempted them to leave their native land, excites our sympathy for their wretched state and indignation that this colony should be menaced with, and have to suffer from the cruel and culpable neglect, of the South Australian Government.

There is of course the possibility that the reports recently to hand of the deplorable condition of the Chinese have been grossly exaggerated for a purpose. The influx of such an abundance of cheap and docile labor is probably not at all an undesirable circumstance in the eyes of the large squatters of the far West and the Gulf country, and if a tale of woe poured into the ears of the Government could induce them to reduce the precautions for stalling off the influx, the tendency to resort to such a pathetic subterfuge would be strong with them.

On the other hand, however, if the telegrams received from the border convey the facts, not unduly embellished with touches of romance, the position becomes a very serious and difficult one for the Government of this colony to deal with. There arises a conflict between our humanity and our laws. The thought of driving back fellow creatures even though they be Chinamen into a barren wilderness out of which they had just struggled hungry and exhausted, is a painful one to contemplate, and its actual occurrence must offend and distress the average conscience.

The circumstance is the logical outcome of our own laws for the exclusion of Chinese from Queensland, and the contiguity of a colony in one portion of which such laws are not in operation or have been specially suspended. The imaginary line that divides us is far removed from the practical control of either colony, running through a tract of country that is hardly yet explored, much less civilized, and this fact adds to the difficulty of the matter. Our exclusive laws dealing with the great Chinese question as affecting Queensland seem in the case under notice to be operating with pitiless rigor and with such results as to arouse public sympathy for the homeless and despairing wretches, who implored the police to shoot them rather than drive them back to the more awful lingering death of starvation in the desolate wastes of Northern Territory, and declared their intention of returning again and again over the Queensland border, courting imprisonment where they might at least be sure of food.

But the trouble arises not from any default on the part of Queensland. It is due to the utterly callous neglect and selfishness of the South Australian Government. Our treatment of the Chinese is quite rational and justifiable. Human prejudices, when they are strong and widely diffused, need to be legislated for as well as human rights. The well being and peace of a community could not be assured unless this were done. Our laws imposing a heavy and exclusive poll tax upon the admission of Chinese for the colony were founded almost wholly upon a strong European prejudice against the 'Heathen Chinee' and all his ways, and so long as that prejudice remains a strong public sentiment our laws are justifiable. Granted this prejudice, Queensland acts fairly in all other respects to the Chinaman. Those who are already in the country enjoy ample freedom and are equally protected with Europeans by the arm of the law, and those outside are warned of the stringent and only conditions under which they will be allowed to set font upon this country, so that they are not deceived and imposed upon.

The same cannot be said of South Australia, for whose faults in this respect Queensland is evidently doomed to suffer. The Government of that stupidly apportioned colony seems to have wilfully neglected its duties and utterly disregarded the consequences upon this colony. In South Australia proper the prejudice against the Chinese is probably just as strongly manifested, or would be if an influx were threatened, as in Queensland, but unfortunately the South Australian Government has under its administration a large tract of northern country, effectually cut off by the great unknown Australian interior from the thickly and white peopled southern portion of that colony, and as almost the whole of the electors reside in the south there is a natural indifference as to the social conditions which may lie permitted to prevail in Northern Territory. As a result, this tropical slice of Australia has been developed under practically no government at all. and has been the happy hunting ground of grasping syndicates and the hell upon earth of hordes of slavish Asiatics - chiefly Chinese. This state of affairs, bad as it may be, would be no business of ours, were it not that it so seriously menaces us.

The practice that has evidently been in vogue of introducing into Northern Territory large numbers of Chinese to perform certain definite works, with no intention of sending them back to their native country, and on the completion of those works letting them go adrift, to swarm over into this colony, is not to be tolerated, and should be rigorously and effectually protested against. The condition of the majority of the Chinese in Northern Territory is deplorable, and the deceptions that have been practised upon them are monstrous. We are loath to allow the poor wretches to die along our border line, but indignant that the evil consequences of maladministration should be visited upon us and not upon the people who permitted them to arise, and whose secure distance from the scene of these troubles saves them any apprehension. Moral suasion in inducing the South Australian authorities to have a little more respect for themselves and consideration for their neighbours, and expensive defensive action on our own part are our only present remedies, pending the adoption of a scheme of federation, under which the various colonies for their own good will be more amenable to each other.'