Title: Henry Lawson Among Maoris

Author: William H. Pearson

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1968, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Henry Lawson Among Maoris



Lawson of course was not exceptional in his intolerance. It surrounded him from his childhood. It was the silly lies of his mother and grandmother that had given him his first remembered dislike for Chinese and Aborigines. Grandmother Harriet Albury, according to Gertrude O'Connor, used to frighten away Aborigines at Mudgee by making mime of a hanging or prodding them with the live end of a fire-stick.60 The idea of Australia as an exclusively European colony had been formulated by workers as far back as the 1840s.61

Intolerance of non-Europeans was a mainplank of Australian nationalism and of the trade unionism of the eighties and nineties with which Lawson identified himself. A resolution against Chinese immigration was passed at the first InterColonial Trade Union Congress at Sydney in 1879 and repeated at subsequent congresses until the last in 1898.62 If the economic aim was to remove the threat of cheap labour, it was not long before the exponents of white Australia developed a herrenvolk mystique.63 The platform of the Melbourne Trades and Labour Council in 1889 included a 'Bill to prevent the introduction of criminal, pauper or Asiatic labour'.64 The unanimously passed resolution at the fourth Intercolonial Trade Union Congress at Adelaide in 1886 supplied as its second reason the argument that 'the presence of Chinese in large numbers in any community has a very bad moral tendency.'65 The Bulletin was anti-Chinese from its founding in 1880; in 1887, after praising the Australians as egalitarians emancipated from the tyrannies of Europe, it declared: 'No nigger, no Chinaman, no lascar, no Kanaka, no purveyor of cheap coloured labour is an Australian.'66 It was even held against the Chinese by the anti-clerical Bulletin that they were not Christians. The Chinese, the paper said, would 'surely taint the comparatively pure blood of the Caucasian race and page 13fill Australia with an effete, semi-Oriental nation', a fate forestalled only by a healthy 'sentiment of personal loathing which does so much to keep the races apart'.67 One partisan accused the Chinese in Australia of being dirty in their minds and in their housekeeping and unresponsive to the claims of mateship. Even the absence of organised resistance to white persecution is held against them. 'John Chinaman will leave his comrade to die in a ditch, or cast him upon the tender mercies of the whites.'68 On the one hand the Bulletin argued that the Chinese were a vigorous cultured people and all the more dangerous for not being barbarian; on the other it could say: 'Let him go back to his Middle Kingdom and turn himself into a monkey, and work slowly up the Darwinian scale as the white man himself had to do. Then let him come back to Australia a million years hence and try again.'69 The Bulletin was for more than thirty years Lawson's most frequent publisher; the Boomerang and the Lone Hand, to which he contributed, were racist in policy. The Boomerang in 1888 ran William Lane's serial White or Yellow, foreseeing a rising of Queenslanders against a dictatorship of Chinese immigrants; a story in its issue of 13 December 1890 told of Aborigines trying to cure a sick man by sitting on his chest to keep the cough down and so killing him; it accompanied Lawson's poem. 'The Cambaroora Star' with an illustration showing miners armed with whips evicting Chinese from a goldfield. At the Japanese defeat ofRussia in 1905, the Bulletin and the Lone Hand saw Australia as threatened by the 'Asiatic menace'. Thomson foresaw Australia attaining national maturity by means of resisting a Chinese invasion.70

The political results of this movement and the strong passions that promoted it were the restriction on Chinese immigration by 1888,71 the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1901 and the adoption, as part of the Labour Party's federal platform in 1905, of 'the cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity'.

There was also the opposition to indentured labourers in Queensland. In 1890 the Amalgamated Shearers' Union passed a by-law refusing admission not only to Chinese but to South Sea Islanders.72 In the following year the General Labourers' Union, meeting in Adelaide, imposed the same restriction.73 The opposition to South Sea Island labour which culminated page 14in the repatriation of most of the labourers by the end of 190674 was without the moral opprobrium attached to the Chinese, since it was known there were abuses in the recruitment of the labour, and the labourers were seen as the ignorant dupes of the planters. The provenance of these labourers is important to my purpose and it is not clarified by the freedom with which contemporary partisans indiscriminately called them black, Polynesian, Kanaka, and Pacific Islander. Most of them were Melanesian: returns for the years 1868-76 cited by C. M. H. Clark give their sources as the Loyalty Islands, New Hebrides, Banks Islands (in the New Hebrides), and the Solomons. Only from the Banks Islands and some parts of the New Hebrides and one or two small outliers of the Solomons might there have been Polynesians.75 O. W. Parnaby, giving Queensland sources for 1863-1905, lists fewer than a hundred labourers from Polynesia proper (Rotuma, Samoa, Tonga) and the greatest proportion from the Solomons and New Hebrides.76 The number of Polynesians amongst the indentured labourers must have been small.

But if the Amalgamated Shearers' Union in 1890 would not admit Chinese and South Sea Islanders to future membership, it did allow eight of them who were already members to continue in the union77 and three years later the same union, extended and renamed the Australian Workers' Union, made specific exceptions to its restriction: 'No Chinese, Japanese, Kanakas or Afghans or coloured aliens other than Maoris, American negros, or children of mixed parentage born in Australia shall be admitted to membership'.78

The exceptions are interesting. What is common to all of these groups is their knowledge of English-in contrast to the indentured Melanesians79-and their familiarity with, or adaptability to, a European society divided into classes with opposed economic interests. Maoris and American negroes were frequently employed on Pacific ships; in the early years of the century there were two eases of negroes in Australia being popular with white settlers.80 There is an interesting parallel in a serial story in the Sydney Worker in 1894 in which some Australian itinerant labourers have as mates on the tramp first an American negro and later some Maoris.81 The teller's attitude is slightly patronising, it is true, since the negro is called 'a big American nigger', and 'Maori Ben' is admired for page 15his prowess in pub fights and his expertise in catching and killing pigs; but they were accepted. That the acceptance of Maoris was due in part to experience of them as trade unionists is apparent from Spence's account of his efforts to recruit members for the Amalgamated Shearers' Union in 1887:

Near the end of shearing I sent the three organizers to New Zealand, and they organized the shearers in that colony also. We had the rules translated and printed in Maori. We enrolled a considerable number of that race and found them staunch unionists.82

Spence's memoir contains an 'Honor List of Union Prisoners' imprisoned in New South Wales between 1891 and 1894 for unionist activity: one name is Polynesian, probably Maori, Paul Pahae.83 The Bulletin in a paragraph in its feature 'Aboriginalities' on 30 October 1897 notes with a mixture of amusement and approval that Maori shearers on Chatham Island had struck for higher pay. On the other hand, the Bulletin thought it a waste of time educating or even christianising Aborigines: 'Christianity was never intended for blackfellows. Its higher doctrines they are incapable of understanding.'84 It regretted that Aborigines had been so far corrupted by European vices that they were beyond reform; it deplored, but contemplated with equanimity, the current slaughter by settlers of Aborigines in Queensland and concluded: 'The aboriginal race is moribund. All we can do now is to give an opiate to the dying man, and when he expires bury him decently'.85

The basis then of the trades unions' hostility to Chinese and indentured Melanesians and Afghans was economic; so too was the sympathy for Maoris. The unionist attitudes, obscured as they are by racist and jingoist accretions, are parallel with those of Lawson. The Aborigines were no serious economic threat to workers, but they were unlikely to be economic allies, and it did not matter whether they were ignored or hated or occasionally indulged. There was a positive readiness to accept Maoris.

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