PostHeaderIcon Please check your baggage at the door

Please check your baggage at the door

(First published Weekend Australian, February 5-6, 2011)

As the topics of immigration, refugees and multiculturalism coalesce into a major policy discussion, we will benefit from remembering history. Declarations that Australians are fearful and suspicious of foreigners will never summon up the better angels of our nature but greater knowledge of history can move us beyond that old rhetoric

A recent survey by social researchers Ipsos Mackay revealed that support for a multicultural society has increased. Furthermore, Australians understand the link between skilled migration and wealth. But the survey revealed, we still expect newcomers to assimilate and embrace the Australian way of life. As reporter Drew Warne-Smith put it '... we still ask migrants to check much of their baggage at the front door.' (The Weekend Australian Dec 18-19 2010) History can explain this disjunction between acceptance of multiculturalism and insistence that newcomers adapt to local ways.

When we legislated for multiculturalism in the early seventies we misinterpreted the problem. Ignorant of our past, misled by the idea that 'White Australia' was the only form our society ever took, we thought it necessary to enforce tolerance. Yet, history tells us that 'integration' (accompanied by an insistence on 'fairness') is a bedrock Australian value. By insisting on multicultural policies, we may have put tolerance at risk.

The enthusiastic reception of 'boat people' is one of the best documented facts about the first sixty years of European Australia.

In New South Wales, the flagstaff on Dawes Point would signal that a sail had been sighted and a flotilla of row boats and sleek yachts and small sailing skiffs would set out to escort it up the harbour, racing and circling the slower vessel. Dropping anchor in Sydney Cove, the ship would be surrounded by the local craft whose skippers were waving and calling up "Anyone from Nottingham? Or Dublin? Or Glasgow?" "What news?"

News from home was not the only attraction. In the early days, the ships were saviours from starvation, carrying much needed supplies of food and medicine. Later, with hunger satisfied, the colonists welcomed them for the goods they carried - such as household utensils or the luxury of a piano or a mirror. And rum.

The arrival of a ship was good news for traders and consumers alike. And so were their passengers.

Ships docked weekly, even daily, in Sydney. In 1820, for example, twenty ships carrying prisoners arrived at roughly monthly intervals, disgorging a couple of hundred newcomers each time into a community composed mainly of emancipists or serving convicts. In Van Diemen's Land where the fledgling community was only a few thousand people, eight ships added a welcome 1398 prisoners to the mix in 1820.

Was the community's welcome just because the newcomers were like them? Certainly the prisoners who disembarked in their thousands were mainly from England, Ireland and Scotland but they were not entirely homogenous. Black faces and foreign accents were sprinkled amongst them on virtually every ship. While the British were fighting Napoleon in Europe, a captain in the French army, a pastry cook from Vienna, a hussar from Pomerania and a tailor from Prussia were among the 'foreign' prisoners they transported. Names on the ships' indents record the convicts' diversity: Bark from Prussia, Peterson from Sweden, Stempin from Poland, Herenzaik from Wallachia, Soto from Spain, Poloni from Venice, Angelo Farrugia and Guiseppi Spitiere from Malta. Where you came from was immaterial. The British would not hesitate to transport you.

The First Fleet was a mix of races including twelve black men. One nicknamed 'Black Caesar' was well known as a convict overseer. So was the negro boatman 'Billy Blue' who ferried passengers to the north shore of Sydney Harbour 

As the British Empire widened, so did its catchment for convicts. In 1836 the ship Elizabeth brought Rose Harvey to Sydney. Described as 'black skinned' with 'black woolley hair, broad nose and thick lips', she had been convicted in Bermuda of stealing spirits. Travelling with Rose was a nursemaid named Johanna Eamon, who stole clothes in Demerara, West Indies. A third black woman was recorded as thirty years of age but her name was listed only as 'Priscilla'. She had been sentenced to life transportation for stealing tea in Jamaica.

The pattern was the same in other Australian penal colonies. 'Sheik' Brown, a muslim, was a famous absconder from Moreton Bay. Van Diemen's Land received a significant percentage of non-white faces including Thomas Day the son of slaves in Jamaica, who successfully feigned piety to survive the penal system. William Cuffay was the son of an escaped slave who was raised in London. He was transported to Van Diemen's Land in 1847 for organising a Chartist demonstration. My own research into a boat that took convicts to Western Australia found, among others, Hezakiah Green, 'skin black' who was working as a cook on a merchant ship when he was convicted.

In the 1840s, a clergyman who visited Norfolk Island was indignant at the diversity he saw there: a mix of 'Chinamen from Hong Kong, the Aborigines of New Holland, West Indian blacks, Greeks, Caffres and Malays..." along with British soldiers sentenced for desertion and, the clergyman added, 'idiots, madmen, pig-stealers and pickpockets.'

Convict society was always multi-racial, drawing its numbers from the far reaches of the British Empire as well as cosmopolitan London and the seaports of Liverpool and Glasgow. Hottentot bushmen from the Cape of Good Hope were convicts. So were Maori from New Zealand, Negroes from North America and the West Indies as well as men and women from India, present day Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Mauritius. For future identification, the authorities noted physical details in the ships' indents when they arrived. 'Men (or women) of colour' were listed alongside their shipmates whose complexions were described as 'ruddy', or 'freckled', 'pale' or 'sallow'. Regardless of skin colour, they shared the common denominator of a criminal conviction. Being a 'mate' from the same ship was another bond.

Australia was populated by people from the absolute bottom layer of society - not just the poor, or the 'deserving' poor but the desperately poor - which meant that any concern about race and ethnicity and religion had been overwhelmed by the need to survive. The shared struggle created fellowship between people of a different background, an ethos that was recreated in the colony. We know now that race shaped treatment of the Aboriginal people but race was not a factor in the welcome convicts were given, nor has evidence been found that some were treated differently because of their race. Class was a greater influence on how the authorities treated convicts after they arrived. And class had more influence on how the colonial community received them. No doctor, lawyer or merchant convicted of a crime was allowed to 'get above themselves'.

This motley crowd disembarked into a community that then, as now, had one over-riding condition to its welcome; newcomers were expected to adapt to the local ethos and customs. Nothing to do with race. Everything to do with ex-convicts fear of being overwhelmed by free settlers who would return them to the outcast status that was their rank in Britain. It is this contradiction that explains how 21st century support for multiculturalism is accompanied by demands that our migrants take on 'the Australian way of life'.

Ipsos Mackay found that derisory nicknames are part of 'a withering initiation' applied to each migrant group in turn. New arrivals since World War II have been called dagoes and wogs, balts, yellows, slopes or slanty-eyeds, Lebs and curry-munchers. More recently it has been the 'towel heads' who have been suspected of undermining our way of life. But Ipsos Mackay only researched 'the past half century'. Had they looked further back, they would have found a long precedent for this custom. 'Pom' for instance. As in 'Pommie bastard'. As in Englishman straight off the boat who needed enculturating to local ways. History doesn't make it right but if the tradition was explained, it might make it less scarifying for newcomers.

Furthermore, history tells us that from very early, locals would put 'new chums' through the hoops to ensure they understood how to behave in Australia. Check grand ideas of yourself at 'the door'. Don't expect others to fetch and carry for you. Never defer. Learn how to push your hat back on your head rather than doff it. Show you can take a joke.

One nineteenth century immigrant described how he was tested by being the joke. Gathered round a fire in a stockman's hut, everyone took their turn at entertaining. 'One sang a song, another told some tale of olden times, another told news of the bushrangers, another described land he had just found for a cattle run... My share was to answer all the questions which any and all thought proper to put to me...and to pocket with the best grace I could (for most of these men had been convicts) the jokes they not very sparingly but I must say with very good humour, cut on me for having come to colony "to make a fortune", for being a "free object" or for having "lagged myself for fear the king should do it for me".'

History explains the claims for an 'Australian way of life' that puzzle us today. The former convicts were determined that the class structure and economic privilege of Britain would not to be replicated in the community they had created. In self-defence, whether prisoners or free they quickly cut down anyone with pretensions to social or economic superiority, usually by mockery and humiliation. In the colony, a man or woman was to be judged without the usual markers of birth, education, wealth or social status.

The prisoners were intent on preserving the egalitarian culture that had developed in the penal colonies, a society where they had a chance. In the early days, support could come from unexpected quarters. Exasperated after a fight with a free settler, Governor Macquarie exclaimed 'This country was established for the reformation of convicts; free people had no right to come to it.' His remarks reflected the popular attitude that existed before he arrived and which he reinforced. Two decades later, James Macarthur told a parliamentary Select Committee in London that the emancipists '... think the country is theirs by right.' Contrary to much of our contemporary analysis, it was not foreigners this community feared. The conditional welcome extended to immigrants was directed first and foremost at the British. Over time it was applied to any newcomer. Australians only relaxed and accepted immigrants when they were confident the newcomers would take on 'the Australian way of life'.

The origins of this careful and 'suspicious' testing of newcomers was lost as ignorance of our history increased. Real knowledge of convict society was displaced by the idea that it was nothing but a brutal slave colony for depraved criminals. But this idea was propaganda used later by some free settlers who wanted to end transportation. Their melodramatic campaign shamed people with convict connections and distorted convict history. Because they succeeded, their ugly template has constructed our understanding of Australian history since the 1850s.

Modern research has exposed the distortion of Australian history, but the old images shape our thinking today, leading us astray in analysing contemporary problems. For example, referring to the reception of refugees and migrants, historian Inga Clendinnen wrote in 2008, 'My hope is that our increasingly mixed population will prove more reliably open-hearted than the old Anglo-Celt majority mired in a cruel colonial past... These later incomers know what it is to lose a country and a culture, to suffer prejudice and exclusion. They know the struggle to meet obdurate family demands, while learning to swim in an individualist culture.' (Inga Clendinnen, 'Black and White Australia' (Review, 13-14 September 2008).

Detailed knowledge of Australia's penal era might have modified Clendinnen's view about the 'old Anglo-Celts'. The convict settlers were three dimensional people with the flaws of temperament and character shared by all humanity but they were also an amazingly diverse and ingenious group of people. Studying their crimes, their manoeuvres to find a footing in the penal colonies, the determination to take advantage of the opportunities available, reveals the qualities honed in adversity which are almost certainly replicated in refugees today.

Humour, dry as dust, laced with bravado, was also a notable quality of the prisoners. As we have seen, they used humour in those 'withering initiation rites' that continue today; the ability to take a joke against yourself is still a passport to acceptance in Australia. But humour was also the convicts' cover for the sadness of transportation. Like twentieth century refugees, they knew 'what it was like to lose a country'. They may have lacked the 'obdurate family demands' that Clendinnen attributed to more recent settlers but then they often lacked family altogether. Transported 'beyond the seas', they had no choice but 'to swim in an individualist culture' and they had to do so while impeded by official attempts to control and discipline their lives. They met these challenges with courage. And defeated them with mockery.

The great trauma of convict transportation was the loss of loved ones. For example, one hundred women on the ship Princess Royal left seventy children behind in Britain, many of them destitute and some alone in a workhouse or on the streets. The emotional agony this caused cannot be glibly dismissed as lesser anguish than the experience of recent refugees. Rather than ranking one loss as greater than another, we would do better to recognise the shared loss that binds so many people who become Australian citizens. Such recognition would also facilitate a positive bond with the Aboriginal people who lost their land.

But the newcomers share something more than loss, something that hopefully the Indigenous people will one day join us in celebrating - across the centuries our families, wherever they came from and whenever they arrived, found haven in Australia.

The convicts were not the only immigrants who believed, as one Irish prisoner said in 1835, here to the land of liberty and freedom." More than a century later, his feelings were echoed by a European refugee who arrived during World War II on the ship Dunera. For the rest of his life, he told his wife repeatedly 'Australia was the best thing that happened to me.'

copyright Babette Smith 2011