Overlapping identities in pre-WWII South Australia: lessons for 21st century Australia.

Author:Young, Janette

Many people believe that prior to the post-WWII mass immigration Australia's population was almost entirely of British origin. They also believe that post-war immigration lead to a significant change in the ethnic composition of the non-indigenous population of Australia, necessitating the policy of multiculturalism to manage such increased diversity. However evidence from South Australia suggests that non-British immigration was surprisingly common before 1945, particularly before 1901, and that the assumed homogenous British origin population at 1901 and 1945 hid a greater proportion of non-British ancestry than has commonly been assumed. Evidence of inter-ethnic families and marriages suggests that much of this integration was peaceable in the absence of formal policies to manage interethnic relationships.


The purpose of the paper is to revisit pre-1900 South Australia in order to re-approach Australian multiculturalism. The traditional view on which Australian multiculturalism is based is that prior to WWII the Australian population was predominately 'Anglo-Australian', that is born in either Britain or Australia, of British origin. (1) This is seen as having been the result of two core policy processes: on the one hand a favouring of British migrants through processes of supporting their migration to Australia, and on the other hand exclusionary policies that barred non-British people. Post-federation legislation enshrined these notions in what has come to be known as the White Australia policy. Within this framework of understanding some observers believe that post WWII non-British migration, and the policy of Australian multiculturalism, has led to Australia becoming the peaceable, multicultural nation that it is today. (2)

This paper presents data that challenge the notion of a homogenous white Anglo-Australia, both at federation in 1901, and in later years up to 1945. The paper critiques the polarities that came to characterise Australian multiculturalism. This offers us the chance to understand both the origins of Australia in the early 21st century and the ways in which a revised perspective on our history can present new approaches in this post-September 11 era of heightened ethnic, religious and cultural divisiveness.

The findings presented in this paper have emerged out of an ethnographic PhD focusing on the impacts of migration on older men of British origin. This focus had its origins in curiosity about the manner in which post-WWII British migration to Australia has become forgotten (3) as migration per se. It is possible to postulate that a core reason for this process has been the conceptualising of Australian multiculturalism, whereby the term 'migrant' has defaulted to referring to those migrants who have come from countries where English is not their first language. (4) As part of constructing an ethnographic approach to this topic, we chose to explore the South Australian context that these men entered. The commonly used data boundary (as per Churchman) (5) that has been used to frame Australian multiculturalism has been census data collected since the federation of Australia in 1901, after the first national census was undertaken. (6) However all the colonies collected data on their populations prior to this and the South Australian data prior to 1901 form a core component of the reanalysis presented here.

The paper is structured into three sections. The first half of this paper will outline and explore place-of-birth data from South Australia between 1861 and 1981, to suggest a new perspective on 'White South Australia' as at 1901. A second brief section will consider the implications of the previous discussion on the period of 1901 to 1945, traditionally known as core 'White Australia' years. The final section of this paper will extend the state-based focus of the data to considering the possible implications of this historical (albeit state-based) review for Australia in the early 21st century.

South Australian place-of-birth data 1861 to 1981

Figure 1 presents data from South Australia on the place of birth of people residing in South Australia between 1861 and 1981, who were not born in Australia or Britain. As can be seen only 3.7 per cent of census respondents can be identified as neither born in the UK or Australia in 1901, and by 1947 this percentage was even lower at 1.7 per cent. But between 1975 and 1981 when the policy of multiculturalism was becoming well established, the proportion of South Australians who identified as being neither British nor Australian-born hovered around 11 per cent.

The surprising data, however, are pre-1901. In the 40 years prior to 1901 the proportion of census respondents who are identified as neither British nor Australian-born is between 8.2 per cent in 1861, and 5.6 per cent in 1891, being at its lowest in 1876 at five per cent. The obvious suggestion presented by this statistical picture is that if proportions of 11 per cent can be interpreted as having a significant impact on the culture and identity of Australianess in the mid to late 20th century, surely similar percentages, within a smaller population base one hundred years prior would be significant as well. Indeed, while it is important to keep in mind Richards' caution that colonial data on the population of South Australia can be unreliable, (7) it seems reasonable to suspect that the proportions of non-Australian or British census respondents at this time were more likely to be under-reported (due for example to language barriers).

However rather than just leap to conclusions it seemed prudent to explore some basic questions in regard to this surprising statistical picture. Who were these pre-federation non-Anglo South Australians, where did they go, and what impact have they made on what has been considered a predominately Anglo South Australia?

Places of birth (South Australia 1881 and 1891)

Table 1 shows the place of birth for people not born in Australia or Britain in South Australia in 1881 and 1891. As can be seen Germany-born residents form the largest single group with around 8000 people. The second largest group comprises the Chinese with around half that number. In contrast, most other nationalities have fewer than 500 persons identified, with some very small numbers such as 17 Portuguese in 1891 and 26 Spanish in 1881.

Of the two large nationality groups identified above the Germans have a significant and well known place in South Australian history. Places like the Barossa Valley and Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills reflect this pre-1900 German migration and its impact can be seen in the broader community in such things as subtle language distinctions between South Australia and other states (for example South Australians use the Germanic terms of 'delicatessens' and 'fritz' rather than 'milk bar' and 'devon' as in Victoria). However Germans only form half of this non-British or Australian-born segment of the population. This begs the question of what became of the individuals from the other nationalities identified here.

Table 2 provides some insights into this question. It shows the gender breakdown for the groups identified in Table 1 in 1881.

It is evident that few of the national groups had gender balance within them. Even the Germany-born population shows substantial imbalance. As far as the Portugal-born are concerned, 28 are male with just one female. Perhaps the most striking imbalance is in the...

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