Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of History and Politics


This thesis questions the dominance of White Australia as a narrative of Australian history by highlighting opposition to the policy and its vision of a pure white nation. It considers the need for a new paradigm, that of Plural Australia, to more adequately frame the experiences of Australia's past and to acknowledge continued ethnic heterogeneity within the nation. A northern, tropical perspective on Australian history undermines the traditional narrative of British colonisation and the supposedly unanimous desire to maintain a White Australia. Darwin was established as a mixed tropical colony and maintained its multiethnic society right throughout the White Australia period.

White Australia as a political and ideological principle has always been problematic. During the period up until 1940, the debate continued over the inclusion or exclusion of Australia's 'coloured' population within the nation, particularly in regard to Aboriginal and Asian workers. White Australia may have viewed these groups as potential competition to white workers, and as a threat to 'racial' purity, but this remained a contested issue. Colonial attitudes, which favoured 'cheap coloured' labour were retained. Internationalists, in contrast, preferred to include 'coloured' workers within the workforce and the community as equal members. Even staunch advocates of White Australia came to question the exclusion of 'coloured' residents from their community. This thesis argues that the primary issue for Australian nationalists was to create a unified and harmonious nation. It had been imagined that this would be achieved only with a 'racially' homogeneous population. But the experience of Darwin suggests that it was possible for a new kind of plural society to develop even under White Australia. The degree to which various ethnic groups were incorporated into the white working-class community differed, as is demonstrated in the case studies of Aboriginal servants and waterside workers, Japanese and 'Malay' pearling crews and Chinese workers. The character of Plural Australia was shaped, not simply by political, ideological or even economic considerations, but by the evolving responses of white Australians to their experience of living within a multiethnic community.

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