Earl Forbes, courtesy of The Ceylankan, vol. 59/3 August 2012
World War II (the War) ended in August 1945. For nearly six years the world was thrown into hitherto unseen turmoil and carnage, culminating in decimation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States of America emerged from the War relatively unscathed. Other than the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the war was not fought in the United States or its Territories. Europe was badly battle scarred and had to redraw its boundaries and reconstruct as a first priority. But more so than anywhere else, the big picture was soon to change radically in Greater Asia. In 1947, India gained Independence from Britain. Very early in the next year, Sri Lanka followed attaining independent status on 4th February 1948. Singapore and Malaysia were now free of Japanese occupation and moving towards greater self-government and independence from Britain. Indonesia unilaterally declared independence after nearly 300 years of Dutch rule; and so history making events occurred, one after another.
Post World War II — Australia’s population strategy: Australia had just come out of the War and, despite being on the winning side, there was an air of apprehension about. There was the realisation that a vast country, with a wealth of natural resources and a relatively small population, was an easy target for any predatory power. The Japanese had displayed their imperialistic ambitions during the War. They had been in Papua New Guinea; on Australia’s doorstep. Also, home soil, (viz. Darwin) had been under air attack. The Japanese were defeated but other predators in the region were about. The all important question was: “how was Australia to meet such a threat in the long term”?
‘Populate or perish’, was the cry at the time. But it was not ‘populate’ at any cost. It was not ‘populate’ with a baby bonus. In 1947, the Immigration Minister, Arthur Caldwell said: “We have 25 years at most to populate the country before the yellow races are upon us. It would be far better for us to have in Australia twenty or thirty million people of 100 per cent white extraction than seven million people who are 98 per cent British”.
In taking this approach, the Minister at the time was not enunciating radical new policy. He was merely elaborating on what has come to be called ‘the White Australia Policy’. The basic elements of this policy had been around from the time of Federation. In 1901, the new Federal Government enacted the ‘Immigration Restriction Act’ and the next year the ‘Pacific Island Labourers Act.’ These Acts were directed at ending the employment of Chinese labour (previously in the goldfields) and Pacific Islanders (in Queenslands sugar and cotton plantations). The enactments reflected the widely held view among many at the time that ‘there would be no place for Asiatics and coloureds’ in the future of Australia.
Developments in Ceylon: About the time Australia was re-iterating its ‘white only’ migration policy, the Burgher community in Ceylon was faced with hitherto unforeseen problems. At any given time in the past four hundred and fifty years of foreign rule in Ceylon, the Burghers made up only 1% or less of the population. However, at the turn of the 20th century (1910 to 1920), 60% of doctors, 100% of surveyors, 61% of Public Works engineers, 20% of lawyers and a high percentage of those in the middle ranks of the Public Service, were drawn from the Burgher community. Furthermore, up to 1889, the Burghers had equal representation in The Ceylon Legislative Council, as did the Singhalese (70% of the population) and Tamils (16% of the population). However, the rapid advance towards self government and eventual independence from Britain saw the fortunes of the Burgher community rapidly change. In 1931 universal suffrage was introduced in Ceylon giving all adult males and females the vote. In a situation where the Burghers made up less than 1% of the country’s population there was no prospect of the community ever being able to secure even one seat in a Parliament elected on the basis of largely territorial electorates. In fact in later years Burgher and European interests were represented only through nominated members to the Parliament.
Running parallel to the movement for self government and independence was the push to replace English with Sinhala as the language of provincial administration, of the lower courts, the medium of instruction in schools and the official language. In 1937 the Sinhala Maha Sabha was formed to promote use of Sinhala in all official forums. Along with the loss of political representation, the proposed switch to Sinhala raised doubt and fears in the mind of many a Burgher. The rapid movement away from English as the medium of school instruction and official communication left many a Burgher with the feeling that not only was his or her future in jeopardy, but more importantly, the futures of their sons and daughters were also seriously compromised. Up to that time, the Burghers had taken for granted that a good English education was their birthright. The good education coupled with a strong work ethic invariably saw the vast majority of Burghers in well paid employment. It now appeared to many that this position would inevitably change in the medium to long term. The writing was on the wall and opportunities beyond the shores of Ceylon were being seriously explored. Besides the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA, the Burghers looked upon the Land Down Under as an attractive place to settle permanently.
However, Burgher migration to Australia was not an option under the strict letter of the 100% white extraction migration criteria of the time. The Burghers claimed to be (and are) of European extraction but were certainly not 100% white (although some did try to claim as such). In the mind of many a Burgher, so unacceptable were developments in Ceylon at the time that they banded together in organisations to strengthen and advance their case for re-settlement outside Ceylon. One such organisation was the Burgher Settlement League. Not to be stifled by the 100% white extraction requirement the Burgher Settlement League made its play to the Australian authorities in Colombo On June 21, 1947, Mr. G. F. Van Der Hoeven, (a member of the Dutch Burgher Union, Secretary of the Burgher Association of Ceylon and President of the Burgher Settlement League) in a letter to the Chief Secretary, Ceylon stated: “I am now the President of the “Burgher Settlement League” which aspires to encourage
Emigration to Australia of all Burghers – men, women and children – who are desirous of doing so, in order that they may find more suitable opportunities than here, to secure a sound economic future, to obtain a good standard of living and to continue to maintain and preserve their identity in terms of Western culture and outlook of life. There is no scheme available in Ceylon, not even by the United National Party, by which the Burgher can be a Ceylonese without having to absorb the national sentiments, culture, outlook, language, dress and even Religion of the overwhelmingly predominating Sinhalese community. The European or Britisher is an Imperialist and the Burgher, an interloper, a “Yes-man” and therefore unwanted too. Whatever assurances may be given by the Politicians and bureaucrats individually or collectively, there is no doubt that the Burgher has come to the end of his tether….” [i]
In Australia, cracks begin to appear in the 100% white extraction Immigration policy: At this time though Australia did much to attract migration from Britain and Europe the migrant inflow was not the flood that it was expected to be. Australia was finding difficulty in reaching its stated target of an annual immigration intake of 1% of the population. Australian Authorities in Ceylon and India were suggesting that the Burghers and Anglo Indians would, subject to screening, make suitable migrants. In the land of opportunity, the White Australia policy was still intact but showing the faintest signs of weakening. Was Australia to open its doors to those in other British Colonies who claimed to be part-European in ancestry? Would the Burghers of Ceylon, Anglo-Indians and Eurasians elsewhere, make the grade as, ‘Good European Aussies’?’
Between late 1946 and 1951 migration from Ceylon to Australia was rigidly scrutinized and limited to a comparatively small number of Burghers who met the tests of ‘European ancestry, appearance, upbringing and outlook’. The details of this process are set out below and illustrated in extracts from confidential and secret communications passing between the Australian High Commission, Colombo and the Department of Immigration, Canberra.
Migration of Ceylonese Burghers only became possible when the concept of ‘predominantly European’ ancestry was accepted by Australia. But what in practical terms was “Predominantly European’ ancestry? Australian bureaucrats of this period, (as bureaucrats usually do) found a very practical answer to the question. .
On 11th November 1948 the Australian High Commissioner’s Office, Colombo, in an official dispatch raised the following question: ” Reuters message reports Minister for Immigration statement in the House on immigrants from Ceylon, inter alia, that only persons of at least 75% European origin are admitted into Australia. I would appreciate advice on that specific point, which seems to be at variance with my instructions, namely applicants must be predominantly of European origin. I have interpreted predominant as more than 50%’[ii]
The above query was answered in the following manner. “The Regulations are that the immigrants must be more than 50% European and in addition must be European in appearance (so that 75% is felt to be necessary to be sure)”.[iii]
Predominantly European (over 50% ancestry + European in appearance): The response to the query of 11th November 1948 was a masterpiece in ‘Yes Minister’ style bureaucratic jargon; i. e. more that 50% European ancestry was O K but to be sure select only those who are also European in appearance so that it works out to about 75% European! In other words both the Minister and the instruction to the High Commission, Colombo are correct, although they appear to contradict each other
But how was 50% or more European ancestry to be established? In this deadly serious pursuit of the time, the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon, (D B U.) took a leading role. The D B U was established in 1908. Among other activities, this organization from the outset, put out a publication aptly titled, ‘The Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon’. Very early into publication the D B U Journal started tracing the genealogy of prominent Burgher families. Not only were genealogies published but these were updated whenever there was an addition to a prominent family. The D B U was fortunate to have as a founder member and President, Mr. R. Anthonisz. He was an archivist proficient in Dutch. From original government records and such other material as Dutch Reformed Church and School Registers, he was able to preside over the accurate extraction of information about the early history of Dutch settlers and their families. In additional to official records genealogists and archivists had access to ‘stamboeks’ (family or clan books) which were maintained by the head of the particular family. In these family books were recorded births, deaths, marriages, and other important events relating to family ancestry.
By the time genealogies were being sought by prospective Burgher migrants to Australia, Mr. R. Anthonisz had passed away. He died in 1930. With the assistance of another notable scholar, viz, Mr. D. V. Altendorff, many an applicant for entry to Australia was able to establish ‘Predominantly European’ ancestry.
Like the Dutch Burghers, descendants of the British and the Portuguese also sought assistance from archivists to try and establish Predominantly European ancestry. The task for British descendants was not too difficult. A large number of British who had settled in Ceylon came out in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. With the help of comparatively good government, church and school records they were able to trace ancestry back to the original settler who came out to Ceylon or India as army officer, evangelist/teacher, civil servant, engineer, or businessman. Where there were gaps in the official paper records it was not uncommon to have affidavits and declarations from prominent or elderly family members attesting to the European lineage of a particular applicant.
At the time the sub group which encountered the greatest difficulty in establishing more that 50% European ancestry was the ‘Portuguese Burghers’. To begin with they had to examine genealogy over a period of over 400 years. Also, the descendents of the Portuguese had intermarried more freely with other Ceylonese communities and ancestry was mixed more so than the Dutch or British . For the descendents of the Portuguese, matters were further complicated as many Sinhalese had adopted Portuguese surnames, (mostly said to be at the time of conversion to Christianity).
If one thought that only the Ceylonese Burghers were deadly serious about the Predominantly European ancestry requirement, it would be incorrect. Australian Immigration bureaucrats were deep into the question of Burgher genealogy too. The genealogies accompanying applications for migration were scrutinised minutely as did any accompanying statutory declarations and affidavits. The level of close scrutiny is reflected in the following communication between Colombo and Canberra. An internal Departmental Dispatch from Colombo to Canberra, dated 3rd February 1948, had this to say: “As an example of Mr. Van der Hoeven’s unreliability as it affects us he recently wrote us a letter supported by documentary evidence to the effect that he had made a thorough examination of the genealogy of one of the members and his family and certified that all members of that family were predominantly of European descent. As it happened the people concerned had interviewed us some days previously and we knew beyond doubt on the admission of the people themselves that the father was straight Eurasian(50% European) and that the mother was the daughter of an Eurasian (50% Eurasian) and a pure Sinhalese, the resultant percentage of European blood in the children being 371/2%.” [iv]
So much for Predominantly European ancestry. What about ‘European Appearance’? Often, even today, when a crime is committed we hear the police refer to persons as being of European, Middle Eastern or Pacific Islander appearance. We have therefore in our minds a comparatively clear picture of what each type of ‘appearance,’ ought to be.
Among the Ceylonese Burghers in the post 2nd World War era there was a wide range of ‘appearances’. Some were blue eyed and very fair
in complexion. Others were dark skinned and often not distinguishable from some of the Singhalese, Tamils and Muslims of Ceylon. These inconsistencies in appearance were the cause of a great deal of confusion in the minds of Aussie officials. A Memorandum from the Office of the High Commissioner for Australia Colombo, to Canberra, noted:-
“Many of these Burghers would make suitable immigrants for Australia provided that the ad-mixture of Asiatic blood and consequent dark colour which is characteristic would not be a barrier to their employment in Australia. The degree of darkness of complexion varies remarkably even in the same family.”[v]
Practical difficulties associated with the over 50% European ancestry and European appearance led to some serious disagreements between Colombo and Canberra. On 4th March 1948, the Department of Immigration Canberra sent a communication to Colombo stating:-
‘….Customs Boarding Officers who act for Immigration Department on arrival ships Australia have reported in fifty-five cases that persons arriving from Ceylon holding certificates issued your office stating that they are predominantly of European descent are definitely non- European in appearance and do not come within category of persons eligible permanent admission.
In case one person named Pereira who called Canberra and was definitely non-European in appearance. He could not produce any evidence of mother’s ancestry. Evidence produced regarding father could not be accepted as conclusive proof that father was of pure European descent or even predominantly European. Pereira states that evidence was accepted by your office that he was predominantly European.”[vi]
The matter of persons of non-European appearance coming in as migrants seems to have caused concern among the Australian public at the time. The question of predominantly European ancestry could be clinically examined by bureaucrats at their desks, but European appearance was a more subjective assessment. In Canberra politicians and bureaucrats were concerned that the appearance aspect of the migration test was not being applied as required.
Such was the concern of Canberra on this matter that an official notification was sent from the Immigration Department, Canberra to the Australian High Commission, Colombo stating: “Hostile criticism has been aroused this end at appearance of considerable numbers Anglo-Indian or other partly coloured people on ships arriving here.”[vii]
There was subsequent consultation with The United Kingdom and the Shipping Companies to limit the intake of passengers of non-European ancestry and appearance, at Colombo and ports in India.
The Australian preoccupation with European appearance persisted long after migrants arrived in Australia. As is the case today, migrants could apply for ‘Naturalisation’ a few years after arrival. In the nineteen fifties the typical Naturalisation Application form contained 17 questions. The questions were quite innocuous. Typically the questions ranged from personal details to such matters as;
Question 3 — ‘Evidence produced as to birthplace and nationality…………?’
Question 11 — ‘Has applicant an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship?’
Question 15 ‘Is there any evidence that the applicant and his children are mentally deficient?’
However, after the 17th question there was a blank space on the application form termed ‘General’. In the nineteen fifties there is evidence to show that most cases favouably approved for naturalisation carried the hand written notation by the interviewing officer;
‘Appearance predominantly European’.[viii]
The fact that more and more persons of non-European appearance were being admitted as migrants from Ceylon, India and other locations led in 1950, to a tightening of the migration approval criteria. The problem for the Australian authorities seemed to be that with the mixed races there was a need to screen carefully before acceptance for migration was given. In October 1950, Canberra sent a Memorandum to Colombo, further clarifying (sic) the requirements for migrant approval. This Memo stated;
‘The Minister has decided that eligibility for admission to Australia of persons of mixed race shall depend upon compliance with the following conditions….
(1) a person must be 75% or more European ( as regards origin). Documentary evidence of this must be furnished;
(11) he must be fully European in upbringing and outlook;
(111) he tends to be European rather than non European in appearance’.[ix]
Now there were, in addition to the European ancestry and European appearance, further requirements that the applicant must be ‘fully European in upbringing and outlook’.
In spite of all this highly restrictive policy, many a Ceylonese Burgher did migrate to Australia. Canberra kept a close watch over Colombo and required that full lists of applicants ‘Approved’ or ‘Not Approved’ for entry to Australia be sent in to Canberra. Lists were sent from Colombo to Head Office, Canberra, every six months. The following is an example of one such list (abbreviated).
‘LIST OF APPLICANTS FROM CITIZENS OF CEYLON FOR PERMANENT ENTRY TO AUSTRALIA
AS FROM OCTOBER 1949 TO MARCH 1950
Applications of Immigrants Applications of Immigrants
APPROVED NOT APPROVED
Mrs. Daisy Irene Elaine Misso Mr. Francis Godfrey Wright
Mr. George Victor Ebell Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Annesley Moldrich
Mr Christopher LLewellyn Vanderwall Mr.Clarence Olwin Wolff
Miss Rhoda Margaret Bartholomeusz Mr. Leslie Irwin De Jong
Mr. George Randolph Staples Mr Cecil Ladlux de Kretser’.[x]
The right of review in ‘not-approved’ cases: When approval was refused, the individual or family in question had recourse to a review process. In early 1950, the matter of Mr. Wolff’s non-approval (see list above) was referred to in a memorandum sent from the Australian High Commission Office in Colombo, to Canberra. This communication covered not only the particular case of Mr. Wolff but also the reliability of genealogies in general. On these matters the memo stated;
‘Mr. Wolff was able satisfactorily to establish his genealogy. He is a member of the Burgher community but the High Commissioner did not feel able to approve his application for the reason that his colour was darker than we would feel it would be to secure his admission to Australia. This is, according to our understanding of the present interpretation that a migrant should be of predominantly European descent. We would be grateful for advice if any decision is made to modify this requirement. I should add of course that Burgher genealogies present some difficulty since although they are traced for several generations and more than a century through records kept since the Dutch administration of Ceylon, cases are believed to have occurred in which Sinhalese persons assume Dutch or Portuguese names upon Baptism in their respective Churches’.[xi]
The case of Alice Nona: Probably no individual incident could illustrate the post war Australian preoccupation with restricting non-European migration or even temporary entry, than the saga of ‘Alice Nona’. The facts go like this.
In early 1949, a Mrs. E H Temple (the Australian wife of an Englishmen working in Ceylon) planned a holiday to Australia, traveling by sea. Mrs. Temple had a six month old baby and wished to have a Ceylonese servant travel with her. The servant, (Alice Nona, aged 35) was described as a ‘nurse’. The Australian High Commission in Colombo was contacted by the Temple’s and after some delay documents were issued for Alice Nona’s travel to Australia as Mrs. Temple’s nurse. All arrangements went to plan until the ship on which Mrs. Temple and Alice Nona were traveling, docked at Brisbane. At Brisbane, Alice Nona was ordered not to leave the ship.
No doubt this restriction caused great inconvenience to Mrs. Temple. But more importantly, the incident raised outrage in Ceylon and other Asian countries. A Brisbane newspaper carried the headline: ‘Cingalese Nurse Can’t Land’.
In Ceylon very strong criticism of the Australian order prohibiting Alice Nona from disembarking in Brisbane was expressed in the English press; especially in the ‘Ceylon Daily News’. The press in Ceylon went into the matter in detail and highlighted the fact that Alice Nona was granted valid entry documents to Australia by the High Commission in Colombo. At first the Canberra Authorities did not relent. They took the view that Colombo had made a mistake. Canberra maintained that only wives of Australian officials could bring servants to Australia!
The situation for the Australian Authorities was not one that could be defended for long. The campaign in support of the Alice Nona gathered momentum and in Ceylon,
India and other Asian countries was causing embarrassment to Australia. Britain was said to have exerted diplomatic pressure urging reversal of the prohibition order. Canberra soon relented and the following order was made: “Mrs. Alice Nona permitted to land under exemption for one month.”[xii]
(Photocopies of all documents mentioned in the article are held by the author).
[i] Extract from letter dated 21 June 1947 from the President the Burgher Settlement League to the Chief Secretary Sir Charles Collins.
[ii] Extract from Dispatch dated 11th November 1948 from High Commissioner Colombo to Immigration Authorities Canberra.
[iii] File note made on 15th November 1948 in regard to Dispatch 2. Underlining of the words ‘in addition’is present in the original document.
[iv] Extract from Departmental Dispatch dated 3rd February 1948 from the Commissioner for Australia in Ceylon to Canberra.
[v] Extract from Memorandum from the Office of the High Commissioner Colombo to the Department of External Affairs Canberra dated 4th August 1947
[vi] Extract from Departmental of External Affairs cablegram dated 4th March 1948 to the Australian High Commissioner, Colombo.
[vii] Extract from cablegram from Department of Immigration, Canberra to the Australian High Commission, Colombo.
[viii] Extract from Department of Immigration, Application for Naturalization or Registration: Processing Sheet for Mr…… (This was for a Ceylonese applicant).
[ix] Extract from Memorandum from Canberra for the Office of the High Commissioner, Colombo.
[x] Abbreviated list of Applicants from Citizens of Ceylon for Permanent Entry to Australia
[xi] Extract from memorandum for the Secretary , Department of Immigration, Canberra from the Official Secretary , High Commission, Colombo.
[xii] Cablegram from Department of External Affairs to Australian High Commission Colombo, dated 30th March 1949. Underlining by author and not in the original document.