Entering Australia from Ceylon: Burghers and Amahs first to penetrate White Australia

Earl Forbes

The diplomatic relationship between Ceylon and Australia commenced even before the formal declaration of Ceylon’s Independence. Australia established a Representative Office in Colombo, on the 29th April 1947. On Independence Day, (4th February 1948) this representation was upgraded to High Commission status.  As further indication of the importance placed on the relationship between the two countries, the Australian High Commission Office was moved from its temporary location at the Galle Face Hotel, to more permanent premises at Gafoor Building, in Fort, Colombo. Following diplomatic representation established in London, New Delhi and Washington, Ceylon established its fourth diplomatic office in Canberra. In January 1949,  Mr J A Martensz was appointed as Ceylon’s  first High Commissioner to Australia, (see Image 1).  Mr Martensz was a member of the Ceylonese Burgher community. Although probably underestimated in importance in the planning stages of the Australia High Commission in Ceylon, immigration to Australia soon became a matter of growing contention in the workings of this office. Developments in both countries contributed to a great deal of expectation, as well as misunderstanding, in the early immigration process.

In Ceylon, independence from British occupation, was viewed with a degree of apprehension by sections of the minority communities. The Donoughmore Commission in 1931 granted adult universal suffrage to all Ceylonese, ignoring the call from the minorities for communal representation. In a country where over 70 percent of the population are Sinhalese, universal suffrage could not but ensure political domination by the majority community.  Add to this, the call in the early 1940ies, for the medium of education to be changed from English to the ‘mother tongue’ of the student, further served to convince some among the minority communities to seriously consider moving out to pastures new.  The United Kingdom was a first option, followed by Canada, as countries to which one could re-locate. Australia was considered to be open by a section of the Ceylonese Burgher community who considered themselves to be of ‘European Origin’. One may ask why ‘European Origin’ was important.

Australia’s restrictive and discriminatory attitude to immigration goes back to pre -Federation times. In 1891, the Premier of South Australia, Charles Kingston, stated: ‘I regard second only to the necessity of protecting our shores against actual invasion, the necessity of protecting Australia against the influx of aliens, Asiatics, criminals, paupers and other undesirable classes’.

The coming together of the Australian Colonies in 1901 (Federation) did not change things.  That a central and important policy of the new nation of Australia was to keep the country ‘White’, soon became blatantly obvious.  In its first year after Federation, the Australian Federal Parliament passed two Acts restricting immigration to the country; i e  the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 and the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. The first Act had dual purposes; to stop more ‘Kanakas,’ (indentured labour from the Pacific Islands) being brought into Australia; and to send back to the Islands from whence they had come, those who had previously been brought to Australia as almost slave labour. The purpose of the second Act was to ensure that future migrants to Australia would be sourced only from the ‘Mother Country’ (the U K) and Europe.

In Ceylon, some Burghers who viewed Australia as being both climate wise and opportunity wise, a much better option for migration than either the United Kingdom or Canada, soon came to realise that their ‘European Origins’ could be used to advantage.  Broadly, the Ceylonese Burgher community could be divided into three groups, mirroring the three European powers which occupied parts of Ceylon, (and latterly the entire island), from 1505 to 1948. Of the three groups, those of Dutch origin had for many years prior to 1948, placed great emphasis on their ancestry and being distinct from Burghers of Portuguese and British ancestry. As far back as 1908, the Burghers of Dutch ancestry formed a representative organisation called the Dutch Burgher Union (D B U).  The D B U Journal had for many years published genealogies of local families. Relying on these genealogies it was not difficult for some Burghers of Dutch origin to make a case for being ‘European’.

To this ‘European qualification’ must be added the fact that Dutch burghers also held themselves out to be ‘British Subjects’. Australians had for many decades prior to this time, considered themselves to also be, ‘British Subjects’.  The status and rights of British Subjects were not clearly defined in the mid twentieth century.  Be that as it may, British subjects were in general looked upon as more suitable candidates for admission to Australia as migrants, than others.

All of this seemed to have blindsided the newly established Australian High Commission staff in Colombo.   Applications for entry to Australia (as migrants) were now increasingly being made by persons claiming to be, ‘British Subjects’ as well as of, ‘European Origin’.  Prima facie, these applicants appeared to the Australian High Commission in Colombo, to have satisfied the tests for entry to Australia.  However, under the strict interpretation of the White Australia Policy, (which was alive and well at the time) there was more to it than meeting the basic tests. To be welcomed into Australia as a migrant at the time, one had not only to, ‘play the part but look the part as well’. Subsequent developments, as outlined below, showed this to be the case.

The First Australian High Commissioner to Ceylon was Charles W. Frost, an easy-going retired politician who had held the Tasmanian seat of Franklin for several years and who in the later part of his political career, served as a Federal Minister. The High Commissioner and his Secretaries, supportive of applications by members of the Burgher community for admission to Australia, issued ‘Certificates of Eligibility’ to several applicants.

This practice was seen by the Canberra ‘Bureaucrat Bubble’ of the time as being highly unacceptable.  In an official dispatch dated 19th April 1948, Secretary T.H.E. Hayes, of the Department of Immigration Canberra, wrote to the Commonwealth Migration Officer in Sydney stating: ‘It has come under notice that a number of Ceylon Burghers who have been granted “Certificates of Eligibility’ by the Australian Commissioner, Colombo, have on arrival in Australia been reported as being of predominantly non-European descent.

In all future cases it is desired that action in the following lines be taken;

(1)On arrival the individual to be requested to make application for a certificate of exemption for a period of three months;

(11) Arrange an interview with the person and if it is considered that he is of predominantly Non-European descent issue a Certificate of Exemption valid for a period of 3 months and warn him that it will be necessary for him to leave the Commonwealth within the validity of this exemption;

(111) If considered predominantly European permanent admission to be approved;

(1V) Borderline and special cases to be referred to this office of decision.  A full report should be forwarded with any such case’   

(See doc.1).

The above dispatch was a clear attempt by Canberra to rein in the actions of the Ceylon High Commission, in regard to administration of immigration policy.    The dispatch stated very clearly that if the so called ‘Ceylon Burghers’ did not have convincing proof of European descent or could not be ‘considered predominantly European’ they were to be put on notice to leave Australia in three months.

Back in Colombo, the High Commissioner and his Secretaries were dissatisfied and took exception to the stance Canberra was taking regarding the good Burghers of Ceylon.  High Commissioner, His Excellency Charles Frost, was apparently able to effectively put his case of unfair treatment of Ceylonese Burghers at the point of entry, (or post entry) to Australia.

On the 22nd December 1950 the Department of Immigration in Canberra sent out a memorandum to the Migration Officer, Sydney, which stated:

‘About 18 months ago a number of British Subjects from Ceylon who claimed to be wholly of Dutch race and who had been passed by the Australian High Commissioner, Ceylon, as suitable migrants for Australia, were reported by Boarding Officers on arrival as predominantly non-European in appearance.

2 Correspondence on the subject has since passed between this office and the High Commissioner’s Office and in a recent communication, the High Commissioners Office stated inter alia:-

“An enquirer here the other day told us that his brother who was passed by Mr. Frost last year was asked by the Immigration Officer at his port of entry to remove some of his clothing so that he could decide whether his complexion was light enough to pass and had only been tanned by exposure to the sun or whether he fell below the standards which he set.  I think tests such as these are unfortunate since word of them spread very quickly in Colombo.  It should be possible to make a reasonable assessment on an appearance basis without recourse to such measures.   Another resident of Colombo reported earlier to Mr. Frost that a similar suggestion had been made to her daughter by a male boarding officer. I think you will agree that incidents such as these ought to be avoided”. ………….(See doc.2)




At the time this Memorandum was sent, Mr Frost had left Colombo.  Very likely he made representations to Canberra earlier which resulted in the subsequent issue of this memorandum. Strangely the position of Australian High Commissioner to Ceylon was left vacant for about two years (1950-1952). In 1952, A R Cutler was appointed as the second High Commissioner to Ceylon.

This memorandum highlighted the humiliating treatment meted out to some migrants from Ceylon. Immigration officers on the ground in Australia had moved the ‘goal posts’ and were requiring Ceylonese entering Australia to not only be of ‘European descent’ but also be European in appearance. One could produce family genealogies with some effort but changing ones appearance was near impossible. Also, it is interesting to consider what repercussions there would be today if a woman, (as in the daughter of the migrant in question) was requested by a male boarding officer to remove some of her clothing to pass a skin colour test!

Staff attached to the Australian High Commission in Ceylon, were apparently having to handle nasty rumour and deal with harsh criticism of Australia’s discriminatory immigration policy.


 As if handling immigration applications for entry to Australia of Ceylonese, who were British Subjects; claiming to be of Dutch ancestry; but some of whom were not European in appearance, was not enough of a problem, the officers at the Australian High Commission in Ceylon were increasingly requested by  influential and wealthy travellers to issue entry permits to their Amahs and other domestic help.

Under the prevailing policies it appears a French maid or Swedish nanny could accompany her employer to Australia with little restriction.  Such was not the case for non-European domestics seeking to enter Australia with their employers.  Prior to 1950 domestic servants of non-European race were admitted to Australia for a limited period if they were; in the employ of Foreign Ambassadors; High Commissioners; were accompanying foreign Government officials visiting Australia on official business or for a conference; or accompanying Indian and Pakistan tourist and business ‘visitors of good standing’. 

By 1950 the question of non-European domestics entering Australia seems to have grown in importance.  This matter was not only of general concern but of particular relevance in regard to entry of domestics from Ceylon.  The need for the Australian Department of Immigration to rule on this matter was evident and on 16th February 1950, the Commonwealth Migration officer wrote to all concerned stating:-


I refer to my memorandum of 20th January 1949, regarding the above subject, and desire to inform you that the classes of persons who may bring non European servants to Australia with them have been extended.

The position now is that the following may introduce servants of non European race:-

Up to the time the above communication was issued there were, as mentioned above, four categories of persons, [(a) to (d)] who could bring non European servants into Australia.

In the above Instruction of 16th February 1950, three new categories of persons were added to the existing list of those who could bring non European domestic servants to Australia.  The three new categories were:-

‘(e) Ceylonese tourist and business visitors of good standing;

(f) European visitors British or non British who would be accompanied by young children;

(g)Europeans, British or non British, whose state of health necessitates their being attended by a servant.

‘……….Those accompanying classes (d) (e) (f) and (g) should also hold return tickets’

 (See doc.3).

This official communication is of significance as it was the first time Ceylon was separately categorised in an official instruction regarding admission of Amahs and servants of non European race, to Australia.

The two other new categories (f) and (g) are also of significance as they opened the door to Europeans (British or non British) to bring into Australia non European domestic servants on the grounds of family or health needs.  The health needs category (g) did not mention, (as did some of the other categories), that the concession was open only to “tourists and business visitors’.  Being far less restrictive the health needs category was soon seen as one which could be (and was very likely) exploited.

Many Burghers who migrated to Australia in the second half of the twentieth century did not experience the same difficulties as did the very early migrant Burghers.  During the second half of the 20th Century Australia’s immigration policy underwent many changes which brought it more into line with emerging liberal attitudes.  Passed by the Australian Federal Parliament, The Migration Act 1958, did away with archaic tests (such as the Dictation Test) for entry to Australia and replaced it with a widely based Visa system.  The White Australia Policy was still in operation but it was weakening.  Many large scale events and programmes brought Australia into direct contact with countries other than Britain. Independence for India, Pakistan and Ceylon (1947/48), establishment of the Colombo Plan (1950), the Snowy Mountains Scheme (commenced 1949) and the Melbourne Olympics (1956) are some of these occurrences.  This was followed in the 1960ies by a successful Referendum which recognised rights of indigenous Australians.  Finally in 1973 the Whitlam Government adopted ‘Multiculturalism,’ which officially eliminated discrimination on the grounds of race and colour from immigration policy.

Reference to ‘race’ was also excised from criteria for admission of Amahs and domestic help.  The current Immigration Department fact sheet states:-

‘Australian immigration regulations provide for entry of domestic workers to Australia in specific circumstances, such as when the employer is posted to Australia as a Diplomat. Overall visitors are generally encouraged to seek domestic workers from the domestic market’.


Image and documents courtesy National Archives of Australia. 



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One response to “Entering Australia from Ceylon: Burghers and Amahs first to penetrate White Australia

  1. Shane Vanheer

    Australia was known as “Little Holland” hence does this entail that Burghers have an equal status as Australians enjoy (EQUAL OPPORTUNITY). The native Australians are the Aborigines, but not the current Australians. As a Dutch Burgher with the Vanheer name…do I qualify for permanent Immigration to Australia?


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