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The changing face of early Australia

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

Millions of people from all over the world have made Australia their home. Their lives and experiences have influenced all aspects of Australian life. In particular, the new arrivals, or immigrants, have contributed significantly to the working life of Australia – from goldfields, the Overland Telegraph, the sugar cane fields, vineyards and construction sites through farms and pearling luggers to factories, fashion, cafes and many other business.

lady holding child

A lady holding a small child [Quarantine Station], Tom Gray Collection, 3. Image courtesy of Manly Quarantine Station.

Eventually, the arrival of people from diverse societies created a cultural diversity that is now an integral part of Australian society and identity.

Arrival at the colonies

The docklands of Sydney, Melbourne and Fremantle were the main arrival points for people arriving in the colonies from the early 1800s. However, Hobart and the port towns along the South Australian coast such as Robe, were also significant arrival points. Hobart was a significant commercial shipping depot for the early maritime industries. Robe and neighbouring port towns along the Coorong peninsular in South Australian were popular places to disembark as they were the last ports before the notorious section of the coastline known as the shipwreck coast.

The development of the port towns of the far north – Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns, from the mid–1800s owed much to the commercial shipping and trading companies, such as Howard Smith and Burns Philp. Australia's trade across the Pacific and with China for incense, spices and tea was characterised by the use of Pacific Island labour. Pacific Islanders and Chinese arrivals contributed significantly to the social and economic development of the places where they lived and worked.

North Head Quarantine Station

ships at quarantine station

Ships at the quarantine station. Image courtesy of City of Sydney.

From the 1830s to 1984 migrant ships arriving in Sydney with suspected contagious disease stopped inside North Head and off-loaded passengers and crew into quarantine to protect local residents from becoming sick.

After an average time of 40 days, most passengers were released to settle as Australian residents. Their experiences of quarantine varied. Some passengers experienced a first class resort, making new friends and sharing dreams of a bright new future. For others it was a far more frightening experience of disempowerment, disease and death.

Initially tents provided accommodation. In 1837, 295 healthy people were crowded into 36 tents in the heat of summer while the sick stayed on the ships. A wharf and four or five buildings were eventually erected. In 1847 kitchens, bathrooms and a hospital were constructed. By 1853 Sydney's Quarantine Station could accommodate 150 people.

In the 1860s to 1870s when the world economy slowed down, immigration slowed and there was such a lack of maintenance that when Smallpox surfaced in Sydney in 1881, it became an epidemic. This resulted in a Royal Commission.

In 1909 the Commonwealth government took over responsibility for the Manly Quarantine Station and introduced the biggest upgrade the Quarantine Station had ever seen. This resulted in the Station reaching its maximum capacity of accommodation – 1,200 people.

Australia's population at Federation

interned Germans

South Australian Germans interned on Torrens Island. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

British and European settlers

In the 1800s, British and Irish settlers dominated the complex and diverse societies in the colonies. This extended beyond the legal, civil and political systems. British pastimes, cultural activities and religious practices dominated. However, different attitudes about class, the roles of men and women, workers, the poor and racial mixing contributed to a society that was different to the ones that were left behind in Britain and Ireland. This was evident in the involvement, arguments and experience of the miners at the Eureka Stockade during the gold rushes in the 1850s.

Despite the large influx of Chinese people during the gold rushes – when Chinese people comprised up to one third of some goldfields populations – settlers from Asia and the European Continent only made up 2% of the population in 1901. The largest group of European settlers were Germans, some of them living in close-knit communities.

Generally most Europeans arrived in Australia as young, single men seeking work and their fortune in the rapidly expanding colonies, especially in the gold rush era of the 1850s and the boom of the 1880s. Some were seamen who had deserted their ships.
Kate Walsh, The Changing Face of Australia: a Century of Immigration 1901-2000, p. 20
Lebanese migrants

Mrs Hamood and Children from Lebanon c.1900, Arrived in Australia 1929. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

Other European arrivals in the 1800s included Italians, Greeks, Poles, Maltese, Russians as well as French settlers working in the wine industry.


The Chinese arriving in Australia were the largest group of Asian settlers in Australia – arriving mostly from southern China after Britain had forced China to open its ports to foreign trade in 1842. After the gold rushes of the 1850s, most returned to China. Those that stayed worked as labourers in the sugar and banana industries, market gardeners, shopkeepers, laundry operators, cooks and shearers, as well as clerks, carpenters and interpreters.

Chinatowns sprung up across Australia around major areas of industry; the goldfields, tin mines and pearling. The businesses in chinatowns offered accommodation, medicinal herbs, fresh food grown by Chinese market gardeners and groceries. There were also restaurants, noodle houses, tobacconists, butchers, temples, theatres and schools in the Chinese quarters. The Chinese supplied much valued fresh fruit and vegetables in areas where water was scarce.

man carrying produce

Man carrying produce, Herberton. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

It is 54 miles from Cairns to Herberton, and I well remember a Chinaman tramping the whole distance with two large baskets full of apples, which were for sale in Herberton.
John Potts, 1887. Atherton Chinatown history

On the gold fields, there were accompanying racial tensions based on the different approaches to mining the alluvial gold. The Chinese were distinctive in appearance, language and dress and they became targets of resentment, which sometimes led to riots such as those at Bendigo in 1854, Buckland River in 1857 and the anti-Chinese marches at in 1860-61 at Lambing Flat, (now Young, NSW). These problems resulted in the first restrictions on immigration in Victoria 1855 and New South Wales 1861. Colonial governments differed on the policy in accordance with the proportion of Chinese in the total population – high in Victoria, low in Tasmania and also with the need for manpower.

The large Chinese celebrations as part of the opening of the first Federal Parliament and the visit of the Duke of York to Perth, in 1901 suggests a very active group in society. There were 30,000 Chinese in Australia at the time.

'Afghans', Indians and Pacific Islanders

Afghan Cameleers, Beltana, 1897. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

From the 1860s, 'Afghans', Indians and Pacific Islanders were recruited to work in northern outback and rural Australia. 'Afghans' came from India, as well as Iran, Egypt and Turkey as cameleers to operate camel trains throughout outback Australia, regarded as 'pioneers of the inland'. They were loosely referred to as 'Afghans' largely because of their similar dress and common religious beliefs in Islam.

About 4000 Indians worked in the sugar and banana industries in Queensland in addition to the 6000 Pacific Islanders, referred to as 'Kanakas', who worked as contract labourers.

From the 1880s, Lebanese settlers arrived in Australia with Turkish papers, as Lebanon was part of the Turkish Empire until 1919. Many Lebanese were involved in textiles, drapery and haberdashery. Lebanese families came to own the bulk of the draperies in regional Australia – a tradition that continues today.

Indigenous Australians

By its very nature, immigration had a critical effect on the lives of Indigenous Australians. The arrival of British colonists from 1788 effected vast changes upon Aboriginal culture and society.

North Head, the site of Sydney's Quarantine station, is the site of some of the earliest contact and formative interaction between Aborigines and the British colonists.

On 29 January 1788 Captain Hunter and Lieutenant Bradley landed on Quarantine Beach during an initial survey of Sydney Harbour following the arrival of the First Fleet in Port Jackson three days earlier....Governor Phillip was speared at Manly Cove the following year by Wil-le-me-ring, a friend of Bennelong. (Sydney's Quarantine station)

The local Aboriginal communities were the earliest victims of introduced diseases in the colony. Diseases such as smallpox swept through the local Cadigal communities. This disaster could have been prevented or minimised had quarantine processes been in place from the time of the colony's establishment.

During the 1800s, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders experienced dislocation from British areas of settlement, with disruption to their social and economic lives. Outside of key settlement areas however, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders remained as the dominant population group. Mutual relationships developed in trading skins, food and artefacts for cash, rum, gold, horses, tobacco, blankets, hats, boots and clothes. Across south-eastern Australia, some colonists learnt local Aboriginal languages as this was the vernacular in rural areas.


W.S. Smith, Horsemen including blacktrackers. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

Aboriginal skills in station work, animal husbandry, midwifery, medicine, tracking, policing, fishing, navigating, droving, skinning and tanning were in demand for the first 100 years of the colony. The gold rushes were an opportunity to gain employment on pastoral runs, engage in trade especially skins, fish and baskets, and work as part of the Native Police Corps. Miners relied on Aboriginal knowledge to build mia mias or gunyahs as well as their knowledge of bush tucker.

The widespread introduction of galvanised iron fencing in the 1870s saw many pastoral leases fenced, gated and patrolled. This greatly reduced the capacity of Aboriginal people from accessing their traditional land and food sources; effecting great dislocation and disruption. (See example in NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, Yuraygir National Park Contextual History , p. 19)

The enormous influx of people to rural areas in the late 1880s which followed the New South Wales Crown Lands Act of 1884, the exodus of people from the Victorian goldfields and the dispersal of people from the cities in the Depression years of the 1890s caused further dislocation from land areas for many Aboriginal people. This coincided with the introduction of intense measures for 'protection' of the Aborigines on government mission stations, in New South Wales and Victoria, which attempted to separate families based on their racial mix.

Attributed Charles Mountford. Image courtesy of Ara Irititja Project and the South Australian Museum.

In 1898, the Privy Council held in Cooper v Stuart, that New South Wales was a colony which consisted of a tract of territory practically unoccupied, without settled inhabitants or settled law...', doctrine of terra nullius – a land empty of people. This decision made a fiction the Aboriginal presence, their lives, culture and law. It was also in direct contradiction of the acknowledgement of Aborigines in the preambles to the Acts creating the other Australian colonies, and how the British had acknowledged other Indigenous peoples, such as in New Zealand and Canada.

Federation of the six colonies in 1901 reinforced the British claim over the continent and specifically excluded Aborigines from the census and the law-making powers of the parliament. This effectively disenfranchised or removed Aborigines civil rights, despite their overwhelming contribution to the early survival of the colonies and the colonists' knowledge of the bush, tracking and policing, local architecture, domestic family structure, supply of all fibre products – bags, baskets and hats, rural industries, especially sheep and cattle farming, droving, skinning, tanning, hops and brewing, as well as sporting achievements.

White Australia and limits to civil rights for non-Europeans

At the opening of Federal Parliament, on 9 May 1901, the speech of the Attorney General Alfred Deakin (later Prime Minister) reflected the populist sentiment of some Australians when he opined on a vision of Australia as a nation that should 'remain one people, without the admixture of other races'. The White Australia Policy came into law when The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was passed in December, restricting immigrants from working in Australia and restricting migration of non-white people Restrictions, however, were not uniform across Australia.

Quong Tart

Quong Tart. Image courtesy of the City of Sydney

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901

Anyone with a non-European background wanting to enter Australia had to sit for a dictation test of 50 words in a European language, later amended in 1905 to any prescribed language. Customs officers were instructed to choose an appropriate text. Early protests by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, William Ah Ket, a Melbourne Barrister, and Quong Tart, a successful Sydney businessman and member of the Freemasons, and William Loo Ching of Surry Hills (Daily Telegraph, 9 May 1888) had no effect in changing the White Australia Policy.

The non-European population in Australia declined dramatically after 1901 (a total of about 47,000 residents). Merchants, students and tourists could only enter on temporary permits. Japanese pearl divers and Malay and Filipino boat crew, however, were exempt from the dictation test. In addition, wives and children of non-British people were barred from joining husbands in Australia after 1903. The use of contract Pacific island labour was banned after May 1904. The Pacific Islands Labourers Act 1901 enabled the deportation of Islanders already living and working in Australia. Southern European migrants were recruited instead by Colonial Sugar Refinery.

Indigenous voting and citizenship rights

Restrictions on voting and citizenship rights applied variously to Indigenous Australians. Before 1901, Aborigines had the right to vote in all the colonies except Western Australia and Queensland, although this was rarely exercised. After 1901, there was much debate about whether Aborigines could vote in Commonwealth elections because of the previous state rights. Legal opinion varied and over time Aborigines were disqualified from voting.

NAIDOC day of mourning

Man [magazine], Day of Mourning and Protest Conference at Australian Hall on 26 January 1938. The organisation leaders William Ferguson is on the far left and John Patten is on the far right. Courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Indigenous Australians were denied civil rights under the 1901 Commonwealth Constitution. These rights are not granted until the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Act [1967 Referendum]. The 1901 Commonwealth Constitution mentions Indigenous people twice: once to exclude Indigenous people from the census, and once to exclude Indigenous people from the lawmaking powers of the Commonwealth parliament.

The Franchise Act 1902 (Cwlth) disenfranchised Indigenous Australians from voting in Commonwealth elections, unless already on a state electoral roll: 'no aboriginal native ... shall be entitled to have his name placed on an Electoral Roll' unless there was already an entitlement to vote under a State law.

The Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), an all-Aboriginal body, was formed in 1937 in New South Wales with Jack Patten as president and Bill Ferguson as secretary. The APA, together with William Cooper, was responsible for organising the Day of Mourning protest on Australia Day in 1938. The APA had three aims: full citizenship rights for Aboriginal Australians, Aboriginal representation in Parliament and abolition of the New South Wales Aborigines' Protection Board.

It was 1949 before Aborigines previously entitled to vote in state elections were entitled to vote in Commonwealth elections. It was 1962 before this was extended to all Indigenous Australians.

Female suffrage


Voters outside a polling place, Brisbane, Queensland, 1907. Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: picqld-2003-01-08-11-21.

In 1902, Australia was the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote in federal elections and also the right to be elected to parliament on a national basis.

The suffragettes successfully argued that women should be able to vote and stand for election because the wishes of women should be reflected in parliament – that a government 'by the people' should include government by women, because laws affect women as much as they do men.

Social life and culture

Gatherings on festive and social occasions for Australia's migrant settlers was an important time to remember past celebrations and family, to ease the pain of their separation and to celebrate their new life in a new land.

Many Italians, for example, lived in the suburb of Carlton in Melbourne in a vibrant, close-knit community. Parks and gardens were popular places for people to relax. Some liked to walk the streets, greeting neighbours and friends as was their custom at home.

masquerade party

Masquerade party held by the Scandinavian community in South Brisbane, c1906. Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.

In large communities, such as the Chinese, Italian and Greek communities, there were also lively, large-scale organised social events to coincide with special events, and charity fundraisers for causes in Australia and at home. These included the visit of the Duke of York in 1901, annual Red Cross Charity Balls, and local fundraisers. Large extended groups also made it possible to establish schools for children.

Within migrant groups the was also, by necessity, social diversity, change, interaction and adaptation in cultural practices. This became more visible in the period after the First World War as different mixes of genders and generations from the diverse societies worked hard to forge a new life in Australia.

The social face of early Australia changed from one dominated by British settlers, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to having Chinese people became part of a significant minority of Australian society. The Chinese were the main suppliers of vegetables, tea, furniture, silk, tailoring and laundry services in the colonies and outnumbered the British on the Palmer River goldfields and in Darwin. While the work of the Chinese, Afghans, Indians and Pacific Islanders, whose populations had more than halved, was largely replaced by southern Europeans, in the federated Australia, following the enactment of the White Australia Policy in 1901, their contributions came to be part of Australian social identity.

Useful links



Chinese heritage centres and museums

Online Resources

Print references

Kate Walsh, The Changing Face of Australia: a Century of Immigration 1901-2000, Allen & Unwin, 2001.

Last updated: 4 June 2015

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