R9360 Anti-Chinese immigration cartoon, 1888 - item 4



This buff rendered cartoon depicts five young women, representing the self-governing Australian colonies, straining at a lever labelled 'FEDERATION'. They are attempting to topple a huge rock, caricatured as a Chinese man's head, off the edge of a cliff. The head is labelled 'THE CHINESE PEST'. In the caption (not seen here) all five colonies, led by Victoria, agree that a 'strong unanimous heave' is needed 'to rid ourselves of this unsightly thing'. The cartoon was published in the Melbourne Punch on 10 May 1888.

Acknowledgements: Reproduced courtesy of National Library of Australia. Illustration by 'B'.

Educational value
The message of this cartoon was that federating as an independent nation was the only way to bar Chinese people from migrating to and living in the Australian colonies. The colonies were prevented from deporting and excluding Chinese people by the 1860 Treaty of Peking, which guaranteed Chinese subjects the right to enter the British Empire. Britain invoked the Treaty to disallow anti-Chinese legislation being passed by its colonies.
The size of the 'head' was meant to give the impression that the Chinese population in the Australian colonies was burgeoning. In fact it was less than 40,000 and in decline. This was obscured by the anti-Chinese hysteria whipped up by newspapers in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Following an 1887 visit of representatives of the Chinese Government, the press had voiced racist fears that the visit was the precursor to an influx of Chinese immigrants.
In early May 1888, when this cartoon was published, Melbourne was still in the grip of an outcry surrounding the SS Afghan, a ship that had arrived in April with about 260 potential Chinese immigrants on board. The Victorian colonial government had immediately prevented 58 people from disembarking in Melbourne and the Afghan had proceeded to Sydney, where an even greater frenzy and mass marches on Parliament had ensued.
The use of the term 'pest' was intended to convey at least two meanings of the term - an unwanted nuisance and an epidemic disease. Accusations that Chinese people carried disease were widespread at the time and had persisted since an outbreak of smallpox in Sydney in 1881. It had been alleged that the source was a ship carrying Chinese immigrants. The Chinese passengers on board the Afghan were accused of carrying the plague.
Within a month of this cartoon, the intercolonial Conference on the Chinese Question had been called and representatives had gathered in Sydney to discuss the possibility of passing uniformly restrictive legislation in each of the colonies. Although this conference is seen as one of the precursors for Federation in 1901, the response varied from colony to colony and additional legislation adopted by the other colonies in 1888 was never enacted in Tasmania.
Western Australia is not represented in the cartoon as it had not achieved the status of a self-governing colony in 1888. Although it had a Legislative Council, mostly made up of elected representatives, the real power in WA remained with the governor, who exercised his authority through the colonial secretary in the Council. The governor was answerable primarily to the secretary of state for the colonies in London. WA became self-governing in 1890.
© Curriculum Corporation, 2009, except where indicated under Acknowledgements