Immigration Restrictions

   Laws passed during the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by most self-governing colonies in the British Empire to restrict the immigration of Asians, mainly from China, India, and Japan. The European settlers in these colonies, having taken the land from the indigenous inhabitants, sought to avoid the arrival of non-Europeans, whom they perceived as racial inferiors and economic competitors.
   The first immigration restriction laws were passed during the Australian gold rush. A small but steady flow of Chinese, mostly from Guangdong and Fujian provinces, had been arriving in eastern Australia during the 1840s, but this number increased with the discovery in 1854 of rich gold fields in the colony of Victoria. In 1855, the Victorian parliament limited the number of Chinese migrants a ship could carry to one person per 10 tons of ship’s weight and levied a poll or head tax of £10 on each arrival. The neighboring colonies of South Australia and New South Wales passed similar laws to prevent Chinese landing in their territory and then traveling overland to Victoria. When the gold rush declined in the 1860s, all three colonies repealed their legislation.
   Chinese immigration to the west coast of North America led the U.S. Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1881. British Columbia likewise enacted a series of racist laws from 1878. Some of these laws were struck down by the government of Canada, but then in 1885 Ottawa passed an act to restrict Chinese immigration and introduced a head tax. By 1903, this tax had been increased to $300 per person, and in 1906 Newfoundland established a similar levy. The American legislation led the Australian colonies to fear that the American ban on Chinese arrivals would lead to an influx to Australia. During the 1880s, the Australian colonies reintroduced poll taxes and limits on the number allowed to be landed per ship’s tonnage. Western Australia enacted immigration restrictions for the first time, but still allowed Chinese to land in the underpopulated north of the colony.
   European settlers in the southern African colony of Natal targeted their immigration restriction laws against Indians. In 1896, the government stripped Indians of voting rights on the grounds that the country they came from did not have a parliament (there is no record that this argument was used to similarly prevent Russian migrants from voting). In 1897, Natal introduced a law requiring migrants to be able to pass a dictation test in a European language. The dictation test soon became the accepted method to restrict non-European migration throughout the British Empire. In 1902, neighboring Cape Colony copied the Natal legislation. British Columbia had done the same in 1900, although again the Canadian government disallowed the law. New Zealand adopted the dictation test in 1907.
   The creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 enabled the passing of national laws to enforce the “White Australia” policy. The Immigration Restriction Act was passed in 1901, although it was not, as has sometimes been suggested, the first law created by the federal parliament. Once introduced, the dictation test rarely had to be enforced, as it deterred most Asian migrants from even attempting to sail to a country where it was in place.
   The Republic of Transvaal and Orange Free State had introduced immigration restrictions toward Indians while they were independent states, and these remained in place after British annexation. After the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, more anti-Indian laws were passed. Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi began his career of civil disobedience by leading the protests against this legislation, and eventually forced the government of South Africa to compromise.
    Hexham, Irving. The Irony of Apartheid. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1918;
    Macdonald, Norman. Canada: Immigration and Colonization, 1841–1903. Toronto; Macmillan, 1966;
    Markuc, Andrew. Australian Race Relations, 1788–1993. St. Leondards: Allen & Unwin, 1994;
    Rich, Paul B. Race and Empire in British Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990;
    Saxon, Alexander. The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Berkeley: University of California, 1971;
    Windschuttle, Keith. The White Australia Policy. Sydney: Macleay Press, 2004.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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