Labour shortages were an issue in mid-19th century Australia, particularly in rural areas. Importing Chinese workers was much discussed as a solution to the problem. The first 12 Chinese labourers arrived in Adelaide from Singapore in June 1847 to work as indentured herdsmen and shepherds. Others soon followed in Western Australia and the eastern colonies.
In the early years of the 19th century, free convict labour was still available and played an important role in opening up and working the land, with convicts assigned to private employers. However, by the late 1830s, there was popular agitation against transportation and in 1840 the British Government issued an order prohibiting further transport of convicts to New South Wales.
Transportation continued for some years in other Australian colonies and was introduced in Western Australia in 1850, where it continued until 1868. However, in the eastern colonies pastoralists and agriculturalists began to consider other ways to supplement the labour force.
There were already a number of Chinese people in Australia, including domestic servants such as those employed by John and Elizabeth Macarthur at Elizabeth Farm in New South Wales. Newspapers reported, in lofty tones, that the Chinese were “undoubtedly, far superior in point of intelligence and industry either to the Malays or Coolies; and in want of the still better class of emigrants from home, the colonists may perhaps think it adviseable to make shift with those who are decidedly second only to the European labourer for general purposes, and possibly equal to them as shepherds; or farm and house servants.”
The same year that the first Chinese labourers arrived in South Australia, 20 more landed in Western Australia. The following year the Nimrod berthed in Sydney, bringing 120 agricultural labourers (100 men and 20 boys) from Amoy in China’s Fukien province and the Phillip Laing arrived in Port Phillip with 123 Chinese aboard. Between 1848 and 1853 about 1,000 Chinese labourers arrived in what is now Queensland.
Many of the new arrivals signed five-year contracts, although some were free immigrants. Most had agricultural skills and helped farmers clear and manage their land and irrigate their crops. Many Chinese immigrants found work cooking on stations. During the gold rushes of the 1850s, they opened ‘cookhouses’ to cater to Chinese miners but often provided European-style meals for other workers. By 1890, one-third of all cooks in Australia were Chinese.
However, most Australians of British origin resented the Chinese, regarding “non-white” races as inferior. This led to the establishment of the infamous “White Australia Policy” which was enshrined into law after the colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. By the late 1940s, the percentage of Australian residents of Asian origin had shrunk from 1.25% to around 0.21%.