Facing Fortress Australia: Ceylonese Migrants in the 1950s & 1960s-by Michael Roberts

Facing Fortress Australia: Ceylonese Migrants in the 1950s & 1960s-by Michael Roberts


Earlson Forbes, whose title in THE CEYLANKAN, vol 27/2, May 2024 is “Fortress White Australia: What early Ceylonese migrants [1949 t0 1969] were up against” … [without most of the author’s pictorial illustrations because of The Editor’s technical inexpertise]

The Six Australian Colonies came together on the 1st  of January 1901 to form the independent Nation of the Commonwealth of Australia.  From 1788 (First Fleet arrival at Sydney Cove) to the time of Federation, Australia was populated by convict and free settlers almost exclusively from Britain.  The 1901 census put the population at 3.7 million.   Aboriginals were not counted in this census. A small percentage of the population was made up of Pacific Islanders and Chinese.  The Chinese entered Australia in the second half of the 19th century at the time of the Gold Rush in Australia (mid-19th century) and in the years following. Between 1851 and 1870 about 50,000 Chinese were estimated to have entered Australia. Pacific Islanders had been brought to Australia in the second half of the 19th century as labourers.


From its inception the Nation of Australia embarked on a highly protective policy regarding entry into the country.  Within one year of formation of the Nation, the Australian Parliament passed two Acts limiting immigration.  These two Acts were The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, and the Pacific Islander Labourers Act 1901.  The Pacific Islander Labourers Act aimed specifically at putting a stop to admission of persons from this region.  The Act stated, ‘No Pacific Island Labourer shall enter Australia on or after the thirty first day of March one thousand nine hundred and four’.

Of the two Acts by far the more important was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. The Immigration Restriction Act aimed to limit all permanent entry into the country not by obvious reference to race or colour, but by imposing a Dictation Test on any prospective immigrant. The Act stated that the following were ‘prohibited immigrants’; namely, ‘any person who when asked to do so by an officer fails to write out at dictation and sign in the presence of the officer a passage of fifty words in length in any European language directed by the officer’. This prohibition could be used not only against non-Europeans not proficient in English but also against those who were proficient.  The dictation test could be conducted in any European language (French, Spanish, German etc.)

Fortress Australia doc 4 

Fortress Australia doc 4

The Secretary for Immigration in Canberra, as far back as 1908 wrote to the Collector of Customs Fremantle, regarding the impending entry to Australia of an undesirable Chinese national in the following terms:-

‘I have the honour to inform you that a Chinese named ………..contemplates visiting Australia shortly.  It is understood that he is at present in Ceylon.  For various reasons …the Government have refused permission for him to land in Australia.  I shall be glad therefore, if you will issue instruction that in the event of this man arriving in Australia he is to be subjected to the dictation test which should be applied in such a manner as to ensure its efficiency.  It is probable that ………..understands English.  Inquiries should be made on this point and officers should be in readiness to apply the test say in Spanish or Italian.’

A typical passage used for the dictation test reads as follows:-

‘The hairy adornment of the lion renders him more formidable appearance.  But the plain fact is that the tiger’s head and jaws are more solid, heavy and powerful than the lion’s.  We can only tell the difference when examining the skeletons of the 2 animals with a skilled anatomist’.

This restrictive White Australia Policy of limiting entry to Australia to primarily British and some Europeans only, was adhered to in the first half of the twentieth century.  Not only Australians but other democracies openly or covertly supported the notion of white supremacy.  Australian Policy was apparently considered to be a success in other lands and had its admirers and well wishes in Canada.  Figure 1 below is a letter of admiration to Prime Minister Bruce of Australia from the Ku Klux Klan. The letter thanks the prime Minister of Australia for his stand for ‘an all White Australia’.  The author who is the president of a chapter of the KKK, also invokes God’s Blessing on the Prime Minister in preserving, ‘the heritage committed to his care’. (Note: Bruce was P M and not Premier as stated in the KKK letter)

Although the end of the Second World War saw seismic change in many parts of the world, initially it did not bring any significant change to the White Australia policy.  The immigration minister at this time (Arthur Caldwell) fully recognised the need for Australia to rapidly expand  its population.  ‘Populate or perish’ was his slogan’However, his choice of prospective immigrants was not without prejudice.  Caldwell added to his population slogan with the words; ‘It would be far better for us to have in Australia twenty or thirty million people of 100 per cent white extraction than seven million people who are 98 per cent British’.  As far out as four years after the end of the Second World War, the Immigration Minister’s office sent out a secret dispatch in which it was stated that the Minister’s view was that non-Europeans are,  ‘not suitable as settlers in Australia’. (See figure 2).

Even the judiciary at this time openly supported white only migration to Australia.  Justice Brennan of the Queensland Supreme Court, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph on 9th January 1945 stated: –

‘Australians will become a nation of slaves if the advocates of Asiatic migration have their way’.  On the question of migrants from China and India coming into Australia Justice Brennan commented; ‘A million from each country will outbreed us in 25 years’. He concluded his interview with the question; ‘why are our politicians so fearful of applying the White Australia policy?’.

Post Second World War is appeared that all branches of the Australian government as well as the Judiciary were in agreement that for the second half of the 20th century, the best option for Australia was to maintain its worn-out White Australia policy.

Ceylonese Burghers assail the White Australia Fortress

Although Fortress White Australia appeared to be as strong as ever, the years following the end of the Second World War saw momentous change in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world which would inevitably influence what went on in Australia.  India and Pakistan achieved independence in 1947 and Ceylon in the following year. There was also independence on the horizon for countries such as Burma and Mauritius.   In these countries there were minority communities within their populations which were of European and part European ancestry.  In Ceylon, persons of British, Dutch and Portuguese ancestry, (referred to as the Burghers) tactically approached Australian authorities and requested admission as immigrants on the grounds that they were of European ancestry. Due in some degree to pressure from liberal members of government, Canberra marginally relented and decided that persons of predominantly European ancestryEuropean in appearanceand able to integrate into Australian society and way of life, would be considered for admission into the country as immigrants.  Predominantly European was in the first instance interpreted by Canberra to be 75% European ancestry. 

In the case of a Ceylonese who was applying for permanent admission to Australia as a migrant, (with family) there were at the time many hurdles to clear.  Some hurdles were known while others were dependent upon the subjective whim of an interviewing officer or beyond the applicant’s control.

The primary requirement was to prove European ancestry.  To meet this requirement an applicant had to produce a genealogy statement tracing ancestry to European parents, grandparents and beyond.  Figure 3 is one such abbreviated genealogy statement.  This particular genealogy record is from a Ceylonese Burgher family of British origin.  To protect privacy, names have been deleted.  The original document reads as follows: –

Figure 3

The abbreviated genealogy statement sets out that: –

  1. The founder of the family was an Army Captain who came out from Scotland and married (or co-habited) with a female of Dutch origin. They had 2 male children. The founder, (Army Captain) was killed in action.
  2. One son (Samuel), died young (unmarried). The surviving son (Leo) married a female of Portuguese origin. They had children but how many is not known.
  3. The eldest son of couple 2 above married a female of Italian origin. They had several children.
  4. The fourth son of couple 3 above married a female of British origin.

The Principal Applicant for entry to Australia as a migrant, was the son of couple 4.

The applicant in question was able to trace European ancestry and appeared to satisfy the requirements of Australian Immigration.  However, the genealogy statement had to be authenticated with citation of relevant official records. For example, a record of marriage of the couple in 1 above was not available, but District Court records of a Testamentary case cited the female of Dutch origin as the mother of the 2 brothers.  Similarly, there was a Church record (St Lucia’s Cathedral Kotahena) of the marriage of the couple in 2 above. Records from St Mary’s Church Bambalapitiya substantiated the marriages of couple 3 in 1893, and of couple 4 in 1927.

As the ancestry statement above shows, persons of British heritage were able to trace their ancestry with a great degree of certainty as government and church records of births, deaths and marriages could be traced if relating to the later 19th century and the 20th century.

Individuals of Dutch ancestry were also at most times able to trace their ancestry.  There were records of births deaths and marriages (in the Dutch Language) in government and Dutch Reformed Church records that could be accessed.  Besides the churches in Colombo, the Dutch Reformed Churches in Galle and Matara were fertile sources of births and marriages records for the compilers of Dutch family genealogies.  Also, some Dutch families maintained a record of family events in ‘Stamboeks’ (clan or family books) which proved to be another valuable resource.

In addition to all of the above, the Dutch Burghers had formed their own representative association; the Dutch Burgher Union, (DBU) as early as 1908.  A very important part of the work of the DBU was the compilation of Dutch Family genealogies. In its publication, ‘The Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union,’ the DBU had traced the family history of many families in great detail.

In comparison to persons of British and Dutch origin, those of Portuguese origin had difficulty in tracing unbroken European ancestry.  The Portuguese presence in Ceylon went back many centuries and as one would expect, during that time there had been formal and informal relationships between the Portuguese and the local communities, which obscured the tracing of  family history.

Compilation of a family genealogy statement was at most times tedious work.  Australian High Commission officials tasked with the examination and evaluation of these family genealogy statements, often found them confusing and misleading.

Submitting an acceptable family genealogy statement was only step one in the process of making an application for admission to Australia as a migrant.  Many other hurdles had to be cleared. Following on the submission of requisite papers and documents, the next stage in the application process was the all-important interview at which several criteria had to be met.

The foremost requirement at the interview, was to be in the eyes of the interviewer, a person of ‘Predominantly European Appearance’.  This of course was beyond the control of the applicant. Figure 4 is the final page of an interview assessment confirming that in this particular case the requirement is satisfied.  ‘Appearance Predominantly European’, notes the interviewing officer and he/she signs off just below the observation.

Figure 4

If this requirement could not be met an applicant could be denied entry to Australia as a migrant.

‘European Appearance’, obviously had a lot to do with the colour of the applicant’s skin.  Figure 5 is a memorandum from Colombo to Canberra, in which the application for migration to Australia is rejected on the grounds that, ‘his colour was darker than we would feel it would need to be to secure his admission to Australia’. Note also that this refusal was issued although the applicant, ‘was able satisfactorily to establish his genealogy’.

The unreliable and misleading nature of some genealogy statements which came across the desk of Australian officials at the Colombo High Commission, is also noted in some detail in figure 5.  In the memorandum dated 28th January 1950, the writer.  (Official Secretary) comments that; ‘Burgher genealogies present some difficulty since although they are traced for several generations and more than a century through records kept since the Dutch administration of Ceylon, cases are believed to have occurred in which Singhalese persons assume Dutch or Portuguese names upon Baptism in their respective Churches’.

Figure 5

The next broad requirement was for the applicant and his/her family and dependants to demonstrate that they were able to integrate into Australian Society and way of life. As figure 6 shows, this requirement covered several personal and subjective matters pertaining to the applicant and his family, as well as social and economic criteria.

The interview report (figure 6) covers not only the appearance of the principal applicant but his work experience and several other observations about the applicant and family, his parents and siblings.

Firstly, in the report there is an unfavourable observation that, ‘In appearance Mr …. is not approvable’. However, his work experience is cited in his favour.  The interviewing officer notes, ‘He is Assistant Station Master at Maradana Station.  He has had eighteen years

experience on the Railway.  From 1941 -1946 he was a private in the Middle- East forces’. In addition, the applicant was observed at the interview to be, ‘well-dressed and quietly spoken ‘.

Scrutiny at the interview then went well beyond the applicant.  It extended to his wife, teenage daughter and son.  In this case the applicant’s wife’s parents had joined in the application as dependants of the principal applicant.  Their position in relation to application requirements is also examined in detail.

Fortunately for the applicant his wife is seen as, ‘quite approvable.  She is practically 100European’, notes the interviewer.  Also favourably viewed is the applicant’s teenage daughter.  “She is light in complexion and quite approvable’.  Even the two-year-old son is assessed.  He is said to be ‘fractionally darker’ than his sister, ‘but well above borderline’.

 The comprehensive nature of the interview is demonstrated in that it extends beyond the immediate family of the applicant.  The applicant is questioned on the whereabouts of his parents and siblings.  The interview notes state: –

‘Parents              Dead.     

Brother              Mr. …….    Ceylon.    Has not applied.

 Sisters                            Mrs.  ……..Ceylon.    Has not applied.

                             Mrs.  ……  Ceylon.    Has not applied’.

The dependant couple on the application, (wife’s parents) are not spared of detailed assessment.  The applicant’s father-in-law is favourably considered. ‘Mr. …. is a retired Major in the ……… Army.   His features and complexion are sufficiently European for him to be approved and his background is, of course, entirely satisfactory’.  In addition, it appears that having family already settled in Australia is an asset.  Further plus points for the father-in-law are noted as,

‘He has two sisters in Australia; ……….and a sister-in-law who is also in Australia’.  The fact that the Major’s wife ‘is pure Sinhalese. and that she wore a ‘sari’ to the interview does not prejudice the final successful outcome of the application.

Although there were some shortcomings as to the appearance of the principal applicant, his work skills, being well-dressed and softly spoken, coupled with the ‘approvable’ appearance of his wife, teenage daughter, toddler son and father-in-law, led the interviewer to conclude that: – ‘He would not be greatly out of place in Australia’.

It is interesting to note the reason adduced by the applicant for his desire to leave Ceylon and move permanently to Australia.  The applicant, a worker who had eighteen years’ service on the railway and who had reached the position of Assistant Station Master at a very prominent

Colombo railway station, was making the application to emigrate to Australia because: – ‘He had been given the option to retire under the language policy proviso and must make a decision….’

 The language policy of the government was the single most important reason for Burgher migration to Australia and other welcoming countries.  Burghers wanting to migrate to Australia, seeking sympathetic consideration of an application often held themselves out to be, ‘soft refugees ‘.  In an official Despatch to Canberra on 4th August 1947, the Office of the Commissioner for Australia in Colombo observed: – ‘Nearly all those Burghers who have interviewed the Commissioner state that they are anxious to leave Ceylon because there is a growing prejudice against them here’.

The Australian Commissioner’s office, at this time located at The Galle Face Hotel, with not many staff on its roster, felt overburdened.  In the same Despatch, (4th August 1947) it is noted: – ‘This office is being approached continuously by Ceylonese anxious to emigrate to Australia.  As many as 16 seek (and obtain) interviews in the one day’.

 Besides the individual and family applications, there were proposals for mass migration put forward at this time.  The most significant of such proposals was the one promoted by the Burgher Settlement League, whose secretary was Mr. J. G. van der Hoeven.  Mr. van der Hoeven’s proposal was to set up a fund to assist Burghers to migrate to Australia. Migrants from the United Kingdom could under certain circumstances be eligible for a fully assisted (paid) passage to Australia.  In Ceylon it was suggested that part or fully assisted passages could be extended to the mass migration scheme proposed by the Burgher Settlement League.    Mr. van der Hoeven held out that the Burgher Settlement League could muster between 10,000 to 13,000 migrants. The plan involved charter of ships which could carry many migrants across to Australia; (thousands per trip was the claim made by the Burgher Settlement League).

The Australian Commissioner in Colombo was highly critical of the Burgher Settlement League and its grandiose plans.  Meanwhile Canberra showed no interest in a scheme of part or full assisted passages from Colombo to Freemantle. The final nail in the coffin of mass migration was inserted when, in a Despatch dated 3rd February 1948, the Australian Commissioner very ironically noted: -‘As far as we can ascertain, only about nine members of his League have emigrated under his regis.’  There was mass migration to Australia from Europe in the years following the end of the Second World War, but these plans were not to apply to Asia even if was to be limited to the Predominantly European minority section of a population.

With all the issues involved in migrating to Australia, the number that actually went across from Ceylon was comparatively small in the first 12 years (from 1948 to 1960).  The Colombo Times newspaper (7/10/60) in an article on the subject of Burgher migration stated: – ‘About 2,500 have found a new home in Australia since 1948 and some 200 men, women and children now leave Ceylon every year.’ These numbers are in line with Australian Department of Immigration figures, which in 1961 put the number of Ceylon born persons in Australia at 3400.

If one had successfully cleared all the hurdles, jumped through the hoops, and been approved  to migrate to Australia, the journey (unlike today) was most likely to be by sea. Passenger liners sailed regularly from Southampton to Australia and New Zealand.  Navigating through the Red Sea, the liners would pick up more passengers at Colombo or Bombay.  Sailing Southeast in the Indian Ocean and crossing the Equator, the next stop after Colombo or Bombay would be Freemantle in Western Australia.  One of the more popular shipping lines (the Orient Line) had its vessels all named with the first letter being ‘O’,(Orcades, Orantes and  Oransay).  Later in the 20th century the Orient Line merged with a rival enterprise to form the biggest passenger liner company in the world at this time, titled P & O, (Peninsular and Oriental).  In the years

immediately following the end of the Second World War, migrants were transported in converted war ships.  In these vessels the slow journey was a most unpleasant experience.  But as demand for travel by ship increased Orient and other companies built vessels specifically designed for passenger transport which offered a much more comfortable journey; especially if one could afford first class. Stopover in Colombo was popular.  Figure 7 is the cover of a brochure and a poster advertising the attractions at this stop in the journey.  Some passengers apparently did not appreciate all of the Colombo experience.  In 1955 a migrant from Malta noted: – We were overwhelmed at the Colombo wharf by a pervading enveloping aroma, which we discovered once on shore to be the smell of curries from the motley array of food stalls beyond the terminal’.

Figure 7

In the last couple of years of the nineteen fifties, and progressively in the nineteen sixties and seventies, Australia’s immigration policy underwent a transformation to be more open, liberal and inclusive, and a policy from which reference to race was finally excised. There were many reasons for this transformation which will not be considered here, other than one development which saw Ceylon as the centre of attention. This event was the establishment of the Colombo Plan in 1951. Out of an initial grant of 31 million Pounds Sterling to the Colombo Plan, Ceylon received nearly 20 million Pounds.  The Colombo Plan which sought to develop major infrastructure in member countries, also at the micro level provided funds for promotion of education and professional development.  These initiatives brought decision makers in Australia in contact with educated professionals in Ceylon and Colombo Plan member countries.  The close personal contacts led to the realisation in Australia that there was a pool of educated talent in Colombo Plan Asian member countries which Australia could utilise for its own development.  To harness this resource Australia’s immigration policy underwent a quantum change. From immigration policy based on selective European only migrants, through to immigration to ‘populate the country’, there was movement in the mid nineteen sixties for a change in immigration policy geared to develop and progress the nation.  Figure 8 (Department of Immigration communication dated 19th September 1967 [Restricted]) states: -‘Following the Government’s review of policy in March 1966, provision exists also for the entry of other persons wishing to settle here on the basis of their general suitability, their ability to integrate readily and their having qualifications which are positively useful to Australia’.

Figure  8

The doors to settlement in Australia were thrown open to qualified professional and skilled workers. Among the numbers who migrated from Ceylon were some who had previously been trained under the auspices of the Colombo Plan and who desired to return to greener pastures ‘Downunder’.  Figure 9 shows an immigrant from Ceylon at work in Queensland.

Figure 9


All documents (other than figures 3 and 7) courtesy National Archives of Australia. [These documents have not been released prior to this]. Figure 3 from private family records.    

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