Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Adelaide Migration Museum: It's not over here

The Immigrants by Aurelio Fortelaan
The Migration Museum in Adelaide is a building with a story of its own. The site was originally used as a Native School where Aboriginal children were boarded and educated. It then served as part of Adelaide’s Destitute Asylum (housing the poor and homeless and ‘fallen women’), from 1852 to 1918. In its final incarnation before becoming the current museum, it was a Government Chemistry Department, where chemists analysed blood samples. All of these eras have a small exhibition explaining their purposes, although the main body of the museum features the history of migration in Australia.

Scientific discoveries in navigation and shipbuilding technology meant that by the fifteenth century ships could travel much greater distances than before. The competitive nation-states of Europe began a search for distant lands where they could exploit natural resources in order to increase their power and trading opportunities. In 1492 Columbus claimed the Americas for Spain.

For the next four centuries, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England, France and Germany progressively explored the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Soldiers, missionaries, settlers and armies of bureaucrats followed in the wake of these voyages of ‘discovery’. The world’s oceans were linked through a network of empires, colonies, trading posts and shipping routes.

Between 1815 and 1930, 52 million people left homes in Britain, Ireland, the German States, Scandinavia, Italy and Southern Europe. Of those, 3.5 million came to Australia (fewer to South Australia). They were exiles for political or religious reasons, leaving their native land due to instances of poverty, such as the Irish famine or the Highland clearances of Scotland. They sought opportunities of work and land.

Of course, while the story of immigration is an important one for the continent, it was not Terra Nullius. The Kaurna people are the indigenous owners of the land of the Adelaide Plains and they called the area by the mouth of the Torrens River, which became the city of Adelaide, Tananya, which means Red Kangaroo.

The white settlers could have learned much from the original inhabitants, but were too busy trying to make a new Britannia; ‘civilising and Christianising’ the Aborigines. They found the rose (a symbol of England) flourished in South Australia, and Archdeacon Matthew Hale introduced cricket at Poonindie as part of the ‘civilising’ process. Escaping persecution made the new migrants zealous for religious freedom; there is a reason Adelaide is known as the city of churches.

The octagonal display room of the museum features many exhibits of what the immigrants decided they needed to take or were physically able to carry. Some of the items such as valuable work boots, sentimental christening gowns or tea-sets one couldn’t bear to leave behind are terribly poignant as people embarked upon a new life on the other side of the world.

In 1829 one of the founders of South Australia, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, published a theory of systematic or scientific colonisation in which settlers would no longer receive free grants of land as in other colonies. He suggested instead that colonial land should be sold for a set price to men of wealth, and the proceeds used to pay emigration costs of desirable labourers. The class system was still in evidence, however, and the ‘wrong type of labourers’ were arriving. The government began subsidising immigrants only at times of extreme shortage.

Australia became a Federation in 1901. The Nomenclature Act of 1917 prohibited use of German language and changed place names of German origin. In 1927 the Duke and Duchess of York opened the new Parliament House in Canberra, and in 1930, the first telephone link to Britain was established between Melbourne and London. And the waves of migration were reaching Australian shores from all over the globe.

In 1906 Australia took formal control of PNG from Britain; 7,500 Jewish refugees from Germany were accepted in 1973, flowed by Chinese refugees in 1940 after the Japanese invasion. Italian prisoners of war arrived in 1941, and in 1946 Austrians, Maltese, Italians and Germans came. Free and assisted passage agreements with the UK and Poland were set up to help displaced persons to migrate, and in 1948 the creation of Israel led to emigration of Palestinians.

Child migrants began to arrive in 1951 and, as of 1956, jet aircraft flights to Australia made it easier for Eastern Europeans to travel, which they did with the assistance of the Operation Reunion Scheme. Many people from the UK flocked Down Under as part of the Bring out a Briton campaign of 1957. The British, and particularly the English, make up a large percentage of Australia’s immigrants, but are often referred to as ‘the invisible migrants’.

Not all migrants were welcomed equally. A dictation test was established in 1901 in which some new migrants had to transcribe 50 words of ‘any European language.’ From 1909 the Immigration Restriction Act (known as the White Immigration policy) was implemented and until it was repealed in 1958, no one who was given the test passed it. Dictation would be given in Swedish, Scots Gaelic or Hungarian if the immigration officers didn’t like the look of you (i.e. you were Irish, Asian, black) or your politics.
A tapestry from Bosnia and Herzegovina
Immigration has continued steadily over the years, following a pattern of social, economic, political or geographical upheaval: – Italians from Sicily arrived after the earthquake of 1968; 12,000 Czech and Slovak refugees arrived following the Soviet invasion; Vietnamese people came to avoid the war in their country, and Cambodian refugees fled Pol Pot’s regime throughout the 1970s. Bengali immigrants escaped civil war between East and West Pakistan in 1971, and Chilean refugees escaped Pinochet where they could.

The relationship has not always been an easy one, however, and although migration adds multicultural richness in terms of faith, food, dress and theatre, not everyone is happy with the diversity. In 1949 the Minister of Immigration, Arthur Calwell, instigated The Good Neighbour Project to ‘Australianise all our migrants in as short a time as possible’. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was erected in Canberra in 1972 by indigenous people who felt their rights were being eroded by foreign intervention.

Despite the Declaration of Universal Migration in 1973 which stipulates, ‘any persons anywhere in the world can apply to migrate to Australia no matter what their sex, colour, ethnic origin or religion’, there is still a large amount of tension and unease around the subject, bursting into violent protest on occasion such as the 2005 race riots.

The museum had no section on the (current) Opposition leader’s tirade against Indonesian asylum seekers – Tony Abbott maintains he will ‘turn back the boats’ – but the fact that this is an incendiary issue which might have a significantly influence the upcoming federal election suggests that the migration museum has several more chapters to include in its narrative journey.

Tapestry detail


Migration Museum said...

Thanks for giving us such a great write up Kate! Lovely to see how much you enjoyed your visit.

We hope we'll see you again. You can keep in touch on our website: http://migration.historysa.com.au/
or find us on facebook, flickr & twitter.

Curator, Migration Museum

Kate Blackhurst said...

Thanks Catherine,

I had a wonderful trip to Adelaide - what a wonderful little city - and your museum was one of many highlights!