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The multicultural colony: not just convicts

Australia's colonial period was much more multicultural than a lot of people realise. Our Family History team share some of the more unexpected places people migrated from.


Having convict heritage is considered to be a real badge of honour these days. In fact, we use the term “Australian Royalty” to refer to those with a convict in the family. But this is only one part of the story of colonial Australia.

According to University of Tasmania historian and Family History program coordinator Dr Kate Bagnall, people are often surprised at just how diverse the make-up of the Australian population was, even during the colonial period.

“People came to Australia from some pretty unexpected places,” she said. “In terms of voluntary immigration in the 1800s, people came here from countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and right across Europe, and for a variety of reasons.

“And even in if we look at those who were transported as convicts, there is a diversity within that population that people often overlook, including convicts who were black, Māori or Chinese.”

The gold rushes were a big draw card, luring in people from all over the world seeking to strike it rich, especially during the 1850s and 1860s in Victoria and New South Wales, but there were also gold rushes in Queensland in the 1870s and Western Australia in the 1890s.

The White Australia Policy, which existed in the form of various federal laws and policies from 1901 until 1973, limited the numbers of people of non-European origin who were able to migrate to Australia during that time. Its origins were found in anti-Chinese immigration laws dating from the 1850s.

Kate and her colleagues have created a list of five unexpected places that people migrated from during the 19th century.

1. Japan

Immigration from Japan did not start until the late 1800s because until 1866 it was a capital offence for Japanese people to leave Japan. The first known Japanese settler was Sakuragawa Rikinosuke, an acrobat who arrived in 1873 and settled in Queensland.

Those Japanese who came here in the 1880s and 1890s largely worked as crew and divers in the pearling industry in the north of Australia. Some went on to operate their own pearl luggers.

Elsewhere they worked on Queensland’s sugar cane farms, and as cooks, laundry workers and domestics. Some became merchants with import-export businesses in bigger population centres.

2. Chile

The first two Chilean immigrants to reach Australian shores arrived in 1837, and one of them was former president General Ramon Freire. Freire had been exiled from Chile following an unsuccessful attempt to re-take power in a coup. He eventually returned home to Chile.

The 1850s saw a larger but still small number of Chilean immigrants coming to Australia, lured by the Victorian gold rush. Some of them had previously sought their fortune in the Californian goldfields but after experiencing racial persecution there, they decided to try their luck elsewhere.

And in an interesting quirk of history harking back to that first Chilean arrival in 1837, it was further political instability that led to the next big influx of Chilean immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly following General Pinochet’s military coup in 1973.

3. Mauritius

Seized from the French by the British in 1810, this tiny island nation near Madagascar was a big producer of sugar and colonial Australia developed a strong trading relationship with Mauritius. The Australian colonies were a major market for Mauritian sugar.

Based on this relationship, Mauritian merchants, seamen and their families began settling in Australia very early on, arriving on merchant vessels.

Convicts were also among the earliest Mauritians in the colonies, with several hundred men transported from Mauritius between 1817 and 1862.

Mauritius was one of the first places in the world to hear of the discovery of payable gold in Australia, and so the 1850s gold rushes sparked another influx of free Mauritian settlers.

The sugar industry started to decline in Mauritius in the late 1800s, which saw large numbers of Mauritian “sugar men” relocating to Queensland, where they contributed significantly to establishing that colony’s sugar industry.

4. Syria and Lebanon

When Syrian immigrants started arriving in Australia in the late 1800s, Syria and Lebanon were part of the Turkish-controlled Ottoman Empire.

The earliest Syrian immigrants to Australia were mostly Christians who were fleeing religious and cultural persecution by the Ottomans.

They started to arrive in larger numbers in the 1880s and 1890s, and most became engaged in commercial occupations.

Many Syrian men worked as hawkers – door-to-door salesmen – often in rural and suburban areas. Others with more capital opened stores such as drapers, grocers and hairdressers.

One thing that set the early Syrian community apart from other non-European migrant groups in Australia was the larger number of women and families who immigrated.

5. Bohemia (Czech Republic)

The former provinces of Bohemia and Moravia are now in the modern Czech Republic. The earliest known settler from Bohemia was a convict named Mark Blucher in 1830, who was transported to Sydney from England.

The gold rushes attracted a small number of Bohemians during middle decades of the 19th century. Later, Bohemian-Moravian born missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, worked in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

But the population from this region did not really start to grow significantly in Australia until the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, and it boomed following the communist takeover in 1948.

If you want to learn more about how to research your family’s origins, you can enrol in the University of Tasmania’s Diploma of Family History course. Taught entirely online, the part-time course is available to study from anywhere.