Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter VIII. The Northern Territory (1900-1915)

THE Northern Territory comprises an oblong strip of country, four hundred miles wide and about eleven hundred miles long, running from the northern coast at Darwin through the centre of Australia to the South Australian border. It was originally the Northern Territory of South Australia, by which it was administered at an annual loss of £80,000, until some seven years ago, when South Australia succeeded in selling its white elephant to the Commonwealth Parliament, whose members were anxious to have some land of their own to play with, for the modest sum of £4,000,000. Since then the Commonwealth has administered the Territory at an annual loss of some three or four times that of South Australia.

The country is, on the whole, very poor, and is not to be compared with the part of Queensland in the same latitude. The coastal lands are swampy and of little use for cattle, though large numbers of wild buffalo thrive on them. It has been proposed to breed cattle with the buffalo in order to produce cattle which would thrive on the swamps, but I have not heard of any practical results. Several attempts have been made to introduce cattle on a large scale in the north-east of the Territory, but they have all been disastrous failures.

On the other hand, there are very considerable areas along the rivers running into the sea to the north which are well suited for cattle, especially on the Victoria River, where the industry has been very successful. Most of the northern stations have now been bought by an American firm, and works are to be established at Darwin. Southward of the coastal lands, which are from one hundred to two hundred miles wide, comes a mineral belt of country, some hundred to a hundred and fifty miles from north to south. A good deal of mining has been done in the Northern Territory, but very little success has attended the ventures. Most of the gold has been got by the patient Chinese, who are content with small returns, and the tin, though rich finds have been made, is rarely profitable with white labour.

South of the mining districts are a very few cattle stations in favoured spots, but most of the country consists either of sandy plains, growing only spinifex, or huge areas of rocky and arid table-land. Immediately south of the Macdonnell Ranges, some thousand miles south of Darwin, is a belt of country runnning east and west for a long distance, but not more than twenty miles wide, which, though very dry, produces excellent grass, and is most suitable for horse-breeding. South of this the sandy desert stretches away far into South Australia.

For many years before the Commonwealth took over the Northern Territory the white population was only about a thousand, while the Chinese population, which up to that time did most of the hard work, was more than double that amount. During the last seven years the Commonwealth has succeeded, by lavish expenditure and by the introduction of a small army of officials, in increasing the white population to over three thousand, while the Chinese have very greatly diminished, chiefly by transference to other States. Even a population of three thousand does not seem very adequate to an area of 400,000 square miles.

The problem of the empty north--for the north of Western Australia is nearly as empty as the Territory, and Queensland, north of Cairns, is but very sparsely inhabited--is one of the most serious of all problems for Australia. The fact that nearly all the shipping from England was first carried on the south side of Australia has given rise to the idea that the south coast of Australia is the nearest to, and most in touch with, the rest of the world, whereas, of course, the direct opposite is the case. It is the north coast of Australia that is far nearer, both to the Old Country and to the East.

Its relation to the latter may be gathered from the following figures, furnished by the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society of Australia. The distances are given in sea miles.

Darwin to Hong-Kong 2320
Darwin to Formosa 2200
Darwin to Philippine Islands 1156
Darwin to Melbourne 3030

Thursday Island to Dutch New Guinea 112
Thursday Island to late German Guinea 160
Thursday Island to Melbourne 2230

The question cannot but soon arise whether, in view of the growing population of the crowded East and the desire of countries like China and Japan to find an outlet for their surplus population, Australia has a right to keep empty and unused vast areas of the surface of the earth which would undoubtedly support in comfort millions of a coloured population, even if they cannot support a white population, less industrious, less inured to the tropics, and with a much higher standard of comfort, I propose to speak in a later chapter of the White Australia ideal, its truth and its perversion, but granting it for the moment as the policy which represents the convictions of nine-tenths of the people in Australia, the question arises whether it is a possible policy. The answer would seem to be that it is not permanently possible so long as the north of Australia remains practically empty. It is the part of Australia that is nearest to the East and to Europe also. Large portions of it could be easily cultivated with coloured labour, while other large portions are suitable for mining with cheaper labour than can be now found. In a word, it is a huge unoccupied and occupiable portion of the earth's surface, and has Australia any moral right or any actual power to play the dog in the manger, and neither use it herself nor allow any one else to do so? It is difficult to assert any moral right, and it is perfectly obvious that Australia has only the power to keep it owing to British protection. Will Britain always exercise a protection based on such a doubtful right in the future? Australia can only have plausible grounds for claiming the protection of the Empire so long as it is at least doing its very best to make use of its vast usable territory. There are of course huge areas of unused land in Central, Western, and South Australia, but these are different, because they are not at present for the most part usable any more than the mountains of Italy or the deserts of Africa, but the north of Australia is different; the rainfall is for the most part good, and the land is capable of supporting a considerable population, making all exceptions for the considerable amount of useless country. Up to the time that the Labour Party came into power the whole question of the Northern Territory was simply allowed to drift. It must always be remembered to the credit of the Labour Party that they did at least try to solve the problem.

The solution they adopted was that of trying to settle the north with a white population. They cannot be accused of failure to spend money in a wholesale fashion, but the result cannot be considered as satisfactory. Their methods were curious for a democracy. The first step was to abolish the Government Resident, who had hitherto sufficed to conduct affairs and administer justice, and appoint an Administrator with the title of Excellency and absolute and autocratic powers. The gentleman appointed for seven years to this post, Dr. Gilruth, was a man of character and strong personality, of vigour and determination, as he had need to be considering the very great difficulties of his position, and he has carried out vigorously and conscientiously the policy of those who appointed him, without allowing considerations of expense, or consideration for things as they were, to stand in his way. He has been unsparing of himself, and he has faced difficulties with courage and resolution. The white residents are entirely disfranchised, and have no voice in the administration of local affairs. A local council was indeed formed to advise the Administrator, but at its first meeting it had the temerity to disagree with His Excellency. I have not heard of its meeting since. The Administrator was supported by a host of Heads of Departments and other officials sent up from Melbourne. These excellent gentlemen were paid from £750 to £900 a year to enable them to support their banishment to the tropics, and had a garden city provided a mile out of town for their residence, though even then they were by no means always content! None of them were accustomed to tropical conditions. Altogether they formed a staff sufficient to run a State of half a million inhabitants and seemed rather out of place in a State of three thousand, for the greatest dignity was maintained in titles, rank, precedence, and ceremonial. Personally, all these gentlemen were most excellent fellows, and in manners and morals have certainly set a good example to the Northern Territory, but I cannot but feel that they were handicapped by circumstances and by their inexperience of tropical conditions. I have never ceased to wonder why the Commonwealth did not get half a dozen experienced men from North Queensland. They would have been glad to come at half the salaries, and would have saved much time and many useless experiments.

The Administrator and his staff set to work with energy and with an honest determination to succeed if it were possible. Experiments which had been tried and failed before were tried over again with lavish expenditure of money and an elaborate scientific staff. The results were not encouraging, and it is difficult to see what there is to show for the vast expenditure of money and effort. Numerous settlers were induced to come up from the south, but unfortunately nearly every boat took as many south, full of exasperation and grievances. Even were the land better than it is, there is no market, and there will be none till the population is enormously increased, but apart from the officials and those working on various Government schemes the population shows no sign of increase.

It is difficult to know what to do. It is hard to blame the Labour Party. If its schemes were grandiose and costly, they were at any rate on the only possible lines apart from indented labour, and the only thing seems to be to continue them at yet greater cost than in the past and with some possible modification of method. The three possible industries are agricultural, mining, and pastoral. The chief efforts of the authorities have been devoted to trying to prove that agriculture can be made a success in the Northern Territory with white labour. These efforts have been almost entirely without success. Mining probably deserves more help than it has received, for the work, being underground, is more possible for white labour. The pastoral industry has received the least encouragement and attention, but is probably that which is most suited to the country. Unfortunately it employs less labour in proportion than any other industry, in addition to the fact that stations are often largely worked with aboriginal stockmen.

It has been suggested that the problem might be solved by a colour line dividing off North Australia, and that within it coloured labour and settlement might be allowed. I am not sure that this proposal deserves the contempt with which it is dismissed by the advocates of White Australia. The argument brought forward against it is that the coloured population would be sure to drift south. I consider this to be a purely imaginary danger. Those who crossed would be immediately discovered and sent back if the White Australia rule prevailed in the rest of Australia. The real difficulty would be to prevent white wasters from drifting north and demoralizing the coloured population. If it were possible to prevent this, the adoption of this suggestion would add largely to the wealth of Australia, and by the use of the northern lands prevent their being coveted by other nations.

Some definite action seems imperative, in view of the rapid development of Japan and the probable development of China. Had Germany been successful in the war, the very least of her demands on Australia would have been the cession of the empty and useless Northern Australia, and the pouring into it of hordes of all kinds of coloured labour.

A few words should be said about the climate. Considering its proximity to the Equator (10 to 20 degrees south), the climate of Northern Queensland is remarkably cool, and tolerable by white men. The Northern Territory is much hotter than Northern Queensland, which is much more subject to sea breezes. Darwin has a mean maximum temperature which is, I believe, exceeded only by very few in the world at which a record is kept. The temperature curve in Knibbs' "Year-Book of Australia" is sufficiently startling.

Generally speaking, tropical Australia can be divided into two sections--the table-lands, where in places I have seen 8 degrees of frost in winter; and the low-lying and coastal lands, where most of the population have to reside. The table-lands are healthy, and the extreme heat of the day is compensated for by, as a rule, cool nights and by a more or less cold winter. The low-lying lands are different. Men can work and remain on them for long periods, perhaps twenty or thirty years, without visible impairment of health, especially if precautions are taken not to contract malarial fever. It is certain, however, that their health is to some extent affected, and that they cannot do the same amount of work, by perhaps 20 to 25 per cent., as they can do in the south of Australia. This was practically admitted by that ardent advocate of white labour, the Administrator of the Northern Territory, when he reduced the working hours of the Government officials and employees, as well as by his explicit statement on the subject.

With women and children it is different. They are, as a rule, unable to stand the climate, except on the table-lands, without serious injury to health. The proof is that every man who is able to do so sends his wife and family down south every other year if possible, while many keep them permanently there, only visiting home at intervals. The cost of maintaining two homes is so great that men would never do this without real need. It is not the discomfort of life in the north that takes women to the south, it is their continual, though not always serious, ill-health. It remains to be seen whether the tropical lowlands will ever evolve a race of white women and children who can maintain their health there. As yet they have not done so. One cannot help smiling sometimes at the numerous Members of Parliament who make a picnic visit by steamer to Darwin, invariably only in the month of June, the one fairly cool month of the year, and walking about with a sun hat or umbrella exclaim, "This is a delightful climate; a man could work here just as well as in New South Wales "; but they do not try, and one would like to see them occasionally in December or January. I can conscientiously recommend Darwin at that time of year to those who wish to know what continuous heat is like.

It is an interesting question as to how far the White Australia ideal will be modified by the war. Before it, many Australians, to judge by some of the newspapers, hardly regarded an Asiatic as a human being at all, or recognized that he possessed any rights at all at the hands of that infinitely superior being, the Australian working man. Occasionally there was a nasty shock, as when a worthy but not very highly educated sub-collector of Customs asked a Japanese commercial agent to comply with the law by writing from dictation a certain number of lines in some European language before he was allowed to land. The Japanese replied, "I speak and write English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Italian, and Portuguese, but as I suppose you do not understand anything but English, you had better examine me in that language." He then sat down and wrote out from memory fifty lines of Gray's "Elegy." It was a still greater shock to find that the first contingent of troops that went from Australia to Egypt owed its safety on the voyage to the protection of Japanese warships. The sterling fighting qualities of the Turks and the Indian troops have driven the lesson home, and it is probable that Australian language towards these peoples at least will be somewhat modified in the future, but it is not clear that there will be any less insistence on the White Australia policy.

Meanwhile progress in the Northern Territory is at a standstill owing to the war, and the peril to Australia remains.

Project Canterbury