Muslims were crucial to the development of the pearlshelling industry along Australia's northern coast. In the late 19th century, so-called 'Malays' from South-East Asia were brought to Australia to work as indentured labourers in the shell-rich waters around Thursday Island, Darwin and Broome. Employed as divers, cooks, pump hands, and crewmen, Malays provided shellers with a source of cheap labour. The work was dangerous, and exploitation was common.
The crew of a pearl lugger, Broome, c. 1900–20
NAA: K1349, WA00272 [A]
By the turn of the century, Broome was the world's major pearlshelling centre. It was home to a varied and sometimes explosive mix of cultures, that included Malays as well as Japanese, Chinese, 'Koepangers' (usually from Timor) and Aboriginal people. Living conditions were basic, but in the 1930s the town's Muslims established a small mosque.
Letter from the Premier of Western Australia to the Acting Prime Minister asking for a naval gunboat to visit Broome to help dispel 'racial feeling', 23 June 1919
NAA: A1, 1920/2207, p.23
With the implementation of the White Australia Policy, non-European indentured labourers were excluded from most industries. But the shellers successfully lobbied for an exemption on economic and racial grounds. A Royal Commission agreed in 1916 that white workers were unsuited to the physical demands of pearlshelling. Malays continued to be employed in the industry until the 1970s.
Discussion of 'The reasons why European labour has not been hitherto more generally employed' from the Report and Recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Pearl-Shelling Industry, 1916
NAA: A6661, 473, pp.5–7
Bond form used by pearlshellers wishing to introduce Malay workers to Australia, c. 1903
NAA: A1, 1903/4841, pp.4–5
In the postwar years, Malays were at the centre of controversies that highlighted difficulties in both the White Australia Policy and the indentured labour system. In 1947, the Chifley government attempted to deport a group of Malay seamen who had been admitted during the war as refugees. The plight of these men, many of whom had married Australian women, won considerable public sympathy.
Letter from Bishop CV Pilcher to the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 February 1948
NAA: A4968, 25/10/3, p.184
Malay Morning Tribune, 16 February 1948
NAA: A4968, 25/10/3, p.211
At about the same time, leaders of the Malay community in Broome came into conflict with the pearlshellers when the Malays sought to improve their working conditions. At the urging of employers these 'troublemakers' were deported. Further deportations were thwarted in 1961, when students, unionists and others protested against the treatment of two Malay pearl divers. Public concern over such cases reflected growing unease with the operations of the White Australia Policy.
See The pearl diver in Stories
The Colombo Plan
In the 1950s and 1960s another group of Malays were treated very differently, often invited into the lives and homes of ordinary Australians. Under a cooperative development scheme known as the Colombo Plan, thousands of students from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and India came to Australia to attend local tertiary institutions.
Malayan students in Western Australia performing a 'candle dance' to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr at the end of the month of fasting, 1959
NAA: A1501, A2000/1
Under the Colombo Plan, Australia provided economic and technical assistance to South and South-East Asian countries. By contributing to social and economic development, it was hoped to maintain security and stability within the region, steering Australia's neighbours clear of communism. Australian policy-makers also expected that the positive relationships established under the scheme would help defuse criticism in Asia of the White Australia Policy.
Letter from Percy Spender, Minister for External Affairs, to Prime Minister Robert Menzies, 16 March 1950
NAA: A1209, 1957/5406, p.217
The Colombo Plan certainly changed perceptions in Australia, where the presence of the friendly young Asian students contributed to the thawing of old, entrenched prejudices. The majority of the students were Muslims from middle-class families. Intelligent and usually proficient in English, they were quickly accepted by their Australian hosts. Friendships were forged as many Anglo-Celtic homes welcomed the newcomers.
Memorandum from Meredith Worth, Liaison Officer, to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 6 July 1953
NAA: A10299, A18, pp.227–232
The selection and arrival of the 2000th Colombo Plan student, an 'attractive Malayan girl', was the subject of extensive publicity both in Australia and Asia. Twenty-one-year-old Ummi Kelsom was an ideal ambassador for the scheme. The fifth child of an upper-middle class family, she spoke English fluently, and was both a badminton champion and a keen girl guide. She had even prepared for her visit to Australia by learning how to drive a Holden.
On her arrival in Australia, Ummi Kelsom, the 2000th Colombo Plan student, is greeted by Richard Casey (Minister for External Affairs) and his wife Maie, 1957
NAA: A1501, A1056/2
'Attractive Malayan girl is Australia's 2000th Colombo Plan student', press release issued by the News and Information Bureau, Department of the Interior, June 1957
NAA: A1838, 555/10/75, p.1
The students were happy to show off their own cultures. They attended barbecues and dances, although the Muslim students avoided drinking alcohol. Keen soccer players, they fitted in well with sports-mad Australians. The students formed their own teams and joined local soccer leagues.
Teams from an international soccer match between students from Hong Kong and Malaya, played at the University of Queensland, c. 1959
NAA: A1501, A1911/1
Muslim students attended their local mosque and fasted and celebrated on the special Eid days. The young female students, most of whom trained as nurses, wore the modest Malayan dress of sarong and kebaya, with a thin scarf over one shoulder. They did not wear veils or the hijab, often associated with Muslim women today.
After completing their courses in fields such as nursing, engineering, business studies and economics, most Colombo Plan students returned to their homelands. Many of them later became leaders in their own societies: senior public servants, politicians, economic planners, businessmen and educators. They often maintained links with Australia, visiting regularly, and even sending their children for schooling. This generation of leadership helped significantly to develop trade and diplomatic links with Australia.
Cocos and Christmas Islanders
The Australian-administered territories of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Christmas Island are home to several hundred Malays. The Cocos-Malays are descended from workers brought to the Cocos Islands in the 19th century to harvest copha. They are Muslim, and have maintained much of their own culture and traditions. Australia took control of the islands in 1955.
A sheepskin currency note issued in the Cocos Keeling Islands between 1887 and 1888
NAA: A6180, 15/10/75/31
Boy, Cocos Keeling Islands, 1902
NAA: R32, CIPC 1/22B
Cocos (Keeling) Islanders photographed during a visit to the islands by Senator Reg Withers in 1976
NAA: A8281, KN10/5/76/39
Chinese and Malay indentured labourers were introduced to Christmas Island when British interests undertook phosphate mining there in the 1890s. The industry expanded significantly in the 1950s, attracting many workers from the Cocos Islands. Christmas Island became an Australian territory in 1958, but indentured labour arrangements continued until the 1970s.
School students photographed during Senator Reg Withers' visit to the Cocos (Keeling) and Christmas Islands in 1976
NAA: A8281, 7/5/76/98
Malay Mosque, Christmas Island, 15 November 1938
NAA: R32, CIPC 9/47A
In recent decades, the Muslim population of Western Australia has been boosted by arrivals from the two territories. By 1981, there were more Cocos Islanders on mainland Australia than in the islands themselves. Communities in Port Hedland and Katanning have built their own mosques. In Katanning, Malay participation in the halal meat industry has increased the town's economic prosperity.
Opening of the Katanning Mosque by Tunku Abdul Rahman, 1981
NAA: A6180, 29/5/81/5
JPS Bach, 'The pearlshelling industry and the "White Australia" policy', Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol. 10, no. 38, May 1962, pp. 203–13
Bilal Cleland, Muslims in Australia: A Brief History, www.icv.org.au
Nahid Kabir, Muslims in Australia: Immigration, Race Relations, and Cultural History, Kegan Paul, London, 2004
Nahid Kabir, 'Muslims in Western Australia, 1870–1970', Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, vol. 12, part 5, 2005, pp. 550–65
L Manderson, 'Malays', in James Jupp (ed.), The Australian People, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988, pp. 691–3
Daniel Oakman, Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan, Pandanus Press, Canberra, 2004
Gwenda Tavan, The Long, Slow Death of White Australia, Scribe, Melbourne, 2005