Thursday, May 10, 2012

John Douglas and the Asian presence in Torres Strait

This post is an extract from my PhD thesis analysing John Douglas - then the Government Resident of Thursday Island - and his relationship with the Chinese, Malays and Filipinos in the Torres Strait at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

Douglas’s attitude to the other Asians on Thursday Island was very different to his attitude towards the Japanese, for, being fewer in number, they never threatened the European way of life on the Island.  To Douglas, the major problem with Chinese residents was their opium smoking, a vice he considered far worse than alcohol.[1]  As well, he disapproved of their gambling and condemned many of them as “insatiate gamblers.”[2]  By 1899, there were two wholesale and eight retail opium dealers on the island with a clientele including Malays and Europeans.[3]
The two other main Asian groups living and working in Torres Strait were the Filipinos and Malays.  Filipinos, known as Manila men, were brought, like Malays, to Torres Strait from Singapore on three-year agreements to work in the fisheries.[4]  By 1885 there were 147 Filipinos in Torres Strait, but in subsequent years their numbers declined and there were rarely more than 100 in any given year.  Some settled permanently on Thursday Island, married women selected for them in the Philippines, and acquired boats of their own.[5]
As naturalized British subjects, Filipinos were considered to be the “only fully-integrated Asians” on the island.[6]  Nevertheless, being identified as Asian still made them the object of racial hostility by Europeans: the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate expressed alarm over “hordes of Asiatic aliens”[7] when an additional 150 Filipinos arrived on the island in 1899.  Douglas, however, viewed Filipinos in a different light, and considered them the most settled of the Asians, “good residents” who circulated their money on the island.[8]
Douglas was also impressed with Malays and regarded them as having “furnished both good crews and good divers” for the Torres Strait fisheries.  However, unlike Filipinos, most Malays returned home at the end of their agreements.[9]  Douglas was particularly moved by the plight of a Malay leper consigned to the leprosarium on Dayman Island in Torres Strait and remarked that he was “an intelligent man, who, in spite of his troubles, contemplates life with equanimity.”[10]  Douglas’s views towards the Malay and Filipino populations on the island were enlightened for the period.  Malays were believed capable of running amuck at any time, while Manila men carrying sharp knives were routinely seen as dangerous, and were forever tainted with the murder of Senior Constable William Conroy by one of their number, Frank Tinyana, on Thursday Island in 1896.[11]
Douglas did his best to keep the peace on the island.  In 1892, he was able to observe with some satisfaction “that among this motley population very fair order is maintained,” with no serious crimes recorded in the previous five years.[12]  However, this state of affairs could not last indefinitely.  Early in 1901, an organized fracas occurred between Pacific Islanders and Manilamen, leading to one dead, several seriously injured, and the shop of the leading Filipino on the island, Heriverto Zarcal, being extensively damaged.[13]   Douglas took immediate steps to prevent any further outbreak of violence, swearing in special constables and imposing a curfew, during which the police and military patrolled the streets.[14]
Despite this melee, there was, considering the small size of the island, its tropical climate and isolated location a surprising degree of tolerance and harmony.  Economic interdependence required a degree of cooperation between all sectors of the community, which in turn led to the development of a cosmopolitan and relatively stable society.  As Douglas proudly observed of his beloved island in 1902:
We have all the essentials which may be regarded as appertaining to a white Australia:  we have the same all-pervading British law, applicable to Asian and Australian alike, the same English language, and the same forms of social intercourse which prevail in southern Australia:  our churches and schools are an exact counterpart on a small scale of what they are in Melbourne or in Brisbane.[15]
Douglas was government resident during the formative stages of the development of Thursday Island as a thriving multiracial community.  However, the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 following federation forever changed the nature of the fisheries in Torres Strait, changes that in turn affected the makeup and composition of the Thursday Island community.  By the time of Douglas’s death in 1904, aliens, as authorized under the Act, were brought in as indentured labour under articles and only allowed to set foot ashore on Thursday Island for a short period twice a year.[16]
The society in Torres Strait that developed and was nurtured under Douglas’s benevolent administration was atypical for its time, a testament to his liberal beliefs and unflinching respect for British values and the rule of law. The aftermath of Douglas’s death would see steady erosion in the freedoms enjoyed by non-Europeans in Torres Strait and increased restrictions and prohibitions imposed by the Queensland government.

[1] John Douglas to his children, 7 September 1893.  Andrew and Lorraine Douglas Papers; John Douglas.  “Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for 1898.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1899, p. 900.
[2] John Douglas to Edward Douglas, 7 October 1894.  Andrew and Lorraine Douglas Papers
[3] Douglas (1899), p. 900; Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol LXXXII, 1899, p. 338
[4] John Douglas.  “Asiatic Aliens in Torres Straits.”  13 January 1895.  p. 1.  Queensland State Archives, PRE/105
[5] Ibid., p. 2; Douglas (1902), p. 51
[6] Renato Perdon.  Brown Americans of Asia.  Sydney, Manila Prints, 1998, p. 116; Douglas (1896), p. 2.  Douglas was a strong supporter of naturalisation.  (Douglas (1898), p. 425)
[7] Quoted in Perdon, p. 121
[8] John Douglas.  “Minutes of Evidence Taken before the Pearl-Shell and Bêche-de-mer Fisheries Commission,” p. 2.  In, Report, Together with Minutes of Evidence and Proceedings, of the Commission Appointed to Inquire into the General Working of the Laws Regulating the Pearl-Shell and Bêche-de-mer Fisheries in the Colony.  Queensland Votes and proceedings, 1897, vol 2, p. 1720
[9] John Douglas.  “Asiatic Aliens in Torres Straits,” 13 January 1895, p. 2.  Queensland State Archives, PRE/105
[10] Douglas (1890), p. 174.  For further information on the Leprosarium, see Raymond Evans.  Charitable Institutions of the Queensland Government.  MA thesis.  University of Queensland, 1969, pp. 209-18 & 231-35
[11] Ibid., pp. 6-7; F. Urquhart to John Douglas, 24 July 1895.  Queensland State Archives, PRE/105.  For details on the murder of Conroy, see Police Commissioner’s Staff Files, File 300 AF [re William Conroy].  Queensland State Archives, A/38748.  I am indebted to Dr Anna Shnukal for alerting me to the file’s existence.
[12] John Douglas.  “Annual Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 2, 1892, p. 1031
[13]  “Brown and Black.”  Torres Straits Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 19 January 1901, p. 2
[14] Ibid; “The Pearl Shelling Industry.”  Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1901, p. 4
[15] Douglas (1902), p. 51
[16] Hugh Milman.  “Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for the Years 1904.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1905, p. 26; Ganter (1999), p. 107