Thursday, May 10, 2012

John Douglas and the Japanese in the 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 Japanese in the Torres Strait at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

The major industry in Torres Strait was centred on the exploitation of its fisheries, especially pearl shelling, trochus and bêche-de-mer.  Europeans who employed Pacific Islanders initially controlled it, but over time, the growing numbers of Japanese attracted to the industry increasingly threatened their dominance and control.
The first Japanese came to Torres Strait in the late 1870s seeking work in the pearling industry.[1]  Employed as divers, they were so successful that European employers increasingly preferred them to others.  From 1891, Japanese merchants facilitated worker migration, resulting in increased numbers coming to Torres Strait.[2]  On Thursday Island, the Japanese population grew from 22 in 1890 to a peak of 619 in 1898, when, for the first time, they outnumbered the European population.
This rapid growth and dominance of the Torres Strait fisheries by non-Europeans at the expense of Europeans greatly concerned Douglas and other like-minded Queenslanders, who saw Japanese as a threat to both their livelihood and their British way of life.[3]  Douglas’s remarks about Japanese residing on Thursday Island, in 1895, reveal his reasons, for:
they have their own shops, their own boat building slip … it will very soon be a case, I fear, of the survival of the fittest, and if things go on as they are doing, the Caucasian will be played out. [4]
Although Douglas had nothing against individual Japanese, he believed that collectively they posed a danger to the European way of life on the island:
I have really a great respect for the Japanese and a great admiration for their physical and mental capacities; all the same, I think we shall have to look out.[5]
Moreover, as a group he regarded them as “a positive menace” to the British way of life on Thursday Island.[6]  Douglas’s beliefs in this regard had not deviated since his successful efforts at halting Chinese immigration to Queensland almost two decades previously.  He continued to believe in:
maintaining the idiosyncrasy of the races from which we derive our origin – We must, through the length and breadth of Australia, be commandingly European.[7]
Most Queenslanders wanted Queensland society to be based on British values and customs, not Asian ones.  Therefore, it was hardly surprising that Douglas and others became increasingly alarmed over Japanese entrenchment in the pearling industry in Torres Strait in the mid 1890s.[8]
Douglas kept the Queensland government well informed as to the numbers of Japanese arriving and the impact their presence was having on the fisheries and the Thursday Island community - and consistently demanded that it take action to restrict their migration to Torres Strait.[9]  He complained that Japanese women were brought to the island as prostitutes and that the number of Japanese men arriving was too great to be absorbed into the local fishing industry.[10]  Douglas also believed it unfair that aliens, who would never settle permanently in Torres Strait, were allowed to exploit the fisheries.
I hardly think that British fisherman, with all their pluck and indomitable love of freedom, would as cheerfully invite their French or Dutch neighbours to share in the privileges of their home fisheries as we do when we license Japanese or Malays to fish within the limits of our maritime boundary.[11]
Nevertheless, his concerns were lessened somewhat by his belief that, being fishermen, most Japanese would not settle permanently on Thursday Island as they desired to return to Japan, while the liberal in him admired them as “a hardworking people, tractable, inoffensive, and reasonable.”[12]
The Queensland government, always receptive to Douglas’s concerns, acted quickly.  It voiced its opposition to the flow of migration from Japan to Torres Strait and in 1897 appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the matter.  The commission’s findings led to the amendment of the relevant Act, resulting in Japanese being prohibited from renting boats or acquiring boat licenses in the colony.[13]  These restrictions, together with the active involvement of the Japanese government in restricting immigration of its nationals to Queensland[14] and the federal government’s Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, halted the influx of Japanese to Torres Strait.
Nonetheless, resentment towards the Japanese took time to settle, as this observation in 1899 in the local newspaper, the Torres Strait Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, attests.
The Japanese, despite his industry and his cleverness, is not liked and is not trusted.  The race are personally agreeable, but they get everything into their own hands, both by underselling, mysterious, and unfathomable systems of combination.  Japanese were first brought to Thursday Island as divers.  Then they got to own boats and then combined in the ownership of boats … subsequently they took to building boats … The 30 or 40 White men who formerly worked at boat-building and repairing work are no more.[15]
By the late 1890s, Douglas was satisfied that the threat had been reduced, observing in 1901, that, as Japanese arrivals to the island had “dried up” almost completely, the “Japanese problem” was being “solved”.[16]  Nevertheless, despite the ‘White Australia’ policy now in force, Japanese and other non-Europeans were still needed in the pearling industry.  Douglas recognized that while “White men can do well as divers,” they refused to do this sort of dangerous work, and he therefore accepted the need for Japanese to have an ongoing involvement in the industry, if only as “auxiliaries.”[17]  For him, the solution was obvious, namely increased employment of Torres Strait Islanders and Papua New Guineans in the Torres Strait fisheries.[18]
Douglas was initially intent on capping Japanese immigration and influence.  On achieving this, he was in later years more concerned with ensuring that Japanese abided by the regulations and legislation governing the pearl-shelling industry.  As a police magistrate, he was involved, on a daily basis for almost two decades, in upholding the peace and meting out justice, and this he did without fear or favour.  Non-Europeans were accorded a measure of dignity and respect, fairness frequently espoused elsewhere but rarely put into practice as it was on Thursday Island.
One instance of Douglas’s impartiality in dispensing justice concerned the arrest of a Japanese diver, Nakane, for indecency and resisting arrest on Thursday Island in January 1898.  The arrest was made under what appeared to be difficult circumstances, with 200 of his countrymen present, while the case itself, heard before Douglas over four days, was attended by several hundred Japanese.  Although Douglas found that Nakane was indeed guilty of indecent exposure for urinating in public on a Saturday afternoon in the main thoroughfare whilst under the influence of liquor, he called for discretion on the part of police, as not only were there no urinals there, but he himself had
urinated in a public street, though of course in a quiet corner, and never felt that I had committed an act of indecency.[19]
Despite finding that Nakane had resisted arrest, Douglas refused to record a conviction on this count and instead criticised the police for their excessive use of force as the constable had “downed him [Nakane] a second time in a rather inhuman manner, and knocked him senseless.”[20]
Douglas’s verdict was controversial, the local paper taking an opposing position when it reported on the case.  As its title subheading exclaimed:
A charge of Indecency:  Extraordinary decisions:  The police snubbed:  The lawbreakers complimented.[21]
While the paper may have adopted a populist position, Douglas’s impartial actions in this and other cases demonstrated his respect for the rule of law and helped ensure relative peace and stability between diverse groups on a small and remote island.

[1] Ganter (1999), p. 100
[2] Ibid., pp. 102-4
[3] John Douglas.  “Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for 1892-3.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 2, 1894, p. 909.  For reaction to the influx of Japanese to Torres Strait, see John B. Armstrong.  The Question of Japanese Immigration to Queensland in the Nineteenth century.  MA thesis, University of Queensland, 1970, pp. 63-70
[4] John Douglas.  Thursday Island and the Japanese.”  5 June 1895.  Dixson Library, State Library of NSW, AD 39
[5] Ibid.
[6] “The Japanese Question.”  Brisbane Courier, 12 May 1897, p. 4
[7] Ibid.
[8] John Douglas.  “Asiatic Aliens in Torres Straits,” p. 2.  13 January 1895.  Queensland State Archives, PRE/105
[9] “Précis of Papers Dealing with Necessity for Restricting Japanese Immigration.”  Queensland State Archives, PRE/105.  See also a debate on Douglas’s actions on this matter in “Thursday Island.”  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, vol Lxxix, 1898, pp. 529-35; “In the Gallery.”  Brisbane Courier, 15 September 1898, p. 5
[10] “Précis of Papers Dealing with Necessity for Restricting Japanese Immigration.”  Queensland State Archives, PRE/105; John Armstrong.  Aspects of Japanese Immigration to Queensland before 1900.”  Queensland Heritage, vol 2 no 9, November 1973, p. 5; John Douglas.  “Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for 1894-95.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1896, p. 502; John Douglas.  “Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for 1896 and 1897.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1898, p. 425
[11] Douglas (1894), p. 4; Douglas (1901), p. 992
[12] John Douglas.  “Asiatic Aliens in Torres Straits,” 13 January 1895, p. 13.  Queensland State Archives, PRE/105
[13]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, pp. 1301-52
[14] See, Yuichi Murakami.  Civilised Asian:  Images of Japan and the Japanese as viewed by Australians from the early Nineteenth Century to 1901.  PhD thesis.  University of Queensland, 1999, chapter 5 & Willard, pp. 116-18
[15] Torres Strait Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 30 September 1899, p. 2
[16] “Colour at Thursday Island.”  Brisbane Courier, 3 May 1901, p. 4; John Douglas.  “Report of the Government Resident at Thursday Island for 1899.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, vol 1, 1900, p. 1059; Douglas (1901), p. 1; Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1901, p. 4
[17] The Age, 6 September 1902, p. 10; John Douglas.  “Asiatic Aliens in Torres Straits,” 13 January 1895, p. 3.  Queensland State Archives, PRE/105
[18] Douglas (1901), pp. 3-4.  This is what subsequently happened, with some 200 New Guineans employed in the industry by late 1903.  (“The Hon. John Douglas.  Visit to Brisbane.  An Interesting Interview.”  Brisbane Courier, 11 December 1903, p. 5)
[19] “A Charge of Indecency.”  Torres Strait Pilot and New Guinea Gazette, 29 January 1898
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.  For a similar account, see Old Colonist.  Reminiscences of Half a Century and Present-day Politics.”  Record Printing Company, Rockhampton, 1898, pp. 66-67