The Mysterious “Arab” Castaways: Mobilities, Border Protection and White Australia

This paper was given at the Colonial Formations Conference, University of Wollongong, 23-25 November, 2016. 

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The arrival, in 1901, on the Far North Queensland coast of a suspicious group of brown men, ‘Arabs’ in a boat, or ‘refugees’, as they were initially referred to in some headlines, provides interesting insights into the continued presence, connections and movements of non-white people in Australia, the marginalisation of that history, and the concerted effort on the part of the authorities to implement the national imperative of closing the borders to all ‘clandestine’ landings that were said to pose a threat on racial, religious or moral grounds.

As the significant body of research into refugee history in Australia has shown, the contemporary fierce, military policing of any ‘unauthorised’ arrivals by boat has developed out of Australia’s tradition of liberalism and 19th century exclusionary practices culminating in the White Australia policy. While fears of ‘degradation’ to society based on white supremacist notions of the racial and moral inferiority of non-white ‘others’ drove the push to close Australia’s borders, 19th-century Australia, as has been shown in transnational historiography, was also an ‘interconnected space within a set of expansive global networks’, a centre of entwined or ‘entangled’ maritime mobilities and connections or even, as Tracey Banivanua-Mar has put it, a hub in the Hau’ofa inspired ‘Greater Pacific’.

As Australia moved toward nationhood in the late 19th century, the bio-political agenda to create a white settler nation became evident through both discourse and legislation. Anxiety around non-white migration and mobilities, and fears of miscegenation led to the production of a national narrative that ultimately whitewashed Australia’s racially diverse settler population. It also played a key role in the move to pass laws that actively sought to exclude non-white and non-British ‘others’. An important factor in this exclusion was the shoring up of the hitherto permeable oceanic borders; patrolling, policing and protecting the emergent White Australia from purportedly dangerous ‘aliens’ who could arrive (or invade) by sea.

Yet, the dynamic, global networks of mobility that characterised colonial Australia did not disappear overnight. Indeed, parliamentary debates in the lead up to Federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, revealed the competing desires of ‘fostering a national ideology based on racial exclusivity’ whilst not offending the sensibilities of a diverse British Empire.

This incident illustrates wonderfully the competing tensions that would shape modern Australia. Between June 1901 and February 1902, Australian newspapers published numerous articles on what was first framed as an ‘extraordinary’ drama of shipwrecked ‘Arab’ sailors in Far North Queensland. Sometime in June, eight men had landed in Cape Grenville. The steamer, Omba, reported them to Thursday Island authorities after the Piper Island lightship alerted its crew to the men’s plight. When the steamer reached Cape Grenville, she sent a boat that was met by a Japanese pearling lugger that was going to drop off the men on Thursday Island. At this point, the men were assumed to be escaped convicts from New Caledonia.

Once on Thursday Island, the men’s incredible story hit the headlines. Professing to be ‘Arabs’, the men recounted through local Arabic-speaking interpreters a fantastic story of shipwreck and survival at sea. They said that they were sailors who had left Port Saïd (Egypt) three months earlier. After sailing across the Persian Gulf, they became lost. A storm had hit their boat and they had spent eight days in the water before all reaching the shore together. They did not know where their boat had disappeared.

Inconsistencies in their accounts, however, caused suspicion. They claimed that they were sailors but did not know the name of their boat, the size of their boat, where they were going, nor did they have a compass. The men were described as looking ‘like Lascars’ or having an ‘appearance similar to that of the firemen employed on steamers trading to the East’. Thursday Island shipping master and sub-collector of Customs, Mr G. H. Bennett, quickly decided to hand them over to police. In a telegram to the Home Secretary in Brisbane he named the men as ‘Hamad, Usop, Mohammed, Ali, Lool, Mustaga, Abdul Kadir, and Gadu’, which demonstrated to him that they were ‘Mohammedans’ and had all ‘been pilgrims to Mecca’. Bennett did not think they were from New Caledonia, as they ‘did not appear to have any knowledge of French’.

An inquiry was launched and they appeared before the Thursday Island Police Court the next day. Evidence was produced that showed their tale of shipwreck was false. One man was found to have a letter on him containing a prisoner’s name and number, postmarked in Algiers and written in Arabic. Another was carrying a New Caledonian newspaper. A witness, Big Alick, described as ‘an aboriginal’, said he had seen the men land in a creek at Temple Bay where they were drawing up a boat into the mangroves. When he called out to them, they ran off into the bush. Bennett sent another telegram to the Home Secretary stating this time that they were escapees from New Caledonia and had been remanded for eight days on the charge of vagrancy.

The men were sentenced to six months in Brisbane Gaol. In December, the French made a formal demand for their extradition. The warrants were issued and the handover to French authorities took place in January 1902. They left under the charge of a French military warder on board the steamer Arrawatta for Sydney from where they then went on to Noumea.

Despite the somewhat entangled histories of Australia and New Caledonia in the 19th century and the frequent traffic between the two colonies, the proximity of the French island was a source of anxiety for Australia. Longstanding Franco-British imperial rivalries, tensions surrounding the balance of power in the Pacific and, most importantly, the establishment of a penal colony there in 1864, made New Caledonia into something of a bête noire. Jill Donohoo has highlighted the moral panic it engendered in a society emerging from its own history of transportation. This ‘post-convict shame’ teamed with the imagined perils posed by escaped foreign prisoners, played an important role in the shaping of Australia’s focus on border security in its fledgling foreign policy.

Between 1864 and 1897, the French sent over 21,000 prisoners to New Caledonia. Of these, 2106 were ‘Arabs’, Arabic-speaking North African Muslims, 94% of whom were Algerian. While the political prisoners sent to New Caledonia after a series of revolts against French rule in Algeria have served as the face of this group and have been the subject of some fascinating research into the transplantation of Arab-Berber culture in the Pacific, they actually formed the minority of ‘Arab’ convicts. Most North Africans were sentenced to hard labour and transported to New Caledonia for common-law crimes.

While there are a number of studies on New Caledonian escapees to Australia, the focus has been on the ‘Frenchness’ of the arrivals. However, in the newspaper reports on the 1901 case, the essentialised ‘Arabness’ of the men was to the fore. They were variously painted as ‘Arab Castaways’, ‘Mysterious Arabs’, ‘Arab Refugees’, ‘Shipwrecked Arabs, ‘Arab Romancers’ and ‘Wily Arabs’. As ‘Arabs’, ‘Mohommedans’ and escaped convicts from the French penitentiary in New Caledonia, these unfortunate maritime arrivals seemed to epitomise the racially, religiously, culturally and morally different/dangerous ‘other’ that White Australia perceived as such a threat to its embryonic nationhood.

A close reading of the newspaper reports suggests, however, that the initial reception that the men received from the multi-ethnic locals and seamen in Far North Queensland was not one of immediate distress. Once on Thursday Island, their inability to speak English did not hamper them from telling their ‘remarkable’ tale of survival at sea as Arabic speakers were able to interpret for them. This highlights the fact that this northern corner of Australia was far from the reserve of white Anglo-Celtic occupation. It was instead a racially diverse community that had strong links to Asia and the Muslim world through its history of Indigenous networks and trade. Regina Ganter has described the importance of the Macassan trepang trade in northern Australia and the cultural, religious, linguistic and biological impact of the Muslim Macassan fishermen on the Indigenous peoples of the area. Through the trepang trade, Indigenous Australians ‘were linked in trade with China well before the British colonists’ in a network that reached through the Dutch East Indies and around the port cities of Southeast Asia. The pearling industry saw further diversification of the population with Pacific Islanders, Japanese, Filipino, Indonesian, Malay and Chinese workers living in the region. The appearance of eight ‘Arab’ Muslims in this society was thus neither terribly unusual nor perceived as a threat.

Yet, alongside this apparent facility of interaction with the Algerians and an unruffled reaction to their arrival, there is a competing thread of tension and mistrust running through the newspaper articles. This unease focuses our attention on the foreignness and dark complexions of the men and reads these and their unannounced appearance as forcibly criminal.

The story, in fact, portrays a society on a collision course. Established practices of Indigenous and non-white mobilities and openness to outsiders arriving by sea were being challenged by a new national framework that revolved around the policing of coastal borders and the restriction of movements. The emergence of the latter, which, in the north, coincided with increasing white settlement from the 1880s, would ultimately erase the former from national memory, creating a metanarrative of Indigenous isolation prior to European colonisation. In this new national order, the sea as bridge metaphor was transformed into one of sea as barrier, exposing a vulnerable White Australia cut off by both water and distance from the European centre.

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Embodying this nationalist agenda was G. H. Bennett, the Thursday Island customs officer. As instruments of the state, customs officers served as eyes and ears for any sniff of illegal entry into the country. Their task was supported both by the pre-existing networks of communication between the Indigenous people, fishermen, traders and sailors and by the more recent state maintained surveillance measures employed around the coast and at sea. In the newspaper reports we note, for instance, the interplay of the coastal and seaborne networks through the steamer Omba, the Piper Island lightship, the Japanese pearl lugger and the Thursday Island customs officer. An Indigenous informant also provided damning information concerning the men’s furtive behaviour. Big Alick’s testimony shows how Indigenous people were drawn into the nationalist web to act as agents of the surveillance state.  His watching of the shore mirrors the activities of the police indigène in New Caledonia, a Kanak police force that kept a sharp look out for escaped convicts who they would track and pursue for a bounty.

The circulation of the story itself occurred through the modern network of overland and undersea telegraph cables and reached the wider public via newspapers. Bennett cabled the story to Brisbane from where it rapidly made headlines across Australia and in New Zealand. The story eventually reached Fiji by steamer in August where it was reported in Na Mata, the Fijian language newspaper.

Bennett was immediately sceptical of almost every aspect of the escapees’ (admittedly ill-prepared and conflicting) story. He was quick to racialise the men, conflating them with the soon to be outlawed ‘Lascars’, other undesirable, brown, Muslim sea folk that Queensland had already attempted to ban from working on mail carriers. His initial doubts that the men had escaped from New Caledonia suggests that he was operating more on alarmist, Orientalist assumptions in his construction of the men’s identities than much intimate knowledge of the racial landscape of the New Caledonian penal colony or of Islam.

Bennett’s assertion that the names of the men showed that they had all been to Mecca, for instance, is odd. It reveals either Bennett’s own anxiety or his desire to create moral panic given the fears engendered by the assumed opportunities for the spread of dangerous (anti-colonial) ideas at Mecca among mobile Muslim subjects of European empires. There is in this a striking parallel with the 21st century discourse on Muslim ‘radicalisation’. In fact, none of the names he listed included ‘Hajj’, the title bestowed upon Muslims who have completed their pilgrimage to Mecca. The names themselves raise other questions. If some of them are recognizable, others are not. Was it a communication problem with interpreters or was it Bennett who made transcription errors when recording the oral information passed on to him? Or, was it more a deliberate ploy for the men to give false names to the authorities to conceal their real identities?

When the French sought the men’s extradition in December 1901, the names that they supplied to the Australian authorities were quite different. Some of these names match prisoner records held in the Centre des Archives d’outre-mer of common law criminals. Whoever they were, Bennett read their dark otherness, their racial, cultural, religious and linguistic differences as signs that they were ‘aliens’, probably criminals, and certainly contravening border laws. As such, they were not welcome in the exclusively white nation that was being fashioned. He declared the men to be vagrants and handed them over to the police.

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The Vagrancy Act was used as a provisional catch-all to prosecute escaped prisoners from New Caledonia. It was also legislation that supported liberal philosophies favouring fixity of habitation and property ownership over temporary relationships to place and mobility. Bennett’s decision to invoke the Act to deal with wandering men of uncertain identities can thus be seen as following the logic of the national ideology. Consistent with Bennett’s Orientalist framing of the men meant that he failed to imagine that ‘Arabs’ could speak French. Of course it was in the men’s best interests not to speak French in front of their captors if they wished to maintain their fiction of shipwreck and hide their fugitive status. But how likely would it have been that none of them spoke a word of the coloniser’s tongue?

In Algeria, many Arabic and Berber-speaking Indigenous people employed passive cultural ‘resistance-refusal’ in the face of French linguistic imperialism. This took shape in their refusal to allow their children to attend French schools. When the French invaded, many Algerians were literate in Arabic having a long established Islamic schooling system. The French sought to replace this with schooling in French. While some, particularly in urban settings, sent their children to the bilingual French-Arabic schools, many other parents saw the French system as a ‘civilising’ endeavour to drive their children away from Islam and opted not to let their children attend. Eventually, towards the end of the 19th century, the settler administrators blocked the Indigenous population from accessing French education fearing the potential for political empowerment.

Taking into account the dates that the men were sentenced, they would have spent between seven and eleven years in French detention. This alone would make it extremely unlikely that the men had no knowledge of French. The letter and newspaper that they were found to have in their possession suggest that some of them may have attended an Islamic school and learned Classical or Literary Arabic and some may have had some schooling in French. Indeed, the written texts are both intriguing and tantalising details in this story. The letter in Arabic underscores the circulation of texts from North Africa to the Pacific. If it is easy to imagine that a letter from home might be the kind of prized possession an escapee would take with him, one wonders what the purpose of the New Caledonian newspaper was? Was it to be read? Was it a souvenir? We cannot be sure but if it was taken to be read then we have to assume that at least one of the men was literate in French.

The texts along with the evidence supplied by Big Alick were enough to convince the Thursday Island police court that the men were not Arab sailors. They were, in fact, escapees from the dreaded penal colony across the sea, not just racially and religiously transgressive but also, as convicts, morally corrupt. The press, true to their supporting role in the creation of the exclusionary national narrative, were not slow to highlight the additional undesirable and frightening qualities of the men who had arrived illegally by boat. Along with their construction as the dark, Muslim, ‘Arab’ other, they were referred to as ‘New Caledonian Escapees’, ‘Convicts from New Caledonia’, ‘Fugitives from New Caledonia’, ‘French Algerines’ and ‘French Escapees’. They thus presented a nightmarish vision which merged ‘Arabness’, ‘Frenchness’ and roaming criminality that politicians bent on a white supremacist agenda could use to frighten the populace.

This coastal drama, unfolding in 1901, the year of Australian Federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, throws the spotlight on a moment in history when the dynamic and complex global networks of northern Australia were being interrupted by the prerogatives of a developing national narrative that demanded fixity over mobility and the closing and policing of borders to keep out the alleged danger posed by invaders by sea. The ‘invaders’ here were a small group of Algerian men, escaped prisoners, who, despite their unfree status, were mobile, crossing oceans and imperial and national spaces. As such, they were perceived as dangerous to the new White Australia, a liberal democratic society so desperate to hide its own less than lily-white past. Despite its history of convict transportation, Australia as a nation had no sympathy for those fleeing a similar system and chose to incarcerate the men in Brisbane, collaborate with the French authorities and hand them over to the New Caledonian military warder who had come to take them back to their island prison.

In the case of the ‘Castaway Arabs’ or the ‘French Escapees’, the fledgling nation did not quite ‘stop the boat’. However, in the way that the foreign men arriving by sea were racialised and criminalised by the authorities and the press before being rejected as undesirables, we recognise yet another historical echo of 21st century discourse on border security and the alleged threat posed by brown, non-Christian, ‘crimmigrant’ others attempting to land on Australia’s closely guarded shores.

A full, written version of this paper was published here:

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “‘Arab Castaways’/‘French Escapees’: Mobilities, Border Protection and White Australia”, Law, Crime and History, 6.2, 15-30

 

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