One of the first laws passed after Australia became a nation in 1901 was the Immigration Restriction Act, which marked the beginnings of the White Australia policy. Recognising the threat this policy posed for Broome’s industry, the government soon granted exemption to pearl shell workers.
At the time of Federation, most Australians considered themselves to be British. Many desired to live like those in the Mother Country and to keep the population ‘white’.
The Immigration Restriction Act aimed to keep non-European people out of Australia by means of a dictation test, like this one from 1927. The test was used at ports on selected passengers, and nearly all who were given it failed. If an applicant had good English, the test could instead be given in any European language to ensure failure.
By the time the White Australia policy began, the town of Broome was already dependent on low-paid Asian workers to maintain its thriving industry. Most of the residents were strongly opposed to the new policy realising it would devastate the pearl shell industry. After much protesting and several inquiries, the government agreed to an exemption for workers in the industry.
This 1910 image captures the staff at Streeter and Male, a Broome company associated with pearling.
To avoid the White Australia policy, many non-Europeans involved in Broome’s pearl shell industry were granted certificates, like this one, that exempted them from having to take a dictation test when they arrived in, or returned to, Australia.
No man appreciates the dictation test more than the Customs officer at Broome. He is responsible for the administration of the Immigration Act under conditions which few understand. During the lay-up of luggers in the slack pearling season he has to deal with hordes of Malays, Chinese, Javanese, and Japanese who fade the white population into insignificance. Isolated from headquarters, he often uses the test to justify his decisions.
The Mail (Adelaide), 24 November 1934
The exemption for Broome’s pearl workers ensured the continuation of the indentured labour system. This Certificate of Registration issued by the Commonwealth allowed Kwong Lee to work in Broome in the 1940s.