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Asian/Aboriginal intermarriage in Australia

The best known pre-colonial Asian contact with Australian Aborigines was through Macassan traders from Indonesia who were thought to have visited Arnhem Land in northern Australia regularly prior to the 17th century. Arab and Chinese seafarers were also believed to have visited northern Australia before the arrival of Europeans.1

After European colonization, Asian immigrants from South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia came to Australia as laborers. The 1850s Australian gold rush in particular drew significant numbers of Asians to Australia, Asian immigrants intermarried with Aboriginal Australian women as well as non-native Australian women. Aboriginal relations with other non-whites have not received much mainstream attention until recently, but the lack of coverage did not indicate the absence of miscegenation between non-whites in Australia. Of the fifteen marriages of Aboriginal women to non-Aboriginals approved in 1901 in Queensland, only three were to white men. The remainder were to Pacific islanders, Filipinos, Chinese, West Indians, Indians and Ceylonese.2 Asians left their mark on Aboriginal culture the form of Chinese and Malay loan words in Kriol, the Northern Australian Creole language spoken in Aboriginal communities.3

The demand for new mining areas in the mid 19th century created a need to transport supplies to the Australian interior. Camels were imported to meet this need, and Indian, Afghan and Pakistani camel drivers came with them. The cameleers lived and worked with Aborigines in Marree (Southern Australia) and other parts of the country. In central Australia, many of the "Afghan" camel drivers (they were mostly actually from the north-west frontier of what is now Pakistan, but misclassified as Afghans) married Aboriginals. A community in central Australia consists of the descendants of such unions, who retain their Pakistani names but also identify with the larger Aboriginal community.4

Chinese miners, too, married Aboriginal women. White authorities preferred to keep Asians/Pacific Islanders and Aboriginals separate. From the late 1890s onwards, legislation was introduced to enforce segregation of Aborigines from non-Aborigines. For example, Queensland Aboriginal Protectors Archibald Meston and Walter Roth secured decrees banning intermarriage between Aboriginal women and Chinese or Kanaka (Melanesian) men.5

Despite the legal restrictions, cohabitation and intermarriage continued. The autobiography Love Against the Law tells of obstacles Chinese-Aboriginal Tex Camfoo and his Aboriginal wife Nelly faced in order to legally marry. Tex was son of a Chinese man who migrated to Australia in the 1900s and a Rembarrnga woman. Tex recounted the murder of his baby sister by white raiders in the 1920s, "They grabbed her by the leg and banged her up against the tree... In those days when there were half-caste, they used to kill us." Tex's aunt rescued him from a similar fate by carrying him off into the hills. In 2000, Australian National University held the conference Lost in the Whitewash - Aboriginal-Chinese Encounters from Federation to Reconciliation, which is the first conference dedicated to Chinese-Aboriginal relations.

The book Linden girl: a story of outlawed lives is the biography of another Aboriginal-Asian couple. Jack Akbar from Punjab, India and his wife Lallie were imprisoned numerous times for their marriage in the 1920s. The state ultimately failed to separate Jack and Lallie, who produced three children.

Western Australian Aboriginal Protector A.O. Neville formulated a ranking of "half-castes" in the 1930s which placed Aboriginal crosses with Europeans, "octoroons" and "quadroons" first; next came Aboriginal crosses with some European or "higher Asian types" (Japanese and Chinese). Third came Aboriginal crosses with "lower types" (Malays, Africans, and Pacific Islanders). Last were "those of mainly Aboriginal blood and wholly Aboriginal character."6 The 'half-caste' descendants of Asian-Aboriginal unions faced institutionalization as did the offspring of European-Aboriginal unions.

Asian/Aboriginal intermixing also occured in more recent times. During the 1950s, migrant Japanese pearl divers left a legacy of mixed-blood children in the Western Australian town of Broome.7 Japanese Australian photographer Mayu Kanamori was documenting the history of Japanese in Australia when she met Lucy Dann, a Japariginal whose birth father was a Japanese builder of pearling luggers. Together, the two journeyed in 2000 to Japan where Lucy was reunited with her father on his death bed. [Go to Radio Eye page and scroll down a quarter page to view a picture of Lucy Dann with her father.] Dann and Kanamori produced The Heart of the Journey, a multimedia sound and slide show of their journey, which has been viewed at various arts festivals in Australia and Asia.

  2. Ann McGrath, The Silken Threads of Kinship: Mixed Marriages between Asians and Aborigines during Australia's Federation Era
  3. Shen Yuan-Fang and Penny Edwards, Panorama, The Canberra Times, 18 November 2000, p4-5
  4. The fate and future of Aboriginal Australians
  5. McGrath
  6. Shen and Edwards
  7. Mike Crean, Family quest relived, 7/26/2003, The Press (Canterbury, New Zealand)