1881 Influx of Chinese Restriction Act

Era: Cultural background: , Collection: Theme:Federation Gold Government Labour Movement Settlement

Influx of Chinese Restriction Act 1881. Courtesy State Records New South Wales

State Records, Sydney, Australia.

Object Name
Influx of Chinese Restriction Act of 1881.

Object/Collection Description
An Act passed in the New South Wales Parliament in 1881 to place restrictions on immigration of Chinese to the Colony. Parchment. Dimensions: 300mm long x 200mm wide.

Before 1900, there was no actual country called Australia, there were six colonies of New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia that existed on the Australian continent and Tasmania the island colony. While the six colonies were on the same continent they were governed by Britain like six separate countries. Up until the 1880s, there was limited interest in the idea of uniting the colonies into one country and the influential businessmen in the colonies seemed more interested in protecting their own economic interests. Things began to change in the 1890s. There was a severe drought that resulted in violent industrial strikes. By 1888, 70% of people in Australia had been born here and there was a growing nationalist sentiment. Communication had improved and all the colonies were linked to each other and the world by the overland telegraph and submarine telegraph. Germany, France and Russia were expanding in the Pacific and the colonies could better defend themselves with a single army and navy. Thousands of Chinese migrants came to Australia during the gold rush. People wanted to restrict the economic competition of migrants from Asia. The best way to do this was for all the colonies to act together and work out a common immigration policy.

Uniting the six colonies was not easy and there were many fights and walkouts in negotiations along the way. After a series of conferences and meetings, a draft Australian Federal Constitution was drawn up. Then a series of referendums were put to the people, until finally, in 1900, there was a majority agreement for Federation. The Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed on 1st January 1901 at a grand ceremony in Sydney’s Centennial Park. In 1901 most people in Australia were proud to be Australians. They thought their country was the land of opportunity. But, while Australians elected their own parliament that made Australian laws, they did not control their own foreign policy or defence. Australia did not have its own Navy and it could not make treaties with other nations. The ‘mother country’, Britain controlled these.

Australia was part of the British Empire. In 1907, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and New Zealand became known as Dominions. While Britain arranged conferences to hear the views of the Dominions, Britain kept a firm control over defence and foreign policy.

But Australia was getting ideas of its own. It was especially concerned that Britain did not have strong military bases in the Pacific area and Britain had signed a treaty with Japan who Australia feared. As a result, Australia began to build up its own navy in 1909.

Laws directly aimed at restricting the influx of Chinese were passed in New South Wales in 1881 and 1887. These laws were designed to stop Chinese people making their way into New South Wales from gold diggings in other colonies such as the Palm River gold fields in Queensland. At a Premiers Conference in March 1896 it was agreed to extend restrictions on coloured immigration to include other races in addition to the Chinese. ‘The goal of White Australia was becoming … more tied up with the goal of Federation’ 1. In 1898 New South Wales enacted another restrictive law that was aimed at excluding all non-Europeans, including those who were British subjects. This act was the first to include a dictation test.

In 1901, 98% of people in Australia were white. Australia wanted to remain a country of white people who lived by British customs. Trade unions were keen to prevent labour competition from Chinese and Pacific Islander migrants who they feared would undercut wages. One of the first pieces of legislation passed in the new Federal Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act. Now known as the infamous White Australia Policy it made it very difficult for Asians and Pacific Islanders to migrate to Australia. This Act stated that if a person wanted to migrate to Australia they had to be given a dictation test. The dictation test could be in any European language. So a person from China or Japan who wanted to live in Australia could be tested in one or all of French, Italian or English languages. In 1905, the Act was changed so it could be given in any language at all. Of course, most Asians failed the tests and were not allowed to migrate to Australia unless they were able to enter the country under very strict exclusion rules and fortunate enough to have well connected sponsors.

Anti Federation cartoon 1899, 'New South Wales and her duty to restrict', The Daily Telegraph June 20 1899. SLNSW‘New South Wales and her duty to restrict’, The Daily Telegraph, June 20 1899. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales

This document has historic significance because it has direct links Federation and the drafting of the first Australian Constitution. This document establishes the restrictive immigration practices in New South Wales that drove the immigration debates leading up to Federation.

The document has intangible significance for migrant communities especially Chinese and Pacific Islanders who were largely the target of the racist nature of the Act.

The document is well provenanced. The document was drafted and passed in the New South Wales House of Representatives in 1881.

The document is rare as it is one of the few objects directly associated with the conferences and debate leading to the drafting of the first Australian Constitution and a rare New South Wales document.

The document represents political and social climate in New South Wales leading up to the formal adoption by Commonwealth of Australia of racist policies that resulted from immigration apartheid that grew out of racist 19th century community attitudes.

The document is in excellent condition.

The document has the potential to interpret the main themes of Federation. This is namely the sentiments that prevailed in the colonies leading to the debates and formation of ideologies that drove the drafting of the Federal Constitution that governed immigration, customs, defence, trade, taxation and finance and industrial relations and the creation of a new Australian nation in 1901. The document has the potential to interpret the racist attitudes to Asians and Pacific Islanders and the subsequent laws and polices adopted by 19th century colonial governments and ultimately the new Federal government to restrict these groups to migration and work in Australia.


1 Irving, H 1999, The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation, University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge, p.8.


Coup, S & Andrew, S M 1992,Their Ghosts may be heard: Australia to 1900, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Was it only Yesterday? Australia in the Twentieth Century World, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.


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The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

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State Records of NSW