The real face of White Australia

Living under the White Australia Policy

In the early twentieth century Australia defined itself as a white man’s country, yet the reality was something different. As well as Indigenous Australians, there were many thousands of non-Europeans, including Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Afghans, Syrians and Malays.

Because of the colour of their skin and the homelands of their forebears, these men, women and children found themselves at odds with the nation’s claim to be white. They faced discriminatory laws and policies designed to deny them their place as Australians.

As a result, there are extensive government records documenting their lives. This project aims to make people more aware of these records and this history, revealing the real face of White Australia.

About the project

This project, originally called Invisible Australians, was created by Kate Bagnall and Tim Sherratt in 2010. Things have changed since then and we've decided to bring everything together under the title The real face of White Australia.

For an introduction to the project and its origins, see our chapter 'The people inside', published in Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, edited by Kevin Kee and Tim Compeau.

This document belonged to 12-year-old Charles Allen, the son of a Chinese father and white mother. It was prepared in 1909 when he travelled to China. Charles spent six years living with his father's people in the town of Shekki, inland from Hong Kong. The year after Charles returned home to Sydney he enlisted in the Australian army to fight in World War I.

You can read more about Charlie in Kate's article 'Writing home from China: Charles Allen’s transnational childhood'.

This is a Certificate Exempting from Dictation Test (CEDT), an example of the types of records generated through the administration of the White Australia Policy. For more on these and related records, see Kate's overview and the help documentation on the transcription site. You can also browse a collection of relevant records that we've harvested from RecordSearch.

Transcribing the records

In 2017, we worked with a group of cultural heritage students at the University of Canberra to create a site where records relating to the administration of the White Australia Policy from the National Archives of Australia could be transcribed by the public. This was launched at a 'transcribe-a-thon' held at the Museum of Australian Democracy.

The work continues! If you'd like to help, head to the site and click on the Get Started button.

Exploring the data

Data created by our volunteer transcribers is freely available through our data repository. This includes transcribed text, as well portrait photographs, handprints, and thumbprints.

The GLAM Workbench provides tools to help you download data and images from RecordSearch. These have been used to harvest metadata from 23 series relating to the White Australia Policy. This notebook summarises the results and provides links to download the metadata for each series as a CSV file (spreadsheet).

Share stories!

Data from the transcribed records is used to create mini biographies that are posted twice a day through the @InvisibleAus Twitter account. The stories include a link to view the record and the transcribed data.

Follow the account and share the stories to help reveal the real face of White Australia.