It Could Happen to Me

Karen Schamberger, Unwelcome Wall, 2016, Vessels To A Story exhibition

‘It could happen to me’ was the message of the Unwelcome Wall which memorialises people that the Australian nation has ‘turned back’, rejected and deported. This work appeared in the Vessels to A Story exhibition, organised by RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees and held in June 2016 at Library at the Dock, Melbourne. But I didn’t start out with that message.

I started with Jack.

Jack Zackaria protested against Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia in the 1920s and was amongst several hundred Javanese imprisoned by the Dutch. During World War II, as the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies, the Dutch colonial government fled to Australia, taking their political prisoners with them. These Indonesian political prisoners were interned in Australia and when released, campaigned with Australian and other Asian unionists and allies for Indonesian independence. Jack was one of these political prisoners, and he married a ‘white’ Australian woman. At the end of World War II, Jack, like most of the Indonesians, was deported because of the White Australia Policy. Since the 1980s this episode in Australian history has been remembered through the lens of Australia’s diplomatic relations with Indonesia, emphasising the solidarity between Australian and Indonesian peoples.

I have known about Jack’s story since 2006 when I began working on a display for the Australian Journeys exhibition at the National Museum of Australia which opened in 2009. This display was of musical instruments from the gamelan Digul (an orchestra of instruments) brought with these Indonesian political prisoners to Australia. While the physical display included information about the deportation of the Indonesians because of the White Australia policy, it did not include Jack’s personal story. Additionally, the White Australia Policy is not mentioned in the information about the gamelan Digul on the Museum’s website.

I started my PhD examining the way Australian museums have dealt with cultural diversity through their collections in 2012. This gamelan orchestra became one of my case studies and I met Jack again in the archives. There is only one note documenting the donation of the gamelan to the National Museum of Victoria in 1946 and Jack is the only Indonesian mentioned by name. He showed the museum staff how to set up the instruments a month before being deported back to Indonesia where he died of natural causes shortly after arriving. His wife in Australia was not officially informed of his death.

In the 2015 exhibition: Black Armada: Australian support in upholding Indonesian independence, the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) also displayed one of the gamelan Digul’s instruments. The exhibition also showcased Australian-Indonesian friendship through the relationships between the unions and Indonesian political activists during this tumultuous period. The text for this exhibition said nothing about the application of the White Australia policy upon the Indonesians, nor of their repatriation and deportation. I didn’t meet Jack again and I didn’t meet any other Indonesian political activist from the time.

Instead, in the physical exhibition, I met Herman Gunandi who migrated to Australia in 1989 on a skilled migrant visa and had his name inscribed on the ANMM’s migrant Welcome Wall in 1999. This wall commemorates the contribution that migrants have made to Australia. In the ANMM exhibition, migrants, especially those of Indonesian descent, were being encouraged to pay to have their or their ancestors names cast in bronze on a wall outside the museum. As well as having to pay to commemorate one’s ancestors, there are additional questions:

Whose stories are remembered?
Whose stories are not only forgotten, but actively silenced and why?

What does it mean to remember Herman Gunandi an Indonesian skilled migrant who was able to stay in Australia in 1989, yet to erase the story of Jack Zackaria, who could not stay because he was not the right colour in 1946?

Who else has Australia rejected and why?

When I started the Unwelcome Wall, I began researching deportation and finding the names of people deported from Australia, since 1901. Glenn Nicholls’ book, Deported: A History of Forced Departures from Australia was indispensable and many of the personal stories I included are from his book. Nicholls stated that mandatory deportation for people who are found to not have valid visas, introduced in 1989 underpins mandatory detention introduced in 1992. So I also looked into the treatment of asylum seekers to include asylum seeker boat turn backs between 2001 and 2003, and 2013 and 2016, as well as rejections of refugee applications on the Unwelcome Wall. Many more names lie buried in archives and court documents than I was able to include in this incarnation of the work.

My intention was not to replace migrant ‘Welcome Walls’ and similar monuments at Australian cultural institutions but to complement them. By only remembering the positive and successful migrant stories we fail to see the legal mechanisms and reasons for acceptance and rejection in Australia. We fail to understand the consequences for and experiences of people who are rejected.

For example, people have been deported for their political convictions and associations. Tom Barker, born in Britain and deported from Australia in 1918 was convicted of being a leading activist in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which is an international labor union. He was deported to Chile after serving his sentence under the Unlawful Associations Act. That year, a total of 13 labor activists were deported to Chile as it had no immigration restriction laws and shipping was available. In 1919, when Chile introduced immigration restriction laws, it sent the last 3 people back to Australia.

One could be interned and deported for being an ‘enemy alien’ or having the nationality or heritage from countries Australia has been at war with. For example, during World War I, German Australians were considered ‘enemy aliens’. Dr Eugen Hirschfield was born in Germany, arrived in Brisbane in 1890 and was naturalised in Queensland in 1893. He worked as a doctor specialising in the study and eradication of tuberculosis. He believed that he could have dual nationality and in 1906 was appointed Imperial German Consul in Brisbane. In 1914 he became a member of the Queensland State Parliament, was interned in 1916 due to his German nationality and deported in 1920. He was permitted to return to Australia in 1927 which he did. Most German Australians who were interned and then deported at this time, however, were unable to return.

During World War II, Japanese Australians were considered ‘enemy aliens’. Moshi Inagaki came to Australia when he was 22 as a stowaway on a ship in 1905. He made his home in Melbourne and taught Japanese at the University of Melbourne for 23 years. He was interned in 1941, spending 5 years at Tatura, Victoria despite the protests of his Australian-born wife and daughter. His wife died in 1943. In 1946, after consulting with his daughter and seeing the mass deportation of internees to Japan, he asked that he too be deported. “To wait here in this indefinite state is nothing but mental unrest which automatically effects on my health”.[1]

Australia has also restricted immigration based on race. The White Australia Policy was founded on two specific acts — the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and the Pacific Island Laborers Act 1901. Over 4000 Pacific Islanders were deported, mostly in 1907 because of the Pacific Island Laborers Act. Many of them had been ‘blackbirded’ or kidnapped in the Pacific Islands, to work as indentured labourers on Queensland cane farms. Willie Marla, deported to Fiji, was one of them. His wife and three children in Mackay never saw him again. A few Pacific Islanders were able to remain in Australia and their descendants have demanded an apology for their ancestors’ treatment.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was enacted because of fears around Chinese and non-white migration. Some people of Chinese descent in Australia, such as Daphne Lowe Kelley, the President of the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, who was personally affected by this legislation, have campaigned for an apology for the White Australia policy as well as other discriminatory laws aimed at Chinese people.

However, there has not yet been any public commentary on how an apology or ‘statement of regret’ for the White Australia policy or the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act could also incorporate the recognition of its effects on non-Chinese people and their descendants, nor how useful it would be for them. Charles ‘Tiger’ Parkes was an African American boxer who had been in Australia since 1935. He was deported in 1949 despite having an Australian wife, Lorna, and an Australian-born son. Lorna chose to remain in Australia as both she and Charles thought trying to raise their son in the USA would be too difficult. Soon after arriving in California, Charles wrote a letter to The News in Adelaide about the difficulties of his life in the USA and critiqued the White Australia Policy. “I ask, is it the pigment in the skin that makes the man or the pureness of his heart?”

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[1] Quoted in Nicholls, pp.79-80.

Karen Schamberger

Author: Karen Schamberger

Karen Schamberger researches and writes about Australian museums and cultural diversity. Her thesis Identity, belonging and cultural diversity in Australian museums examined the way that objects mediate relations between people of culturally diverse backgrounds in Australian history and the way that museums have used these objects in processes of inclusion and exclusion in Australian society. She has previously worked in curatorial positions at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne and the National Museum of Australia, Canberra. She has a particular interest in material culture, migration history, transnational history and race relations in Australia.