The White Australia Policy, Ceylonese Burghers and Alice Nona - III


by Earl Forbes

Continued from last week


There was subsequent consultation with The United Kingdom and the Shipping Companies to limit the intake of passengers of non-European ancestry and appearance, at Colombo and ports in India.

The Australian preoccupation with European appearance persisted long after migrants arrived in Australia.

As is the case today, migrants could apply for ‘Naturalisation’ a few years after arrival. In the nineteen fifties the typical Naturalisation Application form contained 17 questions. The questions were quite innocuous. Typically the questions ranged from personal details to such matters as;

Question 3

‘Evidence produced as to birthplace and nationality…………?’

Question 11

‘Has applicant an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship?’

Question 15

‘Is there any evidence that the applicant and his children are mentally deficient?’

However, after the 17th question there was a blank space on the application form termed ‘General’. In the nineteen fifties there is evidence to show that most cases favourably approved for naturalisation carried the hand written notation by the interviewing officer;

‘Appearance predominantly European’.viii

The fact that more and more persons of non-European appearance were being admitted as migrants from Ceylon, India and other locations led in 1950, to a tightening of the migration approval criteria. The problem for the Australian authorities seemed to be that with the mixed races there was a need to screen carefully before acceptance for migration was given. In October 1950, Canberra sent a Memorandum to Colombo, further clarifying (sic) the requirements for migrant approval. This Memo stated;

‘The Minister has decided that eligibility for admission to Australia of persons of mixed race shall depend upon compliance with the following conditions….

(1) a person must be 75% or more European ( as regards origin). Documentary evidence of this must be furnished;

(11) he must be fully European in upbringing and outlook;

(111) he tends to be European rather than non European in appearance’.ix

Now there were, in addition to the European ancestry and European appearance, further requirements that the applicant must be ‘fully European in upbringing and outlook’.

In spite of all this highly restrictive policy, many a Ceylonese Burgher did migrate to Australia. Canberra kept a close watch over Colombo and required that full lists of applicants ‘Approved’ or ‘Not Approved’ for entry to Australia be sent in to Canberra. Lists were sent from Colombo to Head Office, Canberra, every six months. The following is an example of one such list (abbreviated).




Applications of Immigrants Applications of Immigrants


Mrs. Daisy Irene Elaine Misso Mr. Francis Godfrey Wright

Mr. George Victor Ebell Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Annesley Moldrich

Mr Christopher LLewellyn Vanderwall Mr.Clarence Olwin Wolff

Miss Rhoda Margaret Bartholomeusz Mr. Leslie Irwin De Jong

Mr. George Randolph Staples Mr Cecil Ladlux de Kretser’.x

The right of review in ‘not-approved’ cases

When approval was refused, the individual or family in question had recourse to a review process. In early 1950, the matter of Mr. Wolff’s non-approval (see list above) was referred to in a memorandum sent from the Australian High Commission Office in Colombo, to Canberra. This communication covered not only the particular case of Mr. Wolff but also the reliability of genealogies in general. On these matters the memo stated;

‘Mr. Wolff was able satisfactorily to establish his genealogy. He is a member of the Burgher community but the High Commissioner did not feel able to approve his application for the reason that his colour was darker than we would feel it would be to secure his admission to Australia. This is, according to our understanding of the present interpretation that a migrant should be of predominantly European descent. We would be grateful for advice if any decision is made to modify this requirement.

I should add of course that Burgher genealogies present some difficulty since although they are traced for several generations and more than a century through records kept since the Dutch administration of Ceylon, cases are believed to have occurred in which Sinhalese persons assume Dutch or Portuguese names upon Baptism in their respective Churches’.xi

11. Extract from memorandum for the Secretary , Department of Immigration, Canberra from the Official Secretary, High Commission, Colombo.

The case of Alice Nona

Probably no individual incident could illustrate the post war Australian preoccupation with restricting non-European migration or even temporary entry, than the saga of ‘Alice Nona’. The facts go like this.

In early 1949, a Mrs. E H Temple (the Australian wife of an Englishmen working in Ceylon) planned a holiday to Australia, traveling by sea. Mrs. Temple had a six month old baby and wished to have a Ceylonese servant travel with her. The servant, (Alice Nona, aged 35) was described as a ‘nurse’. The Australian High Commission in Colombo was contacted by the Temple’s and after some delay documents were issued for Alice Nona’s travel to Australia as Mrs. Temple’s nurse. All arrangements went to plan until the ship on which Mrs. Temple and Alice Nona were traveling, docked at Brisbane. At Brisbane, Alice Nona was ordered not to leave the ship.

No doubt this restriction caused great inconvenience to Mrs. Temple. But more importantly, the incident raised outrage in Ceylon and other Asian countries. A Brisbane newspaper carried the headline;

‘Cingalese Nurse Can’t Land’.

In Ceylon very strong criticism of the Australian order prohibiting Alice Nona from disembarking in Brisbane was expressed in the English press; especially in the Ceylon Daily News.

The press in Ceylon went into the matter in detail and highlighted the fact that Alice Nona was granted valid entry documents to Australia by the High Commission in Colombo. At first the Canberra Authorities did not relent. They took the view that Colombo had made a mistake. Canberra maintained that only wives of Australian officials could bring servants to Australia!

The situation for the Australian Authorities was not one that could be defended for long. The campaign in support of the Alice Nona gathered momentum and in Ceylon,

India and other Asian countries was causing embarrassment to Australia. Britain was said to have exerted diplomatic pressure urging reversal of the prohibition order. Canberra soon relented and the following order was made;

‘Mrs. Alice Nona permitted to land under exemption for one month."xii


(Photocopies of all documents mentioned in the article are held by the author).

i Extract from letter dated 21 June 1947 from the President the Burgher Settlement League to the Chief Secretary Sir Charles Collins.

ii Extract from Dispatch dated 11th November 1948 from High Commissioner Colombo to Immigration Authorities Canberra.

iii File note made on 15th November 1948 in regard to Dispatch 2. Underlining of the words ‘in addition’is present in the original document.

iv Extract from Departmental Dispatch dated 3rd February 1948 from the Commissioner for Australia in Ceylon to Canberra.

v Extract from Memorandum from the Office of the High Commissioner Colombo to the Department of External Affairs Canberra dated 4th August 1947.

vi Extract from Departmental of External Affairs cablegram dated 4th March 1948 to the Australian High Commissioner, Colombo.

vii Extract from cablegram from Department of Immigration, Canberra to the Australian High Commission, Colombo.

viii Extract from Department of Immigration, Application for Naturalization or Registration: Processing Sheet for Mr…… (This was for a Ceylonese applicant).

ix Extract from Memorandum from Canberra for the Office of the High Commissioner, Colombo.

x Abbreviated list of Applicants from Citizens of Ceylon for Permanent Entry to Australia.

xi Extract from memorandum for the Secretary , Department of Immigration, Canberra from the Official Secretary , High Commission, Colombo.

xii Cablegram from Department of External Affairs to Australian High Commission Colombo, dated 30th March 1949. [Underlining by author and not in the original document].


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