Settler or migrant, colonisation or invasion?

The entrance to the Migration Museum, Adelaide

At the door of the Migration Museum in Adelaide there is a dedication to the Kaurna people, ‘the original occupants of the site, who were disposed of their homelands by British settlers.’ Inside are a series of paintings by an artist of Aboriginal descent, Darryl Pfitzner Milika.

(a) salt waves by Darryl Pfitzner Milika

A painting of a sole Aboriginal person about to be drowned by oncoming waves is cleverly entitled (a) salt waves.

“You can’t do a museum on migration without talking about the impact on the Indigenous people,” says Catherine Manning, the senior curator.

Waves of settlers caused devastation to the Aboriginal way of life. But were the British newcomers settlers or immigrants? Did they colonise or did they invade? This Museum of Migration to South Australia poses some interesting questions.

18th century migrants from Britain

The 18th and 19th century galleries are more what I expected. Large lithographs of 19th century boat passengers, some in rags but richer people who brought everything with them but the kitchen sink. There are Victorian picture bricks, not unlike those in the V&A Museum of Childhood. Toys for a middle class child on the long boat journey perhaps.

“ South Australia was not a convict colony,”  Catherine explains. It was established by free settlers with ideals to break away from the inequalities back home, aspirations rarely realized. This former Museum, after a short life as a boarding school from where Aboriginal people withdrew their children, became a home for destitute woman and children.

There is a small adjoining room between the 19th  and the 20th  century galleries.

“Viv, the previous Director and colleagues weren’t sure, at first, how to make the best use of this confined space in a heritage building. Then they came up with this idea for an interactive.”

The White Australia interactive

I wait until the school children are exhausted and then have a go. I press the button, ‘ You are black and speak English.’ I fail a fifty word dictation test in Hungarian and am sent home.  I press the button, ‘You are an Irish girl called Ellen Fitzgibbon. ’ The immigration officer doesn’t like the look of me, gives me a dictation test in Swedish that I fail and I am sent back to Ireland. I press the button, ‘You are white British’. Eureka! I am welcomed to Australia. All six cases are based on real case studies. The Asian merchant is given a year’s certificate and the Japanese, married to an Australian, is referred to the Minister of Immigration. But perhaps the most intriguing case is the political activist from Europe. He posed a challenge to the authorities as he spoke so many languages. They gave him a test in Scottish Gaelic.

”He took them to court on the basis that Scottish Gaelic was not a language,” explains Catherine.

This interactive highlights the effect of what came to be known as the White Australia Policy that operated from 1901.

Conducting tests in unfamiliar languages was abolished in 1958 but it was not until 1973 that the Labour Government removed race as a basis for selection for immigration.

Pre war recruitment propoganda

There were various schemes to support white British immigration. Before the Second World War there were youth migrant schemes for farm apprentices or domestic helpers. One young lad, disillusioned with this land of milk and honey quipped that, ‘ the milk was off and the honey was runny’.

The Child Migrant Scheme
Actually we planned to go to Brighton but we didn’t have enough money – cartoon on the £10 tourist scheme

There were the child migrant schemes, operated by government religious and philanthropic organisations, for children under 15 from care institutions in Britain, often sent without their parents’ knowledge. Three decades after World War 11 one and a half million people migrated from Britain, the majority on the assisted £10 tourist scheme.

Not all migrants were British. Labour shortage after World War 11 opened up opportunities for displaced persons from southern and central Europe.

Cases focussing on Kuol Baak, a former child soldier and Lisa, a Vietnamese child refugee

Individual stories are set against a policy background of assimilation, integration and finally multiculturalism. There are moving life stories, objects and images of Kuol Baak, a Dinka tribesman and former child soldier and Lisa, a Vietnamese child refugee. Success stories in a multicultural Australia. But no punches are pulled either. There are images of people in detention in Woomera, the first detention centre set up in 1991 in Western Australia. There is a moving letter from a child within the camp, showing the desperation of people waiting to have their claims processed.

Mosaic in the courtyard

I walk outside into the blazing sun. An attractive mosaic of bricks shows all the countries from where Australians now have their roots – Europe, Africa, Asia, America.

Statue of British child migrant

There is a statue of a child migrant looking forward but also being pulled back to her homeland. And there is a group of school children  with a rope. They’re measuring out how many centuries the aboriginal people have lived in Australia in comparison to others who have migrated and made this beautiful land their home.

IMG_9515children - Version 2
Children measuring time with a rope

3 thoughts on “Settler or migrant, colonisation or invasion?

  1. The Migration Museum sounds like an amazing experience, how wonderful for pupils and new visitors to be confronted with such truths and challenges.


  2. Some very interesting questions posed about migration and hierarchies of migration. I would like to know a bit more about the impact on Australia’s Aborigines but also about the communities left behind in Europe; how did losing so many affect them?

    Ireland is a good example of a country depleted by large migrations of its young people and has become an idea of ‘home’ much more than a reality. Pre recession the economic surge changed this quite radically in a short time with more young people able to find work and remain in Ireland, buying houses but since the recession have been burdened with debt and migrating on mass once again.


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