Barbed wire in the shadows: Australia’s concentration camps

by Vashti Kenway • Published 12 January 2017

In the heart of the dark nights, I yell out through the mass of metallic and hard fences. Surrounded by agony and torture, I yell out right next to the tropical birds, thousands of kilometres further away from the people’s world, in the heart of a remote island located in the corner of the vastest ocean. In the name of humanity and freedom, I yell out; in the name of all the values, values that connect human dignity with peace. I yell out, a yell from the hell where people are tortured and systematically humiliated. A yell having the quality of those flower-like ambitions even when petals are being plucked cruelly, and a yell having the quality of a heart that has been crushed under the steel boots of politicians. Here is the hellhole Manus prison.[1]

These are the words of Kurdish Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani. He became a refugee in 2013 after his outspoken support for Kurdish rights put him in the cross-hairs of the Iranian regime. He was forced to flee, leaving family, friends, colleagues, a movement and everything he knew. He spent over a month travelling in overnight trains, on secret buses and finally on leaking boats to make it to Australia. After his boat sank, he was rescued by Indonesian fishermen and then jailed. He applied for asylum to the Australian government which transferred him first to Christmas Island and then to Manus Island detention centre. He has been there ever since.

His writings on the experience of being imprisoned on Manus are howls of pain and rage. They reveal the frustrations and anguish of being imprisoned indefinitely and with impunity. Boochani’s words cut through the slick media spin of both major parties. They slice, razor sharp, through the Orwellian double-speak of departmental bureaucrats who talk of “queues”, “process” and “border protection”. They demonstrate the lie of the Australian state’s claims to humanity.

The thousands of leaked government documents known as the Nauru files further reveal the systemic barbarism of Australia’s refugee policy.[2] They demonstrate the depths of degradation suffered by refugees in what is effectively Australia’s gulag archipelago.

In response to these revelations many commentators have bemoaned this blight on Australia’s record. For instance, in November 2016 Fairfax Press reported a typical response from Julian Burnside, the highly respected barrister and refugee advocate: “What Australia was doing to asylum seekers was ‘increasingly outrageous and out of step with what were once ‘core Australian values’.”[3] What many of these commentators do not recognise is that the Australian state is practised in brutality. In particular, Australian capitalism at war has locked up people with impunity in concentration camps and used racism to justify such incarceration. Australian history is laced with barbed wire. The stories of Australia’s concentration camps have however been pushed into the shadows. If mentioned at all, they are often embarrassed footnotes to the nation-building tales of Australian bravery, sacrifice and decency during wartime. This article intends to uncover the regular use of concentration camps during three periods of Australian history: first as part of the genocidal war against Indigenous people, second as part of garnering support for imperial conquest during the First World War and third during the Second World War.[4] These histories should put paid to the notion that Australian capitalism is more civilised and less brutal than other nations.

Indigenous concentration camps

From 1788 a relentless war was waged against the Indigenous inhabitants of this continent to establish British rule. This war involved, as wars always do, the violent suppression of those who resist. The various Indigenous language groupings of the continent now known as Australia resisted with strength and bravery, both in physical battles and through a determined maintenance of their cultural practices. The British colonial state used many methods to destroy such opposition and pacify the First Peoples of this country. The establishment of concentration camps was a vital element in the annihilation of such opposition. Indeed camps were central to the pursuit of genocide.

The process of removal from land and the detention of Indigenous people in camps, reserves, missions or prisons occurred almost continuously from the first decades of the nineteenth century to today and has involved many coercive methods: from outright violence to economic blackmail. By 1911 similar legislative approaches to Indigenous people had been established in every state (except Tasmania) and the Northern Territory.[5] Government-run protection boards were created to oversee and regulate the lives of all Aboriginal people. Many Indigenous people were herded into areas called reserves which operated under the auspices of these bodies. The heads of the boards were called “chief protectors” and in some states were made the legal guardians of all Aboriginal children. The protection boards often worked hand in glove with Christian missions and in some places missions were funded by both the church and the government. In some of the government-run institutions the church played a significant role. Alongside the reserve and mission systems there was also the establishment of Indigenous-only prisons. Often the boundaries between these institutions were blurred.[6] Some missions, prisons and reserves were more openly brutal than others, and while this article will look at two of the more extreme examples, such a focus does not intend to imply that the less explicitly violent institutions were more benign. Indeed, all institutions, regardless of method or ideological colouring were intended to contribute to the same outcome: the destruction of Indigenous culture and life. In an interview with historian Glen Stasiuk, Mark Bin-Barker (also known as Jawundi) from the Kimberly, describes this dynamic in the following way:

[I]t’s evil and it’s sinister and it was clearly engineered to eradicate Aboriginal people, in fact the fact remains [that] the notion of “smooth the dying pillow” [was] to get rid of the “full blood” Aboriginal people and assimilate the “half caste”, and basically to eradicate Aboriginal people from this continent.[7]

This article will consider two particular examples of Australia’s earliest concentration camps: Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) and Bwgcolman (Palm Island). Both places are notorious. Wadjemup is the largest site of Aboriginal deaths in custody and Bwgcolman, in Chloe Hooper’s words, is the “Alcatraz of Australia”.[8]

Wadjemup (also known as Rottnest Island)

Wadjemup lies about 18 kilometres west of Fremantle. It is a sandy, salty scrubby island that was, prior to European colonisation, an important part of Noongar cosmological “dreaming” stories.[9] Significant British settlement began on the western seaboard of the continent in the 1820s and Perth was named by Governor Stirling on 12 August 1829. This period of Western Australian history was one of fierce Aboriginal resistance and bloody repression. Resistance leaders were killed and their bodies mutilated as a lesson to others. The warrior Yagan, for instance was shot, and then had his head “hacked from his body before being sent to England as a trophy of colonisation”.[10]

By the mid-1830s much of the active, mass resistance had been quashed. British repression had however not entirely managed to extinguish the people or cultural practices of the Indigenous populations. These practices did not understand or respect the British notion of land ownership or property rights. In fact, their whole tradition stood in direct contradistinction to such ideas. Noongar people were therefore constantly being brought before the courts for “crimes” such as trespass and theft. The colonial powers increasingly deemed it necessary to establish an Indigenous-only prison. Imprisonment was a particularly alien and frightening concept to Aboriginal people as there was nothing resembling it in traditional culture. The establishment of a prison would therefore act both as a punishment and a deterrent. Wadjemup was chosen as the ideal site because of the difficulty of escape.

In 1839 the government bought all the holdings and land on Wadjemup and the new Governor Hutt declared that the site would be ideal for an Aboriginal prison as it allowed the prisoners to learn the skills of “civilisation”, such as cultivating land and constructing buildings. This “humanitarian approach” proved no different from other examples of forced labour camps in world history. Indigenous people were made to work for free in shocking conditions. They were assaulted, beaten and chained. Cedric Jacobs, a Noongar elder and traditional custodian of the Wadjuk area (including Wadjemup) describes the extent of this brutalisation:

Well firstly, when the police went out and arrested our leaders and our heroes, our warriors and elders in the bush, they chained up the prisoners with chains around their necks, around their hands and shackled their hands around their legs. Then after doing that they were marched, well they were walked in gangs, all chained together for miles. I even read an account of the weight of the shackles and the chains. The administrators were discussing what weight would bring the greater hurt to the people…which chafed the necks of the people and the arms, and the people couldn’t stop, they couldn’t go to the toilet by themselves. And even at night when the officers had their sleep the people were chained to trees and stuff. So there you go, it’s very sad – I could almost cry, I could cry… I relive the story all the time, especially when I know…we’re talking about what happened on the very land I walk today.[11]

In 1839 Henry Vincent was appointed superintendent of the penal establishment. He was hated by the prisoners for his cruelty. They called him Kok-Butt Dwarda – “one-eyed dog” (he had lost an eye in the Napoleonic wars). He oversaw the construction of the prison buildings and the houses on the island. The quarrying of limestone and the erection of the buildings was devastatingly hard work, made harder by Vincent. He insisted on shaving men’s heads, which meant that their scalps were exposed to the blistering heat. Many prisoners got ill due to a combination of malnourishment and exposure to the elements. Many died due to these circumstances.[12]

Vincent was fond of using the cat o’ nine tails and would whip prisoners for the smallest misdemeanour. Harry Tichborn, Perth’s gravedigger, offered the following first-hand account of Vincent’s violence: “I was once at Rottnest for a cargo of salt. While there I saw Superintendent, Henry Vincent, brutally ill-treat a native by tugging viciously at his beard with a pair of blacksmith’s tongs.”[13]

Such savagery cannot be explained by the sadistic urges of one individual. Rather, it was systemic policy. Other testimonies confirm the breadth of the cruelty. A private from the fifty-first regiment, John Williams, swore during a public enquiry:

I once saw Corporal Alcock, acting overseer, strike a native named Boyingat with his fists, three successive blows, and on the same day strike another native with a stick, and one day Alcock brought into barracks a pitchfork which was broken near the top. He said he wanted to mend it, having broken it across a native.[14]

Despite a public enquiry which revealed the cruel and degrading treatment of Indigenous prisoners, there was no substantial change to the situation. After Henry Vincent retired (on half pay) his son William was appointed assistant superintendent. He proved to be just as cruel as his father. One emblematic incident was described in the subsequent trial of William Vincent. On the evening of 5 October 1865, a sick and ageing prisoner between the age of 60 and 70, was

forcibly, but not unkindly, removed from the large association cell to one of the smaller cells. He did not want to leave his companions and began to cry and struggle against the natives who were instructed to remove him. The Assistant Superintendent approached and ordered the natives to cease crying. When the sick man continued his cries William Vincent shouted out: “Hold your tongue, damn you! I’ll soon stop that noise”: and struck the native who had fallen to his knees, two blows with a bunch of prison keys, one on the forehead and again across the nose. The insensate brute also kicked the sick man in the side. After being kicked the native coupled up and never wept again. He was then forced into a cell with two others. Dehan died that night. Next morning his body lay on the floor, a large swelling protruding where he had been kicked and the face and nostrils clotted with blood. Dehan was wrapped in a grey blanket, thrust hurriedly beneath the cemetery’s concealing sand.[15]

Dehan’s death was declared to be of “natural causes”. But William Vincent was convicted of mistreatment of prisoners in the magistrates court, and sentenced to three months hard labour; although he spent this time working in the police stables. He was subsequently allowed a job in the police force.

An influenza epidemic swept through the prison population in the 1880s and killed around 60 Indigenous inmates. More continued to die due to mistreatment and malnourishment.

Transportation of Aboriginal prisoners to Wadjemup ceased in 1903, but a number continued to serve their sentences on the island until the 1920s. The closure of Wadjemup as a prison did not indicate any change in the determination on the part of the authorities to incarcerate Indigenous people. Rather, the government began building more prisons in regional areas. These could accommodate more local Indigenous prisoners without the government incurring the cost of transportation to Wadjemup.

During the First World War, Wadjemup became an internment camp for 1,700 German and Austrian “aliens” (see next section of this article). After the war the state government finally shifted all prisoners off the island. They then began transforming Wadjemup from a prison to a playground, and so it remains today. Every year over 500,000 visitors boat to the island to stay on its idyllic shores. Rottnest’s dark past is barely acknowledged, despite battles for it to be so.

It is estimated that 3,700 Indigenous men were incarcerated on Wadjemup, and of those around 370 died and are buried beneath the sand. There is a small plaque, a map and a path through the burial site. Further exploratory excavations are being stymied by corporate interests who don’t want controversies affecting profits.

Bwgcolman (also known as Palm Island)

Bwgcolman is for Queensland’s Indigenous population what Wadjemup is for Western Australia’s. Forty-five kilometres off the coast of Queensland and 1,100 kilometres north of Brisbane, Bwgcolman, no less than Wadjemup, is emblematic of the violence used to discipline, punish and break the spirit of Australia’s First Nations people.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the reserve and mission system had become ubiquitous across Queensland. A number of factors led to the establishment of a settlement on Bwgcolman. Firstly, conditions on some of the reserves were proving fatal. A malarial outbreak at Hull River Reserve killed around 50 percent of all Indigenous people living there. Secondly, many Indigenous people were refusing to accept the authority of the new systems and were rebelling. These factors led the chief protector, John William Bleakley, to recommend the establishment of some kind of settlement on Bwgcolman. Just as with Wadjemup the watery boundaries around the island were enticing to a colonial administration bent on isolating and punishing Indigenous people.

Bwgcolman was established in 1918 as half reserve, half prison camp. In particular, it was seen as the place for recalcitrant individuals and recidivists from government reserves across Queensland. Joanne Watson’s research reveals that

[w]ritten records provide such scant explanations as: “causing trouble”, “for their own protection”, “for the good of other aboriginies” [sic] and “to give the Superintendent authority over him”. Others were simply labelled: “a troubled character”, “incorrigible”, “very dangerous”, “destitute”, “a larrikin”, “a wanderer” and “a communist”.[16]

These terms were used for any Aborigine or Torres Strait Islander who stepped out of line. Of particular concern to the authorities were those who were political activists, agitators who could stir up discontent and anger. People like this were often the first to be sent to Bwgcolman. In other words, Bwgcolman became a concentration camp filled with political prisoners. Between 1918 and 1971 almost 4,000 people were removed to Bwgcolman.

It had a reputation across the state as brutal. Peggy James, of the Boulia region in the west of the state, recalled the grave fear invoked by the threat of removal to Bwgcolman: “They only had to mention Palm Island and we were quiet.”[17] Even the journey to Bwgcolman was torturous. Often prisoners would have to travel for several weeks chained together. One woman from Mapoon, Bessie Lymburner, describes how she saw her mother and auntie’s feet put in chains as she was taken by horseback from her home.[18]

After the decision was made to transform the island into a reserve/penal colony in 1918 the government determined that the Indigenous population should be forced to construct their own prison buildings as well as the homes and buildings for the white administrators. These were built first, of course, and to a higher standard and quality. All construction required back-breaking work. “They carried heavy bags of stone from the hills and ground coral to lime in order to whitewash the rocks which lined the streets. Murri labour was used to drain, clear, till and plant in areas designated…as suitable for farming or plantations.”[19]

The island housed women and children as well as men, but every aspect of their lives was regulated. There was a curfew for Indigenous people and a daily roll call. Punishments were meted out to those who missed the call.[20] Meetings between Indigenous residents without permission were banned and Indigenous residents could not leave the island, marry or draw wages from a bank without the permission of the superintendent. All of these regulations were enforced by the superintendent and his armed bureaucracy.

Just as on Wadjemup, the racism, the capacity for complete control over the Indigenous population, as well as the almost complete immunity granted the white personnel prompted acts of horrific violence.

Superintendent Curry was charged with a series of floggings in the 1920s. Evidence to a 1929 enquiry and his subsequent trial revealed that he used a leather strap, two feet long and one and a half inches wide, cut into six strands, with knots tied in the ends. He lacerated one young woman for the “crime” of attempting to run away with a male inmate. He himself recounted the incident. He stated: “She had pulled away from me and ran out the gate shouting ‘I’ll let no man hit me’.” At the gate Rene (the young woman) was wrestled with by a Native policeman who stopped her. Curry stated: “I took her by one arm and said ‘Now you come back to the quarters’… ‘You still defy me eh?’ and I gave her about nine more straps – across the buttocks and the shoulders.”[21]

Again this was not the result of sadistic tendencies on the part of the superintendents. Such violence was fostered and encouraged, ideologically and materially.

Conditions on Bwgcolman bred disease, and hundreds died of preventable illness. All islanders were required to work 30 hours each week, and until the 1960s with no wages. If anyone disobeyed an overseer they would be severely punished. These conditions prompted resistance. Most significantly, in 1957 the repression of Indigenous slave workers prompted a five-day strike and something approaching an “unarmed insurrection”.[22] After a stop-work meeting the Indigenous workers decided on a set of demands. These included increased wages, better housing, decent meat rations and the expulsion of a much hated superintendent. The workers were highly organised; all construction work ended and islanders were posted throughout the town to ensure that the hospital and shops were also closed. Women organised their own protest by throwing rotting meat and handfuls of sand at the superintendent’s house. By the end of the five days all distribution of food and goods on the island was controlled by its Indigenous residents. In response, the authorities pulled out all the stops. Military powers were given to the police and the strike was crushed by force. Strike leaders were arrested, shackled and shipped off the island. Stories from this strike demonstrate that despite the most degrading circumstances, the rule of the administrators was never total and those oppressed remained active agents in attempting to determine their own destiny. In fact, as testimony to their strength of spirit, while the resistance leaders were being shipped away from their homes and families they started singing. One of them, Willie Thaiday, wrote:

Soon as we pull out a bit I strike out a big song – island song about our home. The captain, fellow called Mr Whiting, hear us and say, “Who them boys? They can’t be going to prison in handcuffs. They seem so happy.”

We sing like anything in the military patrol boat… The policeman are on top and machine gun is pointed down to us but while we are in front of machine gun we sing like anything… The walky talky is going all the time… “They singing like hell here.” Mr Whiting can’t get over it.[23]

The island remained a penal colony/reserve until 1985 when formal state control was passed to a local community council. This transformation did not end the presence of a deeply racist police force however and Bwgcolman entered the mainstream national press (who made the name Palm Island infamous) in 2004 when Indigenous man Mulrunji was murdered by a local white policeman, Chris Hurley.[24]

The vicious treatment of Aboriginal people in concentration camps like Wadjemup and Bwgcolman reflects a deep and systemic commitment to the violent subjugation of a minority population. This was part of a war: a broader project of colonial domination, land theft, genocide and the establishment of capitalist power relationships right across the country. Each element went hand in glove. Robert Eggington reflects on these realities when he says:

Our old people could see the bloodshed of the massacre grounds, our young stolen children could see the high walls of the missions, our incarcerated could hear the haunting screams of our enslaved.[25]

World War I

Another war prompted the establishment of yet another set of concentration camps. This time it was the global conflagration of World War I that provoked the vilification and persecution of radicals and minorities.

On 4 August 1914, Australia entered the British war against Germany and its allies. The outcome of the struggle to carve up the world’s markets mattered immensely to Australia’s rich and powerful. They wanted the country to emerge from the war as a player on the world stage. As in many wars to come, both political parties were initially enthusiastic for the war. On 31 July 1914 Labor leader Andrew Fisher notoriously declared:

Should the worst happen after everything has been done that honour will permit, Australia will stand beside our own to help and defend her to our last man and last shilling.[26]

Support for the war among the mass of people was not a forgone conclusion. In order to garner mass support, the war drums began to beat a stirring populist rhythm. Empire became synonymous with “freedom”, while the enemies of the British, the “Dirty German Hun” and the “Barbarous Turks”, became the enemies of freedom, democracy and civilisation. Declaring an internal enemy gave potency and urgency to the project. In October 1914, the War Precautions Act was passed, giving wide-ranging powers to the federal government. It used these laws to suppress opponents of the war, crush labour agitation, limit civil liberties and curtail freedom of the press. Even red flags, the symbol of internationalism and the labour movement, were banned.

Central to the act was the declaration that “enemy aliens” living in Australia needed to be dealt with. A year later through the introduction of the Aliens Restriction Order of 27 May, commanders of military districts were given carte blanche to intern enemy subjects whose conduct was deemed “unsatisfactory”. Minister of Defence G.F. Pearce gave himself the legal capacity to order the detention of any naturalised subjects he suspected of “disaffection or disloyalty”. He did not have to offer any justification for these suspicions.[27] Although challenged legally, Pearce’s right was upheld in this matter, early evidence of the suspension of habeas corpus in wartime. The category “enemy alien” had, by the end of the war, expanded dramatically. Australia interned almost 7,000 people[28] during World War I, of whom about 4,500 were “enemy aliens” and British nationals of German ancestry already resident in Australia. As Helmi and Fischer argue:

In the end, the machinery of registration, censorship, surveillance, internment and deportation to control the resident “enemy” population in Australia was also being used to investigate and prosecute a wide variety of mainstream Anglo-Celtic “Britishers”. They included pacifists, unionists, radical socialists, Irish nationalists, and anti-conscriptionists of all ideological persuasions, including sections of the Labor Party, practically anyone who dared to speak out against the government’s total commitment to the war.[29]

Attorney-General Billy Hughes voiced an attitude which was to dominate among the ruling class: legal norms and niceties must be thrown to the wind in the name of national security.

The preservation of the safety of the Commonwealth is not a milk-and-water business. We cannot fit the purpose with a Bill giving the requisite powers and then deal with offenders with feather dusters. That we have to deal with possible enemies and people who are clever and cunning must be recognised, and that the machinery to deal with them should be in the possession of civilisation and organised society. The Government seek for nothing more than is necessary to meet situations of emergency and difficulty.[30]

Such positions, when normalised, allowed the Australian state to crack down on both political and “ethnic” groups who had been in their sights for decades: namely the left and the Irish. Many of the most active political campaigners against the First World War, like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), were targeted for their activism. In 1916 the IWW paper Direct Action carried the headline “War, What for?”, for which editor Tom Barker was jailed. He was subsequently deported as an enemy alien.[31] Fifteen prominent members of the organisation were also imprisoned on trumped up charges of sedition. These more explicit political prisoners were incarcerated in mainstream prisons rather than in internment camps, but their imprisonment was nonetheless part of the same processes.[32]

While the machinery of coercion and control was broad and wide-ranging, the largest group of “enemy aliens” to be interned were Germans. People of German descent were the largest non-British and non-Irish immigrant group in Australia. Many Germans had lived in the country for generations and had shaped the culture of the place. A cursory glance at a map of South Australia in 1914 reveals the extent of German influence. Adelaide was after all named for the German Princess Adelheid of Meiningen, and other towns including Hahndorf, Lobethal, Blumberg, Hoffnungsthal, Kaiserstuhl, Bethanien and Langmeil were all teutonically inspired. By 1900 the number of Germans born or of descent living in Australia was estimated at around 100,000. In South Australia around 10 percent of the population fell into this category. Some had arrived in the first decades of the nineteenth century, as Lutherans fleeing religious persecution, other progressives, liberals and revolutionaries had fled after the failures of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Regardless of the manner of or reason for their arrival, by 1914 many Germans had been in Australia for generations. Many were genuine Anglo-Australian patriots, albeit with a Germanic twist. Max Hemmerdinger is an instructive example. Born in 1866, Hemmerdinger had lived in Australia since 1892 and worked as a bookbinder in Point Pass since 1903. He was well known for his organisation of and performances at Anglo-Germanic events. A report of one of these events, held in 1900, describes the scene thus:

The stage was neatly decorated with the German merchant flag, the Union Jack, and Royal Standard of old England, and other evidences of unity of sentiment and throughout the long and varied program…the loyalty of the audience was frequently manifested. Mr F.W. Paech, MP, in the capacity of Chairman, presented a graphic picture of the suffering occasioned by the war [in South Africa] now raging, which he asserted could have but one termination, the British victorious.[33]

Anti-German racism

According to the Act however, such declarations of loyalty to the British crown, political persuasion, or the length of Australian residence were irrelevant. All Germans were suspect. In order to justify such vilification German-ness became increasingly racialised. The stereotype of the “Hun” was propagated. Government posters were circulated featuring the slogan “Once a Hun, always a Hun” with images of a Teutonic warrior and the date AD 451 set beside a modern German soldier with the date 1915 next to him. Such images suggested an unbroken racial German-ness characterised by violence and barbarism.[34] In December 1914 the Melbourne academic Archibald Strong described Germans as a “race of devils”.[35] This was a common attitude. Explicitly racialised propaganda films were produced. An advertisement for the film If the Hun came to Melbourne in the Adelaide Register gives a flavour of the manner in which Germans were discussed:

Think for a moment of a repetition of the dreadful nightmare here in Adelaide! Picture those nearest and dearest to you at the mercy of the merciless Hun! Think of the un-dreamed-of possibilities, of the remorseless and wanton destruction of our beautiful cities! Imagine our beautiful public buildings, our stately churches, our treasured squares and gardens laid in smoking ruins![36]

Furthermore, being “not British” was conflated with being “not White”, regardless of any technicalities of skin colour. Prime Minister Billy Hughes made this logic clear in a speech in 1919:

We are more British than the people of Great Britain, and we hold firmly to the great principle of the White Australia, because we know what we know. We have these liberties, and we believe in our race and in ourselves, and in our capacity to achieve our great destiny, which is to hold this vast continent in trust for those of our race who come after us.[37]

Such stridently racist attitudes, while of general applicability, were particularly mobilised against Germans and played a key role in uniting a large section of the population behind the war effort and the inhuman policies of internment and ethnic persecution. As historian Gerhard Fischer argues, “It is this shared basis of racial and ethnic prejudice which is responsible for the fact that there was virtually no opposition to the government’s anti-German policies and no solidarity with the victims who were innocently deported or interned.”[38]

Not only were they enemies in war but there was an economic element to their persecution. Prime Minister Billy Hughes wanted to restructure the economy to align it even more closely with British imperialism. Many businesses were forcibly closed down by the government.

All Germans, even those who were naturalised citizens, were required to register at their local police station. They then were made to report, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, to the authorities. As the war wore on further restrictions were imposed. Enemy aliens were not allowed to own or possess cars, cameras, telephones or homing pigeons. Homes were raided and these proscribed objects were confiscated.

Germans living in German colonies occupied by Allied forces were also arrested, transported to Australia and subject to the same conditions. German clubs, newspapers and some Lutheran churches were closed. German place names were changed. In South Australia, around 70 towns or hamlets had their names changed. A vitriolic press campaign was waged. Many Germans were harassed on the street; others lost friends and were sacked from work.

A few months into the war, the forcible internment of all male “enemy aliens” began. Police arrested many with little warning and put them on guarded trains to the closest camp. The separation from family was traumatic. German Broken Hill miner and boxer Frank Burgandy recorded his arrest in a diary entry in August 1915: “I left my home, a weeping wife and my weeping children bound for the railway station to catch the Adelaide express”.[39] Many families were entirely destroyed. George Paul Fisher’s story is not an isolated example:

After he was interned his fourteen year old daughter Elsie was committed to the state children’s department for larceny and placed in a home, then in the Redruth Girls Reformatory in Burra. Fischer’s wife Charlotte was admitted to the Mental Asylum at Parkside in early 1916. An application made by Fischer to visit his ill wife was denied by the military authorities. His stepson became well known to police because of his drinking.[40]

Initially, around a dozen camps were established across the country. The main ones were Torrens Island in South Australia, Berrima, Bourke, Trial Bay and Holsworthy in NSW, Enoggera in Queensland, Molonglo in the ACT and Wadjemup in Western Australia. Life in these camps was often very harsh. It is worth exploring in more detail the conditions in a couple of the more infamous camps.

Torrens Island lies low in the Port River estuary close to Port Adelaide. In 1915 it was an unwelcoming sight for internees, scrubby and sparse. Martin Trojan described his arrival at the camp like this:

In the cold, pitch-black night we had to walk from the Port Adelaide station to the harbour. Singing we climbed aboard a little boat, and we sang as we travelled across the water to “Torrens Island”, the devil’s island. We disembarked and were once more subjected to a close inspection…. Oh how barren it is here! No houses, no flowers. Sand, sand and a miserable bit of bush.[41]

Prisoners were humiliated and punished for minor disciplinary infractions. One particularly sadistic military figure, Captain Hawkes, was well-known for treating prisoners abominably. On one occasion he locked internees in open barbed wire cages for over a day in the burning heat. In another notorious instance two prisoners were flogged with a cat o’ nine tails for attempting to escape. According to their accounts, they were “handcuffed together, ordered to stop at a tree and told by sergeant Mackintosh that they were going to be shot. They had their hands tied to a tree, with their shirts pulled over their heads and their trousers pulled down. They were given thirty strokes…and then taken to the camp hospital where some salve was applied to their wounds.”[42]

By the middle of 1915, all the regional camps were closed and prisoners shifted to NSW. Around 7,000 people of German and Austrian descent were interned in camps there. The largest, Holsworthy, held 6,000 at its height. Trial Bay was smaller and held around 1,000. Of all these internees, about 4,500 had been Australian residents before August 1914.[43] Once they were interned, there was no recourse to appeal. All of Australia’s much vaunted freedoms, those that soldiers were meant to be so valiantly defending overseas, were summarily junked.

Holsworthy was the largest concentration camp in Australian military history. According to internees’ accounts, it was a horrific place, crowded and dusty. The corrugated iron barracks were sweltering in the summer and bone chilling in the winter. One prisoner, Wilhelm Woelber, described in a diary entry: “Barbed wire encloses the whole camp…soldiers with loaded rifles and bayonets at the ready stand alongside and there are a few mounted guards further away.”[44]

Internees were forced into hard physical labour. They weren’t allowed family visits, and their reading material was censored and monitored. As at Torrens Island, inmates’ behaviour was closely regulated. “Bad behaviour” was punished with public humiliation or hard labour, which consisted of loading and unloading a wheelbarrow with rocks and pushing it around the compound for eight hours a day. Restraints reminiscent of colonial times were used:

Handcuffs, leg irons, canvas restraint jackets and the so-called body belt (which had steel wristlets at the side to lock the wrists to the body), the uses of which were prescribed in the regulations with meticulous detail.[45]

Apart from the out and out brutality, internees suffered from “barbed wire disease”, a condition bred from boredom and frustration.

The situation led to violence between prisoners. A mafia-like organisation called the “Black Hand” developed. Gang members would thieve from, bash and brutalise other inmates, all under the watchful, superior eye of Australian officers. In 1916, a group calling itself the “White Hand” formed and bashed back. They threw the thugs and criminals of the Black Hand over the barbed wire and demanded their expulsion from the camp.


The brutality of the Australian state was not met with total passivity. A series of rebellions rocked Holsworthy. The first small strikes occurred in 1915, and in mid-1916 a major outbreak occurred. One of the labour gangs was pushed beyond its limits and made to work an extra half-hour. Sharp words were exchanged, and the guards locked up a few “ringleaders” as punishment. A secret meeting was held later in the night, and the internees agreed to a general strike. The next day, they refused to show to roll-call and presented a series of demands. They argued that labour should be voluntary and that camp officials discuss how to improve living conditions with an elected committee.

After a few days, management relented, and committees of elected internees took over much of the running of the camp. They planted gardens, doubled food production, established theatres, orchestras, newsletters and schools. The elections for these committees were fiercely contested events. There were internees who ranged politically from communists and anarchists right through to conservative German nationalists. Sometimes these political battles became physical.

It has to be said however that not all “enemy aliens” were treated equally. Just as in the rest of society, money talked – wealthier Germans were not made to bear the tribulations of Holsworthy. The “better class” of Germans were sent to Trial Bay or Berrima. Lieutenant Edmond Samuels, with no irony whatsoever, described Berrima as “a charming site for a concentration camp”. The internees in these camps were afforded much more freedom: they were allowed to swim and walk, labour wasn’t forced, and cultural activities were plentiful. Despite these “luxuries” however, we must remind ourselves that they were still prisoners: prisoners by mere fact of genealogy.

By the end of the war around 700 of the internees were compulsorily deported and 202 had died. Hundreds more were kept in the camp until 1920. Thousands released back into the community renounced their heritage, anglicised their names and tried to forget the harsh treatment that had been meted out to them. Some however were unable to forget as the Second World War was just around the corner and, as we shall see, some German internees were in fact re-interned.

World War II

The Australian state’s internment policies during the Second World War were larger and broader in scale than in the First World War. Three categories of people were interned: internal “aliens” who were residents, suspected enemies transported from other parts of the world and POWs. Over the course of the war, around 7,000 Australian residents (both aliens and naturalised citizens) were interned.

In contrast to the First World War, when the overwhelming bulk of those interned were German, a broader sweep of groups and nationalities were labelled a possible threat to national security. The majority were Italians, Germans and Japanese, but 30 other nationalities were represented in the camps – including Hungarians, Russians and Portuguese.

Another 8,000 were sent here to be interned after being detained overseas by Australia’s allies. Some were POWs, including members of the Temple Society, a German religious community founded in Palestine in 1868 who were captured by the British in 1941. There were German missionaries captured in New Guinea and eventually many Japanese prisoners of war. Others were people who had fled from their home countries as refugees to Britain and were then transferred to Australia. At their peak in 1942, the camps held more than 12,000 people.[46]

The National Security Act was passed in 1939 in anticipation of Australia’s entry into the war. It was more extensive and draconian than the War Precautions Act of the First World War. Organisations considered “disloyal”, such as the Communist Party, were banned. Others, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, had their activities monitored and limited.

This legislation directed all secret services and local police and military to collect the names of those who might be enemies. The minister for the army instructed various commands to “intern at his discretion all aliens with a past anti-British history” and to prepare lists of naturalised subjects and aliens for internment. These lists were informed by both a general sense of paranoia and a conviction that enemies lurked in every shadow. In Innisfail, Queensland, for instance, the police provided two lists of names with the following note attached: “a number of the persons shown on such [second] list… have never been the subject of a special report by me, the reason being that it has been impossible to get anything concrete on them, but there is not a shadow of a doubt that they are disloyal and would be a definite danger.”[47] Such a process was often used as a cover for the removal of individuals, families and even whole communities that other Australians saw as a threat. Martinuzzi O’Brien makes the point about Italians in the North of Queensland:

Denunciations frequently exposed general tensions and community animosities… Fear of Italian control of the sugar industry, and resentment at Italians gaining jobs and acquiring land and property, were particular grievances. In the absence of concrete evidence of disloyalty, these prejudices were sufficient for people to be regarded as pro-Italian and anti-British, and to be recommended for internment. In addition, the authorities regularly called for more internments as a way of responding to public demand, and building support for the war effort.[48]


Initially, the majority of internees were herded into old prisons or abandoned barracks. Many initial internment centres proved spatially insufficient. For example, in Innisfail, where Italians made up 12 percent of the population, local facilities overflowed almost immediately. One internee, Mario Sardi, wrote of how many locals were squashed into one cell behind the local police station in the heat, “tormented by mosquitos”. They were then transferred to the local showgrounds where they were overseen by armed guards.[49]

For many people the rapidity of the process of internment meant their arrest came as a bolt from the blue. In Broome around 100 Japanese residents were arrested on the morning of 8 December in one swoop. Some of them had been living in Broome since the late 1890s. One woman, whose family had lived in Australia since 1896, remembers the day her aunt was arrested.

I was at my auntie’s house… Auntie and I were washing and cleaning as we always did at that time of the day. It was about ten in the morning. We didn’t know the war had broken out. One policeman came and took her. He said, “I’m sorry but I have to arrest you”.[50]

One heartbreaking story comes from Lora Yamaguchi, an Aboriginal woman married to a Japanese baker in Burketown. As an Aboriginal woman, Yamaguchi was not regarded as a British subject and therefore was not entitled to any of the benefits that wives of the “white European race” enjoyed.[51] She was not allowed to visit her husband and was denied economic support. In 1993 Lora recalled, “I bin miss him. Cryin’, cryin’ all night. Dogs bin miss him too because he had to feed them and play with them. Them dogs was howlin’ and I was howlin’ too, meaning I started the dogs. Everybody said ‘You start your dogs howlin’ like that, it’s no good. Everybody don’t like it’.”[52]

In 1940 the government began accepting ships of people to be interned from Britain. One of the most notorious of these was the Dunera. Crammed onto this ship were 2,800 people, the majority of whom were Jewish refugees from Germany whose initial granting of asylum had been rescinded. They were accompanied by 200 Italian and 251 German prisoners of war. The “Dunera Boys”, as they came to be known, were treated with contempt. One of them described the feeling of helplessness as he was forced onto the ship in Liverpool. “There was no justice. There was no law. There was just incarceration. You are a spy so off you go.” Conditions on the ship were appalling. One of the Dunera Boys, Peter Eden, said “we slept on floors and benches, and if you wanted to go to the toilet at night you were walking on bodies.” The prisoners were kept below decks for all but 30 minutes each day. Willie Field, who had fled a Dachau concentration camp before gaining asylum in Britain, said he found an open hatch below decks through which he and fellow internees each breathed fresh air in 10-minute shifts.[53] Bern Brendt later recalled his time on the ship with extreme bitterness. “But the British guards on the Dunera, I could have happily murdered every one of them”, he said. “They really were scum. They were the scrapings of the barrel.”[54] When they arrived in Australia all of those imprisoned on the Dunera (Jews, anti-fascists, Nazis and Italian fascists) were boarded onto armed trains and then interned.

Life in the camps

As the Pacific War moved closer to Australia in 1942, the government expanded its internment policies. Custom-made camps were built. These included four compounds at Tatura in Victoria, three at Hay and one at Cowra in NSW, three at Loveday in South Australia and one at Harvey in Western Australia. Conditions varied but all camps were, initially at least, bleak places. The following description of Loveday camp by inmate Tatzuzoo Iamizumi is emblematic:

The camp at the time of our arrival consisted merely of a double row of barbed-wire fences all around. The Loveday site of that time looked like a desert land with nothing but sand all around as far as the eye could see.[55]

Shigeru Nakabayashi adds a similar description of the same camp:

The area had almost no trees. There was only saltbush. Almost every day there was a sand storm…the red soil was a terrible thing. It got in everywhere.[56]

Many of those who were interned at Hay have abiding, almost physical, memories of dust. Dust in eyes. Dust in coats. Dust under their beds. Tempests of dust sweeping across the arid, hot, flat plains of NSW. Ernest Frolich, an Austrian Jew who had arrived on the Dunera, noted on 27 December 1940: “Continuous dust storm. Hot wind which made one feel that it would burn one’s hair. Dust lied [sic] in our hut inch deep.” Thousands of internees from similar backgrounds to Frolich had never experienced the seasonal bitterness of the Australian outback. They had never seen such breadth of landscape nor such sparse vistas. It was all alien and alienating.

While many histories and memoirs emphasise the creative endeavours of internees (schools, gardens, self-organisation and so on) the scarring effect of internment is undeniable. The pain and confusion associated with being declared “alien” and “enemy” and then unilaterally interned, was immense. Frolich describes the pain of incarceration:

I cannot enjoie [sic] the sun the intense blue sky the song of exotic birds, the landscape or the sunset with its most magnificent colours. I do not hear the birds or the grasshoppers with my troubled mind nor the sky or sun everything appears to me like the landscape behind the veil of barbed wire.[57]

Erich Blitz, compound leader of Tatura 4D (which housed anti-Nazi internees) wrote:

A considerable proportion, in fact, of the internees in this compound live under the strain of mental depression. That depression is obviously due to the discrepancy between their being refugees (who had been promised and given asylum) and their being interned…. There are also those who spent years in Nazi Concentration Camps, suffering for the same ideas with Great Britain, and nevertheless have been interned.[58]

Many internees were clinically depressed, and several committed suicide.[59] Descriptions of these suicides and attempted suicides are often shocking. In Loveday in February 1942 an internee attempted to bite off his tongue, while in August a New Caledonian internee swallowed glass and died.

Fascism and anti-fascism in the camps

The difficulties of camp life were exacerbated by political tensions. While the Allies were officially at war with the Nazis, many left wing Europeans, anarchists and communists were also targeted. This was no accident. Many ruling class figures remembered the industrial and social agitation that accompanied the First World War and were concerned to prevent another such upsurge. Further, many in the Australian ruling class were fascist sympathisers. Menzies had visited Nazi Germany in 1938 and had come back full of praise. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, while speaking at an old Melburnians’ luncheon, Attorney General (soon to be Prime Minister) Menzies had said: “During his recent visit to Germany he had been impressed with German industrial efficiency and with the attitude of responsibility of the big industrial enterprises to the welfare of their employees and their children.”[60]

While sections of the Australian state were more hostile to the left there was also some concern about the possibility of a fifth column appearing in the form of a nascent Nazi movement. This led to the internment of many Nazi sympathisers and Italian fascists.

Fascists and anti-fascists were therefore often put in the same camps. These political divisions expressed themselves in the social life of the camps. On 14 October 1939, Sergeant A. Mackay, the officer in charge of a women-only internment camp on the Hawkesbury River, reported:

The internees are absolutely divided into two cliques… The first group are known amongst themselves as the Nazis and the second group the anti-Nazis. One of the latter group, Alice Meyer, openly denounces Hitler and the Nazi regime, and prefers to remain away from the other internees.[61]

These divisions were reported across all the camps. Often both the pro- and anti-Nazi internees would request separate compounds. It was also official Third Reich policy that anyone interned who would pledge loyalty to the Reich should be imprisoned separately. In most instances this separation was granted, but separate did not always mean equal. Army intelligence reports indicate that camp authorities’ sympathies often lay with the interned Nazis rather than the anti-fascists. According to historian Klaus Neumann, “[t]hey found the anti-Nazi internees quarrelsome and difficult to handle, and at times admired the discipline of the nationalist German internees in Tatura”.[62]

In some instances the Nazi internees were allowed better conditions than other inmates. German POWs and internees who declared themselves Reichstreue (true to the Reich) were given pocket money from the German state (via the Swiss consulate) and this cash was used as a form of political and social control in the camps. All camps had their own organisation and command structures, and in Tatura the elected camp leader was given a lot of power and control. In Tatura 3, for instance, all compound leaders were either in the Nazi party or were sympathisers. A letter written in 1943 on behalf of the internees’ camp administration emphasised this: “The community of the inmates of this camp [Compounds A-C] are wholly loyal to the Third Reich and stand faithfully behind its Government. Accordingly, this camp is run along National Socialist lines.”[63] There were 821 internees in Compounds A-C. Not all of these inmates were actually Nazi sympathisers, and those who weren’t were often intimidated, bullied, beaten and harassed – all under the watchful eye of the Australian authorities.

At times the tensions between right wing and leftist internees reached boiling point. An Italian anarchist, Francesco Fantin, was murdered by fascists in the Loveday camp. Giovanni Casotti smashed Fantin on the back of the head, splitting his skull. As he lay on the ground, Casotti kicked him. Four months earlier, Fantin had written:

On the evening of the 15th of this month, at 10 o’clock, while I was in bed here in my tent, with my friend Coletti, two fascist ruffians, together with their assistant…called me outside with the firm intention of ruining me. They wanted me to give the fascist salute and shout “Long live Il Duce”. Having obtained from me neither the one thing nor the other, they began swearing at me… They went on with kicks, seizing me by the neck to choke me, finally telling me that if I say anything more, they will kill me.[64]


Despite the intensity of political division between internees the government had an interest in fostering a racialised hostility to all Germans, Italians and particularly the Japanese (as the power closest to Australia). Allowing for political differentiation within each ethnic or national grouping did not fit with the general project of stoking hostility to all Axis forces and justifying the general war effort. Propaganda against each grouping was generalised from the top to the bottom of the Australian military and state machine and also across the whole political spectrum. Racist attitudes did not well up from below but were promoted through the Department of Information (DOI), a government body that oversaw all newspaper and radio reports on the war. All journalism was heavily censored and pro-war reporting in the mainstream press was augmented by propaganda posters, films, radio plays, concerts and public speeches.

From the moment war was declared, racialised nationalism was drawn on as justification by all sides of politics. Menzies was a fervent promoter of White Australia and used its protection as a justification for war. In this rhetorical line he was not to be outdone by Labor PM John Curtin who said in 1942:

From the day that Captain Arthur Phillip landed here, until this hour, this land has been governed by men and women of our race. We do not intend that that tradition shall be destroyed merely because an aggressor marches against us… Australians, you are the sons and daughters of Britishers.[65]

Just as in World War I, such calls to British arms necessitated a racialised enemy. The hostility to Germans during the First World War had left a legacy. The “dirty Hun” figure was again mobilised but an additional racist stereotype that drew all Germans as brutal, humourless, heartless authoritarians was developed. Italians were racially vilified as shifty, untrustworthy and also tending towards authoritarianism. The Japanese were presented as fanatical figures utterly alien to Australian culture. These stereotypes were expressed very clearly by a Loveday camp official’s description of three different groups of internees:

The Germans: Arrogant, appreciated strict discipline and firm control.

The Italians: Naturally temperamental, needed firm handling, but once shown who was in control had to be led like a schoolboy.

The Japanese: Subservient, were model prisoners. Their fanatical desire to maintain “face” made them easy to handle in their eagerness to obey all orders and instructions to the letter.[66]

Army command wrote this highly racialised comment in a report in 1942: “Order-loving Germans resent the shiftless nature of the Italians, who are really a mongrel [crossed out] mixed breed in many cases.”[67]

Anti-Japanese racism

As the Pacific War intensified, racist hostility was overwhelmingly directed toward the Japanese, both ideologically and in policy. US General MacArthur declared that the Japanese soldier was “only one degree removed from a savage”, while Australian Field Marshal Blamey called Japanese soldiers “a subhuman beast”, and the Japanese nation “a cross between the human being and the ape”.[68] In 1942 the government ramped up their campaign against the Japanese with two solid weeks of wall to wall radio and newspaper propaganda designed to inflame racist hostility. A typical example is this ABC radio broadcast:

The Japs have been educated to hate you from infancy. They have been preparing for a war like this since they were old enough to understand… Even when they smiled on us and treated us ever so politely they hated us in their souls… Young Japan learnt to hate while you were playing with marbles and enjoying the freedom and benefits of your democracy… So the elementary schoolboy of 10 or 12 went out to bayonet practice with a heart filled with hate. Before lunging at the hanging bag, he would stick a few straws on top for hair and dab on a pair of blue eyes. As the steel went into the bag of straw, he hoped that someday it would be a real foreigner, not just an effigy. [69]

Unfortunately this extreme racism was not challenged by any significant forces on the left. After the Soviet Union joined the Allied war effort, the Communist Party (the most significant party of the left with a working class base) joined the anti-Japanese chorus. Shamefully their paper celebrated one of the worst crimes against humanity, the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima with a cartoon titled “Jappy ending”.

Over the course of the war, 97 percent of “aliens” of Japanese descent were imprisoned, compared with 31 percent of Italians and 32 percent of Germans.[70] Partly this was a result of a smaller Japanese population but there was also a more clearly hostile attitude.[71] A policy of immediate and urgent internment for all Japanese was instituted because, according to the War Cabinet, “Japanese nationals are not absorbed in this country as are many Germans and Italians.” They also drew on the “Japanese as fanatic” myth when they declared that “their well-known fanaticism and devotion to their country would probably lead to attempts at sabotage on the part of any Japanese here in a position to do this”.[72]

The racialised aspect of the targeting of the Japanese meant that Taiwanese (Formosans), Koreans and some Chinese were also arrested both on the Australian mainland and on the Islands (Surabaya). Alice Pao was in grade five: “I was at school. The teacher called me out and told me to go home with the soldier. I didn’t know what was going on. When I got home, Mum told me that Dad had already been arrested and we had to go too. I said, ‘Why? We are Chinese’.”[73]

So while there was a general increase in racism towards all members of the Axis powers it was particularly vicious toward Japanese. This racism found reflection in the treatment of the Japanese prisoners of war. They endured vicious and culturally insensitive treatment.

For many Japanese POWs, being captured was worse than being killed. For instance, en masse they refused to have their photos taken by the Red Cross because of the shame involved in their families knowing of their imprisonment. In Cowra, where 1,104 Japanese POWs were held, hundreds knelt for a day and a half, hands over faces, in protest at the prospect. More dramatic was the Cowra breakout. On 5 August 1944 at 2am, a Japanese bugle sounded and more than 1,000 prisoners, shouting “Banzai” (the cry of a suicide mission), charged the fences of the compound armed with baseball bats, knives and garrotting cords. Many were gunned down; others escaped into the surrounding bush. When it became clear that they had no future, many either killed themselves or killed each other. This desperate and tragic event resulted in 231 deaths. It was the largest prison escape of World War II anywhere in the world. Rather than being described as a break for freedom however, much of the subsequent narrative ascribed to the Japanese POWs a crazed fanaticism and discussed the breakout in language redolent of the racist stereotypes.


The Australian state has been at war against one enemy or another since the British invasion in 1788. In each of these wars, whether against Australia’s First Nations people for colonial dominance, or against other nations as part of global imperial battles, there have been racialised victims. Indigenous, Germans, Italians and Japanese have all suffered internment in concentration camps and strident ideological campaigns to justify their incarceration. Overwhelmingly, the experiences of those whose freedom was denied during these wars have been ignored. The victor writes the histories, and the Australian ruling class would prefer to elide any reference to their own denial of liberty and humanity to those it has deemed “enemies of the Australian state”. It might prompt questions about their current practices. In the twenty-first century, the Australian state is participating in another war: this time an endless, nebulous “war on terror”. This war has a new racialised enemy, Muslims. In this context, it is vital to comprehend the dynamics and depths of the violence and racism of Australia historically so as to be well armed in our battles against such racist violence today.

Armstrong, Mick 2015, “How World War I led to class war,” Marxist Left Review, 9, Summer.

Australian Human Rights Commission, 1997, Bringing them home: The “Stolen Children”, aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-social-justice/publications/ bringing-them-home-stolen.

Beaumont, Joan, Ilma Martinuzzi O’Brien and Mathew Trinca (eds) 2008, Under Suspicion: Citizenship and Internment during the Second World War, National Museum of Australia Press.

Boochani, Behrouz 2016, “To the Australian people, from Manus prison”, Overland, 24 October.

Cain, Frank 1993,The Wobblies at War: The history of the IWW and the Great War in Australia, Spectrum Publications.

Curtis, Jonathan, “To the last man: Australia’s entry into war in 1914”, Parliament of Australia website, 31 July 2014.

Darian-Smith, Kate 2008 “War: Censorship and Propaganda”, at Melbourne City: Past and Present website, biogs/EM01578b.htm.

Fischer, Gerhard 1989, Enemy aliens: internment and the homefront experience in Australia, 1914-1920, University of Queensland Press.

Griffiths, Phil 1990, “Australian Perceptions of Japan: The History of a Racist Phobia”, Socialist Review, 3, p51.

Helmi, Nadine and Gerhard Fischer 2011, The Enemy at Home: German Internees in World War I Australia, UNSW Press.

Hooper, Chloe 2008, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, Penguin Books.

Monteath, Peter, Mandy Paul and Rebecca Martin 2014, Interned: Torrens Island 1914-1915, Wakefield Press.

Nagata, Yuriko 1996, Unwanted Aliens: Japanese Internment in Australia, University of Queensland Press.

Neumann, Klaus 2006, In the interests of National Security: Civilian Internment in Australia during World War II, National Archives of Australia.

Nursey-Bray, Paul 1989, “Anti-Fascism and Internment: The Case of Francesco Fantin”, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, 17, pp88-111 (accessed at

Panayi, Panikos (ed.) 1993, Minorities in Wartime, Berg.

Stasiuk, Glen 2015, Wadjemup: Rottnest Island as black prison and white playground, PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

Watson, Joanne 2010, Palm Island: Through a Long Lens, Aboriginal Studies Press.

Watson, Edward Jack and Donald L. Watson, 1998, Rottnest. Its Tragedy and its Glory, Bicton.

[1] Boochani 2016.

[3] Heath Aston, “Lawyers want PMs from John Howard to Malcolm Turnbull in dock over asylum detention”, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 November 2016,

[4] Not all of these targets remain racially vilified. While Indigenous people continue to suffer extreme racism, Germans definitely do not. Such changes illustrate the malleability of racism as an ideology.

[5] Australian Human Rights Commission 1997.

[6] ibid.

[7] Quoted in Stasiuk 2015, p95.

[8] Hooper 2008, p5.

[9] Stasiuk 2015, p99.

[10] ibid., p97.

[11] Stasiuk 2015, p107.

[12] Kirsty Melville, “Rottnest Island: Black prison”, Earshot, Radio National, 19 October 2016.

[13] Watson and Watson 1998, p19.

[14] ibid., p19.

[15] ibid., p22.

[16] Watson 2010, p19.

[17] ibid., p36.

[18] ibid., p40.

[19] ibid., p42.

[20] This practice continued until the 1970s.

[21] Watson 2010, p45.

[22] ibid., p111.

[23] ibid., p114.

[24] Hooper 2008.

[25] Stasiuk 2015, p146.

[26] Curtis 2014.

[27] Helmi and Fischer 2011, p21.

[28] To put this in perspective, the total population was less than 5 million.

[29] Helmi and Fischer 2011, p22.

[30] Quoted in Monteath et al. 2014, p37.

[31] Armstrong 2015.

[32] Cain 1993, p259.

[33] Monteath et al. 2014, p30.

[34] ibid., p23.

[35] Darian-Smith 2008.

[36] Quoted in Gerhard Fischer, “Fighting the war at home: The campaign against enemy aliens in Australia during World War One”, in Panikos 1993, p285.

[37] The Adelaide Register, 29 May 1916, p4.

[38] Fischer, “Fighting the war at home”, in Panikos 1993, p285.

[39] Mike Ladd, “Torrens Island: concentration Part 2”, Earshot, Radio National, 9 June 2016.

[40] Monteath et al. 2014, p28.

[41] ibid., p36.

[42] ibid., p47.

[43] National Archives website.

[44] Helmi and Fischer 2011, p54.

[45] ibid., p38.

[46] There is some debate over these figures from the National Archives. According to Beaumont the figure is more like 10,731, 4,022 Japanese, 3836 Italians and 2,661 Germans.

[47] Martinuzzi O’Brien, Ilma, “Ubi bene, ibi patria: the Second World War and citizenship in a country town” in Beaumont et al. 2008, p22.

[48] ibid., p29.

[49] ibid., p24.

[50] Nagata 1996, p71.

[51] ibid., p54.

[52] ibid.

[53] Mario Cacciottolo, “The Dunera Boys – 70 years on after notorious voyage”, BBC News, 10 July 2010.

[54] Lea Redfern, “The Dunera: Materials to Hand”, Earshot, Radio National, 29 August 2010.

[55] Nagata 1996, p158.

[56] ibid., p158.

[57] Neumann, 2006, p55.

[58] ibid., p56.

[59] The authorities stopped recording suicides in many camps after a time.

[60] Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November 1938.

[61] Neumann 2006, p50.

[62] ibid., p50.

[63] Quoted in Samuel Koehne, “Refusing to leave: perceptions of German national identity during internment in Australia, 1941-45” in Beaumont et al. 2008, p69.

[64] Nursey-Bray 1989.

[65] “Total mobilisation ordered: we made Australia”, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 February 1942.

[66] Nagata 1996, p143.

[67] Quoted in Koehne, “Refusing to leave” in Beaumont et. al 2008, p69.

[68] Tom O’Lincoln, “Whose liberty? Australian imperialism and the Pacific war”,

[69] Quoted in Griffiths 1990, p51.

[70] In all, 1,141 Japanese were arrested in Australia and its territories and most were interned in permanent camps; 3,160 overseas Japanese were interned, making a total of 4,330.

[71] Nagata 1996, p91.

[72] ibid., p50.

[73] ibid., p79.

Radical Chinese labour in Australian history

Liam Ward has assembled a remarkable history of struggle by Chinese workers in Australia which has mostly been ignored or misrepresented.

Coercion, consent and Australian policing

Roz Ward argues that "community policing" is just another form of coercion which does nothing to halt the brutalit of state police forces.

Red and black: How Australian communists fought for Indigenous liberation

Jordan Humphreys uncovers the forgotten history of the early Communist Party's role in the fight for Indigenous rights.