Despite the long and dangerous journey, nineteenth century immigration from Lebanon to Australia mirrored that from Lebanon to the Americas but only until 1901 when the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia introduced legislation that effectively ended the free entry of Lebanese.
Throughout the 1880s, an increasing number of people from Lebanon arrived in the six Australian colonies (New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia). Some may have arrived earlier. In official records, Zarify Lily Betro who travelled with relatives put 1877 as her date of entry, while Mansourey Betro recorded her year of arrival as 1881 (1). Anecdotally, Massoud El-Nashbi of Besharri who arrived in about 1880 is considered the first to come to Australia (2). He returned to Lebanon, after only six months, having made good money selling souvenirs from the Holy Land. His success and positive reflections on Australia and its people are credited with encouraging others from Besharri and surrounding villages to follow in his footsteps.
Descendants of Lebanese immigrants commonly recount that arrival in Australia was accidental; the intended destination was actually America. According to Minnie, her father, mother, two brothers and the other Lebanese families who shared the six-month ocean journey to Australia in 1892 actually thought they were going to America (3). Yet in 1885, a group of ten immigrants from ‘Beyrout in Syria’ forced to land at Launceston, Tasmania were in fact heading to Melbourne, Victoria because one had a brother already there (4). What is beyond dispute is that the number of Syrian arrivals (men, women and children) steadily increased. In a nominative study, the earliest record of Lebanese in Queensland, one of the Australian colonies, is two people in 1884. By the end of the 1880s, there were at least thirty-one Lebanese, including six women; however, 193, more than six times as many, arrived between 1890 and 1899 (5).
Table 1: Distribution of Lebanese born in Australia 1901-1947
Source: Commonwealth Censuses 1911-1947 in Jim McKay and Trevor Batrouney, ‘Lebanese Immigration until the 1970’s’, in James Jupp, ed., The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins (North Ryde: Angus & Robertson, 1988), p. 668.
In February 1883, the passengers on the steamer Delcomyn included twelve ‘Greeks and Syrians from Port Said, for Melbourne’. (6) By 1884 there were growing concerns about these Syrian arrivals. A group of recently arrived Syrian men and women in Perth, Western Australia were described as destitute with some arrested for vagrancy. (7) Similar fears were voiced regarding a group of ten Syrian men and women who after being refused permission to land in Western Australia, apparently due to regulations prohibiting the introduction of coloured labour, were put ashore at Launceston, Tasmania.(8). As the number of Lebanese arriving in the colonies increased so too did their negative reception. References to Syrians in newspapers leave no doubt they were viewed unfavourably. By 1888 there were calls for ‘an act of parliament’ that would ‘restrain the excessive influx of such undesirable colonists’.(9) These concerns were grounded in the fear an ‘influx of an inferior class of immigrants’ would lead to ‘the moral and physical deterioration’ of Australia’s European population. (10)
Throughout the 1890s, colonial newspapers repeatedly questioned the desirability of Syrians and highlighted the menace of Syrian hawkers. (11) Syrians were identified as non-European and coloured, and were ascribed a range of negative attributes. As well as being ‘naturally indolent and dirty’, they were ‘unamenable’ to the ‘moral restraints and sentiments’ practised by Europeans and lacked ‘respect for the obligation of order and decency’. (12) Furthermore, as part of a perceived influx of coloured labour, Syrians were considered a threat to white workers:
These aliens undersell both their goods and their labor. Besides breeding disease and hybrid children––neither black nor white nor brindle––they live on a lower scale, and can consequently outbid us in every departure of trade….In short, they are of an inferior race––inferior in morals, inferior in enlightenment, and inferior in standards of living. What have we to gain from them? Considerably less than nothing, for we have all to lose.(13)
By the 1890s, the Australian colonies had already regulated to restrict the entry of Chinese, and allegedly, Syrians were not only ‘infinitely worse’ and ‘much more objectionable than the Chinese’, they were also ‘the most objectionable class to have in any community’.(14)
Table 2: Arrival of Lebanese in Queensland
Source: Government records 1870 to 1949 in Anne Monsour, Not Quite White: Lebanese and the White Australia Policy 1880 to 1947 (Brisbane: Post Pressed, 2010), p. 18.
Unfortunately for the early Lebanese immigrants, their arrival in increasing numbers in the 1890s coincided with a period of economic decline and high unemployment exacerbated by a severe drought. Throughout the decade, the movement towards federation strengthened, bolstered by a burgeoning Australian nationalism that called for an exclusively white and predominately British, Australia. Non-Europeans were increasingly viewed as a threat and anti-Chinese legislation was extended to all Asian and coloured persons. The Immigration Restriction Act (1901), one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new Federal Parliament, altered the course of Lebanese immigration to Australia. The dramatic increase in arrivals in the 1890s was effectively stalled and subsequently, until the 1950s, the number of Lebanese immigrants in Australia was always small (see Tables 1 and 2).
After 1901, the decision to come to Australia was no longer as simple as being able to afford the fare; for Lebanese, entry was now dependent on either passing the dictation test or having an exemption permit. This explains why, despite increasing numbers of people leaving Lebanon in the first decades of the twentieth century, the numbers arriving in Australia declined. Regardless of the push factors in their homeland, it was primarily the implementation of the Immigration Restriction Act that determined the character of Lebanese immigration and the subsequent settlement pattern.
As well as restricting the entry of non-Europeans, the White Australia Policy sought to make life so uncomfortable for those already living in Australia they would leave. Legislation made it clear non-Europeans were not welcome and discriminatory measures had a tangible impact on the lives of the Lebanese immigrants and their families. As a result, the overwhelming characteristic of their settlement story was the ongoing need to justify their suitability as permanent settlers and their right to equal status within Australian society.
(1) NAA (National Archives of Australia): D4878, Betro Z L; NAA: A1, 1924/20239, Betro, M – Naturalization.
(2) Australian Kfarsghab Lebanese Association, A Concise History of Kfarsghab Migration, p. 10. A similar account of this story is told by Habib Coorey in an interview with John Iremonger in 1976. See Janis Wilton, Immigrants in the Bush: Hawking to Haberdashery (Armidale: Multicultural Education Coordinating Committee, New South Wales & Armidale College of Advanced Education, 1897), pp. 8 & 46.
(4) Advocate (Melbourne, Vic), 14 February 1885, p. 20.
(5) Anne Monsour, Not Quite White: Lebanese and the White Australia Policy 1880 to 1947 (Brisbane: Post Pressed, 2010), p. 17.
(6) Argus (Melbourne, Victoria) 27 February 1883, p. 4.
(7) Daily News, 23 August, 1884, p. 3; Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA), 27 August 1884, p. 3.
(8) Launceston Examiner (Tas.), 10 February 1885, p. 2; Advocate, 14 February 1885, p. 20.
(9) Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld), 14 July 1888, p. 2.
(10) Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 17 January 1893, p. 4.
(11) For example: SMH, 18 January 1893, p. 8; Western Star and Roma Advertiser, 25 January 1893, p. 2; SMH, 3 January 1896, p. 3;Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 3 January 1896, p. 2; Argus, 15 September 1898, p. 6.
(12) SMH, 18 January 1893 p. 8; SMH 17 January 1893 p. 4;
(13) Quiz and The Lantern (Adelaide, SA), 12 October 1899, p. 8.
(14) Brisbane Courier, 20 January 1893, p.7.
This article is written by Anne Monsour. She has a PhD in history from the University of Queensland. Her thesis, ‘Negotiating a Place in a White Australia’, is a study of the settlement of Lebanese in Australia from the 1880s to 1947. For almost two decades, Anne has been researching, writing and speaking (in academic and community forums in Australia and overseas) about the history of Lebanese settlement in Australia. She is the author of Not Quite White: Lebanese and the White Australia Policy 1880 to 1947 (Post Pressed, 2010), and has edited two books about Lebanese in Queensland: Raw Kibbeh: Generations of Lebanese Enterprise (2009) and Here to Stay: Lebanese in Toowoomba and South West Queensland (2012). Anne now works as a Professional Historian. Born in Biggenden, Queensland where her father was a general storekeeper, Anne is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants from Rass Baalbec.