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The Birth of White Australia (1928)


After introductory scenes at the opening of Parliament House in Canberra in 1927, the history of Australia is shown as a series of flashbacks – from Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay to the first settlement at Sydney Cove, deadly skirmishes between settlers and Aborigines and the discovery of gold at Lambing Flat in NSW. Most of the film depicts the rising tension and subsequent battles between white prospectors and Chinese immigrants at Lambing Flat in 1861. A number of miners give rousing speeches about the need for Australia to remain white and British. Former Prime Minister WM Hughes seconds the sentiment with an appearance filmed outside the new Parliament House, in which he says, ‘I say nothing against any nation, but this bit of the world belongs to us’.

Curator’s notes

Judging from the number of people who took part in its making and the presence of such luminaries as Billy Hughes, The Birth of White Australia appears to have been seen as a respectable undertaking in 1928, at least by some. The fact that it received no theatrical release beyond the town of Young – where it was made, using £3,000 of local money – might tell us that its racial politics did not appeal to distributors in the major cities, but that would not be a safe assumption. The film is so incoherent in terms of narrative, and so languidly paced, that it may have been rejected solely for lack of quality.

The reason it was made is specific to where it was made, because the film was intended as an apologia for what is now called the Lambing Flat ‘riot’ or ‘massacre’ – a series of race riots on the goldfields that resulted in an unknown number of deaths of Chinese and white miners in 1861. The film does not show the deaths of anyone, Chinese or white. There are a series of fights, all of which follow an outrage of some sort (either theft or sexual aggression towards a white woman) by Chinese miners, who are invariably shown as slinking, shifty, dirty and cunning, but these never result in actual harm to the Chinese. Indeed, the biggest fight sequence concerns an attack by miners on the police troopers who have locked up their mates after an attack. Historians have argued about whether any Chinese were killed, although the riots were certainly violent, with as many as 3,000 men attacking the Chinese miners in several incidents, hacking off their cherished ponytails, burning their tents and possessions, and running them off the goldfields.

The film places the riots in a wider context, depicting the history of white settlement as a noble series of trials and conflicts. There is a vivid and violent confrontation in which blacks attack early settlers, killing and in turn being killed. This is then softened by the story of a white settler, driven mad with hunger and thirst, who is revived by the tribesmen in an area beyond government control. This white man settles on the land and raises the first sheep, on what will become Lambing Flat. Thus the film makes a distinction between the traditional owners and the newly arrived Chinese, in terms of the right to exist on the land.

Phil K Walsh, the director, came to Australia from the USA in 1925 to make a film based on the popular series of poems by John O’Brien, Around the Boree Log. The title of The Birth of White Australia suggests he may have been consciously trying to emulate the artistic success of DW Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation, made in the US in 1915 as a tribute to the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, Walsh had neither the talent nor the resources to match Griffith’s notorious effort. The Birth of White Australia is extremely disjointed and confusing as narrative, with minimal characterisation, static direction and the crudest of silent acting. The action stops frequently for a series of speeches about the need to keep Australia white and British, then resumes rioting. Nevertheless, the recreation of the miners’ camps is on an impressive scale, and the film has a large cast, which is said to have been drawn from local volunteers. It is well shot by Lacey Percival, who was one of the silent era’s best cinematographers. The finished film had one private screening in Sydney in July 1928, then a public opening at the Strand Theatre in Young in September, where it played a short season that did not recover costs. Walsh then disappeared from the record as a filmmaker.

Secondary curator’s notes

by Liz McNiven

Imagine if this film could talk. What would the dialogue be like? If the intertitles are any indication, I am sure most Australians today would prefer to render the film silent again. As it is, this film will make most people’s skin crawl.

The Birth of White Australia implores a worldview constructed within a framework of white racial superiority and legislative discrimination. It highlights a groundswell of negative attitudes to Chinese gold prospectors during the early twentieth century, and exposes the historic climate that underpinned the conception, and later the birth, of the white Australia policy.

An amateur looking production, this film contains a mishmash of scant storylines laced with acts of violence and white cultural dominance. As each segment unfolds, defying continuity and jumping about in all directions, the film carves a scattered and unfocused pathway to its destination.

From an Indigenous perspective, the heritage significance of this film resides in its fine archival footage of Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia in the late 1920s. This includes shots of an Aboriginal man at the opening of Parliament House in Canberra in 1927, which the intertitle names as 'King Billy’, along with a group of Aboriginal people waving to the camera. The production failed to mention another Aboriginal man filmed standing on the lawns of Parliament House at the time, reading a proclamation to the King of England demanding recognition of Aboriginal people’s rights to their lands.

Following the scene of 'King Billy’ and the group of Aboriginal people at the opening of Parliament House, the intertitle states, 'The ethnic age has passed away, the primal race is with the old and, visitants of yesterday the white “invaders” rule instead.’ This blatantly arrogant statement echoes the mindset of white Australians at the time, and shows no remorse in suggesting that the birth of white Australia required the death of black Australia.

After the pomp and ceremony of the soldiers and sailors parading before upstanding dignitaries to mark the opening of Parliament House, the film leaps back in time over 100 years to a place called Lambing Flat (now Young) in New South Wales. The film plays out a few short sequences to enact the brutal conflict between the Aboriginal sovereign owners of the land and the white settlers.

The film then follows a white man as he sets out into the bush to stake his claim to land but ends up hopelessly lost, hungry and thirsty. Aboriginal men attending a dance ceremony in the bush find and rescue this white man. The black and white men are shown shaking hands and cheering together. The next scene shows a group of Aboriginal men building the white man a hut in the bush, followed by the men sitting outside the hut singing. Aboriginal people do not appear in the film from this point onwards. The white man is then shown ploughing the earth and harvesting a field of wheat. The intertitle reads, ‘Australia stands for a white Australia’.

Despite its offensive representation of Aboriginality, this film holds social, cultural and historic value. The imagery of Aboriginal people’s ancestors holds a sacred significance. This would be the case for descendants of the Aboriginal actors and extras in the film.

For more on 'King Billy’, see Note from Sophia Sambono, Curator Indigenous Collections, NFSA in the Curator’s notes for King Billy’s First Car (1939).