Northern Australia: A Local World-Problem


IT is probable that in no country in the world has there been so great an expenditure of money with so little result as in the vast Northern Territory of Australia. Ever since the first ill-fated attempt in 1849 to found a settlement at Port Essington, where the British Government experienced one of the few really serious setbacks in the history of tropical colonization, there has been a constant endeavor — first on the part of the South Australian Government and then by the Australian Federal Government, into whose hands the Territory passed in 1911, as well as by the Governments of Western Australia and Queensland — to attract settlers to the north of the continent and to develop the enormous areas that lie within the Tropic of Capricorn. Fully one third of Australia is in the tropics, and the problem of the effective development of these territories has hitherto proved insoluble. So far as the Northern Territory is concerned, the reasons are obvious to anyone who understands tropical conditions and the primary economic factors that govern settlement in tropical countries; yet year after year the vast, unpeopled spaces within easy reach of the teeming millions who inhabit the basin of the Pacific remain a standing menace to the safety of Australia itself and a perpetual invitation to any strong predatory Power that may dominate the Far East.

To state the problem involved in this total failure to utilize for the benefit of Australia in particular and humanity in general these uninhabited, but not uninhabitable, wastes, and to suggest the remedy, is comparatively easy; but such primary economic and political factors are involved, factors which are of world-wide interest and significance and not confined to Australia, that it seems probable that only a revolution in Australian national sentiment, brought about by the strong and imperious hand of necessity, will effect any really drastic change in the prevailing conditions.

The northern portion of Australia is administered by three distinct Governments, each tackling its problem on different lines and governing from a capital that — with the exception of Brisbane — is remote from the immediate scene of action. The tropical portions of Western Australia, the land that William Dampier in 1688 so erroneously described as a barren waste, are administered from Perth in the southwest of the continent. The Northern Territory itself is governed from Melbourne, several days’ journey by steamship and nearly two thousand miles distant as the crow flies from Port Darwin, the capital of the Territory. The northern portion of Queensland is administered from Brisbane, which lies closer to the immediate sphere of activities; and here the only really effective tropical development has taken place, although this has been achieved at an economic cost out of all proportion to the results of the experiment. The problem that confronts all Australians, and indirectly the British Empire itself, is concerned mainly with the Northern Territory, which in reality forms the front door of Australia.

In a geographical sense the country to which Port Darwin is the main entrance is far less isolated from the rest of mankind than are the developed southern portions of the continent, where settlement first took place. It is nearer Europe and Asia than are South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland, and it possesses all those natural advantages in the way of harbors, navigable rivers, rich and wellwatered lands, and markets within easy access of its coasts, that under ordinary circumstances should make a country self-supporting and enable it to advance on the paths of economic success. Strategically Port Darwin is the key of the continent, and for this reason alone the development of its great hinterland should be a primary consideration of the Australian Government. Apart from any consideration of the maritime routes that should naturally converge on this important point, it will undoubtedly attain great importance as a base for the development of aerial navigation.

When Australia was first connected with Asia and Europe by submarine cable, it was Port Darwin which was chosen as the landing-place; and here, nearly fifty years later, arrived the two intrepid brothers, Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith, whose heroic journey by airplane from Europe is one of the greatest epics of the air, to be followed in less than a year by Messrs. Parer and MacIntosh. Moreover, Port Darwin beckons to the territories around the Pacific; and if the Japanese rider should ever mount successfully the Chinese horse, it is to this point in the unpeopled north of Australia that he will direct his steed. Three days distant from an enormous empty country is the overpeopled island of Java, with nearly thirty-five million inhabitants; and within easy reach lie the two great Asiatic countries that retain their independence in a world in which the white race exercises control over nine tenths of its inhabitants. Any weakening of that control — a not impossible contingency of the near future—would place the Australian problem in the forefront of international questions.


The Northern Territory represents a flaw in the genius for colonization of the Anglo-Saxon race. It consists of an immense stretch of country, embracing three belts of practically uninhabited land impinging upon and merging into each other, lying almost wholly within the tropics and nowhere rising to those great elevations which in some cases — such, for example, as the Kenya Colony in British East Africa — render the tropics tolerable for white colonization. It is two and a half times the size of France and four and a half times as large as Great Britain, but in the whole of this expanse there is a white population smaller than that of many an English village. Seventy years of endeavor and at least fourteen years of strenuous effort have resulted in a European population of 2240, many of whom are dependent upon government aid for their sustenance in a land that should offer great possibilities to the pioneer. Even this population shows signs of disappearing altogether. The Administrator in his last report states that it is ‘practically stationary, with a slightly downward tendency.’ Truly the Commonwealth Government has labored and has brought forth a mouse.

The colored population — other than the aboriginals, who are either cannibals or of the smallest economic value — numbers 1018, and under the settled policy of the Australian Government there is no possibility of increase.

The value of overseas exports totaled in 1924 only £8000, with imports valued at £14,432; while the cost of the administrative staff was £73,753, of the postal service £26,339, interest on loans £101,576, and other expenses £102,445 — a total expenditure of £304,113. This expenditure left a deficiency of £243,702 to be made up by the Federal Government. The annual deficiency has been a feature of the Budget for many years and the total indebtedness of the Territory must now run into several millions. The ‘ inescapable inferences,’in the words of the Administrator, ‘seem to be that the Territory does not yet offer sufficient attractions to draw white people from the States of Australia or from abroad, and that the more thrifty and consequently more industrious portion of the population is either diminishing in number or becoming gradually more impoverished.’

The reasons for this total failure of all efforts to colonize Northern Australia are to be found in the political and economic policy of the Commonwealth Government, and are not inherent in the Territory itself. It would be impossible within the limits of this article to discuss in their various bearings all the factors that have led to this disastrous result; but it may be said that two primary causes have militated against the success of every attempt to solve what, under present conditions, is an insoluble problem — the national policy of a White Australia, from which all colored races are rigidly excluded, and, arising out of this policy, the inability to run any tropical industry in Australia on an economic basis.

In the Northern Territory the human factor is also of great importance and is governed by the political forces that are moulding the destiny of this distressful country. How important this factor really is may be gathered from the numerous reports that have been issued dealing with labor troubles at Port Darwin and in its vicinity— troubles which have stultified all attempts to establish industry upon a satisfactory basis. It is only necessary to quote these official — and therefore extremely reticent — reports to demonstrate how entirely the local administration has been at the mercy of extremist politicians within the small mock capital of Port Darwin. At the end of the year 1918 a so-called ‘revolution’ occurred in the northern metropolis, which might have done credit to a small Central American republic, but was not calculated to encourage settlement in Northern Australia. A few local patriots ordered the Administrator to leave the Territory, and although he refused, and only afterward left to consult with his ministers in Melbourne, they subsequently, during his absence, secured the withdrawal of the Director, the Judge, and the Government Secretary, and were overawed only on the arrival of an Australian warship. The instigators of this political upheaval belonged to the most powerful organization in the Commonwealth, known as the Australian Workers’ Union, the members of which belong mainly to the unskilled classes. It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that the late Administrator, Dr. Gilruth, should have reported that ‘it is regrettable that the Territory should have acquired a reputation for chronic industrial unrest, combined with high wages’; or that Mr. Justice Ewing, reporting to the Commonwealth Government on the disturbances, should have stated that ‘ the Federal authorities had conceived the idea that products could be grown in the Territory with wages from £3—10—0 to £6 per week, to compete with those that were being grown in Eastern countries with wages at from 6d. to l/6d. a day.'

This, in reality, is the crux of the whole question of tropical settlement in Australia; but hitherto the political and economic blindness, willful or otherwise, of the contented and discontented workers in the rest of the Commonwealth has prevented any common-sense settlement of the northern problem — so far away, it seems, yet so directly menacing to their wellbeing.

The new Administrator, who arrived at Port Darwin on February 13, 1920, found the position somewhat astonishing, not to say dismaying. ‘The Service was permeated with the doctrines of extremist unionism, vigorously inculcated by the local union leaders, extremists of the extreme, and enforced by every subtle, tyrannical device their none too scrupulous minds could conceive, until the more or less depressed and bewildered civil servants had arrived at a stage where they seemed to doubt to whom their first allegiance was really due — whether to their country as represented by the Government or to the truculent terrorists who, in the much abused name of unionism, and without much let or hindrance from higher authority, had arrogantly claimed a right of control over them.’

He then continues: ‘Socially the Darwin community was a house divided against itself. . . . Production stopped, industry ceased, shipping disappeared, no capital came into the Territory for investment, and unemployment immediately presented an ugly problem to be dealt with.’

This is substantially the position at present.


There is probably no part of the British Empire which has been visited so constantly by commissions of inquiry and investigation, or whose resources have so continuously been inquired into. Commission after commission has formulated plans for making tropical colonization on a white basis a success. Although there are vast tracts in the country that have not been explored, yet there are other great areas that have been thoroughly investigated. Nor is there a country about which the opinions of those most competent to judge are more sharply divided. The observer can only strike a mean between the conflicting reports regarding almost illimitable opportunities for development, on the one hand, and gloomy statements that the country is almost valueless, on the other. It seems tolerably certain, however, that in many parts of the country there is great mineral wealth — wealth which was first exploited in the sixties and seventies of the last century in a burst of premature optimism. This is true more particularly in Arnheim Land, a great undeveloped block of country west of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and in the regions in and around that remarkable range of mountains known as the Macdonnell Range, in the centre of the continent, extending four hundred miles west and east, possessing a dry, healthy — though hot — climate, and also containing country eminently suitable for cattle, horses, and sheep. Within the Northern Territory itself there is space for many Coolgardies and Broken Hills.

It is also clear that vast regions are capable of being used for pastoral purposes, — and in Australia pastoral industry has always preceded agriculture, — so the present neglected and impoverished pastoral enterprise in the north seems capable of almost unlimited growth. In addition, there are great alluvial plains where agriculture can be successfully followed, particularly along the courses of the large rivers, many of which can be navigated for considerable distances and have deep and large natural harbors capable of accommodating ocean-going steamships. It has been demonstrated that cotton, rice, sugar, and other tropical products can be grown successfully in the far north; but here the economic factor is predominant. The cotton industry of Queensland is successful at present because of the high price of cotton in the world’s market; the sugar industry in the same country is kept going artificially at the expense of the whole community, and has no chance, therefore, of competing in the markets of the world; but without these conditions similar industries in the Northern Territory, if ever established, would be doomed to early extinction.

There are reported to be considerable timber resources in the coastal districts, while the northern fisheries, which are at present worked by a few of the Chinese and other colored inhabitants of the Territory with hardly any capital and with primitive appliances, present an almost inexhaustible store of wealth, as the market in the East for these products is enormous. Finally, it is stated that there are great areas capable of producing wheat; and when it is remembered what large districts in the Commonwealth, which have been regarded as entirely unsuited to this product, now support flourishing wheat-growing communities, it seems probable that here too the Northern Territory will some day come into its own.

It will be asked, doubtless, what steps first the South Australian Government and afterward the Commonwealth Government have taken to develop their national heritage, and what is the future policy of development. The steps that have been taken are many, but in no case has success been achieved. Prior to the establishment of the Commonwealth, the South Australian Government built a narrowgauge line northward toward the interior of Australia — no small achievement for a small State with pressing problems of development nearer at hand. This line was carried as far north as Oodnadatta, a small pastoral settlement, three days’ journey by rail from Adelaide, the capital of the State, and there left derelict. The line was intended to be part of a great northto-south railway across the continent, mainly conceived as a strategic line of defense, but also intended to open up pastoral areas. Failing to reach the Macdonnell Range, it also failed in much of its intended achievement. The failure is due in the main to the procrastination of the Federal Government, one of whose first duties under the terms of federation was to complete this railway. Farther north, a short railway runs southward from Port Darwin, and this is the only line in the Northern Territory proper.

It has been asserted that the Territory can be opened only by the construction of railways and improved means of communication. While this is doubtless true, it is nevertheless evident that railways alone cannot open this great and stagnant country, and although apparently the Commonwealth Government has now decided to complete the north-to-south line it is extremely doubtful whether it will serve any other useful purpose than strengthening the national defenses. The real root of the evil being political and economic, the only hope for development seems to be along the lines embodied in the bill introduced in the last Parliament by Senator Pearce, Minister for Home and Territories, who advised the appointment of a commission of three capable men to reside in and have entire control of the development of the Territory, thus removing it from the political influences of the past, exerted in Melbourne and Sydney, where the mass of the population has no real conception of the dangers involved in a vast, empty North.


It may be permitted to touch briefly upon one aspect of this problem because the same problem exists on the continent of America — the possibility of an economic settlement in the tropics exclusively by whites. No fiercer controversy has ever raged in Australia than that which centres around the White Australia policy, and the great majority of Australians are unalterably opposed, for racial and economic reasons, to the introduction of Asiatic laborers into any part of the continent, tropical or otherwise. This opposition is based both on the fear of miscegenation and on the fear that the wages of white workers would be adversely affected. But sooner or later the fact must be faced that Australia, although geographically one country, with an Anglo-Saxon population racially purer than that of any other country in the world, — with the exception, possibly, of New Zealand and, of course, the Mother Country itself, —contains regions that do not fall within the sphere of white colonization.

Up to the present, very few prominent Australians have been ready to admit that large parts of the Northern Territory and adjacent districts cannot be settled by Europeans without the aid of Asiatic labor; and politicians least of all have been able to run counter to the national sentiment.

Only one responsible statesman, Sir Henry Barwell, then Prime Minister of South Australia, has come out into the open and denounced the results of a too rigid adherence to the White Australia policy. Only now and then a patriotic official dares to throw discretion to the winds and reveal the real state of affairs. Thus Dr. Herbert Basedow, at one time chief medical officer of the Territory, reported that ‘any sound developmental policy for the Territory must include two essential items: first, gangs of acclimatized colored laborers, kept under strict government supervision; and secondly, ready communication by rail with subtropic or temperate climes. In other words, there is no reason why white men should not live in the Territory as well as they do in other tropical countries, provided the necessary comforts be given them by introducing cheap attendance, such as can be supplied only by colored men, and providing an opportunity for them to regain periodically their physical strength by traveling to more favorable climes without the loss of too much time and money.’ The opinions of such men as Sir Henry Barwell and Dr. Basedow are, however, anathema to the average Australian politician.

It has been stated with emphasis that many parts of tropical Australia are eminently suitable for European settlement, yet the fact remains that neither Australians themselves nor European immigrants are anxious to establish themselves permanently in those regions. Medical opinion still differs on the possibility of raising healthy families in the tropics and keeping them permanently resident there; but even granting this possibility, the economic factor then intervenes, and it becomes apparent to the merest novice that the problem of laboring in the tropics and of cultivating the products peculiar to those regions is economically insoluble except at the expense of the whole community — an expense which, in the case of these enormous regions, would be an impossible burden for the Australian people to bear.

The statement that white men can and do work in the tropics and can reside for long periods in tropical Australia without hurt to themselves and their families contains sufficient truth to be misleading to those who are unaware of the actual conditions. It is possible to reside there under the best conditions and where the whole drudgery of the housework does not fall upon the woman of the household; but where all must work hard to get a bare living out of the soil, where no outside labor is available, where the amenities of a well-organized household in the tropics cannot be observed, it is evident that the brunt of the experiment will fall upon the woman and through her upon the children, with the inevitable result that the race must deteriorate.

The present Administrator of the Territory, Mr. F. C. Urquhart, whose opinion must necessarily have considerable weight, in discussing this problem has stated: ‘As to white labor, writing after a long experience in the most northern parts of Queensland, I feel sure that south of the fifteenth parallel [that is, well within the tropics] there is no question to debate, and that white men who are willing to do so may work without detriment from the climatic conditions. North of that line, up to the north coast, conditions are more severe, but there is nothing to show that they are dangerous to men of good constitution and of temperate habits. It is largely a matter of rational working-hours, temperance, and hygiene, with occasional spells in cooler regions for recuperative purposes. [The italics are my own.] When, however, we consider the case of white women in the northern portion of the Territory, more especially in the coastal regions under existing conditions, I fear the verdict must be less favorable, though improved housing, better dietary, and railway facilities for cheap and speedy access to more temperate climates might go far to lessen the disabilities they are now under. Children, it is agreed, do very well up to the age of eight or nine years, when a change of climate seems to be in most cases desirable.’

It may well be asked, however, how the manual worker with a family is likely to be able, under the economic conditions that must always pertain to the Northern Territory, unless there is an abundance of cheap labor, to make periodic visits — which to be beneficial must be of considerable duration — to the more temperate portions of the continent.


It will be thought, doubtless, that some apology is necessary for calling attention to what may well appear to be an obscure problem in an obscure corner of the British Empire. It is probable that many who read this article may consider the Northern Territory of Australia to be too insignificant — though not in size — to merit much attention. Yet, as I have endeavored to show, this is in reality a world problem of the first importance. It involves, in the first place, the moral question as to how far the white races are entitled to hold vast tracts of country which they are unable to utilize or develop without the aid of their Asiatic neighbors, when near by are millions of fellow creatures who are clamoring for land and the ‘right to live.’ The greatest pressure of population upon this globe centres around the Pacific, and, of all the regions dominated by Europeans, Australia occupies, with respect to the colored races, the most dangerous and most exposed position.

Its position is at present safeguarded by the moral influences and armed strength of the British Empire as a whole; but it is possible to conceive the time when other parts of the Empire, such as India, not to mention foreign Asiatic countries, may question the justice of the Australian Monroe Doctrine and seek to press their opinion in the councils of the Empire. Can Great Britain afford to disregard any definite and imperious demand made by her Asiatic subjects for admission to unoccupied lands, and in that case can she afford to support Australia in her policy of isolation?

This question cannot be answered, but it must occur to every thinker, and not least to those in America, who, but for their consistent policy of settlement, would be exposed to-day to the same dangers that threaten the Australian Commonwealth. The five and a half millions of Australians are surrounded, except in the south and east, by over one thousand millions of yellow, brown, and black men, from whom they are divided by a racial chasm of their own making. The purity of the AngloSaxon race in the Southern Hemisphere may possibly be involved in this problem, though this is doubted by many authorities; but undoubtedly there is involved the great moral question that is at present occupying the minds of many thinkers in Asia — the question of the right to own land without effective occupation. Upon the solution of this problem depends the entire future of the British race in the Southern Hemisphere.