by Bill Holloway

In 1991, John Moran titled his collection of four Caroline Chisholm essays, Radical in Bonnet and Shawl, which I think gives an excellent sense of Chisholm’s activism in relation to the establishment of a family-based working class in Australia; and of her progressive views on race.

When I first reviewed Mary Hoban’s Caroline Chisholm biography, Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake (1973), some years ago, Prof. Marion Diamond commented: “I found the Caroline Chisholm in 51 Pieces a bit too domesticated for me! Maybe because at my girl’s school, we had 4 ‘houses’ – Chisholm, (Jane) Franklin,(Elizabeth) Macarthur and (Lucy) Osborne – all of them portrayed as ladylike and virtuous – just like we were meant to be 🙂.

I loved Caroline Chisholm’s more radical persona in her own speeches – especially when she went in to bat for the Chinese during the anti-Chinese frenzy on the goldfields. It hadn’t occurred to me before to link that back to her early years in multi-racial Madras.”

In Madras, as I wrote last week, the newly married Chisholms chose to live outside the walls of Fort St George, in Black Town, where Caroline had her school for the often mixed race daughters of British soldiers. “In this part of the city lived Indians, Eurasians and the poorer whites. The whites included English, Irish, Scots, French, Armenian and Jewish people. The Indians were both Hindus and Mohametans (the latter often called the ‘Moors’)”. (Hoban)

Then in 1838, after six years in India, the family which by then included two sons, sailed for New South Wales, on what was initially intended just to be a long furlough.

By that time, with transportation of convicts coming to an end, some large property owners were unready for the end of the master/slave relationship still prevailing throughout the empire. And although the reality has always been sugar-coated, convicts were slaves, at least until their terms could be shown to have been served; squatters, especially on cattle runs, demanded labour from the local Aboriginal people in return for rations and the “right’ to stay on their own land; and Queenslanders were bringing in slaves from the Pacific Islands.

On the Chisholm’s ship out were “ten Indian coolies intended for an Australian employer… It was said among the passengers that the ten … must have been brought aboard after being given opium. They were entirely sick and miserable, and two of them ran away [when the ship called] at Mauritius. A third later died, demented with homesickness and fear”. Later they discover, “Some of the big men who had been officers in India … had been importing coolies to work for them. These were cheap enough – they could live on a bit of rice and oil and the smell of an onion, but they had no guts and dropped like flies.” (Hoban)

In 1841 the Governor responded to a petition in the SMH for the introduction of Indian labour with, “Call it in this Colony what we may, in England this petition will be called an application for slave labour.”

The (white) census of the same year showed that the ratio of men to women was 10:1, in a population of 43,000. Mrs Chisholm’s concern was that outside Sydney, where the ratio was of course even higher, single men were taking Aboriginal women. She wrote a couple of years later – about female Immigration – “If the happiness of her own children does not induce England to adopt prompt measures to secure this blessing to the Colony, the gradual destruction and extermination of the Aborigines DEMAND it from her justice!!!”.

(Interestingly, and not related to Caroline Chisholm, one of the concerns of NSW property owners at the time was to reduce the number of poor Catholic migrants from Ireland, whom they perceived as anti-British).

Mrs Chisholm demanded proper receiving facilities for unaccompanied working class women firstly to save them from prostitution; and then to work towards reducing the almost total reliance in the bush on single men. She wrote: “From [my first visit to the wharves] I devoted all my leisure time in endeavouring to serve these poor girls, and felt determined, with God’s blessing, never to rest until decent protection was afforded them. In January, 1841, I wrote to Lady Gipps, and from that time I never ceased in my exertions. I knew that every ship’s arrival would increase the necessity for such an institution.” (Mackenzie)

An article in the Illustrated London Newsreprinted widely in Australia – in 1852, described her work thus:

While dealing with the young women she came in contact with their parents and brothers. She extended her system to them. At her own risk she hired steam-boats, lent men money to travel to their situations in the bush, to be repaid by the masters; and out of £1200 so lent, only lost £16. She formed caravans, and with, from three to eleven waggons, marched through the bush, trusting to the hospitality of the squatters and settlers to feed her army-often exceeding 200 souls. With a saddle-horse and a light tandem cart, she rode through districts where there were no roads, fixing men and women in situations and collecting provisions for the remainder. At night she taught the raw emigrants how to make a camp, and cook supper in the open air, and then retired to a covered cart, with a few of the children, to sleep. She was nobly seconded by the settlers.
Between 1841 and 1845, Mrs. Chisholm provided for eleven thousand individuals, young and old, removed the distress previously crowded into Sydney, and created a new demand for labour which has never ceased.
From 1846 to 1854 Mrs Chisholm worked in London founding and running the Family Colonization Loan Society, before returning to Australia and settling in Victoria, in Kyneton, between Melbourne and Bendigo. There she became concerned with the plight of the Chinese, who had come out with the goldrushes and were now being blamed, irrationally, for a great many of society’s ills.
The Chisholms ended their days not very well off, with Caroline giving English lessons to Chinese labourers for little more than pocket money. Here, to end with, is the second half of a letter to the Argus, which started off being about migration generally –
There is one great question, Sir, which at present affects us deeply, and which, I must confess, I have closely watched, and that is, the question of Chinese immigration. With respect to the Chinese, I cannot help apprehending that our neglect in providing shelter of some sort for them may some day cause a sweeping calamity. The excitement against the Chinese may be looked upon in some measure as a political dodge in order to divert attention from the land question [Grazing land locked up by squatters].
Chinese immigration is carrying on the work of Wilberforce, Buxton, Clarkson, and Stowe, with tenfold energy and vigour. This immigration cannot be stopped ; the emancipation of the slaves is going on through this indirect channel: the sledge-hammer is now in the hands of Providence, and it will not pause ; there will be no rest until man is recognised as man, without distinction of colour or clime. All that labour requires from capital is a clear stage and no favour, and then the more wrestling the better for civilisation, education, and religion. The monopolising spirit of capital and power has locked up India, and would now shut the gates of China against the will of Providence and the rights of man; nevertheless the education of the labourer is going on. He begins to see, and to feel, and understand, the value of finger labour, and as this physical education advances, crowned heads will begin to repose in peace. They will then learn to settle their differences in some other way, for the rights and influence of labour will not be thoroughly understood or appreciated until a soldier’s pay is five shillings a day. Thus free labour may become in time the universal peace-maker amongst mankind.
Yours faithfully
Melbourne, June 9th, 1867.