Tuesday, July 03, 2007


I'm reading a local history of Warrnambool, a provincial city in south-western Victoria.

One of the chapters deals with the events at Tooram in 1883. Most Victorians, I expect, would never have heard of these events, but they apparently confirmed the decision not to import non-European labour into the state.

Tooram was described at the time as "the greatest dairy farm in Victoria, if not in Australia". It was so prosperous that its owner, Thomas McLeod Palmer, decided to look overseas for additional labourers.

In December 1882, 25 workers arrived from the subcontinent. Eight were Sunni Muslims from Afghanistan. A few were Indian Hindus, most were Shia Muslims from northern India.

There were problems from the start. There were religious quarrels, apparently led by the Afghanis. Nor were the new workers happy with the work they were allotted.

On 17 March 1883, a screaming match between Hindus and Muslims led to blows. Sticks and pitchforks were used as weapons, and Palmer was sent for. When he arrived, one of the Afghanis charged at him with a pitchfork. Palmer shot above his head first, then his arm, before finally firing at his body.

The situation remained difficult with most of the labourers refusing to work outside, insisting on doing work inside the house. The overseer, a Shia Muslim, warned Palmer about threats to his family and to some of the Hindus who were still working. Palmer wrote in a letter:

... the Indians are in a state of rebellion ... they will not milk and offer to do work about the house. Of course I have not got it for them. They refuse to work at the dairies and in the jungle. Hassan told me they talked about murdering all in the house and although they knew they would be hanged, they would first kill all the Europeans they could.

Of course you know better than I whether there is any danger or not, but if they come and give me half a chance they will get a hot reception. I sleep with two loaded revolvers within reach of my hand.

... The leader of the Afghans threatened to kill one of the Hindus who is at work. He came up to me in the night in a great fright. (C.E. Sayers, Of Many Things, 1972, p.104)

The man shot by Palmer later died and Palmer was tried for manslaughter. He was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence, in part because of evidence provided by the Goanese butler who had been standing next to him at the time.

The papers judged the "novel enterprise" of bringing such labour to Victoria to be "an error". Palmer told the court he would not repeat the experiment and arranged for the men to be returned to their homelands.

Tooram itself no longer exists, having been subdivided long ago.


  1. Just out of curisocity, what's the name of the book.

  2. Of Many Things: A History of the Shire of Warrnambool by C.E. Sayers, 1972.

  3. I find Myra Willard's literature also illustrates how opposition to immigration in colonial and early federation Australia was not motivated by malice or the desire to discriminate.

    In fact, various State and Commonwealth Hansard reports that most of those in opposition to coolie immigration were in fact concerned over the social welfare of the proposed immigrant.

    For those interested, the citation is:

    Myra Willard, History of the White Australia Policy to 1920, Melbourne University Press (1923); reprinted by CAS (1968); ABEbooks Search Results (@ 4 July 2007).

  4. Post Scriptum

    I had an original hard-cover MUP issue of the 1923 edition, which I purchased from some crusty second hand bookshop in Sydney.

    Unfortunately some idiot put pen-marks all the way through it (who does that?! morons). That was the only thing that bugged me about it.

    Later, I found the CAS hard-cover reprint in near-mint condition, bought it, and gave the MUP one to a friend in Armidale.

    Buying second hand books these days has become something of an addiction - there is so much garbage being published these days; it seems if you want to read something "normal" or "real", you have to turn to what is out of print or not mass marketed...