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Retelling a history of early Filipino migration to Australia

Boxing soldiers and pearling revolutionaries: a history of early Filipino migration to Australia

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By Ana Rosa Marginson

May 22nd 1946 is a significant date for Filipinos in Australia, although few may recognise why. On this day 75 years ago the Philippines formally announced and established diplomatic relations with Australia. With the appointment of Roberto Regalato as the first Philippine Consul General in 1949 came a formal consulate in Sydney, which gained embassy status in 1956 before permanently being moved to Canberra in 1962. While many countries established diplomatic bases in Australia during the immediate post-war period, the Philippines did so in preparation for its long-overdue independence. The United States finally ceded control of the Philippines in October 1946, marking the end of over 400 years of colonial rule under Spain, the US, and (briefly) Japan. But despite their tenuous identity in their own homeland, Filipinos had been coming to Australia long before they had an independent country to leave behind.

The mid-19th century saw a generation of Filipinos known as the ‘Manila-men’ travelling overseas as manual labourers. These workers began arriving in Australia around 1872, some joining the sugar industry in Queensland but the majority training as pearl divers in the Torres Strait and Western Australia. Broome and Thursday Island became centres of (primarily male) Filipino migration to Australia.

White pearl merchants found that they could cheaply employ Filipinos and other Asians or Pacific Islanders despite the risks associated with diving. Soon nearly all workers in the industry were non-white, with Filipinos among the most sought-after divers. In 1897 the Queensland Commission of Inquiry were informed that ‘manilla (sic) men … make excellent divers and excellent citizens. They marry and settle down here’. In 1885 the Filipino community on Thursday Island alone totaled 147 people, which was a very high number in the context of the small population and remoteness of the region. In Broome, marriages between Filipinos and Indigenous Australians resulted in a thriving mixed community whose impact can still be seen in the city today.

Over time some Filipinos began to rise within the industry to run their own pearling and shell-fishing businesses. Most prominent among them was Heriberto Zarcal, considered by some historians to be ‘the first Filipino-Australian’. Zarcal had already made connections in Brisbane and Melbourne by the time he arrived on Thursday Island in 1892. Within a few years he had married a white woman and was established as one of the foremost jewelers and pearl merchants on the island, where his huge storefront proclaimed the Latin words ‘Noli Me Tangere’.

An advertisement for Zarcal’s business | Photo credit: Discovering Australasia

What appeared to be a simple Bible quote would have been recognisable to Filipinos as the title to the 1887 novel by revolutionary José Rizal, of whom Zarcal was a great admirer. After attaining naturalised British citizenship in 1897 he was able to expand his business to Hong Kong, where he became involved with exiled members of the Propaganda Movement in the Philippines. Zarcal led a committee in support of the revolutionaries and was recognised for his work by Emilio Aguinaldo himself. Once the revolutionary government established itself in the Philippines Zarcal became their official diplomat in Australia, although any appeals he made on their behalf went unrecorded and were presumably unsuccessful.

Zarcal experienced increasing racism over time like all Asian workers and migrants in Australia, as the Australian Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (famously known as the ‘White Australia Policy’) came into effect. Some pearl merchants were able to use indenture contracts to initially circumvent these rules, largely because the industry was so reliant on Asian divers, but Filipino migration still dropped off after 1901. Although he was legally able to remain in Australia, Zarcal eventually sold his business and spent his retirement travelling around the world with his wife.

Information on Filipinos in Australia after 1901 is limited until the Second World War forced the country into greater contact with its Asia-Pacific neighbours. The threat of Japanese invasion compounded anti-Asian sentiment, but it was also countered by increased interactions with non-white Allied soldiers who were stationed across the country. Thus, years after Zarcal’s death, another Filipino man gained prominence in Australia, although for vastly different reasons.

Born in Pangasinan in 1918, Lorenzo Abrogar Gamboa was studying to take up a boxing scholarship at university when war reached the Pacific theatre in 1941. He quickly joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Melbourne in 1942. While travelling by train to his barracks in Royal Park he met young Australian Joyce Cain, who he soon began seeing and then married the following year. Cain came from an egalitarian working-class family in Brunswick who quickly warmed to the young soldier and happily supported the relationship. Prior to their marriage Cain’s father, a railway worker, had remarked ‘in this house we don’t look at a man’s complexion – we look at the man. We like you’. The local community was similarly accepting of the marriage, and once the war ended Gamboa began working with his father-in-law on the Victorian railways. However, an issue with a ration book in early 1946 led to his discovery by the Department of Immigration, who then gave Gamboa three months in which to exit the country permanently.

The Gamboas on their wedding day, 9th October 1943 | Photo credit: Discovering Australasia

Leaving behind his pregnant wife and their infant son Raymond, Gamboa travelled to the United States where he took up citizenship on the basis of his military service and re-joined the U.S. Army. Despite hoping that he would be granted entry into Australia as an American citizen, Gamboa found himself denied first residence and then even temporary entrance to meet his newly-born second child Julie. Officials within the Australian Government cited his race as the prevailing reason for their decision. They feared that allowing Gamboa entry could encourage Asian war refugees to seek residence in the country, and they dismissed his U.S. citizenship because they believed that accepting U.S. citizens ran the risk of allowing Black Americans into Australia.

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The repeated denial of Gamboa’s migration attempts soon blossomed into a diplomatic incident, with Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell coming under repeated fire from the Australian press and from the newly-independent government of the Philippines. In 1949 President Elpidio Quirino declared that Filipinos had been ‘deeply humiliated’ by the behaviour of the Australian government, which came as a serious blow to early relations between the two countries. The Philippines had been trying to strengthen this relationship while it extricated itself from American influence, but the government was so angered by Gamboa’s treatment that they retaliated by introducing the ‘Reciprocity Immigration Bill’ to ban Australians from entering the Philippines.

The Northern Star newspaper headline from March 30th, 1949 | Photo credit: The Northern Star

The bill was passed by the House of Representatives after much public controversy and heated debate, during which Australians were named ‘the biggest hypocrites in the world’ by politician Cipriano Primicias. A caveat was introduced to allow the wives of Filipino soldiers, but the bill eventually lapsed once Gamboa was allowed to resettle in Australia following the change of government in the 1949 federal election. The new Minister for Immigration Harold Holt made the formal announcement of the decision in early 1950. Gamboa’s army service prevented him from an immediate return, but he was finally reunited with his family in December 1951. The episode had a lingering impact on relations between the two countries, but some historians credit the Gamboas for changing Australian public sympathy in the lead up to immigration reforms that broke down the White Australia Policy.

Lorenzo and Joyce Gamboa with their children Raymond and Julie at Essendon Airport, December 1951 | Photo credit: Bayanihan News

The 1950s saw a handful of Filipino scholars travelling to Australia as part of the Colombo Plan, but their numbers remained lower than other Asian countries in the aftermath of the Gamboa case. However, the liberalisation of migration policies from the 1960s onwards allowed greater numbers of skilled non-Europeans to migrate to Australia. Filipinos began coming here in large numbers to fulfil needs in specific industries, such as nursing and to a lesser degree metalwork and electricity. This was bolstered by policies in the Philippines under President Marcos which increased labour export, particularly for sectors dominated by women. This gendered culture of migration out of the Philippines also led many Filipino women to move to Australia as the partners and wives of Australian men.

These relationships resulted in a generation of Filipino-Australians who now comprise one of the largest mixed-race populations in the country. The introduction of the Family Reunion Program in 1973 also played a major role in the growth of the Filipino community in this period, which began to rapidly increase at the rate of almost double with each census (every 5 years) until 1991. According to data from 2017, over half of the current Filipino population in Australia arrived during the 1970s and the 1980s, and the demographics of migrants shifted from predominantly male (as it had been historically) to predominantly female.

Following its peak in 1987-1988, Filipino migration to Australia then decline from the 1990s onwards due to restrictions introduced by the Howard government. In the 2000s and 2010s the majority of arrivals from the Philippines were skilled migrants and international students (alongside a rise in international student arrivals from other countries).

The author as a baby (pictured with mother and activist Melba Marginson) attending campaigns about the high rates of domestic violence against Filipino women in the 1990s | Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald

Filipino migration to Australia is a spotted and complex history – at times uncomfortably bound by neocolonialism or the anti-Asian context of migration policy, and at other points triumphant. Tales of individuals such as Heriberto Zarcal and Lorenzo Gamboa provide us with a snapshot of the struggles and successes of early Filipino migrants, but they are a very small part of the story. The global Filipino diaspora remains immense, totally an estimated 12 million people (over 11 percent of the population of the Philippines). As of 2020, Filipinos comprise the fifth-largest group of overseas-born residents in Australia (after England, India, China, and New Zealand). The decades since the height of their migration mean that the numbers of second-generation migrants with one or more Filipino parents are similarly extensive.

May 22nd celebrates only a single moment in the middle of a long relationship between the Philippines and Australia, but it gives us the opportunity to reflect on the shifting role that Filipinos have played in a country which proudly proclaims its multiculturalism while repeatedly acting against it. As Australian borders remain closed to the world and migration from the Philippines is halted in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that we use these 75th anniversary celebrations to remember the nebulous nature of this relationship and cultivate a positive and open future moving forward.

Ana Rosa Marginson is a Filipino-Australian writer and historian with degrees from Leiden University and Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research explores colonialism, migration, and the history of science and medicine.

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