Tag: Dictation Test


Recently I’ve been looking at a series of NSW naturalisation certificates held in the National Archives of Australia here in Canberra (NAA: A806). The naturalisation certificates in A806 are ones that were ‘cancelled’ by Customs officers after apparently being used by Chinese to attempt fraudulent entry to New South Wales.

In the 1880s and 1890s Chinese who were naturalised British subjects in NSW were exempt from paying the poll tax on entering the colony (£10 after 1881, and £100 after 1888). After the turn of the 20th century, naturalised Chinese used their certificates to prove their Australian domicile and avoid having to sit the Dictation Test on return from overseas. As a consequence, a trade in naturalisation certificates grew up within the Chinese community, as certificates were sold or passed on to others to use after a man had died or gone home to China for good.

Some of the naturalisation certificates in A806 have layers of hand-written notes on them, most of which are undated, which suggest the same certificates were used several times as re-entry documents – perhaps initially by the legitimate holder of the certificate and subsequently by someone else. A number have ‘£10’ written on the front, suggesting that the Chinese passenger was rejected and made to pay the poll tax to enter the colony. Some have Chinese notations (mostly on the back), giving personal details such as name, age, place of origin and length of time in New South Wales.

NAA: A806 (Chow Hock 1884/30)

A806 comprises three boxes and several hundred certificates, which I’ve photographed and am now working my way through in more detail. Eventually I will marry these certificates with other naturalisation records held in State Records NSW and also in immigration case files in the National Archives.

In some of the immigration cases involving naturalisation certificates I’ve looked at, including those in A806, it’s not altogether clear whether fraud was really being attempted or whether Customs officers were just being super cautious in the execution of their duties.

With one certificate in A806, though, the fraud was obvious – and it wasn’t the Customs officers who were duped.

In June 1915, a Chinese man arriving in Sydney on the Eastern from Hong Kong presented an 1896 naturalisation certificate belonging to ‘James Andersen of Kiama, a native of Finland’. The unfortunate fellow, who presumably didn’t read much English, was returned to Hong Kong on the same vessel.

NAA: A806 (James Andersen 1896/155)

Dictation Test is 50 years dead

October 8 2008 marks 50 years since royal assent was granted to Australia’s Migration Act 1958. The Migration Act replaced and consolidated a number of other pieces of legislation, effectively tidying up Australia’s migration law.

In a historical sense, the Migration Act is best known for its abolition of the Dictation Test, a step that is seen as one of the significant moments in the abolition of the White Australia Policy.

Introduced soon after Federation in 1901, the Dictation Test was designed to limit the numbers of non-Europeans entering the new ‘white’ Australian nation. It could be applied to anyone entering Australia, but in practice was not generally applied to those of European background. The Immigration Restriction Act said:

Any person who when asked to do so by an officer fails to write out at dictation and sign in the presence of the officer a passage of fifty words in length in any European language directed by the officer [is a prohibited immigrant].

‘Prohibited immigrants’ could then be deported.

The clause ‘any European language’ was later changed to ‘any prescribed language’, mostly due to pressure from Japan, but tests continued to be applied in European languages. Here is an example of a Dictation Test passage from 1931:

It is only in the South that any training in his profession is undertaken by the fetish man: in all other parts of the region the office devolves upon its holder in quite an accidental manner: the distinction is thrust upon some native whose fortune has in some way distinguished him from his fellows. [Dictation Test passage from 16–31 May 1931]

This example comes from a large Department of Home Affairs file held by the National Archives: A1, 1935/704 (follow this link to see the whole 397-page file online).

The Immigration Restriction Act and the presence of the Dictation Test affected Chinese Australians in a number of ways, primarily when they were wanting to travel overseas.

Australian-born Chinese and migrant Chinese who met certain residency and character requirements could apply for certificates that exempted them from having to sit the Dictation Test on their return to Australia. These certificates, commonly known as CEDTs (certificates exempting from dictation test), were like a form of passport that allowed them to return without hindrance to Australia. CEDTs usually included photographs and hand or finger prints.

Other Australian-born Chinese travelled using their birth certificates as identity documents. After 1913, these birth certificates were usually ‘certified’ using photographs and hand or finger prints, and details were recorded in registers kept by the Collectors of Customs at various Australian ports.

The National Archives of Australia holds CEDTs for many thousands of Chinese Australians (and other Australians of Asian descent, such as Japanese and Indians), as well as application files and other records of their travels in and out of Australia. You can see some examples of these in the Archives’ showcase of records about Chinese Australians.

In the face of works like Keith Windschuttle’s ridiculous The White Australia Policy, it’s reassuring to know that the Archives holds the real history of the White Australia Policy, in the thousands and thousands of case files which tell about real people and document real decisions, and in the policy files which track legislative and administrative changes over the first half of the 20th century. (For a critique of Windschuttle’s work that makes similar points, see David Walker, ‘Strange Reading: Keith Windschuttle on race, Asia and White Australia’, Australian Historical Studies, no. 128, 2006, pp. 108-122.)

Australia’s immigration policies were, for a long time, overtly racist – in practice, even if not in the carefully crafted rhetoric of politicians who created them. To say otherwise is to deny the impositions that were placed upon thousands of Chinese Australians – British subjects by birth and many also with European or Indigenous ancestry. The archival record surrounding the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act and the Dictation Test makes this very, very clear.

On the history of the Dictation Test and the administration of the White Australia Policy, some of the ‘classic texts’ still make good reading:

AC Palfeeman, The Administration of the White Australia Policy, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1967

Myra Willard, History of the White Australia Policy to 1920,  Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1923

AT Yarwood, Asian Migration to Australia: The Background to Exclusion 1896–1923, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1964

AT Yarwood, ‘Dictation Test. Historical Survey’, Australian Quarterly, June 1958, vol. 30, pp. 19–29

AT Yarwood, ‘The “White Australia” Policy. Some Administrative Problems 1901–1920’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, November 1961, vol. 7, pp. 245–60.