Caroline Chisholm, part 2

I hadn’t intended a Part 2 but a comment by ‘Learnearnandreturn’ who blogs at History is Past Caring has prompted me to look again at an important aspect of Caroline Chisholm which I had overlooked, her stance on Race. Consequently, I have gone back through Mary Hoban’s biography of Chisholm, Fifty-One Pieces of Chocolate Cake, to pull out some examples which demonstrate just how averse to racial prejudice Caroline Chisholm was.

When Caroline joined Archy – Captain Archibald Chisholm, her new husband – in Madras, India in 1832 they lived initially in Fort St George, a mile square compound built in 1640 for the protection of the European interlopers and where “many of the upper ranks of Army and commerce still had their homes”. But, for her school for the often mixed race daughters of ordinary soldiers to succeed it had to be in Black Town, to the north of the Fort. “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’)”. “Their house in Black Town was smaller and hotter, and friends explained that they couldn’t visit them there for fear of the fever…”

In 1838 the Chisholms set out on what was intended to be an extended visit to Australia. At that time the transportation of convicts was coming to an end and one of the solutions to the looming labour shortage, particularly in rural Australia, was thought to be Indian ‘coolie’ labour (as in South Africa, Fiji and Mauritius for example). So, “… among the human cargo 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.” When the Chisholms had taken a house at Windsor, outside Sydney, it was explained to Caroline that “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.”

I am pretty sure Hoban has sourced these remarks from Caroline’s letters home. In any case it is clear that the ill treatment of convict and Indian labour was the source of Caroline’s opinion that the country needed to be settled by families, not by big land holders with indentured single men over whom they effectively held the power of life and death.

On the question of Aborigines, she had less to say, and you get the impression that even as early as 1838 there was by and large no Indigenous presence remaining on the Hawkesbury. But in 1845 Caroline is travelling around NSW interviewing early settlers and old convicts, gathering evidence for her campaigns and among her concerns is that lonely men in the bush are taking to the grog, and are abusing Aboriginal women. She writes:

May many thousands yet find their way there – may British habits of industry, frugality and care find a shelter and protection in the far bush … the shepherds’ huts [will] become homes for happy men and virtuous women. The money now expended in rum and champagne will be expended in purchasing clothing for children. 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!!!

Finally, there were the Chinese, in Australia both on their own account for the gold rushes and imported as cheap labour. In 1857 Chisholm was moved to write to the Melbourne papers:

Relative to Immigration, I cannot help observing that it ought not be carried on with a view to making labour cheap here, but on the general principle of giving permanent homes to the distressed multitude …

Our politicians are all powerful but timid and irresolute …

As Hoban writes, “Mrs Chisholm then threw discretion further to the winds, if possible, and standing firm against the tide of public opinion, spoke in favour of the Chinese, the people who, at this moment, provided society’s main scapegoat.”

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 one 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…  there will be no rest until man is recognized as man, without distinction of colour or clime… The monopolizing 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 of the labourer is going on”.

Ah, they don’t make letter writers like that any more!


4 thoughts on “Caroline Chisholm, part 2

  1. No, they don’t, and for all that we seem to be drowning in information these days, I bet historians will be gnashing their teeth over the absence of primary sources in years to come…


  2. We had better hope that George (Brandis) archives our letters when he finishes reading them.
    My own letters and blog posts I am not going so far as to make hard copies but I am backing them up independently of WordPress and Hotmail and so on, though what permanent storage will look like in 100 years is anyone’s guess.


  3. […] Despite her Catholicism, Caroline Chisholm both advocated and practiced multi-culturism. Attacked by the Protestant preacher John Dunmore Lang for bringing out Irish Catholic girls, Caroline retorted, “I have lived happily amongst pagans and heathens, Mahometans and Hindoos – they never molested me at my devotions, nor did I insult them at theirs; and am I not to enjoy the same privilege in New South Wales?” [reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1846]. Later in Victoria Chisholm was to speak up in the same way for the largely reviled Chinese (I devoted a second post to Chisholm’s views on race here). […]


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