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John Yiannakis

Kalgoorlie between the Wars: a mine of racism? Dr. John Yiannakis.

Chapter Five

"The bloody foreigners were attacking Australians in their own country. Tempers flared: volunteers were called for".

Manning Clark on the 1934 Kalgoorlie riots,
History of Australia [1]


On three notable occasions, the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie was the scene of anti-southern European rioting – in 1916, 1919 and 1934. While the existing historiography of both the 1916 [2] and 1919 riots [3] has acknowledged the role of returned soldiers in these violent outbursts, the 1934 riots [4] have predominantly been explained in terms of industrial tension, with little attention directed towards the possibility of RSL involvement. Indeed, Gilchrist recently distinguished them from the earlier outbursts by claiming that there had been ‘no military element’ in the 1934 disturbances. [5] Instead, the most prevalent explanation for the explosion of racist sentiment in Kalgoorlie in 1934 has been that ‘it all started on the mines’, with racist workers demanding southern European exclusion to protect ‘British’ jobs. In order to assess these riots in context, this chapter begins by recounting the events in 1916 and 1919, before proceeding to an account of the 1934 Kalgoorlie riots. An examination of these incidents provides an important window into the rise and fall of racist ideology in the Kalgoorlie area over two decades, a perspective that cannot be achieved by treating each of the riots as individual events. In particular, attention is given to the industrial alliance between the Kalgoorlie sub-branch of the RSL and the local Chamber of Mines, appraising its role in the course of the riots and the direction of local ‘race debates’. From this vantage point, attention is shifted from the traditional paradigm of racist workers and their attempts to protect employment standards. It is argued that, although some miners undoubtedly participated in the 1934 riots, there were equally important, and hitherto ignored, signs of solidarity between Britisher miners and their southern European counterparts that should be assessed. The chapter concludes with an account of a six-week strike which took place on the mines just one year after the 1934 riots. When the riots and the strike are analysed together, race relations in Kalgoorlie can be viewed as much more fluid than has previously been assumed. It is demonstrated that such instances of workers uniting across perceived racial barriers provide an important corrective to the wider historiography of race relations in Australia.........

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1 M. Cathcart, Manning Clark’s History of Australia, (abridged), Penguin, Melbourne, 1996, p. 609.

2 See C. A. Price, Southern Europeans in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1963, pp. 208- 9;
A. Markus, Australian Race Relations 1788-1993, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1994, p. 150;
J. Yiannakis, ‘Kalgoorlie Alchemy: Xenophobia, Patriotism and the 1916 Anti Greek Riots’, Early Days, vol. 2, no. 2, 1996;
H. Gilchrist, Australians and Greeks, vol. 2, Halstead Press, Rushcutters Bay, 1997,
pp. 23-28.

3 See J. Murray, ‘The Kalgoorlie Woodline Strikes 1919-1920: A Study of Conflict Within the Working Class’, Studies in Western Australian History, vol. 5, 1982;
B. Oliver, War and Peace in Western
Australia: The Social and Political Impact of the Great War 1914-1926, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1995, pp. 156-158,
‘Disputes, Diggers and Disillusionment: Social and Industrial Unrest in Perth and Kalgoorlie 1918-24’, Studies in Western Australian History, vol. 11, June 1990 and ‘“For only by the OBU shall Workmen’s Wrongs be Righted’’. A study of the One Big Union Movement in Western Australia, 1919 to 1922’, in C. Fox and M. Hess (eds), Papers in Labour History, no. 5, April 1990;
T. Vanderwiel, The Goldfield Riot of August 1919, unpublished manuscript, Battye Library, 1959.

4 See P. Bertola, Ethnic Difference in Kalgoorlie 1893-1934, unpublished Honours thesis, Murdoch University, 1978 and Kalgoorlie, Gold, and the World Economy, 1893-1972, unpublished PhD thesis, Curtin University of Technology, 1993, pp. 229-232;
B. Bunbury, Reading Labels on Jam Tins, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, South Fremantle, 1993, pp. 100-27;
G. Casey and T. Mayman, The Mile that
Midas Touched, Rigby, Adelaide, 1964, pp. 187-97;
T. Docker and R. Gerritsen, ‘The 1934 Kalgoorlie Riots’, Labour History, no. 31, 1976;
R. Gerritsen, ‘The 1934 Kalgoorlie Riots’, University Studies in History, vol. 5, no. 3, 1969; D. Hancock, ‘Murder and Mayhem in Kalgoorlie’, This Australia, vol. 5, no.
1, 1985;
J-M. Volet, ‘Some of the Reasons which led to a Night of Terror in Kalgoorlie and Boulder on Monday 29 January 1934’, Early Days, vol. 9, no. 4, 1986.
For a literary reference to the riots, see K. S. Prichard, Winged Seeds, Virago, London, 1984.

5 Gilchrist, Australians and Greeks, p. 358.

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